Chemical Weapons in Syria: False Flags, Media Hype, and Botched UN Inspections

Subrata Ghoshroy is a Research Affiliate with the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a Visiting Professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan. He was formerly a Congressional staffer and a Senior Analyst at the Government Accountability Office.

There are perhaps two things that most Americans remember from the ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003: President George Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, and the testimony of Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, at the UN Security Council about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Powell based his testimony on U.S. intelligence reports that were described as a “slam dunk” by the CIA Director George Tennet, who sat behind him as he showed dramatic pictures, among others, of purported portable biological weapons laboratories in Iraq. They were later found to be totally false. Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction left. The media apparently drank the same proverbial Kool-aid and loudly beat the war drums. The U.S.-led invasion under false pretenses cost hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and the lives of nearly five thousand Americans. It also made a big dent on the U.S. credibility around the world. Fifteen years and more than a trillion-dollar later, Iraq is a highly unstable and dangerous place ravaged by daily bloody sectarian battles.

Fast forward a decade, and we arrive in Syria via Libya, where a violent regime change also went awry. The western-led ouster of Libya’s dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi, and his subsequent murder in the hands of the Libyan insurgents, left the nation in chaos and leaderless. Jihadists, who flocked to Libya to fight a moderately secular Gaddafi, rendered the country a failed state that became a recruiting and training ground for the insurgents in Syria.

Soon, another ill-conceived adventure of violent regime change got underway in Syria after protests took place against the dictatorial regime of Bashar Al Assad. Although the appetite for a direct intervention with boots on the ground as in Iraq had abated, the appetite for regime change was still strong. The strategy of a proxy war by arming Assad’s opponents seemed plausible and clearly more palatable.

In all the regime change cases, Iraq, Libya, and Syria; the story line is the same: there is a dictator who oppressed his own people with varying degrees of brutality. The people want freedom. Assad in this case is a brutal` dictator like Saddam with weapons of mass destruction, and he is using chemical weapons against his own people. He must go.

As the protests grew around Syria with a little help from the western powers and their intelligence operators, the government cracked down using force. Violence escalated as the opposition began receiving arms and money from the western-allied Sunni regimes; Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. They, along with Turkey, wanted to topple Assad, a secular Alawite, which is a sect of the Shia.

There were also at least a couple thousand U.S. Special Forces who entered Syria in a clandestine manner to help the opposition fighters. Soon, the opposition ranks swelled with foreign jihadi fighters, including the Islamic State. Many of them were battle hardened in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

The Syrian army was losing both men and territory despite the help it received from the Iranian militias and the Lebanese Hezbollah, who entered on the side of Assad. As the proxy war intensified, and Assad looked desperate, the calls for a quick blow to knock him out became louder as President Obama did not want another long drawn out foreign entanglement. Assad’s chemical weapons gave the interventionists a perfect platform around which to rally the public opinion in order to force the hand of a reluctant President. So, it is easy to see why western public opinion could be easily mobilized against the dictators and also how it could be manipulated, as it was with the false narrative of WMD in Iraq.

Syria was one of the few countries in the world that had not joined the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). It was no secret that it had an arsenal of chemical weapons containing nerve agents like Sarin and VX. It primarily acquired the weapons as a deterrent against Israel, which is widely believed to have nuclear weapons and may also have chemical weapons. No one knows because it does not belong to the CWC. There was no prior history of Assad using chemical weapons on his own people.

But beginning in early 2013, a large number of media stories began to appear about the government’s use of the chemical weapons. UN appointed a commission to look into the allegations. The government also made allegations that the insurgents were using them. The Commission immediately came under pressure from the western powers, which clearly influenced its findings. The international human rights organizations like the Human Rights Watch also played an important role in rousing the public opinion against the “heinous Assad regime,” as the refrain went. So did the White Helmets, the so-called civil defense organization that played a nefarious role in staging the attacks. (See Vanessa Beeley’s seminal work on the White Helmets: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQL3rX6xWRg) For the sake of brevity, I focus here mainly on three points: the media, the UN, and the death toll. Please see for a detailed expose’ of the role of the NGO’s and the UN: http://36s81n24kn0c1i9se62v6acw.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Analysis-of-the-UN-Report-on-Syria-CW.pdf

I hope to illustrate my points with an examination of three major incidents that allegedly took place over a period of nearly five years, from 2013 to 2018, during which the Syrian civil war greatly intensified before winding down recently. Russian military intervention in 2015 helped turn the tide in favor of Assad.

The incidents were in chronological order: 21 August 2013 in Ghouta, a Damascus suburb, 4 April 2017 in Khan Sheikhun in Idlib province; and, 7 April 2018 in Douma, a town in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, not far from the supposed initial attack. There were several common threads running through all three.

In general, the media hype about the chemical weapons was based on flimsy evidence at best. Major newspapers like the New York Times published stories with little effort to corroborate them. Often disclaimers such as “the facts could not be independently verified” were buried in the story, which mostly went unnoticed except for a few astute readers. In a transparent effort to demonize Assad in the same way as Saddam or Gaddafi, the media mostly ignored the deaths of Syrian soldiers and downplayed the brutalities of the insurgent jihadis, who routinely beheaded captured Syrian soldiers. While the media rightly highlighted the growing civilian casualties and the plight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the battle zone, it blamed the government alone for both.

With the partiality of the media readily apparent, the UN investigations, as mentioned earlier, were also tainted by political pressure from powerful western powers. For example, in Ghouta in 2013, they made relatively cursory inspections. According to their own report, their visit was controlled by the opposition fighters, who determined where they could go and what forensic and environmental samples they could collect. Although the team reports cautioned against potential tampering of evidence, it was in fine print, and it, however, did not keep the inspectors from concluding that Sarin was used and was likely delivered by rockets, which was a thinly veiled finger pointing at the government as the perpetrator because only it could could launch rockets .

In another instance, the inspectors did not visit Khan Sheikhoun at all. There, the opposition fighters, or their supporters collected the samples and sent them to an anonymous “third country” for testing by the inspection team, which was in clear violation of the protocol, which required that a strict chain of custody be maintained. Despite such deficiency, the UN went beyond its mandate and actually attributed responsibility for the attack on the Syrian government.

In Douma, by contrast, the UN carried out a much more thorough on-site investigation lasting over ten days. The Russian military was in control of Duma during the team’s visit. It appears from the interim report that the Russians did not put any restrictions on the inspectors movements. The interim report on Douma was just released. It said no Sarin was found. But, the story had become worthless for the mainstream media.

Another striking feature in the reported incidents was the lack of accurate information on the casualties, especially the death toll. While no one can expect an accurate death count in the expected chaos that might follow, but one would reasonably expect to see large number of funerals and hospital morgues full of victims. In the first attack on 21 August 2013 in Ghouta, and arguably the largest of the three in terms of casualties, there was a mystery surrounding the figures from the beginning. An unclassified US intelligence assessment, dated 30 August 2013, claimed that 1429 people had died in the attack, including 426 children. The report cautioned that the figures were preliminary and that they would “evolve” as more information was obtained. No such evolution took place and there was no independent verification although Ghouta remained in the hands of the opposition for nearly five more years until the Syrian military recaptured it with Russian help in April 2018. Presumably, CIA had ample opportunity to verify the death toll. More about the death tolls later.

The western governments and the mainstream media uniformly held Assad responsible for the attacks even though the insurgents were also known to possess chemical weapons. Yet, Assad had little incentive to use chemical weapons, especially after it joined the CWC because it was under intense international scrutiny. The western powers had established a so-called “red line.” It surely did not want to face more bombing. The Western powers were also holding Russia responsible for Syrian actions because Russia acted as the guarantor of the Syrian chemical disarmament. Assad could not afford to create trouble for his principal benefactor. On the other hand, the insurgents had every incentive to stage a false flag attack and blame the government. jihadist fighters as we know well do not have any respect for the law and reportedly used chemical weapons in their battle with the Kurdish fighters in Iraq. They were desperate to bring about a western military intervention.

The demands to punish Assad grew ever louder. After the first incident only a last minute deal mediated by Russia that on one hand forced Syria to give up its chemical weapons and, on the other, the US to call off its threat to bomb. In the other two instances, US-led western powers demanded UN inspection, but without waiting for the team to investigate, bombed Syria by launching cruise missiles at targets in Damascus and elsewhere.

In Ghouta, in 2013, the attack reportedly took place at a time when the UN inspectors were in Damascus to investigate earlier complaints made by the government about the use of chemical weapons by the insurgents. The inspections were literally hijacked by this major event as the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs scrambled to make arrangements for the team to enter an area controlled by the insurgents.

Anyone, with a slightly skeptical mind would have questioned why the government would make such an obvious mistake of carrying out a chemical attack within an earshot of the UN inspectors. But there was little such skepticism in the media coverage. The social media blitz, with “eyewitness” reports of the victims, was quickly joined by the wider media, which started repeating as if it were a fact, the estimated death toll published by the US government.

It is perhaps worthwhile at this juncture to obtain a better perspective on the death toll by revisiting the horrific chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja by Saddam’s forces on March 16, 1988, which killed between 3000 and 5000 civilians.

If true, the tragic death toll in Ghouta of 1429 civilians would have been the second largest in a chemical attack after WWI. The survivors in Halabja fled the town and the dead were buried in a couple mass graves. A memorial for the Halabja victims, containing some 3200 gravestones for those among the fallen that could be identified, was constructed after Saddam’s ouster. The Iranians, who controlled Halabja at the time, ferried in Iranian and foreign journalists a few days after the attack to document the crime. Neither the Western powers involved in Syria, nor the media apparently made any such efforts in Ghouta.

We do not know how many people died. But, most media stories to this day about chemical attacks in Syria quotes the original US government figure. The UN report published on 16 December 2013 did not even give a range for the casualties. Why did the UN inspectors not visit any morgue to judge the scale of the calamity for themselves? (Watch the press conference at the UN headquarters https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CFn9pWNKeI)

In the second incident in Khan Sheikhoun, a similar scenario played out. It seems two completely different media events took place there in the early morning hours on 4 April 2018. Videos started to appear on social media about a chemical attack with victims showing respiratory distress, fixed pupils, and vomiting, which are telltale signs of a Sarin attack. They seemed to be shot all in one hospital, where a doctor had more time for the video crew than attending to the victims. A second set of videos then appeared about an alleged crater on a road, where a rocket containing a nerve agent had reportedly landed. Curiously, there was no footage of the explosion that created the crater, although there were videos of two other explosions nearby shortly before the alleged chemical attack. Footage captured by a drone camera showed the area surrounding the crater as totally calm with a few people milling around.

Man collecting supposedly “contaminated soil” from the crater.
Another picture of the crater. Not apparent if it is the same crater. This one seems to be on a divided road.
Another picture of the crater. Notice signs of tampering — the new danger sign, and the metal tube pointing in a different direction.

The crater video went viral on social media and was picked up by the mainstream media. For starters, the crater itself appeared to be created by a utility crew using a jackhammer rather than a rocket because it did not have a discernible impact point with fractured asphalt surrounding it. Upon closer examination of the video, several discrepancies became apparent. One was the clear tampering of the crater. For example, the main evidence of a chemical attack was a metal tube found in the crater, which was supposedly a part of a rocket body or an artillery shell that carried the chemical. It was clear from the videos that it was simply placed there and moved around as several people photographed it. There were people standing around, apparently unharmed, without wearing any protective gear only hours after an alleged Sarin attack, which is a near impossibility.

In regards to the death toll in Khan Sheikhoun, the reported number of victims ranged from 40 to 90, but, once again there were no pictures of funerals, for example. Among the few western journalists, who entered Khan Sheikhoun a day or two after the alleged attack, one reported seeing “death everywhere,” but published little evidence to support his words. (See Syria chemical weapons attack toll rises to 70 as Russian narrative is dismissed by Kareem Shaheen, April 5, 2017, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/04/syria-chemical-attack-idlib-province)

One has only to look at the photographs of the Halabja massacre, that are readily available on the web, to see what an attack with Sarin and VX looks like. They reminded me of the photos of the atom bomb victims in Hiroshima.

(See also the Human Rights Watch report, “Genocide in Iraq,” July 1993)

A year later on 7 April 2018, there was reportedly yet another alleged chemical attack in Douma with a nerve agent and/or chlorine, which followed a similar script. The only difference was that it took place in a more limited area — a building. Like before, pictures of victims suffering from respiratory difficulties, and being hosed down with water, filled the social media. Media reported 30–40 deaths. Douma is located in eastern Ghouta, which was under the control of the insurgents for the past five years, but was about to fall to the government forces. There were loud demands for an inspection team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) — a U.N. agency, to be allowed in after it flew in from its headquarters in The Hague, the Netherlands. While the inspection team waited for arrangements to be made for their safety, a few western journalists visited Douma after the insurgents were driven out. The journalists reported that there was no evidence of a chemical attack having taken place. The stories died quickly.

An interim report by the OPCW was released on 6 July 2018. Significantly, it found no evidence of Sarin. The final report is expected in the next few months. It will most certainly reaffirm the interim report’s finding, thus absolving Assad of using chemical weapons. It is likely that the report would be quietly shelved.

Yet many questions remain:

What was the scale of the attacks?

Who were the perpetrators?

How many people died in each instance?

Where are the dead bodies buried?

They demand an answer for the future of the Middle East and the world. In the absence of corroborating evidence, especially photographs of funerals and graves, and documents from hospital morgues, it is not unreasonable perhaps to argue that the events were likely staged by the jihadists. Such a conclusion is particularly reinforced by the OPCW’s finding on Douma.

Since the conflict has wound down significantly in the last few months, it appears that the western project of regime change is on hold. The stories about Assad’s use of chemical weapons have run their course. The media has moved on to Iran’s WMD and regime change in Tehran.

But the western project of regime change in Syria is not over yet. It has just been put on hold. More than two thousand US Special Forces remain in the country illegally. Thousands of jihadis are holed up in Idlib. As the Syrian army tries to recapture this important city, we may yet again hear about chemical weapons. The western leaders may once again bomb Syria, even escalating it drastically.

The earlier bombings had virtually no impact on either the course of the war or Syria’s military capabilities, perhaps by design. It may not be the same again. That may bring U.S. and Russia, two nuclear superpowers with hundreds of megaton bombs, perilously close to a confrontation that could have unimaginable consequences.