In a surprise announcement, following this writer’s prompting of a question from the invaluable Inner City Press, the spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General has confirmed that the publication of the final UN report on chemical weapons use in Syria, which was to include the alleged attacks in Damascus as well as possible attacks by the rebels in Khan al-Assal and other places, has been delayed until early December.
In a briefing on 30 September, the spokesperson Martin Nesirky had said that the team of chemical weapons investigators led by Professor Åke Sellström was hoping to complete its report by late October.
The delay comes as the team’s initial report has come under intense scrutiny from the blogosphere, with the most favourable opinion being perhaps that it represented an executive summary with poorly set out evidence. A flavour of the strength of feelings of those who have waded through the report and tried to analyse the evidence set out therein can be gleaned from the title of the most comprehensive critique of the initial report to date – “Pigeon Poop on the Pump Handle.”
Whilst mainstream journalists and those perhaps best described as “US militarists in humanitarian clothing” such as Ken Roth’s “Human Rights Watch,” rushed to misinterpret the report as providing proof the Assad regime was responsible for chemical attacks on East and West Ghouta, more careful analysts, bloggers, chemical weapons experts and human rights investigators have been examining each aspect of this hugely complex who-done-it.
A number of blogs have been contributing to the understanding of the issues involved and a comprehensive website dedicated to the controversy has been set up called Who Attacked Ghouta with the pages on The Closer Look at Syria wiki providing another rich source of information.
For those who have not been following the debate, and perhaps rely on the mass media for their information, there is little consensus on whether the attack on Ghouta was a rocket attack, little consensus on who fired the rockets (if they were fired), a belief that the crime scenes investigated by the UN may have been tampered with (as the UN indicated in their report) or even faked and so there is no credibility in the widely distributed map of the alleged rocket trajectories. Perhaps most importantly, there is no consensus over the number of victims or even how they died.
Those who believe that the Assad regime was guilty, as an article of faith, have failed to prove their case – and still face the significant hurdle of trying to explain why Syrian government forces would launch a chemical attack, just after a UN team had arrived in country to investigate an alleged attack by the rebel side, in the one move likely to bring US missiles down on their heads.
The most significant evidence against the Assad regime appears to be the fact that the two rockets examined by the UN in East Ghouta belong to a family of similarly designed rockets which government forces have used in the past, as has been adequately demonstrated on Eliot Higgins’ blog. This is weak evidence however, as many weapons systems used by the Syrian army have been captured and used by the opposition and of course, if the incident represents a false flag attack, it would make sense for whoever planned it to use weapons associated with the Syrian government. Moreover, video has been uploaded to the Facebook channel of Aknaf Bait al Maqdis, of an unexploded High Explosive version of the kind of weapon allegedly used in the East Ghouta region, apparently in the hands of an Al-Qaeda affiliate which operates in East Ghouta. Videos have also appeared on YouTube, which purport to show members of another jihadist rebel brigade, Liwa al-Islam, actually firing one of this family of rockets, although it is impossible to tell if this is a video produced by the brigade in question (who deny it), by a pro-government faction, or by a third force, never mind what the motives for this release may have been.
Analysis and modelling of the rockets found in East Ghouta is increasingly suggesting that they may not have had the range to have been fired from the government-held territory, let alone the base posited by Human Rights Watch.
There has been a hostile response, based on character assassination, from mass-media journalists, some organisations and certain bloggers to the report presented by the inter-denominational International Support Team for the Mussalalah in Syria led by Mother Agnes Mariam.
Human Rights Watch have attacked Mother Agnes as “not a professional video forensic analyst,” but the report of her team shows that some of the children alleged to have died in Ghouta on 21 August were moved and filmed in up to four different locations. Mother Agnes also asks questions about the demographics of the alleged victims, who they were and absence of normal families and proper burial rituals. These are particularly pertinent questions given the inexplicable failure of the UN team to ascertain the numbers or identities of the victims or perform autopsies, on the ludicrous basis, according to team leader Angela Kane, that “dead bodies don’t tell you anything.”
The hostility to Mother Agnes has spilled over into physical threats, which perhaps isn’t surprising as she is bravely dedicated to reconciliation and peace, something quite a few people, inside and especially outside of Syria, don’t want to see.
Generally speaking, key actors in the blogosphere’s investigation have shown civility and there has been a remarkable cross-fertilisation of knowledge from experts, such as chemical weapons expert Dan Kaszeta, who has asserted that the alleged casualty toll indicates about 70 rockets are missing,
pharmacologist and ex-forward observer Denis O’Brien, who concludes that the initial UN Report effectively proves nothing and the victims do not show the most indicative signs of Sarin poisoning (vomiting, diarrhoea, urinary and fecal incontinence), and legal scholar Gleb Bazov who has provided a very illuminating draft excerpt from an upcoming study on Ghouta
which explains the cautionary tale of the “Yellow Rain affair,” where the US falsely alleged Laotian and Vietnamese forces had used a “killer pollen” as a CBW delivery mechanism.
Bazov applies the lessons of this episode and says that, based on the rules expounded by OPCW, in its Appendices, the directives of its Technical and Scientific Directorates, and other methodological discussions that exist in literature, we are entitled to conclude that with regard to Syria, “No evidence currently at play, whether supplied by the UN, NGOs, or national governments meets the legal requirements of reliability.”
Bazov points out that the failure of the authors to include the data the investigators found and discuss the analytical methodologies they used points to the conclusion that they themselves are unable to judge the reliability of their (contradictory) chemical analytical reports.
The lack of a credible explanation of what happened on August 21st and the lack of reliable evidence provide by the UN is a serious issue, particularly as this vacuum has been filled by the dodgy theories presented as fact by the likes of Ken Roth’s “Human Rights Watch” and the New York Times.
Hopefully, Professor Sellström and his fellow experts are continuing to review the evidence, gather further evidence from the State parties who have claimed to have evidence pertinent to the facts, looking wider and clarifying everything in the final report so that it can not be misunderstood.
The head of the OPCW investigators on the ground in Syria, has said that the team were amazed by the scrutiny they had come under from social media, but had stuck through it and come out of it united and stronger “like a diamond.” In the additional weeks the experts have given themselves, the team members determined to produce a report which is scientifically sound, accurate and true to the facts of the situation and which would stand up in a court of law, must not allow political pressures to weaken their resolve. We would expect the report authors to act in a transparent fashion and release all the evidence and data which has been gathered (at no small personal risk), having the intellectual honesty to step back from their original conclusions, where necessary.
To be sure, the final report, when it comes, will be a defining moment in relationships between the United Nations, its experts, the media, the scientific community and the public. For faith in international institutions, it is essential the UN, OPCW and WHO experts approach the gathering, analysis and presentation of evidence without fear or favour, as they might for a high-profile criminal case in their own country, and not deliver third-rate, politically tainted justice for the victims, for the survivors, for the relatives and those who are missing family members.