In the aftermath of the chemical attack in Syria on August 21st, each side naturally blamed the other, with western intelligence agencies providing evidence supporting the opposition, and Russian intelligence supporting the regime. Both sides issued biased reports with cherry-picked evidence, only adding to the confusion. A sadly rushed and deficient interim UN Report by Professor Sellstrom and his team was published, which was interpreted by those favouring US cruise missile strikes as a veiled indictment of the Syrian regime.
To clear a way through the morass of propaganda, a new blog called ‘Who attacked Ghouta‘ (WaG) was set up as an online collaboration platform to investigate who was behind the attack. Since then, dozens of contributors have meticulously documented and analyzed thousands of pieces of evidence.
Here on Human Rights Investigations, we have been using the power of YouTube and social media to analyse human rights abuses, expose war crimes and to understand situations of conflict since early in the Libya conflict. (Examples here and here and here). However, the WaG site marks a step forward in showing that an online collaborative effort can be superior in terms of investigative power, comprehensiveness and intellectual vigour to anything the media or intelligence agencies have been able to provide.
In terms of independence, transparency and credibility, WaG represents an effort which the United Nations/OPCW/WHO team, currently working in a secretive fashion and under competing political pressures, would do well to try to match.
According to WaG’s blurb, due to the controversial nature of the matter, only reliable evidence verified by multiple sources was used in developing the conclusions. The ‘final conclusion,’ which will come as a shock to many, is that only one scenario fits the evidence available to date – the attack on Ghouta was an attack by opposition forces.
A step-by-step explanation of the evidence and conclusion is on the Who Attacked Ghouta website. For those who disagree and question the site’s conclusions, each aspect of the case has been clearly set out in separate sections and the comment system allows for additional evidence and for alternative theories to be proposed.
The important corollary of the conclusion is that jihadi groups including Al Qaeda (which now effectively rule much of rebel-held Syria), may have succeeded in setting up a Sarin-manufacturing base.
After the conclusion was announced, this writer interviewed ‘Sasa Wawa’, the blog’s founder, and here is that brief interview:
Q: Can you tell me a bit about your background (for sure the media will
want this, if only to find a way to discredit you)?
A: I come from a scientific and technological background. I decided to remain anonymous since I conduct business in countries that are affected by this issue, and I didn’t want this to interfere with my business relations.
Q: What motivated you to develop the site / launch the investigation?
A: It started with my surprise at the weak evidence presented to the public (both by western countries and by Russia). The reports that came out were obviously cooked to serve political interests: cherry-picked evidence, overstated circumstantial evidence, no mentions of contradicting evidence etc. I was concerned with the ease at which war is being threatened using such information, and hoped to be able to raise some doubts. Over time so much evidence was accumulated, that it became clear we can do more than raise doubt – we can reach a definite conclusion.
Q: What were the highlights of the investigation from a personal point of view, any breakthroughs?
A: The most important realization happened on the first day, when I started to understand the wealth of information available out there – every move in this war is being recorded from 3 angles and immediately uploaded.
This made me realize that the power of intelligence agencies with huge budgets and “secret sources on the ground” is a myth from the Cold War days. There is no shortage of information. The real problem is making sense of it, and that’s where an open discussion has an advantage over intelligence agencies: A diverse and unrestricted group is less susceptible to groupthink, and is not affected by the political interests of its employers.
A big disappointment was when I found the huge mistake in the UN’s calculation of the Zamalka rocket trajectory (Impact site 1 here ), which later turned out to be only one of many mistakes (more here ). If the UN can’t be relied on to provide reliable information, we’re in bad shape.
Q: I’ve been very impressed with the clarity of your site and your success in getting people involved. What do you think are the main lessons for blog/internet-based investigations: what worked, what didn’t work?
A: There’s no way a single person can handle so much information, so I did my best to make contributors feel appreciated and respond to every suggestion. I also tried to remain professional and if people brought evidence that challenged an existing conclusion I changed it. I think it helped create a constructive environment where people felt their contributions make a difference. If you go through the comments you will notice a very professional atmosphere with no personal attacks – a rare sight in a blog on such a contested subject. I never once had to delete a comment.
Q: How many people contributed, how has traffic increased since the start?
A: I didn’t count, but I estimate about 50 contributors, of which 10 were very active. Traffic grew rapidly in the first days, and then remained steady at around 1000 a day. Let’s see what happens now that the conclusion is out.
Q: What are the next steps and have you any future plans in similar fields?
A: At this point the focus is to get the word out – Any help will be appreciated. In terms of future plans – I have a business to attend to so I can’t invest too much time looking forward.
The ‘Who Attacked Ghouta’ website is here.