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Saturday, July 28, 2018

Swept Under the Rug, Part 1

Swept Under the Rug
The Plot to Delay the OPCW Douma Probe and Manipulate the Evidence

Part 1: Delaying the Probe
July 28/29, 2018
update Aug. 5

The Douma Incident and Probe Creation
Some 12km northeast of central Damascus, Douma was by April, 2018, the last opposition-held area in the capitol's East Ghouta suburbs. It too was squeezed to partial surrender by April 7, when a Syrian government helicopter allegedly dropped two chlorine bombs on two buildings, killing at least 43 civilians.

The last of the occupying Islamist opposition forces surrendered the following day, either "to save lives" as they claimed, or because they finally had no choice. Militants and civilians who opted to would be allowed to leave for rebel-held territory in Idlib, and already were before the final surrender. But most residents chose to remain, and some former residents started trying to return.

Under the surrender agreement, Russian military police - not the Syrian Arab Army - would run security in Douma. Russian troops visited the sites of the alleged chemical attack on the afternoon of April 9th, claiming to find no signs of a chemical attack, and sharing some video of their investigation (right: arriving at the site with 35 bodies). This clearly fed into the following accusations that the Russians tampered with the site to erase signs of their allies' crime.

That same day, an urgent investigation was formed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), with everyone - including the Syrian and Russian governments - agreeing. The OPCW's Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) investigators got organized, and were ready to set out by the 13th. They were in Syria and ready to work on Saturday the 14th. So all this explains the first week of delay following the attack - nothing unreasonable, and nothing yet that can be blamed on Syria or Russia.

On that same day, April 14, the U.S., U.K., and France showed confidence in their own pre-investigation findings by launching missile strikes on suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria. These powers then gave it a full two days before they started crying foul over the delay in an investigation they weren't waiting for anyway.

Note: the widely-noted reports from medics, the boy Hassan Diab, many other locals, as passed on by Robert Fisk and many others, are valid evidence against an open, widespread gas release with the 500 alleged patients. That's evidence, not proof (I personally accept their version, but obviously not everyone does). Their version is disputed by other residents, but not in a convincing and consistent manner. The "no attack" witnesses clearly win, in my opinion. But even if their claims are true, and even considering the apparent staging and fake claims lodged by the opposition, consider this: only two sites were reportedly stricken, one of which had almost everyone inside allegedly die. These reports from around Douma and in clinics can't prove there was no limited release inside such a place - the gas wouldn't spread much or at all past those walls, and few if any inhabitants would be rushing the clinics, as they mainly dropped dead (allegedly).

So the option of a chemical attack would remain open, neither proven nor disproven, and not even firmly challenged by the valid but limited views of the residents we've heard from. Here we focus on just these two sites with the chlorine gas cylinders allegedly dropped from the air, and primarily on the famous one that had some 35 dead civilians found inside (as I count them: 12 girls, 10 women, 6 boys, 5 men, 2 infants (perhaps both girls)).

On July 6, the OPCW issued an interim report (S/1645/2018 - PDF link) that gives some new insights into the delays in their investigation of the April 7 incident, and oddities with the evidence that might be linked to that. This will be frequently cited in this article as 'the OPCW interim report.'

The Case for Tampering
New York Times, April 16:
Chemical arms inspectors were blocked on Monday [the 16th] from the site ... raising Western suspicions that Syria and its Russian ally were scrubbing the stricken area of evidence.
The inspectors, who wanted to take samples and interview people, “are currently being prevented from doing so by the regime and the Russians,” Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain said in Parliament."
May "accused Syria and Russia of blocking access and attempting to cover up the attack," the Guardian reported on April 16, as "the UK’s OPCW delegation urged "Russia & Syria must cooperate." The suggestion is they were not cooperating for some pretty evident reason, and required pressure.

The French Foreign Ministry said they believed it was "highly likely that evidence and essential elements disappeared from the site, which is completely controlled by the Russian and Syrian armies." (DW)

The U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, Kenneth Ward, said since "the Russians may have visited the attack site," there was "concern" that "they may have tampered with it with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW fact-finding mission to conduct an effective investigation.” This was said at a closed-door OPCW meeting, but was swiftly made public on the 16th, presumably to increase the pressure on the stonewalling villain states. (Washington Post)

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert followed up on the 17th, reiterating Ward's comments and adding: "We've seen that the Russian government and the Syrian government - their whole goal in this is to try to cover up. Their goal is to try to deflect attention." However, when pressed, she explained "in terms of what exactly is happening on the ground to prevent (the OPCW team) from getting there in a quicker time frame is not something that I can discuss or get into." For some reason, she refuses to explicitly blame them; as if she knew there was another cause.

Non-Issues on Both Sides
One issue Nauert and others labored to refute was part of that "deflection" by the Syrian government; on the 17th SANA, Syrian state TV, reported that the OPCW's FFM investigators actually had entered Douma. But that seems more like an error by SANA: As the Daily Sabah report noted: "Syrian state media reported Tuesday that inspectors ... had entered Douma, but the Syrian government later said that only a U.N. advance security team had entered."

That would be a pretty dumb and short-lived lie. Luckily it was thoroughly debunked. Scott Lucas, EA Worldwview: "The Assad regime continued to stall ...even resorting to the lie that the (FFM) had reached Douma. State news agency SANA put out the false information, which was circulated by many mainstream outlets. … Finally, the Assad regime’s UN ambassador Bashar al-Ja’afari walked back the line.." or corrected the error, depending. "Finally" is later that day. Baseless gripes move fast.

The Russians seem to have some baseless charges too. a Reuters report stated "Moscow denied the charge and blamed delays on retaliatory U.S.-led missile strikes on Syria on Saturday." This rebuttal seems like a red herring; it's apparently based on an impression that the site to be visited was under bombardment in the strikes on April 14. The Guardian's report added this explanation by the Russian deputy envoy at the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy: “If you go to a site which was just bombed I imagine you might have certain logistic problems."

This was just as the FFM arrived, but didn't continue, and struck areas entirely outside of Douma (though one major target was fairly nearby). The same explanation was repeated recently (Sputnik News), and then again (TASS): Georgy Kalamanov, Russia's head delegate to the OPCW said of the Western coalition attacks "their missiles were about to hit the OPCW mission." But it doesn't seem that's the reason for the small delay.

Fake Security Concerns?
Amid the accusations from some governments, it's unsettling that the departing director general of the OPCW himself voiced concerns, as early as April 16, that the Russians and Syrians were stalling them on purpose. Or, at least, his comments were widely read that way. As The Guardian reported:
Russia and Syria had cited “pending security issues” before inspectors could deploy to the town outside Damascus, said Ahmet Üzümcü, the director general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), at a meeting of its executive council.
Syrian authorities were offering 22 people to interview as witnesses instead, he said, adding that he hoped “all necessary arrangements will be made … to allow the team to deploy to Douma as soon as possible”.
That Uzumcu has to "hope" they aren't stalling suggests he thinks they are, as they seem to offer alternatives "instead" of allowing access. The implication is the security problem was fake, just an excuse to delay. Most media reports passed it on in that context, scare quotes included. (original statement hard to find - NPR article links to a broken e-mailed PDF link. I didn't locate it anywhere else yet.)

Note: Uzumcu has just now stepped down in a planned retirement. Having headed the OPCW since 2010, he's been at the helm the whole time Syria has been blamed for CW attacks on often dubious evidence. (one important but little-noted example - another) He's from Turkey, has previously been Turkey's ambassador to NATO, and to Israel - not the best qualifications to be an impartial agent in a campaign against a common enemy in the Syrian government.

The Russians offered an alternate reason for the delay; it was the United Nations stalling, but over valid security concerns. This was swiftly rebutted and made to look like a lie by people speaking for the supposedly neutral UN. New York Times, April 16:
Russia — which has questioned whether the Douma attack even happened — ridiculed the Western accusation, asserting that the United Nations had exercised its authority to delay the inspectors for security reasons. 
The United Nations disputed the Russian explanation, saying it had no security issues and wanted the inspectors to reach the site quickly. … a spokesman for the United Nations, Stéphane Dujarric, said the United Nations had given the inspectors “all the necessary clearances.”
But this doesn't seem to be true.

The UN agency that would have security issues - the one he should be referring to - is called the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS). It's they who would be responsible for the safety of any OPCW mission. Immediately on deployment, the UNDSS set to assessing the obviously complex situation in Douma, as it emerged from six years of occupation by foreign-backed Islamists. As the OPCW report states:
6.1 ... According to Syrian Arab Republic and Russian Military Police representatives, there were a number of unacceptable risks to the team, including mines and explosives that still needed to be cleared, a risk of explosions, and sleeper cells still suspected of being active in Douma. This assessment was shared by the representative of the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS). 
So it wasn't a fake concern, as suggested publicly, but a real one the UN's security people shared. Jason Ditz was correct to note at Antiwar.com "Though British officials blamed Russia for the delay, it is now clear that the UNDSS is driving the scheduling." They were delaying work over security concerns, just like the Russians said, and Mr. Dujarric is looking dishonest in disputing that.

In a April 16 meeting under intense pressure, the UNDSS came to an agreement with the Syrian and Russian authorities on accessing the attack sites. As the OPCW interim report explains, the Russian Military Police then in charge could run "security within Douma," while the Syrian government would be in charge everywhere else. (point 6.3) And another small delay was added - by the UN security team. An OPCW statement of April 18 explains "the UNDSS preferred to first conduct a reconnaissance visit to the sites." This was planned for the 17th, with hopes of FFM site inspections by the 18th if the advance mission went well. Russia and Syria agreed to facilitate this. That's the progress on the probe-stalling for the 16th of April, the day the OPCW were reportedly "blocked from the site."

An especially flawed New York Times video report says (at 0:38) "the regime went to great lengths to conceal the evidence." On-screen, a Russian military vehicle is shown driving across the camera's line of sight. Well, it seems we just examined those "great lengths," and there's nothing at all to prove that bold claim. Even a deliberate delay is unproven, let alone active concealment. As we'll see, to propose anything more substantial would require a "conspiracy theory," as they call it.

"The Incident"
The next day, that plan was implemented. DW:
Syria's UN ambassador told the United Nations Security Council Tuesday (the 17th) that a UN security team traveled to the town of Douma, outside the capital Damascus, to ascertain whether it was safe for global chemical weapons experts to visit the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack last week that killed dozens.
Bashar Ja'afari said if the team decides "the situation is sound," the fact-finding mission from the international chemical weapons watchdog — Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — will start work there Wednesday. 
The situation was not sound. As the OPCW report passes on the details:
"During the reconnaissance visit by UNDSS on 18 April 2018 to assess the first two locations planned to be visited the following day, the security detail was confronted by a hostile crowd and came under fire from small arms and a hand grenade that exploded" This "reportedly resulted in two fatalities and an injury to a Russian soldier."
Whose reports they're relying on isn't mentioned, and it's not explained who was killed. As it turns out, most of those details are wrong. Ambassador Jaafari and all others agree the mission this incident came amid was on the 17th, not the 18th. There were two incidents, not one (one had a crowd, the other had violence). And a Syrian officer, not a Russian one, was wounded. No one else mentions fatalities but still, that part might not be an error.

Sputnik News reports on a statement by the Russian center for Syrian reconciliation, an informed source:
According to the statement released by the Russian center for Syrian reconciliation, which has been observing the ceasefire in the Arab Republic, an exchange of fire between Syrian security officers and unidentified assailants took place in Douma on April 17.
"As a result of the shootout, a Syrian security officer was slightly injured. There were no Russian servicemen at the site of the incident," the statement said.
The Syrian officers have been providing security for UN personnel on a reconnaissance mission to Douma.
The Russian Defense Ministry is cited for a supporting claim that no Russian military personnel were present or involved. The plan was to have the Russians run security, but as Syrian Oberver, reported April 17 report notes "Russian military police have withdrawn from Douma" rather suddenly, in favor of Syrian army troops. This had sparked fears of a massacre, as the Oberver heard (none was ever reported). This little-noted last-minute switch may be the cause of that confusion.

Who, if anyone, died, is also unexplained here. It might well be the attacking militants, or no one, in another reporting error. But it's less likely to report two deaths in error than it is to just not mention it in most reports. Some possible story twists of great significance remain over this issue. (I checked the VDC records for good measure, and they don't seem to list any such victims, unless it's that guy from Dumair.)

OPCW DG Üzümcü's reaction at the time agrees the report's date is wrong. Daily Sabah, April 18: "The head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Wednesday [April 18] that a U.N. security team doing reconnaissance in Douma, Syria came under gunfire a day earlier, sources told Reuters." He was said to acknowledge this was a real attack, and what some would call "pending security issues" would delay the FFM's work, after seeming to scoff at the notion recently. As his same-day statement says:
… At present, we do not know when the FFM team can be deployed to Douma. Of course, I shall only consider such deployment following approval by the UNDSS, and provided that our team can have unhindered access to the sites. … This incident again highlights the highly volatile environment in which the FFM is having to work ...
There's no mention of Uzumcu suggesting which side was behind the disruption or what their motive would be. But Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr noted the accusations of regime stalling, and added "what we understand is that Douma is under the control of the Russian military and the Syrian government. Both of them claimed just a few days ago that the area had been 'fully liberated from terrorists'." Maybe they really had cleansed the place good in just a few days, so that anyone shooting now must be with the government's approval or even on their orders. Maybe the regime admits they have total control, but then makes up lies about "sleeper cells" to delay things … and then maybe they get people to stage sleeper cell violence with real weapons, to make the lies seem true and stall further.

Some people seem sure of this. Hadi al-Bahra of the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, in a tweet, called the shooting incident "a criminal act and efforts for concealment of evidence, in an area where all armed groups have left and handed over completely, as per terms of agreement." He's sure all Saudi-backed Islamists disarmed and left, honoring their pledge like good Saudi-backed Islamists would clearly do. But neither the Russians, the Syians, or the UNDSS was so sure about this, considering "sleeper cells" of them to be a potential danger. That could be who was behind the attack, knowing that anything can be blamed on Syria and Russia, no matter the evidence.

The OPCW's statement of April 18 (PDF link) agrees the incident "took place yesterday," and explains it as having two parts:
On arrival at Site 1, a large crowd gathered and the advice provided by the UNDSS was that the reconnaissance team should withdraw. At Site 2, the team came under small arms fire and an explosive was detonated. The reconnaissance team returned to Damascus. .
It's worth noting the crowd that became an issue at the first site was, on its surface, there to protest the Western-power airstrikes the OPCW is seen as in league with (and not without reason). So most likely they were pro-government people, not anti. The Independent: "An official close to the Syrian government said the UN security team had been met by protesters demonstrating against the US-led strikes. “It was a message from the people,” said the official..."  But that doesn't prove anyone sent them. There's no mention of their being a clear threat anyway, just a presence the team retreated from in caution.

At site 2, no clues are given about the assailants except they were armed and launched a small attack. There's no mention here of any fatalities or even injuries.

So, the Russian-Syrian coverup plot ... there must be some clues of it in there. Did they trick the UNDSS into believing a fake terrorist threat in its first days? Did they launch a false-flag attack against their own security detail on the 17th, wounding a Syrian officer and perhaps losing two of their own attackers to defensive fire? All just to stall the probe in a deniable way, and get another few days of evidence-scrubbing done? 

The Final Delay and Tally of Time Lost
This shooting incident on the 17th shows, ten days after the incident, it wasn't clearly Russia and Syria but mystery militants in Douma blocking the work. OPCW report:
Following the incident, the planned deployment of the FFM team was postponed until the security situation could be reassessed... New routes of access to the locations of interest were identified and modifications to the initial FFM deployment plans were formulated...
This took a few more days, but the investigators were at the sites and collecting samples on the 21st, according to news reports (Reuters) and the later OPCW interim report.

April 7 to 21 is two weeks, the total time lost before first on-site investigation. Half of that time was lost in forming the mission prior to arrival. Once Syria was hosting them, two precious days were lost to setting up the details of a visit, perhaps too rushed for the security situation. A day was spent with the needed pre-mission that encountered violence and other problems, and in recovering from this before reporting it the next day. Then four even more precious days were lost planning it over and getting the FFM actually to the sites.

By the (apparent) dates in the Evidence Reference Numbers (in the interim report), the first visit was April 21, and they made several collection trips up to at least the 27th. The report states crowds and gunmen were kept at a distance, and no further security incidents occurred in this time.

After the rush: the team flies back to Europe, logs details and files paperwork. 29 samples are tested in OPCW-certified labs, with results on May 22. Some statements and such precede the interim report published July 6, 1.5 months after results were available, 3 months after the incident. The bulk of testing and a final report will take some more time...

There was a point when the process seemed much more urgent. Of course, this was when the relevant chemicals were breaking down naturally, if not being scrubbed. In fact the plotters could just hold the probe off until the clues had broken down to nothing (the time frame for that is considered in part 2). No doubt time is a serious issue for the science.

But this was also when it helped score cheap points against the Syrian and Russian governments for allegedly daring to stall the probe. We can see dishonest and misleading statements to the effect of scoring such points, so I suppose this was the main motive. For all anyone knew, what the FFM found might wind up embarrassingly absurd or incriminating the local Islamists. The OPCW and others could try to spin it, but might fail, and have to drop the issue.

As part 2 explores a bit, and as most readers already know, no nerve agent turned up in the environment or in the supposed victims' blood. It's not universally noted, but that's absurd and embarrassing. The media coverage of these OPCW findings are not covered as enthusiastically as Russia was denounced for delaying the findings.

Luckily, there was a ready widely-sown explanation for anything amiss - the presumed cleanup the villain states would have done with that bought time. In part 2, we'll consider what the OPCW should and shouldn't have found,  did and didn't find, what that might mean, and who might have tampered with what evidence.

Aug. 5: Part 2 is now online


  1. Snall typo:
    "In a *September* [April] 16 meeting under intense pressure, the UNDSS came to an agreement with the Syrian and Russian authorities on accessing the attack sites."

    1. thx! fixed now. I kept saying August. I go not August, April Not Aug, Apr. Not Aug, Sept. Oops. Formatting jumbled fonts, etc, maybe next. May be slow.

  2. And if preventing access is going to be pointed to as an indicator of guilt:


    "Jaish Al-Islam also made it difficult to hold independent investigation and documentation of the site yesterday and tried to bar witnesses from documenting and photographing any evidence"

    1. Interesting. And they might tell us about it. VDC of course has rough history wJAI. They're suspected of disappearing the VDC founder, her husband, and 2 others in Dec. 2013. And JAI "were burning" their HQ on the 9th. I guess this is before the supposedly total withdrawal after which any burning, etc. would be by "we don't exist" sleeper cells.

  3. Reading discussion on apartment doors- maybe relevant to part 2 here, this door on the balcony level seen on CBS/BBC has also been taken off its hinges



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