Chemical weapons in Douma, Syria

The dangerous game with the truth

by Dr h.c. Hans-Christof von Sponeck

On 5 February 2003, the then American Secretary of State Colin Powell presented CIA pictures from Iraq to the United Nations Security Council, which were supposed to testify that the Iraqi government was still in possession of weapons of mass destruction. Statements by UNMOVIC, the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, that there was no evidence of this were ignored. Six weeks later, “Operation Iraqi Freedom” began, the war led by the USA and Great Britain in violation of international law.
  There is something similar to report about Syria, with the difference that here it is not a government that is providing alleged evidence, but the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international body based in The Hague.
  On 7 April 2018, Douma, a city of 100,000 people located not far from Damascus, had allegedly been attacked with chemical weapons. The OPCW subsequently dispatched a team of scientists, whose investigative report concluded that 43 people reportedly killed in the attack had probably not met their deaths from chemical weapons. Experts from the OPCW Douma team discovered that instead of this report, the OPCW management wanted to issue a fake report stating that chemical weapons had been used. This deception was prevented by OPCW scientists. In the end, however, the final report still contained manipulated accounts of the attack and unscientific conclusions regarding the chemical substances found, the toxicology demonstrated and the ballistics.
  Furthermore, the OPCW relied on the testimony of only one of the two groups of eyewitnesses that had been identified. These were a group of Syrian refugees who had been interviewed in Turkey with the assistance of the White Helmets1. The second group of witnesses were mainly medical personnel in Damascus who stated that they worked in the hospital at the time when victims of the alleged chemical weapons attack sought medical attention. The testimony of this group of witnesses indicated that inhalation of dust and smoke, rather than chemical poisoning, had been the cause of the patients’ discomfort. These important statements were not referred to in the OPCW report. The report on the witnesses interviewed by the White Helmets, on the other hand, is highlighted in the OPCW report. These reproduced witness statements were accepted without possibility of verification, even though the statements were often contradictory, especially with regard to the issue of chemical poisoning.

Irregularities and blockades

Because of these various and serious irregularities, several OPCW experts wrote to OPCW Director-General (DG) Fernando Arias requesting that the official Douma account be urgently discussed with the original OPCW Douma team. The public became aware of this serious contradiction when internal OPCW documents2 became public, and through statements by OPCW scientists who were part of the OPCW investigation team.3
  Voices calling for transparent disclosure increased. It was demanded that all OPCW scientists involved in the Douma investigation be invited by the OPCW Director-General to conduct a joint review to eliminate any suspicion of report falsification. This did not happen, on the contrary. Whether in the UN Security Council, the EU Parliament or in talks with politicians, wherever he could, DG Arias emphasised that he fully supported the conclusions of the (manipulated) Douma report.4
  Western governments, especially those of the United States, the United Kingdom and France, had carried out the airstrikes against Syria on 18 April 2018, and affirmed in the UN Security Council and in public statements that they were fully convinced of the professional credibility of the OPCW and its Director-General. They had declared these attacks as punishment for Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons in Douma. Left unmentioned, however, was the fact that the air strikes had taken place before (!) the OPCW investigation.
  Any attempt by scientists and Middle East experts to discuss the findings on potential misrepresentations of the OPCW reports within the OPCW was boycotted by OPCW management and Western governments. Even in the context of the regular Syria debates in the UN Security Council, a discussion about this was not possible.
  This was not surprising; after all, the aim was to prevent the justification of the air strikes on Douma from being publicly questioned. The fact that such airstrikes were illegal under international law hardly mattered anyway.
  Even the participation of the former DG of the OPCW, Ambassador José Bustani, in a meeting of the UN Security Council was prevented under pressure from Western Security Council members, although he had been invited to make a statement. The reason given for the refusal was that “Bustani had left the Organisation ten years before Douma and therefore could not contribute to the discussion”.4 In his statement, which was eventually delivered by Ambassador of the Russian Federation Vasily Nebenzya, Bustani spoke, among other things, about the independence, impartiality and professionalism of the OPCW, and about the pressure exerted on the Organisation by “some” member states. He added: “If the OPCW is confident in the robustness of its scientific work on Douma and the integrity of its investigation, it should have nothing to fear in hearing out its inspectors. Instead, it hides behind an impenetrable wall of silence... and makes dialogue impossible.”5

BerlinGroup21 takes action

Due to the events around Douma described above, the BerlinGroup21 (BG21) was formed at the end of 2020. This is a small group of individuals who aim to further inform the public about the controversy surrounding the alleged use of chemical weapons in Douma6. BG21 published a “Statement of Concern” in March 2021, signed and published by 28 internationally respected individuals.
  Signatories include four senior OPCW staff members, as well as former OPCW Director-General Ambassador Bustani, Lord West, First Sea Lord and retired Chief of Staff of the British Navy, and others with many years of legal, military, intelligence and diplomatic experience.7
  This statement points to the serious scientific irregularities and substantive omissions in the OPCW Douma reports issued, calls for transparency, the hearing of OPCW inspectors and accountability of all parties. There is a warning that the organisation would be discredited if no hearing took place. It was also pointed out that the OPCW handling of the Douma investigation could call into question the reliability of other OPCW reports on Syria. For example, the investigation into the 2017 attack in Khan Shaykhun.
  The statement was sent by BG21 to all 193 UN and OPCW member states, the presidents of the UN General Assembly, the UN Security Council, and the Human Rights Council. Secretary-General António Guterres, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and the Chair of the UN Commission on Syria, Paolo Sergio Pinheiro, were also informed and all were asked to comment. OPCW DG Arias was informed by letter.

UN and OPCW silent

The reaction of the multilateral institutions contacted can only be described as staggering. All the “political” parts of the UN, i. e., the General Assembly and the Security Council in New York, and the Human Rights Council in Geneva, did not react at all. Officials representing the “operational” UN, i. e., the Secretary-General, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, did not react either. Only the head of the UN Syria Commission of Inquiry acknowledged the reception with a brief note that Douma was not one of the sites investigated by the Commission. The OPCW Director-General acknowledged receipt of the statement by returning the letter unopened  !) to BG21.
  Taking a stand in a dispute over whether the OPCW’s mandate to investigate the possible use of chemical weapons in Douma may have been violated is unquestionably a difficult task for the Administrative Council of the Organisation. But it is also a challenge for the United Nations, especially for UN leaders such as Guterres, Bachelet, Pinheiro and Nakamitsu, especially as part of their basic responsibility is to work for peace and security. This includes the issue of weapons of mass destruction and thus what happened in Douma.
  The public expects such leaders to be willing to expose injustice and to help depoliticise scientific knowledge. United Nations agencies involved in disarmament, mediation and the protection of populations lose their raison d’être if they do not take these basic obligations seriously.
  The significance of distorted OPCW Douma reports to legitimise Western military attacks in Syria weighs even more heavily when the information on Douma is assessed in a larger historical context. In the context of this article, the example of the neighbouring country Iraq may suffice to illustrate the dangers that arise for people, organisations and also for international law when the “Great Game” is systematically played with false cards.

Memories of Iraq

In the late 1990s, there was intense debate in the UN Security Council about whether or not the government of Saddam Hussein had fulfilled its disarmament conditions. Some thought Iraq had been disarmed, others, including Scott Ritter – one of the leading UN disarmament experts at the time – said that Iraq was, if not quantitatively, then qualitatively disarmed, and therefore could no longer pose a threat. After the entire UN disarmament team had been evacuated from Baghdad on 16 December 1998 and the office of UNSCOM with its chemical and biological laboratories, had been closed down, the “Operation Desert Fox” began, a bombing of Baghdad by the American air force lasting four nights in violation of the international law. Washington had previously informed at short notice the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan about this military operation. At the same time he had made the politically correct decision, to evacuate UN staff to Jordan, but at the same time to leave a team of 28 international UN staff from the humanitarian oil-for-food programme in Iraq.
  This reference is relevant because in the months that followed, there was growing concern among UN staff in Baghdad about the possible dangers posed by the substances stored in the closed UN disarmament laboratories.
  This was especially the Iraqi UN staff, who knew more than their foreign colleagues, since they had been undoubtedly in contact with the Iraqi secret service, the Mukhabarat.8
  After protracted disputes between different departments of the United Nations in New York, Kofi Annan decided in June 1999 to mandate the OPCW to send a fact-finding mission to Baghdad.
  The mission was tasked with destroying the toxic substances in the chemical and biological disarmament laboratories. The fact-finding mission was to examine all the rooms of the UN Disarmament Agency in Baghdad, with the exception of rooms 252 and 253A, “since things stored in these rooms were belonging to a foreign government”!
  It was no secret that the American government was meant. This restriction meant that UN staff members of American nationality had a privileged special status in the UN building in Baghdad. And this despite of the fact that precisely disarmament investigations were to be conducted impartially and with the utmost scientific care. What an abuse of an international institution!
  One must also ask why the United Nations had given the OPCW the sole man of destroying substances, such a narrow frame of reference, for its Iraq mission? Was this framework thoughtless or deliberate? Why was the UN not interested in the origin of the substances stored in the laboratories?
  Dr Amer al-Sa’adi, an experienced Iraqi scientist who was not a member of the government’s Ba’ath Party, wanted the OPCW mission to know just that.
  As representative of the Iraqi Ministry of Defence, al-Sa’adi met the four OPCW scientists, three chemistry experts and one biology expert, at the UN building in Baghdad. When he heard that the experts had only come to destroy substances they had found, he said: “You are depriving Iraq of the last chance to to prove that the VX was not of Iraqi possession, but was imported from outside!”9 To this day, this issue/question has not been resolved.
  This important incident fits like a brick in the Iraq edifice that the U.S. government of the time was trying to build using repeated misinformation and destabilisation.
  The primary goal was regime change to rid the country of its dictator.10 Worldwide well-known is the feigned “evidence” that Secretary of State Colin Powell presented to the UN Security Council on 5 February 2003. He insisted that Iraq was still in possession of weapons of mass destruction, that were non-existent. Less well known is an American air strike in April 1999 north of Mosul, in which, according to a press release, Iraqi “radar and artillery installations” were allegedly destroyed. In fact, six shepherds and their flock of 101 sheep lost their lives.11

BG21 demands clarification instead of intimidation

What does all this have to do with OPCW and Douma? First of all, it has nothing to do with a defence of the current Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad or the then Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. BerlinGroup21’s efforts are exclusively about protecting the truth, scientific work, international law and the integrity of the OPCW and the United Nations. It is only for these reasons that BG21 has spent time and energy pointing out the strategy exerted by Western, especially American, policy regarding dictatorships in Syria and formerly in Iraq. This included in Iraq and still includes in Syria, besides the manipulation of facts, other ‘ingredients’ such as the following:

  • Individual experts and groups are prevented from speaking in international and national fora and correcting misinformation;
  • Institutions such as the OPCW and the UN are threatened with cuts in contributions;12
  • Computers are hacked to hinder the exchange of critical information;
  • Sabotage and operations are carried out under false flag;
  • National minorities and opposition groups receive covert financial support;
  • OPCW and UN officials are threatened.13

BG21 is fully aware that this statement will be met with harsh words and gloating from some sides. All those who work to bring the truth to light about what happened in Douma are accused of incompetence, naivety and venality, and of being stooges. However, this will not stop the internationally respected figures, who signed the “Statement of Concern”, from insisting on their legitimate demands.14 Members of a parliament in Europe have requested a report on Douma. This has been completed in draft form by BG21 and will soon be presented to this parliament. This comprehensive and analytical report, based on authentic documents in the public’s possession, shows in detail how evidence was suppressed, scientific fraud and irregularities took place.
  It is to be hoped that the OPCW management will take the BerlinGroup21 report into serious consideration by agreeing on a transparent and inclusive participation of all inspectors, who took part in the Douma investigation, in order to reassess the published OPCW report.  •

1 The so-called White Helmets operated mainly in areas of the Syrian opposition. As from Wikileaks contributions can be seen, the White Helmets have an extremely questionable reputation.
2  Brian Whitaker, former Middle East Editor. “OPCW and the leaked Douma Documents: What we know so far.” In: The Guardian of 21 May 2019
3 e. g. in his conversation with the UN Secretary-General Guterres on 6 November 2019 in New York
4 Journal for Foreign Public Law and International Law (GPIL)
5 UN/S/Pv.8764 (5.10.2020)
6 founding members of BG21 are ambassadors José Bustani, former Director General of the OPCW; Dr h.c. Hans C. von Sponeck, Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations and Professor Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law, Princeton University
7 see:
8 Iraqi UN employees had to report to the Iraqi secret service at regular intervals report their work to the UN.
9 The author attended this meeting. See also: von Sponeck, Hans-Christof. A Different Kind of War – The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq, page 230
10 The Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 states: “It should be the policy of the United States to support Efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.” The law was signed by US President Bill Clinton on 31 October 1998.
11 see: US European Command (USEUCOM) press release of 30 April 1999
12 The American government pays 20% of the OPCW annual budgets.
13 US Ambassador John Bolton told DG Bustani during a visit to the OPCW in The Hague: “We know where your children live!”
14 On 12 May 2021, the German ambassador at the OPCW, Gudrun Lingner, declared in an international webinar with reference to the “Statement of concern” and the statements of the 28 personalities, including four German people, among others the co-founder of the German section of IPPNW, Professor U. Gottstein: “They are throwing mud again and again, even when clear answers have been given, […] throwing mud hoping that something might stick […].”

First publication: IMI Analysis 2022/31 (June 2022);
Reprinted with kind permission of the author

(Translation Current Concerns)

Hans-Christof von Sponeck worked for the UN for 32 years. During this time, he worked in New York, Ghana, Pakistan, Botswana, India and was Director of the European Office of the UNDP Development Programme in Geneva. From 1998 to 2000, he was responsible for the humanitarian programme “Oil for Food” in Iraq as UN Coordinator and Assistant UN Secretary-General. In February 2000, he resigned in protest against the sanctions policy against Iraq. Hans von Sponeck has received several awards, including the Coventry Peace Prize of the Church of England, the Peacemaker Award of the Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Bremen Peace Prize. He is currently working with Richard Falk on a book on UN reform, which will be published in 2022.

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