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Alternative Hypotheses in the “Chemical Warfare” Strike Meme

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COMMENT: In the rush to judgement about the alleged chemical weapons attack by the Assad government in Syria, a number of important points have been eclipsed:

  1. Winning the war via conventional means, Assad had no motive to launch a chemical attack, inviting a military response by the U.S. and the West.
  2. Shortly before the alleged chemical warfare attack, Trump had indicated that he wished to terminate the U.S. military mission in Syria, bringing home the roughly 2,000 U.S. military personnel.
  3. The alleged chemical weapons attack and the response was foreshadowed by Russian chief-of-staff Valery Gerasimov a month before the alleged attack! 
  4. Veteran journalist Robert Fisk has written in The London Independent that there was no chemical weapons attack at all. Rather, Fisk wrote, a strong wind kicked up a dust storm in the ruins of the bombed city and that cloud caused respiratory problems in refugees sheltering in underground clinics. ” . . . . A few days ago, Fisk visited the Syrian town of Douma and spoke to a doctor, who works in a subterranean clinic, in which victims of the alleged April 7th gas attack were being treated. The doctor explained that on that day a strong wind blew a huge dust cloud into the city’s destroyed basements and cellars where numerous people were seeking refuge. Many were therefore suffering from acute oxygen loss and came for treatment to his clinic. ‘Then someone at the door, a ‘White Helmet,’ shouted ‘Gas!,’ and a panic began.’ This can be seen on a video being used in the West as ‘proof’ for the use of poison-gas.[1] . . . “
  5. The Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) in Barzah, destroyed in the Western retaliatory strike, does not appear to have been a chemical weapons production facility at all: ” . . . . It has also become known that the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) in Barzah, which was destroyed during Saturday’s air strikes, had been inspected last November by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). According to the OPCW, the SSRC had not served for research on chemical weapons, as has been alleged to justify the bombings. On the contrary, the Organization found no suspicious substances, nor did it observe any suspicious activities, according to its report that was published on March 23 – three weeks before the bombing.[2] . . . .”
  6. The White Helmets–at the center of the chemical weapons attack charges–have been financed by elements of Western intelligence: ” . . . . Reporter and author Max Blumenthal has tracked the role of the White Helmets in the Syrian conflict. He reported that the White Helmets were created in Turkey by James Le Mesurier, a former British MI5 agent. The group has received at least $55 million from the British Foreign Office and $23 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development as well as millions from the Kingdom of Qatar, which has backed a variety of extremist groups in Syria including Al Qaeda. . . .”

1.     “In the Wake of the Bombs;” German Foreign Policy; 4/18/2018.

Douma, April 7, 2018

. . . . A report by the renowned British Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, published in London’s daily “The Independent,” raises questions about the legitimacy of Saturday’s air strikes. A few days ago, Fisk visited the Syrian town of Douma and spoke to a doctor, who works in a subterranean clinic, in which victims of the alleged April 7th gas attack were being treated. The doctor explained that on that day a strong wind blew a huge dust cloud into the city’s destroyed basements and cellars where numerous people were seeking refuge. Many were therefore suffering from acute oxygen loss and came for treatment to his clinic. “Then someone at the door, a ‘White Helmet,’ shouted ‘Gas!,’ and a panic began.” This can be seen on a video being used in the West as “proof” for the use of poison-gas.[1] The “White Helmets,” a “civil defense organization” of Syrian insurgents are being financed to a large degree by the British government.

No Suspicious Activities

It has also become known that the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) in Barzah, which was destroyed during Saturday’s air strikes, had been inspected last November by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). According to the OPCW, the SSRC had not served for research on chemical weapons, as has been alleged to justify the bombings. On the contrary, the Organization found no suspicious substances, nor did it observe any suspicious activities, according to its report that was published on March 23 – three weeks before the bombing.[2] . . . .

. . . . [1] Robert Fisk: The search for truth in the rubble of Douma – and one doctor’s doubts over the chemical attack. independent.co.uk 17.04.2018.

[2] Note by the Director-General: Progress in the Elimination of the Syrian Chemical Weapons Programme. OPCW Executive Council. EC-88/DG.1. 23 March 2018. . . .

2.    “Beware of White Helmets Bearing News” by Ann Wright; Consortium News; 4/21/2018.

. . . . Reporter and author Max Blumenthal has tracked the role of the White Helmets in the Syrian conflict. He reported that the White Helmets were created in Turkey by James Le Mesurier, a former British MI5 agent. The group has received at least $55 million from the British Foreign Office and $23 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development as well as millions from the Kingdom of Qatar, which has backed a variety of extremist groups in Syria including Al Qaeda.

Blumenthal writes, “When Defense Secretary James Mattis cited ‘social media’ in place of scientific evidence of a chemical attack in Duma, he was referring to video shot by members of the White Helmets. Similarly, when State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert sought to explain why the US bombed Syria before inspectors from the OPCW could produce a report from the ground, she claimed, ‘We have our own intelligence.’ With little else to offer, she was likely referring to social media material published by members of the White Helmets.” . . . .

3.    “Taking the World to the Brink” by Rick Sterling; Consortium News; 4/10/2018.

. . . . As reported at Tass, the Chief of Russia’s General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, predicted the alleged use of chemicals almost a month ago. The report from March 13 says, “Russia has hard facts about preparations for staging the use of chemical weapons against civilians by the government forces. After the provocation, the US plans to accuse Syria’s government forces of using chemical weapons … furnish the so-called ‘evidence’ … and Washington plans to deliver a missile and bomb strike against Damascus’ government districts.” . . . .

Discussion

2 comments for “Alternative Hypotheses in the “Chemical Warfare” Strike Meme”

  1. Here’s a set of articles that should raise an eyebrow or two regarding evidence of the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma. In addition to the articles by Robert Fisk and Rick Sterling referenced in the OP, we’re also going to look at an important piece by Max Blumenthal about the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a group that, like the White Helmets, has close ties to both neoconservative forces is DC and Islamist forces within the rebellion pushing for regime change in Syria. As we’ll see, much of the initial evidence used to conclude a chemical attack took place was provided by SAMS and the White Helmets:

    So as we should expect at this point, there were some significant gaps in the actual evidence. For instance, as we’re going to see in the first article, one reason the US air strikes against the Syrian government was less extensive than many in the West were expecting and demanding is that the US didn’t actually have conclusive evidence chemical weapons were used. And that lack of certainty appeared to play a major role in choosing the scope of the attack (relatively limited) and taking extra precautions to ensure no Russian forces were potentially going to be hit.

    Yes, the US government is stating with certainty that chlorine gas was used, but the government is also not at all certain sarin gas was used. And as the first article makes clear, the US did receive physical samples it was told was from Douma, but there was no chain of custody for those sample and no access was given to the site. The physical samples were all given by allies operating in the area do to that lack of access and therefore there is no chain of custody and the US had to trust those allies operating in the area.

    And as we’re going to see in the fifth and final article excerpt, that’s probably questionably placed trust in those allies on the ground because much of the evidence appears to have come from the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). And SAMS isn’t just a big recipient of USAID funds (90 percent of its budget is from USAID at this point). SAMS is also a strong advocate for regime change, with ties to US lobbying efforts to see the US to militarily commit to overthrowing the Assad regime and has close ties to the Islamist extremist/al Qaeda element of the Syrian rebels. So the US government’s evidence was based on evidence provided by a pro-regime-change al Qaeda-friendly group with ties to al Qaeda. Hence the chain of custody issues.

    And as we’re going to see in the second article excerpt, a representative from SAMS was expressing skepticism that any meaningful evidence for what was actually used in the attack will probably never come out because the vast majority of the witnesses left Douma for the al Nusra-controlled city of Idlib as part of the agreement with the Syrian government that the rebels and their supporters could leave for Idlib on buses.

    As we’re also going to see in the second article excerpt, part of the reason there is so much suspicion that it was a chlorine and sarin attack is that people reported a heavy smell of chlorine but the symptoms were unusual for a chlorine attack and appeared to be consistent with some sort of nerve agent and the overall deadliness of the attack was much more severe than a chlorine attack. But as the second article points out, the most compelling evidence that a nerve agent was used come from video. Specifically, the images of dead bodies with foaming mouths.

    And as the second article also points out, there were actually two separate alleged chemical attacks and they were qualitatively different. The first alleged chlorine attack happened at about 4 PM. But it was a second attack, several hours later, that resulted in the large numbers of people reporting unusual symptoms never seen before and not associated with chlorine. It’s only during that second attack that sarin or some other nerve agent is suspected and the nerve agent is suspected because the symptoms reported are not at all consistent with a chlorine-only attack. In other words, the videos the world has seen of dead bodies with foaming mouths is not consistent with a chlorine-only chemical attack. That’s why there is so much suspicion that sarin or another nerve agent was used.

    But when you read the statement from the US intelligence assessment in the first article excerpt about the evidence the US based the missile strike on, it only mentions visual evidence and eyewitness reports. Physical evidence of a nerve agent is not cited: “this conclusion is based on descriptions of the attack in multiple media sources, the reported symptoms experienced by victims, videos and images showing two assessed barrel bombs from the attack, and reliable information indicating coordination between Syrian military officials before the attack. A significant body of information points to the regime using chlorine in its bombardment of Duma, while some additional information points to the regime also using the nerve agent sarin.”

    So that evidence described in the US intelligence assessment statement was:

    1. Descriptions of the attack in multiple media sources.

    2. The reported symptoms experienced by victims.

    3. Videos and images showing two assessed barrel bombs from the attack.

    4. Reliable information indicating coordination between Syrian military officials before the attack.

    Media reports, videos and “reliable information indicating coordination between Syrian military officials before the attack.” No mention of analysis of physical specimens, which makes sense given chain of custody issue.

    And if you think about it, video evidence and media reports also suffer from a chain of custody issue when we’re talking about reports from areas where the only people allowed to give the reports are more or less on the same side as the Islamist/al Qaeda factions of Syrian rebels or at risk of reprisals if they don’t follow orders. After all, the same skepticism that applies to local witnesses who potentially face reprisals from the Syrian government should most assuredly apply to the people who were, at the time of the attack, at risk of reprisals from the Islamist extremist rebels.

    At the same time, the “reliable information indicating coordination between Syrian military officials before the attack” the US intelligence assessment relied might be just that and indicate a real military attack by the Syrian government. As we’re going to see the third article, a report by Robert Fisk from Douma, the evidence and eyewitness reports do point towards a real Syrian helicopter bombing attack in Douma. But the people on the ground he talked to suggest what actually happened was a non-chemical bombing that immersed the people in the immediate surrounding in a deadly cloud of particles. In other words, under this scenario the video evidence of people choking is real. The people really did choke to death and respond to a chemical assault on their bodies. But that chemical assault was an indirect consequence of a non-chemical bomb explosion creating a deadly cloud. So the “reliable information indicating coordination between Syrian military officials before the attack” might be legitimate intelligence indicating a Syrian government attack but not necessarily a chemical weapons attack.

    Additionally, as we’re also going to see in the first article, one of the admissions the US has made is that, while witnesses reported seeing at least one helicopter overhead at the time of the Syrian attack, intelligence officials acknowledge that they didn’t have a full picture of the event, which would have included intercepts of conversations and verified paths that helicopters flew. We are told that this is because the US did not readily have electronic intelligence showing the track of the helicopters, as it would with fixed-wing jets. So the nature of that “reliable information indicating coordination between Syrian military officials before the attack” remains ambiguous.

    Adding to the confusion around this, as we’re going to see in the fourth article excerpt, is that the Chief of Russia’s General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, publicly stated on March 13th that, “Russia has hard facts about preparations for staging the use of chemical weapons against civilians by the government forces. After the provocation, the US plans to accuse Syria’s government forces of using chemical weapons … furnish the so-called ‘evidence’ … and Washington plans to deliver a missile and bomb strike against Damascus’ government districts.”

    Now, obviously we have to take such predictions from the Russian government with a grain of salt. Who knows if there really was “hard facts about preparations”. But when you consider that the dominant rebel forces in Douma, Jaish el-Islam (the Army of Islam), are indeed hard core Islamist extremists who no one should trust, it’s hard to ignore the reality that this is the type of group that is more than willing to do exactly what the Russian government predicted slaughter innocent civilians if that helps them achieve their goals or just faking evidence if need be. It’s not as if this is the first time we’ve have an alleged chemical weapons attack on an area controlled by jihadists who are more than willing to slaughter civilians.

    It’s one of the meta-issues with the Syrian conflict and war in general: the stakes are so high it’s hard to assume any side is above reproach. That’s why establishing conclusive evidence of a chemical attack is so important. And as the first article makes like, that conclusive evidence was not actually available when Trump ordered those airstrikes:

    CNN

    US struck Syria without certainty on sarin

    By Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon Correspondent

    Updated 12:25 AM ET, Wed April 18, 2018

    (CNN)Even though US intelligence agencies did not have absolute certainty Syria’s regime had used the nerve agent sarin against civilians, the Trump administration still felt there was enough evidence to justify retaliatory strikes last Friday, several intelligence and defense officials tell CNN.

    The decision to proceed with military action met a standard of evidence needed that officials felt they could accept, these sources said.

    Officials are adamant that whatever was used by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to attack civilians was a chemical agent and that alone justified taking action.

    The lack of complete information played a role in deciding not to strike a larger set of targets including airfields, aircraft and helicopters, one defense official said. Others factors, like Russian positioning, also played a role in the decisions.

    On Tuesday afternoon, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chair Joseph Dunford held a classified briefing for senators on the Syria strike. Before the briefing, officials would not comment on whether the intelligence had become more certain post-strike.

    Witnesses reported seeing at least one helicopter overhead at the time of the Syrian attack that had taken off from an airfield. But at the time, intelligence officials did not have a full picture of the event, which would have included intercepts of conversations and verified paths that helicopters flew, officials said.

    But the reality was that prior to the US strike, full confirmation could not be made of whether Syria had used sarin in its attack.

    “It’s a hard, long process, especially in an attack like this without physical access to victims, site. Therefore we had to work with closest allies quickly to ensure we had confidence in the intelligence picture, enabling policymakers to choose best course of action,” an intelligence official told CNN.

    The Trump administration determined a “standard of evidence had been met,” the official said.

    The administration has said the strike by US, UK and French forces aimed to send a message to the Assad regime to stop using chemical weapons.

    The US did have an analysis of test samples that suggested the presence of chlorine and sarin, but officials told CNN the US was not able to obtain samples directly from the scene and ensure a strict chain of custody to conduct its own testing. There were samples that had been smuggled out, but the US intelligence community did not have solid intelligence on where the material came from and whose hands it was in the entire time, officials said.

    French authorities were also involved in assessing samples that had been brought out of the area.

    Pentagon’s assessment and Trump’s decision

    Trump’s acceptance of a military option to conduct missile strikes against three suspected Syrian chemical research, development and storage sites was shaped by the Pentagon’s classified intelligence assessment.

    Video assessed by US intelligence after the Syrian regime’s attack and witness statements provide substantial evidence that victims most likely suffered the effects of an attack with chlorine and a nerve agent that was likely sarin, the officials said.

    The US had consistently looked for intelligence from three areas: samples of the chemical used, possible electronic intercepts of Syrian officials involved in the attack or electronic intelligence on aircraft flying at the time of the attack.

    Even at a late-night news conference just hours after the strike, Mattis said that while he was “absolutely confident” the Syrian regime had conducted a chemical attack, he was publicly less certain about what was used.

    “We are very much aware of one of the agents. There may have been more than one agent used. We are not clear on that yet. We know at least one chemical agent was used,” said Mattis. The secretary went on to say that “we’re very confident that chlorine was used. We are not ruling out sarin right now.”

    A senior administration official expressed even more confidence the following day, telling reporters that “we assess that both sarin and chlorine were used in this attack, and while the available information is much greater on the chlorine use, we do have significant information that also points to sarin use.”

    Still, that same day, Vice President Mike Pence held out on a final judgment about whether sarin gas was deployed in his remarks Saturday afternoon.

    “Chlorine and possibly nerve agents were used,” Pence said during his address at the Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru.

    The Pentagon has provided no update on any testing of chemical samples, saying it’s still looking at the intelligence.

    On Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert echoed the senior administration official’s Saturday comments, saying, “We have information that leads us to believe that both chlorine and sarin were used in the attack.”

    Concerns over Russia

    The attack by Assad’s forces killed dozens of men, women and children and injured hundreds more in the eastern Damascus suburb of Douma on April 7.

    Unlike the US strike a year ago after Syrian jets struck civilians with nerve agent bombs, this time helicopters were used.

    That meant that, unlike last year, the US did not readily have electronic intelligence showing the track of the helicopters, as it would with fixed-wing jets.

    All these factors were part of the case made by the Pentagon to pick a list of targets different from those struck in the previous response attack, but also targets that did not risk Russian escalation. There was worry that the US did not have a full understanding of whether some locations of Syrian aircraft and helicopters included a Russian presence. In the days prior to the coalition strike, there was confirmed intelligence that the Syrians had moved some aircraft to different locations, the officials said.

    This entire intelligence assessment formed the backbone of Friday’s White House statement, which said in part, “this conclusion is based on descriptions of the attack in multiple media sources, the reported symptoms experienced by victims, videos and images showing two assessed barrel bombs from the attack, and reliable information indicating coordination between Syrian military officials before the attack. A significant body of information points to the regime using chlorine in its bombardment of Duma, while some additional information points to the regime also using the nerve agent sarin.”

    Officials said the assessment that the Syrian regime was behind the attack, with Russian complicity, was based on the intelligence conclusion that only the Syrian regime had the chemical inventory and the means to attack with barrel bombs from helicopters.

    ———-

    “US struck Syria without certainty on sarin” by Barbara Starr; CNN; 04/18/2018

    “This entire intelligence assessment formed the backbone of Friday’s White House statement, which said in part, “this conclusion is based on descriptions of the attack in multiple media sources, the reported symptoms experienced by victims, videos and images showing two assessed barrel bombs from the attack, and reliable information indicating coordination between Syrian military officials before the attack. A significant body of information points to the regime using chlorine in its bombardment of Duma, while some additional information points to the regime also using the nerve agent sarin.””

    And that’s how the US government characterized its own intelligence assessment: It was primarily based on media reports of the symptoms. Symptoms that, as we’ll see in the following article, were unprecedented for a chlorine-only attack, hence the suspicion of a nerve agent.

    The evidence also includes witness reports of at least one helicopter overhead, but it doesn’t appear to include intercepted conversations and verified paths. In other words, it’s also based on eye witness reports:

    Witnesses reported seeing at least one helicopter overhead at the time of the Syrian attack that had taken off from an airfield. But at the time, intelligence officials did not have a full picture of the event, which would have included intercepts of conversations and verified paths that helicopters flew, officials said.

    But the reality was that prior to the US strike, full confirmation could not be made of whether Syria had used sarin in its attack.

    Unlike the US strike a year ago after Syrian jets struck civilians with nerve agent bombs, this time helicopters were used.

    That meant that, unlike last year, the US did not readily have electronic intelligence showing the track of the helicopters, as it would with fixed-wing jets.

    And while the US did have “an analysis of test samples that suggested the presence of chlorine and sarin,” these samples were not obtained directly and did not have a strict chain of custody. So the physical samples that were smuggled out could have come from anywhere:


    “It’s a hard, long process, especially in an attack like this without physical access to victims, site. Therefore we had to work with closest allies quickly to ensure we had confidence in the intelligence picture, enabling policymakers to choose best course of action,” an intelligence official told CNN.

    The Trump administration determined a “standard of evidence had been met,” the official said.

    The administration has said the strike by US, UK and French forces aimed to send a message to the Assad regime to stop using chemical weapons.

    The US did have an analysis of test samples that suggested the presence of chlorine and sarin, but officials told CNN the US was not able to obtain samples directly from the scene and ensure a strict chain of custody to conduct its own testing. There were samples that had been smuggled out, but the US intelligence community did not have solid intelligence on where the material came from and whose hands it was in the entire time, officials said.

    French authorities were also involved in assessing samples that had been brought out of the area.

    Instead of physical evidence, the conclusion of chlorine and sarin is based on video evidence:


    Pentagon’s assessment and Trump’s decision

    Trump’s acceptance of a military option to conduct missile strikes against three suspected Syrian chemical research, development and storage sites was shaped by the Pentagon’s classified intelligence assessment.

    Video assessed by US intelligence after the Syrian regime’s attack and witness statements provide substantial evidence that victims most likely suffered the effects of an attack with chlorine and a nerve agent that was likely sarin, the officials said.

    And based on that video evidence and the eyewitness testimonies the US has concluded with “absolute confidence” that some sort of chemical attack took place, and is “very confident” chlorine was used. But far less confident about sarin:


    Even at a late-night news conference just hours after the strike, Mattis said that while he was “absolutely confident” the Syrian regime had conducted a chemical attack, he was publicly less certain about what was used.

    “We are very much aware of one of the agents. There may have been more than one agent used. We are not clear on that yet. We know at least one chemical agent was used,” said Mattis. The secretary went on to say that “we’re very confident that chlorine was used. We are not ruling out sarin right now.”

    A senior administration official expressed even more confidence the following day, telling reporters that “we assess that both sarin and chlorine were used in this attack, and while the available information is much greater on the chlorine use, we do have significant information that also points to sarin use.”

    Still, that same day, Vice President Mike Pence held out on a final judgment about whether sarin gas was deployed in his remarks Saturday afternoon.

    “Chlorine and possibly nerve agents were used,” Pence said during his address at the Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru.

    Recall that, as we’ll see in the next article, the rush of victims from the second attack did not exhibit symptoms or a level of lethality consistent with a chlorine-only attack.

    And at the time of this report, there was no US update on the testing of the physical samples. Which appears to be a way of indicating that the videos and eye witness statements are primary evidence at this point:


    The Pentagon has provided no update on any testing of chemical samples, saying it’s still looking at the intelligence.

    On Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert echoed the senior administration official’s Saturday comments, saying, “We have information that leads us to believe that both chlorine and sarin were used in the attack.”

    And it’s critical to keep in mind that this ambiguity played a big role in why the US didn’t conduct a more extensive retaliatory bombing of Damascus:


    All these factors were part of the case made by the Pentagon to pick a list of targets different from those struck in the previous response attack, but also targets that did not risk Russian escalation. There was worry that the US did not have a full understanding of whether some locations of Syrian aircraft and helicopters included a Russian presence. In the days prior to the coalition strike, there was confirmed intelligence that the Syrians had moved some aircraft to different locations, the officials said.

    This is a critical point because there is more or less a permanent din of advocacy for a deeper US military involvement in Syria and when President Trump doesn’t meet those expectations it’s widely assumed that it’s because he’s Putin’s puppet, which is a dangerously provocative assumption in this case.

    Ok, now let’s take a look at the second article excerpt from just a few days after the attack. As the article also notes in an interview with a member from Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), he doubted whether any meaningful evidence would remain (recall that, as we’ll see if the fifth article below, SAMS is both heavily funded by USAID and a strong advocate of US military intervention in Syria). He said local staffers are afraid to give testimony and, “in the current situation,” an investigation “is too hard.” He also noted that many of the activists, medical staffers and rescue workers with information about the attacks have since scattered, with many leaving Douma on buses headed north to rebel-held territory under the terms of the surrender deal reached Sunday between the rebels and the Russians. So a large portion of the eye witnesses are either allied with the rebels or remain under their control after leaving Douma as part of the agreement with the Syrian government.

    As the article also notes, there were two separate assumed chemical attacks. One alleged chemical weapons bomb attack at 4 PM that witnesses believe was chlorine only – and without reports of heavy casualties – and a second far more lethal attack a few hours later that with symptoms inconsistent with chlorine-only attacks:

    The Washington Post

    Nerve gas used in Syria attack, leaving victims ‘foaming at the mouth,’ evidence suggests

    by Liz Sly, Suzan Haidamous and Asma Ajroudi
    April 11, 2018

    BEIRUT — The day had begun much as any other over the past two months in the rebel-held town of Douma east of the Syrian capital, Damascus. Warplanes dropped bombs, families hid in basements, and ambulances raced through empty streets to rescue the injured.

    But when gasping, trembling people, some of them foaming at the mouth, began streaming into one of the town’s few functioning clinics that evening, staff instantly knew something was different. The victims emitted a powerful smell of chlorine, but there were more people affected than in previous chlorine attacks, said Mohammed Marhoum, a medical worker. He saw around 70 and said six of them died.

    They also seemed to be more severely affected than those he had treated after previous chlorine attacks, and they displayed symptoms he had never seen before. Some were twitching, others had abnormal pupils, and some were foaming at the mouth. Several arrived at the hospital unconscious.

    He and the other medical workers began to suspect that whatever killed them may have been stronger than chlorine. “We believe the gas used was chlorine and another kind of gas,” he said.

    At around midnight, the last two victims were brought in, a boy and a girl, both around 2 years old, both dead. “Their bodies were cold and stiff. Their mouths were foaming. They didn’t have any wounds. It was obvious that they had suffocated,” Marhoum said.

    Exactly what happened Saturday night may never be established with certainty. Medical workers say a large number of people suffering unusual symptoms visited hospitals, and some of them died. Later that evening a grisly video emerged showing a mangled pile of at least 30 bodies on the lower floor of an apartment building, none of them bearing any sign of physical injury but many with foam around their mouths.

    The look of the bodies “is pretty much consistent with a nerve-agent-type exposure,” said Alastair W.M. Hay, a professor of toxicology at Leeds University who has been studying the human impact of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein’s gas attack on Iraqi Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1989. “That’s suggestive of something that was very toxic, and people have pretty much died where they were when they inhaled the agent. They’ve just dropped dead.”

    But with Russia and Syria having strenuously denied from the outset that any kind of chemical attack occurred, and with Russian troops now deployed in Douma, it is unclear how much of an independent forensic investigation into the cause of the deaths will be possible. Russian troops entered the town Monday under the terms of a surrender deal reached with the rebels the previous day.

    Russia says its representatives already have searched the area and could find no evidence that chemical weapons were used. Russian experts and members of the Syrian Red Crescent have visited the hospitals where the victims were treated, Russian officials say, and a video showed Russian troops arriving at the house where the bodies were found.

    There they found “no trace of any use of chemical weapons,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters Tuesday.

    Mohamad Katoub of the Syrian American Medical Society, which supported medical facilities in Douma before the Russians entered, said he doubted whether any meaningful evidence would remain. Local staffers are afraid to give testimony, he said. “In the current situation,” he said, an investigation “is too hard.”

    Many of the activists, medical staffers and rescue workers with information about the attacks have since scattered, with many leaving Douma on buses headed north to rebel-held territory under the terms of the surrender deal reached Sunday between the rebels and the Russians. Among them was Marhoum, who spoke Tuesday from one of the buses.

    Residents who are still there insist that there was a chemical attack. But many say they are increasingly afraid to talk now that Russian troops are deployed in the town and with Syrian government forces expected to return after the evacuations are complete.

    “The Russians have entered, and there are no guarantees for us not to be killed or detained,” said a medical student who is hoping to leave soon and does not want to risk being arrested, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We’re worried about being searched. We don’t know what the regime and the Russians are preparing for us.”

    It remains unclear how many people died in the attack. The Syrian American Medical Society put the toll at 49. The White Helmets rescue group said 43 were killed and named 38 of them. Twelve were children, and 19 shared one of two surnames, suggesting whole families died together.

    There were reports of a chlorine bomb at around 4 p.m. that day. But it was only after a second attack, around 7:30 p.m., that there were indications that a more potent agent may have been used. That was when the victims displaying unusual symptoms began showing up at Marhoum’s clinic, and when rescue workers and monitors say they suspect the bomb was dropped that killed the people sprawled in the apartment building.

    The strongest evidence suggesting that chemicals were used in the attack comes from a few videos filmed in the aftermath of the event.

    A video filmed by an activist, Yasser al-Doumani, shows him pausing outside the building beside four sprawled corpses before descending concrete stairs into what appears to be a basement apartment. There a gruesome mangle of bodies is seen: babies, children, men and women lying in twisted distortions of death. A child sprawled spread-eagle, half upside down, on the body of a woman. A girl in red died covering her face with her arms.

    “It’s just bodies piled up. That is so horrific,” said Hay, the Leeds professor, expressing shock as he watched the video online during a telephone interview Tuesday. “There’s a young child with foam at the nose and a boy with foam on its mouth. That’s much, much more consistent with a nerve-agent-type exposure than chlorine.”

    Doumani says in the video that he could smell chlorine, but chlorine doesn’t usually kill so many people so quickly, Hay said. “Chlorine victims usually manage to get out to somewhere they can get treatment,” he said. “Nerve agent kills pretty instantly.”

    If a nerve gas was indeed used, their deaths would have been agonizing, Hay said. “It would be terrifying for those afflicted as they struggled to breathe, their chests failing to inflate properly and lungs filling with fluid,” he said. “It would be an asphyxiation over some minutes.”

    The widespread reports of a chlorine odor coupled with symptoms not usually associated with the substance have given rise to speculation that a new kind of weapon was used that combined chlorine and a nerve agent such as sarin, which killed as many as 1,400 people in an attack in the Douma area in 2013. Both gases are heavier than air and sink, making them especially deadly for people trapped in a confined space, such as those hiding from regular bombardment.

    Such a mixture could potentially have been made, but it has not been seen before, and it would be “complicated and difficult to prepare,” Hay said. He speculated that chlorine and sarin could have been dropped separately but at the same time, perhaps to confuse rescuers into identifying the deadly agent as chlorine. The use of chlorine has not earned the same degree of international censure as attacks carried out with sarin and some other chemical agents.

    ———-

    “Nerve gas used in Syria attack, leaving victims ‘foaming at the mouth,’ evidence suggests” by Liz Sly, Suzan Haidamous and Asma Ajroudi; The Washington Post; 04/11/2018

    “But when gasping, trembling people, some of them foaming at the mouth, began streaming into one of the town’s few functioning clinics that evening, staff instantly knew something was different. The victims emitted a powerful smell of chlorine, but there were more people affected than in previous chlorine attacks, said Mohammed Marhoum, a medical worker. He saw around 70 and said six of them died.”

    And that’s the key part of the eye-witness testimony that has led many to conclude that sarin or some sort of nerve agent was used: witnesses claim the victims emitted a powerful smell of chorine, but this was far more deadly than previous chlorine attacks:


    They also seemed to be more severely affected than those he had treated after previous chlorine attacks, and they displayed symptoms he had never seen before. Some were twitching, others had abnormal pupils, and some were foaming at the mouth. Several arrived at the hospital unconscious.

    He and the other medical workers began to suspect that whatever killed them may have been stronger than chlorine. “We believe the gas used was chlorine and another kind of gas,” he said.

    At around midnight, the last two victims were brought in, a boy and a girl, both around 2 years old, both dead. “Their bodies were cold and stiff. Their mouths were foaming. They didn’t have any wounds. It was obvious that they had suffocated,” Marhoum said.

    Exactly what happened Saturday night may never be established with certainty. Medical workers say a large number of people suffering unusual symptoms visited hospitals, and some of them died. Later that evening a grisly video emerged showing a mangled pile of at least 30 bodies on the lower floor of an apartment building, none of them bearing any sign of physical injury but many with foam around their mouths.

    The look of the bodies “is pretty much consistent with a nerve-agent-type exposure,” said Alastair W.M. Hay, a professor of toxicology at Leeds University who has been studying the human impact of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein’s gas attack on Iraqi Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1989. “That’s suggestive of something that was very toxic, and people have pretty much died where they were when they inhaled the agent. They’ve just dropped dead.”

    “The look of the bodies “is pretty much consistent with a nerve-agent-type exposure,” said Alastair W.M. Hay, a professor of toxicology at Leeds University who has been studying the human impact of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein’s gas attack on Iraqi Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1989. “That’s suggestive of something that was very toxic, and people have pretty much died where they were when they inhaled the agent. They’ve just dropped dead.””

    They just dropped dead. But it sounds like people didn’t start dropping dead until the second attack. There were reports of a chlorine bomb several hours earlier, but without the subsequent reports of heavy casualties:


    There were reports of a chlorine bomb at around 4 p.m. that day. But it was only after a second attack, around 7:30 p.m., that there were indications that a more potent agent may have been used. That was when the victims displaying unusual symptoms began showing up at Marhoum’s clinic, and when rescue workers and monitors say they suspect the bomb was dropped that killed the people sprawled in the apartment building.

    And the groups that are providing these reports from on the ground appear to be the Syrian American Medical Socity (SAMS) and the White Helmets. But as Mohamad Katoub of the Syrian American Medical Society laments, he was doubtful that any meaningful evidence would remain and many of the witnesses with information had already fled to Idlib:


    Mohamad Katoub of the Syrian American Medical Society, which supported medical facilities in Douma before the Russians entered, said he doubted whether any meaningful evidence would remain. Local staffers are afraid to give testimony, he said. “In the current situation,” he said, an investigation “is too hard.”

    Many of the activists, medical staffers and rescue workers with information about the attacks have since scattered, with many leaving Douma on buses headed north to rebel-held territory under the terms of the surrender deal reached Sunday between the rebels and the Russians. Among them was Marhoum, who spoke Tuesday from one of the buses.

    It remains unclear how many people died in the attack. The Syrian American Medical Society put the toll at 49. The White Helmets rescue group said 43 were killed and named 38 of them. Twelve were children, and 19 shared one of two surnames, suggesting whole families died together.

    Understandably, many of the residents who remain in Douma fear reprisals if they talk now that the area is under Syrian government and Russian control. Of course, the same logic applies to those who were there when the rebels still controlled the area:


    Residents who are still there insist that there was a chemical attack. But many say they are increasingly afraid to talk now that Russian troops are deployed in the town and with Syrian government forces expected to return after the evacuations are complete.

    “The Russians have entered, and there are no guarantees for us not to be killed or detained,” said a medical student who is hoping to leave soon and does not want to risk being arrested, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We’re worried about being searched. We don’t know what the regime and the Russians are preparing for us.”

    That leaves the video evidence as the strongest evidence of what happened. Video evidence that includes local activists reports the small of chlorine, but also video evidence that shows symptoms and a degree of lethality never before seen with chlorine attacks:


    The strongest evidence suggesting that chemicals were used in the attack comes from a few videos filmed in the aftermath of the event.

    A video filmed by an activist, Yasser al-Doumani, shows him pausing outside the building beside four sprawled corpses before descending concrete stairs into what appears to be a basement apartment. There a gruesome mangle of bodies is seen: babies, children, men and women lying in twisted distortions of death. A child sprawled spread-eagle, half upside down, on the body of a woman. A girl in red died covering her face with her arms.

    “It’s just bodies piled up. That is so horrific,” said Hay, the Leeds professor, expressing shock as he watched the video online during a telephone interview Tuesday. “There’s a young child with foam at the nose and a boy with foam on its mouth. That’s much, much more consistent with a nerve-agent-type exposure than chlorine.”

    Doumani says in the video that he could smell chlorine, but chlorine doesn’t usually kill so many people so quickly, Hay said. “Chlorine victims usually manage to get out to somewhere they can get treatment,” he said. “Nerve agent kills pretty instantly.”

    If a nerve gas was indeed used, their deaths would have been agonizing, Hay said. “It would be terrifying for those afflicted as they struggled to breathe, their chests failing to inflate properly and lungs filling with fluid,” he said. “It would be an asphyxiation over some minutes.”

    And it’s that video of symptoms not consistent with chlorine that forms the basis for the suspicion of some other nerve agent being used in the second 7:30 PM attack. And according to one chemical weapons expert, a combination of chlorine plus sarin in a single bomb has never been seen before and would be technically difficult, leading to speculation that two separate bombs were dropped. One with chlorine and one with sarin:


    The widespread reports of a chlorine odor coupled with symptoms not usually associated with the substance have given rise to speculation that a new kind of weapon was used that combined chlorine and a nerve agent such as sarin, which killed as many as 1,400 people in an attack in the Douma area in 2013. Both gases are heavier than air and sink, making them especially deadly for people trapped in a confined space, such as those hiding from regular bombardment.

    Such a mixture could potentially have been made, but it has not been seen before, and it would be “complicated and difficult to prepare,” Hay said. He speculated that chlorine and sarin could have been dropped separately but at the same time, perhaps to confuse rescuers into identifying the deadly agent as chlorine. The use of chlorine has not earned the same degree of international censure as attacks carried out with sarin and some other chemical agents.

    And that all highlights the extremely ambiguous nature of this attack: there is evidence, but it appears to be entirely video and eye witness evidence and that evidence is essentially unprecedented. It’s eye witnesses claiming to smell chlorine while they show bodies exhibiting the symptoms of a nerve agent.

    comment continued below (due to maximum comment length)…

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | April 26, 2018, 8:10 pm
  2. continuing from the previous comment

    So if we assume these videos haven’t been heavily staged somehow, is some sort of sarin + chlorine dual attack the only plausible explanation what what was captured on video? Well, as we’re going to see in the following on the ground report by Robert Fisk, there might be another explanation. According to Dr Assim Rahaibani – a doctor in Douma who, it’s important to note, does not appear to be a fan of the local rebels who until recently controlled Douma – the evening of the attacks also included high winds. And those winds, when combined with the heavy government bombing, created a dust storm that effectively suffocated a large number of people living in underground shelters. Recall that the large numbers of dead found were indeed in the basements of buildings seeking shelter from the bombs.

    As Dr Rahaibani describes it, “I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night — but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a ‘White Helmet’, shouted ‘Gas!”, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia – not gas poisoning.”

    Now, dust storms can indeed suffocate people. But in this case the people weren’t outside in a dust storm. They were in the basements of buildings and, according to Dr Rahaibani, the huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. So if a dust storm did indeed suffocate the people in the underground shelters we have to ask the question of whether or not a dust storm on the outside of an underground shelter could effectively suffocate the victims. And then there are the reports the victims who arrived at the hospitals exhibiting symptoms like foaming mouths and dilated pupils. Should we expect that from a dust storm? And where there reports a choking cloud from surviving eye witness? Those are the kinds of questions that would have to answered if the dust storm explanation is to be believed but that’s at least one explanation Fisk found during his report from Douma:

    The Independent

    The search for truth in the rubble of Douma – and one doctor’s doubts over the chemical attack

    Exclusive: Robert Fisk visits the Syria clinic at the centre of a global crisis

    Robert Fisk Douma, Syria
    Monday 16 April 2018 21:29 BST

    This is the story of a town called Douma, a ravaged, stinking place of smashed apartment blocks — and of an underground clinic whose images of suffering allowed three of the Western world’s most powerful nations to bomb Syria last week. There’s even a friendly doctor in a green coat who, when I track him down in the very same clinic, cheerfully tells me that the ‘gas’ videotape which horrified the world – despite all the doubters – is perfectly genuine.

    War stories, however, have a habit of growing darker. For the same 58-year old senior Syrian doctor then adds something profoundly uncomfortable: the patients, he says, were overcome not by gas but by oxygen starvation in the rubbish-filled tunnels and basements in which they lived, on a night of wind and heavy shelling that stirred up a dust storm.

    As Dr Assim Rahaibani announces this extraordinary conclusion, it is worth observing that he is by his own admission not an eye witness himself and, as he speaks good English, he refers twice to the jihadi gunmen of Jaish el-Islam [the Army of Islam] in Douma as “terrorists” – the regime’s word for their enemies, and a term used by many people across Syria. Am I hearing this right? Which version of events are we to believe?

    By bad luck, too, the doctors who were on duty that night on 7 April were all in Damascus giving evidence to a chemical weapons enquiry, which will be attempting to provide a definitive answer to that question in the coming weeks.

    France, meanwhile, has said it has “proof” chemical weapons were used, and US media have quoted sources saying urine and blood tests showed this too. The WHO has said its partners on the ground treated 500 patients “exhibiting signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals”.

    At the same time, inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are currently blocked from coming here to the site of the alleged gas attack themselves, ostensibly because they lacked the correct UN permits.

    Before we go any further, readers should be aware that this is not the only story in Douma. There are the many people I talked amid the ruins of the town who said they had “never believed in” gas stories – which were usually put about, they claimed, by the armed Islamist groups. These particular jihadis survived under a blizzard of shellfire by living in other’s people’s homes and in vast, wide tunnels with underground roads carved through the living rock by prisoners with pick-axes on three levels beneath the town. I walked through three of them yesterday, vast corridors of living rock which still contained Russian – yes, Russian – rockets and burned-out cars.

    So the story of Douma is thus not just a story of gas – or no gas, as the case may be. It’s about thousands of people who did not opt for evacuation from Douma on buses that left last week, alongside the gunmen with whom they had to live like troglodytes for months in order to survive. I walked across this town quite freely yesterday without soldier, policeman or minder to haunt my footsteps, just two Syrian friends, a camera and a notebook. I sometimes had to clamber across 20-foot-high ramparts, up and down almost sheer walls of earth. Happy to see foreigners among them, happier still that the siege is finally over, they are mostly smiling; those whose faces you can see, of course, because a surprising number of Douma’s women wear full-length black hijab.

    I first drove into Douma as part of an escorted convoy of journalists. But once a boring general had announced outside a wrecked council house “I have no information” – that most helpful rubbish-dump of Arab officialdom — I just walked away. Several other reporters, mostly Syrian, did the same. Even a group of Russian journalists – all in military attire – drifted off.

    It was a short walk to Dr Rahaibani. From the door of his subterranean clinic – “Point 200,” it is called, in the weird geology of this partly-underground city – is a corridor leading downhill where he showed me his lowly hospital and the few beds where a small girl was crying as nurses treated a cut above her eye.

    “I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night — but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a ‘White Helmet’, shouted ‘Gas!”, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia – not gas poisoning.”

    Oddly, after chatting to more than 20 people, I couldn’t find one who showed the slightest interest in Douma’s role in bringing about the Western air attacks. Two actually told me they didn’t know about the connection.

    But it was a strange world I walked into. Two men, Hussam and Nazir Abu Aishe, said they were unaware how many people had been killed in Douma, although the latter admitted he had a cousin “executed by Jaish el-Islam [the Army of Islam] for allegedly being “close to the regime”. They shrugged when I asked about the 43 people said to have died in the infamous Douma attack.

    The White Helmets – the medical first responders already legendary in the West but with some interesting corners to their own story – played a familiar role during the battles. They are partly funded by the Foreign Office and most of the local offices were staffed by Douma men. I found their wrecked offices not far from Dr Rahaibani’s clinic. A gas mask had been left outside a food container with one eye-piece pierced and a pile of dirty military camouflage uniforms lay inside one room. Planted, I asked myself? I doubt it. The place was heaped with capsules, broken medical equipment and files, bedding and mattresses.

    Of course we must hear their side of the story, but it will not happen here: a woman told us that every member of the White Helmets in Douma abandoned their main headquarters and chose to take the government-organised and Russian-protected buses to the rebel province of Idlib with the armed groups when the final truce was agreed.

    There were food stalls open and a patrol of Russian military policemen – a now optional extra for every Syrian ceasefire – and no-one had even bothered to storm into the forbidding Islamist prison near Martyr’s Square where victims were supposedly beheaded in the basements. The town’s complement of Syrian interior ministry civilian police – who eerily wear military clothes – are watched over by the Russians who may or may not be watched by the civilians. Again, my earnest questions about gas were met with what seemed genuine perplexity.

    ———-

    The search for truth in the rubble of Douma – and one doctor’s doubts over the chemical attack by Robert Fisk; The Independent; 04/16/2018

    “War stories, however, have a habit of growing darker. For the same 58-year old senior Syrian doctor then adds something profoundly uncomfortable: the patients, he says, were overcome not by gas but by oxygen starvation in the rubbish-filled tunnels and basements in which they lived, on a night of wind and heavy shelling that stirred up a dust storm.”

    That’s the explanation given by Dr Assim Rahaibani: It was death by oxygen starvation cause by high winds and heavy shelling. And that dust started seeping into the basements and cellars were people were living, effectively starving them of oxygen. A member of the White Helmets shouted “gas”, creating a panic, but it wasn’t poison gas but a lack of oxygen that killed the people. That’s the account Dr. Rahaibani relayed:


    It was a short walk to Dr Rahaibani. From the door of his subterranean clinic – “Point 200,” it is called, in the weird geology of this partly-underground city – is a corridor leading downhill where he showed me his lowly hospital and the few beds where a small girl was crying as nurses treated a cut above her eye.

    “I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night — but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a ‘White Helmet’, shouted ‘Gas!”, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia – not gas poisoning.”

    But as Fisk notes, Dr Rahaibani wasn’t an eye witness to this and also doesn’t appear to be a fan of Jaish el-Islam which is important to keep in mind:


    As Dr Assim Rahaibani announces this extraordinary conclusion, it is worth observing that he is by his own admission not an eye witness himself and, as he speaks good English, he refers twice to the jihadi gunmen of Jaish el-Islam [the Army of Islam] in Douma as “terrorists” – the regime’s word for their enemies, and a term used by many people across Syria. Am I hearing this right? Which version of events are we to believe?

    “Which version of events are we to believe?” It’s the meta-question of the Syrian conflict for the outside world, which is why an understanding of the nature of different sides in this conflict is so important and why systematically ignoring the jihadist extremist nature of the dominant factions of the rebels is so outrageous.

    And as Fisk also notes, it’s not just Dr Rahaibani who he ran into that questioned the gas attack. Many of the people he spoke to said they “never believed” it and assumed it was staged by Jaish el-Islam:


    Before we go any further, readers should be aware that this is not the only story in Douma. There are the many people I talked amid the ruins of the town who said they had “never believed in” gas stories – which were usually put about, they claimed, by the armed Islamist groups. These particular jihadis survived under a blizzard of shellfire by living in other’s people’s homes and in vast, wide tunnels with underground roads carved through the living rock by prisoners with pick-axes on three levels beneath the town. I walked through three of them yesterday, vast corridors of living rock which still contained Russian – yes, Russian – rockets and burned-out cars.

    So the story of Douma is thus not just a story of gas – or no gas, as the case may be. It’s about thousands of people who did not opt for evacuation from Douma on buses that left last week, alongside the gunmen with whom they had to live like troglodytes for months in order to survive. I walked across this town quite freely yesterday without soldier, policeman or minder to haunt my footsteps, just two Syrian friends, a camera and a notebook. I sometimes had to clamber across 20-foot-high ramparts, up and down almost sheer walls of earth. Happy to see foreigners among them, happier still that the siege is finally over, they are mostly smiling; those whose faces you can see, of course, because a surprising number of Douma’s women wear full-length black hijab.

    Now keep in mind that these are the people who chose not to leave for Idlib and presumably weren’t fans of the rebels. But that also highlights the fact that the jihadi forces operating in Syria really have been absolutely horrible and oppressive to the local civilians and a reminder of the character of these groups. It’s why staged attacks by the jihadists shouldn’t be ruled out.

    As Fisk also observed, it appears that the White Helmets virtually all left Douma for the al Nusra stronghold of Idlib, highlighting the fact that the allegations of close ties between the White Helmets with jihadist militants and forces pushing for military regime change can’t be easily dismissed as Kremlin propaganda:


    The White Helmets – the medical first responders already legendary in the West but with some interesting corners to their own story – played a familiar role during the battles. They are partly funded by the Foreign Office and most of the local offices were staffed by Douma men. I found their wrecked offices not far from Dr Rahaibani’s clinic. A gas mask had been left outside a food container with one eye-piece pierced and a pile of dirty military camouflage uniforms lay inside one room. Planted, I asked myself? I doubt it. The place was heaped with capsules, broken medical equipment and files, bedding and mattresses.

    Of course we must hear their side of the story, but it will not happen here: a woman told us that every member of the White Helmets in Douma abandoned their main headquarters and chose to take the government-organised and Russian-protected buses to the rebel province of Idlib with the armed groups when the final truce was agreed.

    So that gives us a sense of one side of the story of what happened in Douma. It’s the story from the perspective of those who chose to stay in Douma instead of accepting to offer of safe transport to al Nusra-controlled Idlib, so it’s not particularly surprising that Fisk had such a hard time coming across people in Douma who were going to back up the ‘Syrian government chemical weapons attack’ version of events. But it’s not like we can just dismiss this version of events either simply because the people remaining in Douma tend not to support Jaish el-Islam, yet that’s largely what has happened thus far with the international community.

    It’s also worth noting that the version of events put forward by Dr. Rahaibani, that it was all due to dust storm and the claims of a chemical attack are opportunism, is actually quite different from the alternate claim made by others in Douma and elsewhere that there was a chemical attack but it was a false flag carried out by Jaish el-Islam. The ‘fog of war’ is a disturbingly apt term for this situation.

    It’s also important to recall what the White House told us the intelligence assessment was partially based on in the first article: :
    “This entire intelligence assessment formed the backbone of Friday’s White House statement, which said in part, “this conclusion is based on descriptions of the attack in multiple media sources, the reported symptoms experienced by victims, videos and images showing two assessed barrel bombs from the attack, and reliable information indicating coordination between Syrian military officials before the attack. A significant body of information points to the regime using chlorine in its bombardment of Duma, while some additional information points to the regime also using the nerve agent sarin.””

    “Videos and images showing two assessed barrel bombs from the attack”. That was part of what the US intelligence assessment was based on. And that presumably includes the videos of two unexploded chemical weapon barrel bombs that were videoed in the following April 10th tweet by the White Helmets of a 38 second video from April 9 showing what appeared to be a chlorine canister:

    Important: video from 9 April, 7:02pm showing presence of chemical gas canister in Douma. Same location as video of casualties. Also same location that Russia visited reporting ‘no sign of chemical weapons’. pic.twitter.com/Sbz64cPi4w— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) April 10, 2018

    So if Dr Rahaibani’s scenario of a suffocating dust storm, or any other scenario that didn’t involve the use of chemical weapons, is true, than we are clearly looking at manipulated video evidence.

    Similarly, if chemical weapons were indeed used, we have to ask the question of who used them. Did the Syrian government actually use chemical weapons in the last phase for its siege on Douma (quite possibly the worst move it could have done) or did Jaish el-Islam or some other jihadist group opportunistically employ their own chemicals weapons for the purpose of provoking a response from the US and others?

    Well, along those lines, the following article notes one of the other twists in this alleged chemical weapons attack: the Russian government claimed back in March that, “Russia has hard facts about preparations for staging the use of chemical weapons against civilians by the government forces. After the provocation, the US plans to accuse Syria’s government forces of using chemical weapons … furnish the so-called ‘evidence’ … and Washington plans to deliver a missile and bomb strike against Damascus’ government districts.”

    Now, it’s obvious that the Russian government would have an incentive to make such a claim with or without any “hard facts” given the history alleged chemical weapons use in this conflict and the potential for military responses.

    But it’s also pretty obvious that the jihadist rebels have both the means (i.e. the possession of chemical weapons) and the motive to carry out staged attacks as we’ve seen before.

    And while the Russian government appeared to suggest the US government was part of orchestrating a hoax attack for the purpose of justifying air strikes against Damascus, it’s worth noting one of the important points in the following article: this alleged chemical attack on Douma and the alleged chemical attack in Idlib last year share something in common. They both took place shortly after the Trump administration expressed a desire to reduce the US’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.

    On March 30, 2017, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said U.S. policy was no longer focused on getting Assad out. Five days later the chemical incident at Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib happened. Then, on March 29 of this year, Trump declares that U.S. forces will withdraw from Syria “very soon.” And a little more than a week later we have this alleged chemical attack in Douma. In other words, both of those alleged chemical attack were happening in a context where the jihadist rebel factions alone had an incentive to actually carry out the attacks, which would predictably work to the benefit of those in the West advocating for a deeper military involvement.

    And that’s why it’s not adequate to simply ask the question, “would the jihadist rebel factions actually attack their own local populations?” Because we should really be asking, “would the jihadist rebel factions actually attack their own local populations when faced with the prospect of the US pulling out of Syria?” And given the nature of these jihadist and the entire sordid history of these chemical attacks it seems like the obvious answer is, “yes, of course they would do that. We are talking about al Qaeda and other al Qaeda-like groups, after all.”

    But the article makes another point that adds an additional context to this whole situation: Jaish el-Islam isn’t actually on good terms with al Nusra/al Qaeda at this point, and that was a big part of what was slowing down the evacuation of jihadist fighters from Douma after the Syrian government made the offer of giving them safe passage to Idlib. In other words, the offer of safe passage to Idlib wasn’t an offer to a safe destination for Jaish el-Islam.

    And this conflict between Jaish el-Islam and al Nusra is a reminder of another key point that needs to be kept in mind: When we’re talking about governments that had an incentive to see a staged chemical attack, the Saudis are clearly at or near the top of the list. Jaish el-Islam was formed from merger of ~60 Islamist rebel groups with Saudi backing and was seen as a kind of ‘non-al Qaeda or ISIS’ rebranding of the Sunni extremist rebels factions. It’s supposed to be a militant jihadist force the international community will get behind. This is one of those jihadist groups operating in Syria: basically as crazy and vicious as al Qaeda, but marketed by its Gulf state backers as not al Qaeda and at war with al Qaeda and therefore supposedly acceptable. So the threat of sending Jaish el-Islam to al Nusra’s enclave in Idlib is potentially a much more significant event from a military standpoint than meets the eye.

    In addition to conflicts with al Nusra, it’s also important to keep in mind that Jaish el-Isam’s founding leader was a Douma based cleric. Evacuating Douma is, for Jaish el-Islam, evacuating its home base, with the prospect of moving to its arch enemy’s current headquarters.

    So while the Chief of Russia’s General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, suggested back in March that it had hard facts that there were preparations to stage an attack and the US was planning on using that as an excuse to bomb Damascus, don’t forget that the government with the biggest vested interest in the fate of Jaish el-Islam is the Saudi government:

    Consortium News

    Taking the World to the Brink

    As American drums beat again for war, Rick Sterling steps back to contemplate the possible consequences this time.

    By Rick Sterling Special to Consortium News
    April 10, 2018

    Western neoconservatives and hawks are driving the international situation to increasing tension and danger. Not content with the destruction of Iraq and Libya based on false claims, they are now pressing for a direct US attack on Syria.

    As a dangerous prelude, Israeli jets flying over Lebanese airspace fired missiles against the T4/Tiyas Airbase west of Palmyra following reports on Sunday of a chemical weapons attack in Douma, a suburb of Damascus under rebel control.

    As reported at Tass, the Chief of Russia’s General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, predicted the alleged use of chemicals almost a month ago. The report from March 13 says, “Russia has hard facts about preparations for staging the use of chemical weapons against civilians by the government forces. After the provocation, the US plans to accuse Syria’s government forces of using chemical weapons … furnish the so-called ‘evidence’ … and Washington plans to deliver a missile and bomb strike against Damascus’ government districts.”

    Gerasimov noted that Russian military advisors are staying in the Syrian Defense Ministry’s facilities in Damascus and “in the event of a threat to our military servicemen’s lives, Russia’s Armed Forces will take retaliatory measures to target both the missiles and their delivery vehicles.”

    The situation is clearly fraught with the risk of sliding into international conflict between the two biggest nuclear weapons powers with all that that implies. Civilization itself is being put in peril so that the West can continue supporting sectarian armed groups seeking to overthrow the Assad government, in violation of international law and the UN Charter.

    The most powerful country in the world is now led by a real estate, hotel and entertainment mogul without political experience. Behind the scenes, there is an entrenched foreign policy establishment determined to maintain and reclaim U.S. unilateral “leadership” of the world. American leaders fear that the U.S. is losing influence, prestige and power around the world. Israel and Saudi Arabia are seeing their designs on regional dominance failing.

    East Ghouta, Damascus

    East Ghouta is a district of farms and towns on the north-east outskirts of Damascus. For the past six years, various armed factions controlled the area.
    On a nearly daily basis, they launched mortar and hell cannon missile attacks into Damascus, and have killed thousands of civilians. This author personally witnessed two such mortar attacks in April 2014.

    By the end of March most of East Ghouta had been retaken by the government. With the peaceful evacuation of armed militants, civilians flooded into the humanitarian corridors and then government camps for the displaced. The campaign was proceeding quickly with minimal loss of life as the Russian Reconciliation officers negotiated agreements which allowed the militants to keep small weapons and be transported to Idlib in the north.

    Journalist Vanessa Beeley documented the situation including the happiness and relief of many civilians as they finally made it to safety. One described the feeling as “like being reborn”. Robert Fisk of Britain’s Independent newspaper was on site and reported what he saw first hand in stories titled Watching on as Islamist fighters are evacuated from war-torn Eastern Ghouta and Western howls of outrage over the Ghouta siege ring hollow.

    As reported at the Russian Reconciliation Centre, by the end of March, 105,857 civilians had moved into government controlled areas while 13,793 militants, plus 23,433 family members had been transported north. Those who wanted to stay, including former fighters, were welcomed. They could rejoin Syrian society with the same rights and obligations as other Syrians.

    The last remaining opposition stronghold was the town of Douma, controlled by the Saudi-funded Jaish al Islam. Negotiations were prolonged because Jaish al Islam did not want to go to Idlib, which is dominated by another militant opposition group, Jabhat al Nusra also known as Hayat Tahrir al Sham. It is the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

    The Chemical Incident

    On Saturday, April 7, video and stories claiming a chemical weapons attack in Douma were broadcast. The video showed dozens of dead children. On Sunday the story grabbed western mainstream media headlines. U.S. President Trump quickly came to a conclusion: “President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay”.

    There has been no objective investigation. The media claims are based on statements and videos from members of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and the White Helmets. Both organizations receive significant funding from the US government and are not neutral as aid organizations should be. They both call for Western intervention in Syria.

    Chemical weapons have emerged as the quick and easy justification for aggression. One year ago, in April 2017, it was the incident at Khan Sheikhoun. That resulted in a US attack on a Syrian air base just days later. As reported here by Consortium News‘ late founder, Robert Parry, the subsequent investigation discovered that dozens of victims had shown up in hospitals in diverse locations and up to 100 kms away from the scene of the crime before the event happened. Indicative of apparent bias by the investigators, this red flag pointing to fraud was not probed further. If it was just a few victims or just one location, it might be a mistake in time record-keeping. However in this case there were dozens of discrepancies in multiple locations, clearly raising the possibility of fraud.

    Now we have the incident in Douma. The armed opposition is in retreat. They are losing the war and are desperate. They have tried since 2012 to pressure the U.S. and NATO to intervene directly on their side. The rebels have access to chemical weapons in East Ghouta and they have a motive. They also have thousands of prisoners. This group put hundreds of prisoners, primarily women and children, in cages on the streets of Douma.

    Who Benefits?

    The timing of the chemical weapons incidents is also noteworthy. As documented here, one year ago on March 30, 2017, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said U.S. policy was no longer focused on getting Assad out. Five days later the chemical incident at Khan Sheikhoun happened, followed quickly by blaming the Syrian government without evidence, then the U.S. attack on a Syrian air base and a then restoration of the demand that “Assad must go.”

    On March 29 this year, Trump said that U.S. forces will withdraw from Syria “very soon.” This was followed by outcries from the media and political establishment. Once again, following Saturday’s incident, the U.S. is again threatening to intervene. The chemical weapons incidents have consistently resulted in the reversal of a proposed change in hostility toward Syria.

    Neoconservatives and the supporters of ‘regime change’ foreign policy have various theories why the Assad government would perpetrate a chemical weapons attack. Senator John McCain says the Syrian President was “emboldened” by Trump’s call to withdraw. Juan Cole, an academic who promoted the assaults on Libya in 2011, has a different theory. He says “Chemical weapons are used by desperate regimes that are either outnumbered by the enemy or are reluctant to take casualties in their militaries. Barrel-bombing Douma with chem seems to have appealed to the regime as a tactic for this reason. It had potential of frightening the Douma population into deserting the Army of Islam.”

    In contrast with his theory, chemical weapons were used extensively by the U.S. in Vietnam and Iraq when they were far from desperate. As evidenced in the flow of civilians into government held areas, most of the civilian population are happy to get away from the sectarian and violent Army of Islam (“Jaish al Islam”). Cole seems to be basing his theories on inaccurate western media coverage just as he did regarding Libya where sensational claims about a looming massacre in Benghazi were later shown to be fraudulent.

    It’s clear who benefits from sensational media coverage about a chemical weapons incident: those who seek to want the U.S. to intervene militarily. Every time there is an incident, and well before an investigation has even begun, it is seized on by governments and organizations who’ve sought regime change in Syria since the start of the war, and perhaps even earlier.

    ———-

    “Taking the World to the Brink” by Rick Sterling; Consortium News; 04/10/2018

    “As reported at Tass, the Chief of Russia’s General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, predicted the alleged use of chemicals almost a month ago. The report from March 13 says, “Russia has hard facts about preparations for staging the use of chemical weapons against civilians by the government forces. After the provocation, the US plans to accuse Syria’s government forces of using chemical weapons … furnish the so-called ‘evidence’ … and Washington plans to deliver a missile and bomb strike against Damascus’ government districts.”

    It’s quite a public statement from the Chief of Russia’s General Staff. At the same time, given the state of the current war of words and general relations between DC and Moscow, it’s not like this statement was all that surprising. Given all the evidence the Idlib chemical attacks last year were actually carried out by al Nusra, the “hard facts” Gerasimov referred to could simply be that recent history.

    And as the article critically points out, the negotiations over the evacuation of Douma were drawn out because the Saudi-backed Jaish el-Islam didn’t want to go to Idlib because it’s dominated by al Nusra:


    The last remaining opposition stronghold was the town of Douma, controlled by the Saudi-funded Jaish al Islam. Negotiations were prolonged because Jaish al Islam did not want to go to Idlib, which is dominated by another militant opposition group, Jabhat al Nusra also known as Hayat Tahrir al Sham. It is the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

    And as the article also points out, the timing of both this chemical attack and last year’s attack in Idlib happened to take place just days after announcements from the Trump administration that represented an existential threat to the rebellion: last year UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said U.S. policy was no longer focused on overthrowing Assad out. The chemical incident at Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, happened 5 days later. And this year have have President Trump suddenly announcing that US forces will withdraw from Syria “very soon”, followed by the attack in Douma a little over a week later. So Jaish el-Islam wasn’t just faces the threat of expulsion to an area controlled by its rival, al Nusra. It was also facing the threat of losing the US involvement in this conflict:


    Who Benefits?

    The timing of the chemical weapons incidents is also noteworthy. As documented here, one year ago on March 30, 2017, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said U.S. policy was no longer focused on getting Assad out. Five days later the chemical incident at Khan Sheikhoun happened, followed quickly by blaming the Syrian government without evidence, then the U.S. attack on a Syrian air base and a then restoration of the demand that “Assad must go.”

    On March 29 this year, Trump said that U.S. forces will withdraw from Syria “very soon.” This was followed by outcries from the media and political establishment. Once again, following Saturday’s incident, the U.S. is again threatening to intervene. The chemical weapons incidents have consistently resulted in the reversal of a proposed change in hostility toward Syria.

    Finally, as the article also points out, the initial evidence was based on videos and statements from members of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and the White Helmets:


    The Chemical Incident

    On Saturday, April 7, video and stories claiming a chemical weapons attack in Douma were broadcast. The video showed dozens of dead children. On Sunday the story grabbed western mainstream media headlines. U.S. President Trump quickly came to a conclusion: “President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay”.

    There has been no objective investigation. The media claims are based on statements and videos from members of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and the White Helmets. Both organizations receive significant funding from the US government and are not neutral as aid organizations should be. They both call for Western intervention in Syria.

    So now let’s take a look at the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). As the following article notes, SAMS claims to be a “non-political, non-profit medical organization,” and is cited as a credible authority by media reporting on the incident in Douma. But its origins is that of an exile arm of the Islamist-oriented Syrian opposition with a close relationship to both neoconservative elements in Washington and al Nusra.
    And SAMS played a key role in the investigation of the sarin attack in Al Qaeda-controlled Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib last year. And that included SAMS providing biomedical samples to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) which one again violated its stated protocol by accepting evidence without a verifiable chain of custody. That’s the background for one of the main groups providing video and eyewitness testimony to the chemical attack:

    Gray Zone Project

    “Al Qaeda’s MASH Unit”: How the Syrian American Medical Society Is Selling Regime Change and Driving the US to War

    By Max Blumenthal

    Reports on unproven allegations of a chemical attack in Douma, the Syria city formerly occupied by the Army of Islam insurgent group, invariably rely on a key source: The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). Together with the White Helmets, SAMS has been cited by the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN and virtually every Western media organization reporting on the incident. In Douma, SAMS staff have claimed that they treated more than 500 people for symptoms “indicative of exposure to a chemical agent.”

    The group also played a central role in shaping the narrative of a sarin attack in Al Qaeda-controlled Khan Sheikhoun in April, 2017, providing biomedical samples to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which violated its stated protocol by accepting evidence without a verifiable chain of custody. That incident prompted the launching of 57 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base by the American military. Almost exactly a year later, a strikingly similar event is said to have tripped the “red line” again, and is likely to trigger a more robust assault by the US and its allies.

    SAMS claims to be a “non-political, non-profit medical organization,” and is cited as a credible authority by media reporting on the incident in Douma. Scant published material is available on the organization’s origins as an exile arm of the Islamist-oriented Syrian opposition, its involvement in sophisticated influence operations from the Turkish-Syrian border, or its close relationship to neoconservative elements in Washington and Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

    SAMS is not merely a group of Syrian doctors tending to the wounded in war torn areas, nor can it be considered a objective source on chemical attacks and other atrocities. The organization is a USAID-funded lobbying powerhouse that functions with a single-minded determination to stimulate a US-led war of regime change that will place Syrian Islamists in power in Damascus.

    SAMS was founded in 1998 by members of the Syrian American exile community, which is concentrated in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. Prior to the 2011 armed rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad, the group led several medical delegations to Syria, presumably cooperating with the government to gain access. A former member of SAMS approached me to complain that the armed revolt prompted a takeover of the organization’s board of directors by sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood. She said she and other secular and Christian members resigned from the group as it transformed into what she described as “Al Qaeda’s MASH unit.”

    USAID funding, anti-Iran MEK links

    According to SAMS 2015 financial statement [PDF], the organization’s budget jumped from $672,987 in 2013 to nearly $6 million in 2015 — almost a tenfold increase. Over $5.8 million of that funding came from USAID, an arm of the US State Department that boasts its own Office of Transition Initiatives to encourage regime change in states targeted by the West. SAMS Executive Director David Lillie also happens to be a former USAID staffer, as is SAMS Director of Operations Tony Kronfli.

    Throughout much of the Syrian conflict, SAMS operations have been overseen by Zaher Sahloul, an ardently anti-Iran operative dedicated to drumming up a war of regime change against the Syrian government. After unsuccessfully lobbying Barack Obama for a NATO-imposed No Fly Zones over Syria, a policy that Hillary Clinton acknowledged would “kill a lot of Syrians,” Sahloul accused the president of having “allowed a genocide in Syria.” Sahloul was a participant in a September 20, 2016 rally in New York dedicated to ramping up conflict with Iran, as well. The rally was organized by the exiled Iranian People’s MEK, a shadowy international organization dedicated to regime change in Iran that has been described as a “terrorist cult.”. Neoconservative former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a recipient of MEK payments, was among the speakers. Days later, the neoconservative columnist Eli Lake hailed Sahloul and his colleagues as “Syrian-Americans Who Stood Up to Iran.”

    The SAMS-affiliated American Coalition for Syrian Relief has endorsed President Donald Trump’s call for “safe zones” in Syria, a euphemism for No Fly Zones that would require US air power to enforce. Meanwhile, Sahloul has joined up with the Jewish United Federation of Chicago, a leading opponent of Palestine solidarity organizing, to promote his efforts.

    Sahloul’s son, Adham, formerly worked as a SAMS advocacy officers out of Gazientep, Turkey, the base of Western and local intelligence services coordinating insurgent and information operations across the Syrian border. A contributor to various Qatari-backed media outlets like Al Araby and Middle East Eye, Adham Sahloul previously worked for Portland Communications, a public relations firm founded by a former Tony Blair spin doctor. (In 2016, British union leader Len McCluskey accused Portland Communications of spearheading the Blairite coup against left-wing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn).

    Info ops, from Al Qaeda’s heartland to the Beltway

    SAMS assistance coordination units send aid and set up hospital in refugees camps and within Syrian territories exclusively held by Syria’s insurgents. In Idlib, the Al-Qaeda-controlled area where SAMS operates alongside the insurgent-run administration, “schools have been segregated, women forced to wear veils, and posters of Osama bin Laden hung on the walls,” according to Joshua Landis, the director of the University of Oklahoma’s Middle East Studies Center. While SAMS claims to operate 100 hospitals in Syria, independent monitoring and evaluation is virtually impossible, as Western reporters seeking access to these areas are routinely kidnapped or killed. In 2015, according to the Washington Post, Chase Bank closed SAMS’s bank account without explanation.

    Sahloul has operated a WhatsApp group that appears to have delivered the first images from insurgent activists in eastern Aleppo to international media of Omran Daqneesh, the so-called “dusty boy” whose shellshocked image was immediately plastered across newspaper front pages and upheld as an exhibit of Assad’s unique cruelty. The original images were taken by Mahmoud Raslan, an activist affiliated with Nourideen al-Zinki, an insurgent group formerly backed by the CIA that beheaded a 19-year-old Palestinian captive.

    A year later, Omran’s father, Mohammad Kheir Daqneesh, revealed that he and his family had been exploited by insurgent activists. A White Helmet snatched Omran from his arms and posed him in an ambulance, Mohammad Daqneesh declared. He also disclosed that his family was offered a lucrative bribe by a Saudi TV demagogue to come out as spokespeople for the armed opposition, but as supporters of the Syrian government, they refused. Following this striking revelation, Omran was swiftly disappeared from Western view and supplanted by professionally managed child mascots of the Syrian Islamist opposition like Bana Alabed, Noor and Ala, and Mohamed Najem. (Like Bana, Noor and Ala were recently treated to a cuddle-filled photo-op with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and granted honorary Turkish citizenship.)

    Back in Washington, SAMS boasts that it has “become a leader in advocacy and policymaker engagement,” lobbying Congress, the State Department and the United Nations for regime change in Syria. “When SAMS speaks, people listen,” reads a quote by an unnamed State Department official published in a SAMS promotional brochure. So much for the “non-political” organization of humble field doctors.

    On April 16, 2015, Sahloul and SAMS’s Idlib coordinator Mohamed Tennari testified before the United Nations Security Council and alleged multiple chlorine attacks against the Al Qaeda-held canton of Idlib by the Syrian government. The meeting was orchestrated by then-US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, an outspoken advocate of military intervention in Libya and Syria. (Tennari was subsequently identified as a “Syrian field doctor” in an interview with CNN; his work in Al Qaeda-controlled territory was omitted).

    At its annual gala on March 6, 2017, SAMS welcomed former US Ambassador Frederic Hof, the outgoing director of the Gulf-funded Rafik Hariri Center at DC’s Atlantic Center. Before his audience, Hof called for stepped-up arms shipments to Syrian rebels, a US-led No Fly Zone for Idlib, the Syrian province controlled by Al Qaeda’s local affiliate, and for preventing reconstruction of Syria’s shattered infrastructure until regime change is achieved.

    Just over a year later, acting largely on claims by SAMS field operatives, the US, UK and France appear to be ready to make the Syrian opposition’s dreams come true. And as a potentially catastrophic war looms, Americans remain entirely in the dark about one of the key organizations driving the push for war.

    ———-

    ““Al Qaeda’s MASH Unit”: How the Syrian American Medical Society Is Selling Regime Change and Driving the US to War” by Max Blumenthal; Gray Zone Project; 04/12/2018

    “Reports on unproven allegations of a chemical attack in Douma, the Syria city formerly occupied by the Army of Islam insurgent group, invariably rely on a key source: The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). Together with the White Helmets, SAMS has been cited by the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN and virtually every Western media organization reporting on the incident. In Douma, SAMS staff have claimed that they treated more than 500 people for symptoms “indicative of exposure to a chemical agent.”

    Yep, the rapid assessment that a chlorine attack took place in Douma was heavily based on evidence provided by SAMS. Similar to the key role SAMS played in providing the evidence of a sarin attack in Idlib last year (with evidence that broke the OPCW’s chain of custody):


    The group also played a central role in shaping the narrative of a sarin attack in Al Qaeda-controlled Khan Sheikhoun in April, 2017, providing biomedical samples to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which violated its stated protocol by accepting evidence without a verifiable chain of custody. That incident prompted the launching of 57 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base by the American military. Almost exactly a year later, a strikingly similar event is said to have tripped the “red line” again, and is likely to trigger a more robust assault by the US and its allies.

    And this group that played a critical role in providing evidence for both the Douma and Idlib attacks happens to have its roots in the Islamist-oriented faction of the Syrian opposition. Along with ties to neoconservatives. And al Nusra:


    SAMS claims to be a “non-political, non-profit medical organization,” and is cited as a credible authority by media reporting on the incident in Douma. Scant published material is available on the organization’s origins as an exile arm of the Islamist-oriented Syrian opposition, its involvement in sophisticated influence operations from the Turkish-Syrian border, or its close relationship to neoconservative elements in Washington and Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

    Al Nusra and neocons. It’s quite a combo and symbolic of the tragic nature of the Syrian conflict: and endless drum beat for overthrowing the Assad government with nary a mention of the reality that it will be al Qaeda and similar groups taking over.

    The ties to Washington are no surprise given that SAMS was founded in 1998 by members of the Syrian American exile community. But it sounds like SAMS also experienced a radicalization of its own after the Syrian protests turned into an armed revolt, prompting a takeover of the group by sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood:


    SAMS was founded in 1998 by members of the Syrian American exile community, which is concentrated in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. Prior to the 2011 armed rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad, the group led several medical delegations to Syria, presumably cooperating with the government to gain access. A former member of SAMS approached me to complain that the armed revolt prompted a takeover of the organization’s board of directors by sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood. She said she and other secular and Christian members resigned from the group as it transformed into what she described as “Al Qaeda’s MASH unit.”

    There’s also SAMS’s extenstive ties to USAID: funding for the group appears to almost entirely come from USAID, and the executive director and director of operations are both former USAID staffers:


    SAMS is not merely a group of Syrian doctors tending to the wounded in war torn areas, nor can it be considered a objective source on chemical attacks and other atrocities. The organization is a USAID-funded lobbying powerhouse that functions with a single-minded determination to stimulate a US-led war of regime change that will place Syrian Islamists in power in Damascus.

    USAID funding, anti-Iran MEK links

    According to SAMS 2015 financial statement [PDF], the organization’s budget jumped from $672,987 in 2013 to nearly $6 million in 2015 — almost a tenfold increase. Over $5.8 million of that funding came from USAID, an arm of the US State Department that boasts its own Office of Transition Initiatives to encourage regime change in states targeted by the West. SAMS Executive Director David Lillie also happens to be a former USAID staffer, as is SAMS Director of Operations Tony Kronfli.

    Then there’s the MEK ties: SAMS operations have been overseen by Zaher Sahloul, an ardently anti-Iran operative focused on lobbying for a full scale war for regime change in Syrian. And in 2016, Sahloul participating in a rally organized by MEK:


    Throughout much of the Syrian conflict, SAMS operations have been overseen by Zaher Sahloul, an ardently anti-Iran operative dedicated to drumming up a war of regime change against the Syrian government. After unsuccessfully lobbying Barack Obama for a NATO-imposed No Fly Zones over Syria, a policy that Hillary Clinton acknowledged would “kill a lot of Syrians,” Sahloul accused the president of having “allowed a genocide in Syria.” Sahloul was a participant in a September 20, 2016 rally in New York dedicated to ramping up conflict with Iran, as well. The rally was organized by the exiled Iranian People’s MEK, a shadowy international organization dedicated to regime change in Iran that has been described as a “terrorist cult.”. Neoconservative former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a recipient of MEK payments, was among the speakers. Days later, the neoconservative columnist Eli Lake hailed Sahloul and his colleagues as “Syrian-Americans Who Stood Up to Iran.”

    And that’s the background for SAMS, one of the key sources of the evidence of the chemical attack in Douma and last year’s attack in Idlib.

    So we’ll see what the OPCW concludes now that it has access to Douma and can collect evidence with a chain a custody.

    But let’s not forget what a member of SAMS told reporters in the second article excerpt above from April 10th: He doubted whether any meaningful evidence would remain:


    Mohamad Katoub of the Syrian American Medical Society, which supported medical facilities in Douma before the Russians entered, said he doubted whether any meaningful evidence would remain. Local staffers are afraid to give testimony, he said. “In the current situation,” he said, an investigation “is too hard.”

    Many of the activists, medical staffers and rescue workers with information about the attacks have since scattered, with many leaving Douma on buses headed north to rebel-held territory under the terms of the surrender deal reached Sunday between the rebels and the Russians. Among them was Marhoum, who spoke Tuesday from one of the buses.

    That article was from over two weeks ago. So we probably shouldn’t be too surprised if the OPCW’s final conclusion is ultimately inconclusive. And as we’ve seen, nor should we be surprised if an inconclusive conclusion is used to justify deeper US military involvement in Syria’s civil war.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | April 26, 2018, 8:17 pm

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