– Scott Ritter
Author’s Update 9/12/18: The Syrian government, backed by Russian airpower and Iranian advisors, is preparing to undertake a major offensive designed to retake the province of Idlib from opposition forces. The newly appointed State Department Special Representative for Syria, Jim Jeffreys, claims that there is “Lots of evidence” that Syria is preparing to use chemical weapons, specifically chlorine gas, in support of the Idlib operation.
For its part, Russia claims to have specific intelligence that al Qaeda affiliates, working in conjunction with the White Helmet organization, is preparing to stage a chlorine gas attack designed to look like it was done by the Syrian government. The U.S. has warned that it would launch a major military strike against not only the Syrian government, but also Russian and Iranian targets in Syria, if chemical weapons were used in Idlib.
The issue of provenance is as relevant today as when this article was originally written, with the OPCW still assessing information to determine how the chlorine canisters discovered at Douma got there, and who was responsible for their use. The Douma incident stands as a case study against the rush to judgment when it comes to the attribution of blame, and is even more relevant today, when the mere allegation of chemical weapons use in Syria could lead to a major escalation in the fighting:
This summer the international monitoring organization tasked with investigating an alleged chemical weapons incident in the Damascus suburb of Douma on April 7 quietly published an interim report listing its preliminary findings.
Interestingly, the report, issued by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Nobel Peace Prize-winning agency mandated to implement the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention, noted that “no organ phosphorus nerve agents or their degradation products were detected” on the scene—more simply put, there was no evidence of Sarin nerve agent present at the incident site, despite wide speculation otherwise at the time of the incident.
In fact, this speculation, for which the Trump administration insisted it had evidence, was used as an excuse for the U.S., France, and the UK to launch a coordinated bombing campaign against the Syrian government on April 12.
The report also notes that “various chlorinated organic chemicals” were detected, along with traces of high explosives. The “chlorinated organic chemicals” listed by the OPCW are commonly found in residential environments; several are by-products of chlorinated drinking water. The OPCW report does not provide any information about the concentrations of these chemicals, nor their physical location in relation to the victims alleged to have been killed or injured in the incident. The OPCW is continuing to assess these findings for their significance before reaching any conclusion about their relevance and meaning.
These interim findings are a far cry from the statements made by various American officials in the aftermath of the Douma incident, for which they blamed the Syrian government. On April 13, 2018, Secretary of Defense James Mattis briefed the press following the strike on Syria. In attacking Douma, Mattis said, the Syrian government “decided to again defy the norms of civilized people, showing callous disregard for international law by using chemical weapons to murder women, children and other innocents.” Mattis later added that “we have the intelligence level of confidence that we needed to conduct the attack,” noting, “we’re very confident that chlorine was used. We are not ruling out sarin right now.” …