The justification for the US, British and French airstrikes on Syria on April 14 has evaporated with the new finding by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that “no organophosophorous nerve agents or their degradation products were detected in the environmental samples or in the plasma samples taken from alleged casualties.”
US President Donald Trump ordered the airstrikes on a Syrian government scientific research centre in Damascus and an alleged chemical weapons storage facility and a command post near Homs.
The strikes followed social media and press claims of two chemical weapons attacks on April 7 in Douma, a district of eastern Ghouta in Damascus.
Casualties were said to range from 40 to 70 deaths, including a large numbers of children and hundreds of chemical-related injuries.
The OPCW says there were mixed reports of what toxic chemicals had been used, with some citing chlorine and others citing sarin, or mixtures of chlorine and sarin. Images and videos posted online showed casualties in a residential building as well as victims being treated at a hospital, reportedly for chemical exposure.
Armed opposition groups claimed the Assad government was responsible for the attack.
The government denied the attack and accused the media wing of the al Qaeda jihadist rebel group, Jaysh al Islam, of fabricating the stories.
When the US launched its airstrikes on Syria the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said the US had “excellent intelligence” that sarin and chlorine gas had been used. The US Defence Secretary James Mattis also claimed sarin or chlorine had been used.
Sarin is an organophosophorous nerve agent and the OPCW fact finding mission says no organophosophorous nerve agents or their degradation products were detected.
Strangely a number of Australian media reports — possibly all sources from one news agency — stated that the fact finding mission concluded that chlorine was used in the Syrian government airstrike on Douma.
The OPCW report says no such thing.
The report states that “various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples from Locations 2 and 4, along with residues of explosive.”
“Work to establish the significance of these results is on-going.”
The fact finding mission found an industrial gas cylinder on a top floor patio at one site and a similar cylinder lying on the bed of a top floor apartment at another site.
The OPCW says work is ongoing to assess the association of these cylinders with the incident, the relative damage to the cylinders and the apartment roofs, and how the cylinders arrived at their locations.
US investigate journalist Seymour Hersh says that a chlorine bomb would be of little effect because chlorine spreads in the air too quickly. He says past US research has shown that a chlorine/sarin bomb did not work because the chlorine leaches the hydrogen from the sarin and makes it ineffective.
The OPCW finding that no organophosophorous nerve agents or their degradation products were at the sites is in line with other on-the-ground independent investigations.
The highly experienced British journalist Robert Fisk visited the Douma site shortly after the alleged chemical weapons attack and concluded there had not been a gas attack.
Other earlier OPCW public reports also call into question the claims that the targets the US attacked in retaliation for the supposed Syrian chemical weapons airstrikes, were involved in Syrian chemical weapons production.
In media briefings shortly after the US airstrikes US Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie said that by hitting Barzah in particular the US had attacked the heart of the Syrian chemicals weapon program.
But the Barzah Damascus laboratory the US attacked was investigated by the OPCW in the months before the airstrike and found not to be producing chemical weapons.
The Director General of the OPCW, H.E. Mr Ahmet Üzümcü reported on 13 March 2018 that on 22 November 2017 the OPCW concluded a second round of inspections at the Barzah and Jamrayah facilities.
In February this year he said samples were sent to two designated laboratories for analysis.
“The results of the inspection were issued on 28 February … and it was noted that the inspection team did not observe any activities inconsistent with obligations under the Convention.”
Journalists also moved about the smoking ruins of the supposed chemical weapons research centre shortly after the airstrikes with no ill effect.
An AFP journalist reported visiting the site with plumes of smoke rising from the building and a burning smell in the air.
An engineer, Said Said, who identified himself as head of the centre’s paint and plastics department, told AFP that only non-lethal research and development took place at the centre.
“If there were chemical weapons, we would not be able to stand here. I’ve been here since 5:30 am in full health – I’m not coughing,” he added.
Said confirmed that the OPCW had visited the site in Barzeh in recent months and had declared it free of any toxic weapons.
“The OPCW used to stay in the two upper rooms, and use the labs, and we would cooperate with them completely,” he said.