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Friday, May 31, 2019

Lies, damned lies, and engineering sub-team reports

Lately, many on the “anti-imperialist” Left have been slaphappy about a “leaked” OPCW engineering sub-team report they think exonerates Bashar al-Assad of the chlorine mass murder that took place in Douma, Syria, 7 April 2018. Like the Trump cabal after Attorney General William Barr said that Robert Mueller found no obstruction, their delight will soon fade when it is shown that the 15-page note to the OPCW is about as valuable as Barr's 4-page “summary” of the Mueller report. I will show why all the theatrics surrounding this 15-page note is much ado about nothing, but first I must set the stage by going into a little history.

Chemical Warfare comes to the Syrian Civil War

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad started using chemical weapons to suppress the opposition uprising that started 15 March 2011 on 23 December 2012. Linux Beach reported on it the next day. This was just four months after US President Barack Obama made his famous “red-line” statement on 20 August 2012. With that statement, Obama assured Assad that the US would not intervene militarily as long as Assad continued to slaughter his people with conventional weapons, and refrained from resorting to CW. Obama said that the use of CW was a “red-line” that might provoke him to military action, otherwise, it was all good. Earlier that December, Linux Beach had reported on Assad's alleged use of white phosphorus, cluster bombs, and Scud missiles, his bombing of a Palestinian refugee camp, and the slaughter of 300 outside of a bakery in Halfaya, Hama on the day before that first CW attack. Airstrikes on people queued at bakeries would prove to be an Assad favorite in the coming years. That type of non-CW slaughter was greatly stepped up after Obama said he would give it a “green-light.” The Syrian bodycount had stood at about 25,000 when Obama promised there would be no military intervention as long as Assad kept it “clean,” i.e., no chemical murders. That represented an average bodycount of 1666 a month since June 2011. By December 2012, that number had already climbed to more than 40,000, or about 5,000 a month.

Obama's famous “red-line” statement gave us something else that would play a prominent role in the international politics surrounding the Syrian slaughter. I call it the chemical weapons fetish. Obama's policy made a big distinction based on the way innocent civilians were killed. Barrel bombs, cluster bombs, napalm, white phosphorus, artillery fire okay with US. CW not OK with US. This then gave the Assad supporters their marching orders: As long as they could keep Assad from being charged with chemical murders, all was good. It was like he wasn't already a war criminal and a mass murderer; so long as they can sow doubt about his responsibility for a relative handful of chemical murders, he was in the clear. They just had to keep him clear of the chemical deaths. The historic result of this chemical weapons fetish among Assad supporters has been that whenever there has been a big chemical killing in Syria over the past seven years, they have come out in droves to argue Assad didn't do it--as though the whole question rests upon the responsibility for this relative handful of deaths, when it is clear as day who has been raining down death from above since 2011 in Syria.

These first CW attacks were relatively small, almost as if Assad was testing the rigidity of Obama's “red-line.” Obama's response was to ignore these first small attacks, even claiming Assad didn't use CW in Homs in December—despite a state department report concluding that he did, and a defector from Assad's military police confirming the use of chemical weapons in Homs. As long as he refused to see the CW killings, he could avoid carrying out his “red-line” threat. After all, it was never really meant to be a threat. It was meant to be a license.

Aftermath of CW attack in Douma | 7 April 2018

Carla Del Ponte's “dissenting opinion”

The slaughter in Syria continued unabated into 2013, with CW attacks playing a small but growing role. In May 2013, the Syria news was focused on the slaughter of hundreds of civilians in Banias where Assad's shabihas(paramilitaries) were attempting to create an ethnically cleansed zone. This was a bad story for Assad, but it came off the front page when UN investigator Carla Del Ponte broke the “news” that it was Assad's opposition, and not Assad's forces, that had used sarin in the Khan al-Assal area. Carla Del Ponte has a long and storied history with the United Nations and its international criminal courts system. She was a Swiss attorney-general and then prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). In August 2012 she was appointed to the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria. She wasn't with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which had been charter by the UN with conducting the investigation, but that didn't stop her from exonerating Assad in an interview on Swiss-Italian TV:
“According to their report of last week, which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated.”

“This was use on the part of the opposition's fighters, not by the government authorities.”
She gave no further details, but that was enough. Headlines like this one: UN INVESTIGATORS CONFIRM THAT THE FSA USED SARIN GAS ON CIVILIANS, were all over the globe. It didn't matter that the UN commission Del Ponte was a member of issued a statement contradicting her within hours:
Geneva, 6 May 2013-- The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic wishes to clarify that it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict. As a result, the Commission is not in a position to further comment on the allegations at this time.
That UN retraction mattered not to the legions of Assad supporters. Then as now, they used the characteristic conciseness of the UN response to imply otherwise. They had their Del Ponte quote, and they were running with it. Most of the usual white-Left suspects got involved. They were widely using this to at least “question” the “official narrative” that Assad was killing with chemicals. The protection and support this gave to Assad probably played some small role in enabling his much more deadly sarin attack less than four months later on 21 August 2013 @ 3AM Damascus time, or still the 20th August in the US--so exactly a year to the day after Obama's “red-line” promise.

Children kill by sarin in East Ghouta | 21 August 2013
By the time she resigned from the UNHRC in September 2016, Carla del Ponte had a very different opinion. She told Syria's ambassador his government had used chemical weapons. Reuters reported:
Bidding farewell to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which set up the Commission of Inquiry six years ago, Del Ponte said she had quit out of frustration.

“We could not obtain from the international community and the Security Council a resolution putting in place a tribunal, an ad hoc tribunal for all the crimes that are committed in Syria,” she said.

“Seven years of crime in Syria and total impunity. That is not acceptable.”

Del Ponte told a Swiss newspaper last month enough evidence existed to convict President Bashar al-Assad of war crimes.
That belated opinion has done little to change the course of the war. The damage had already been done by her “minority report” via Swiss-Italian TV in May 2013, before the massive sarin attack on East Ghouta and all that has followed.

Robert Fisk's distracting opinion

The ex-journalist Robert Fisk was one of those who piled on Del Ponte's “dissenting opinion.” For example, 7 May 2013, he said on Democracy Now:
Then, of course, we’ve had Carla Del Ponte for the United Nations saying there appears to be evidence or might be evidence that the rebels had used chemical weapons, but there didn’t appear to be any evidence that the government had. Well, blow me down.
Fast-forward to May of 2019, and Assad is again on a rampage. This time with his Russian backers. The goal is to wipe out the last of the opposition centered in Idlib. These military moves jeopardize the lives of an estimated three million civilians in the area, so again Assad needs a distraction. Something to keep his military offensive from being the headline about Syria right now.

Conveniently, we have a virtual replay of the May 2013 Del Ponte distraction. This time it is a leaked OPCW “Sensitive” engineering sub-team report that contains an alternative explanation, or “dissenting opinion” about who was responsible for a chlorine gas attack in Douma on 7 April 2018. Brian Whitaker described the controversy this way on al-bab.com:
Claims that international investigators “suppressed” evidence relating to chemical weapons in Syria have been circulating on social media during the past week. The renewed controversy revolves around two conflicting documents, both emanating from the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The first one is the official report from the OPCW's Fact-Finding Mission (FFM), published in March, which found “reasonable grounds” for believing a toxic chemical had been used as a weapon in Douma last year. It suggested the chemical involved was chlorine gas, delivered by cylinders dropped from the air – implying that the Assad regime was responsible, since rebel fighters in Syria had no aircraft.

The second document is a 15-page internal memo which surfaced on the internet last week after someone leaked it. Written by an employee of the OPCW named Ian Henderson, it contradicts the FFM's findings. In particular, it disputes that the cylinders were dropped from the air and says it's more likely they were “manually placed” in the spot where they were found.

If true, that would support long-standing claims by Russia and the Syrian government that there was no chemical attack in Douma and that rebels planted the cylinders in order to falsely accuse the regime.
No sooner than this “leaked” engineering sub-team report hit the Internet, than it was joined by the usual chorus of voices--Assad supporters, Putin puppets, white-Leftists, conspiracy theorists and fascists. The same lame theme, that somehow this leaked “minority report” exonerated Assad, showed up like a rasp all over the Internet.

Again, one of the most prominent of these voices is the ex-journalist Robert Fisk. In an article in the Independent, and republished by Counterpunch and elsewhere, titled "The evidence we were never meant to see about the Douma ‘gas’ attack," he uses Henderson's dissenting memo, much as he had used Del Ponte's out-of-court statement six years earlier, to argue that Assad didn't do it. Given that history, he should have used the sentence that ended his article as its opening line. That would make the new beginning:
So here we go again.
Fisk used those words to end his piece, but in critiquing it, I must begin with his title because the title is already misleading. Henderson's “leaked” engineering sub-team report doesn't contain any new evidence. In his report, even Henderson says the studies “were conducted using sources of information available to the FFM team.” He doesn't bring any new evidence to the party, just a different analysis and a different opinion about what that evidence means. He doesn't even present us with the underlining data and engineering studies upon which he bases his conclusions. Henderson's opinion is not “evidence.” If Fisk had titled his piece "The opinion we were never meant to hear about the Douma ‘gas’ attack," it would have been accurate at least in so far as OPCW refused to promote it or put the organization's name on it because the FFM disagreed with it. As to the charge that that amounts to suppression, that is Trump logic.

Fisk's main complaint is that the OPCW didn't give this rejected alternate hypothesis any play in its final report. In Trump logic, that means:
[T]he OPCW deliberately concealed from both the public and the press the existence of a dissenting 15-page assessment.
The dissenting 15-page assessment is dated 27 February 2019, two months after the FFM (Fact-Finding Team) experts had submitted their findings, and only two days before the OPCW issued its final report on 1 March 2019, so maybe it wasn't so “deliberate.” Maybe there just wasn't enough time, and maybe the FFM had already rejected the opinions of Henderson, who according to the OPCW, wasn't a member of the FFM.

In point of fact, there is nothing about this report that indicates that it was from, and not about the FFM team. It wasn't done on anything like official stationary, it has no OPCW logo, and makes no claim to be an OPCW document. All references to the FFM team are in third person, and it's not signed by any OPCW employee(s) with title. At my job, even internal team reports have all of that. This paper is signed by one name without title, or even indication of employment.

Because OPCW has responded to inquiries about the 15-page paper with:
Pursuant to its established policies and practices, the OPCW Technical Secretariat is conducting an internal investigation about the unauthorised release of the document in question.
The document's promoters, like Peter Hitchens, are saying:
I thank the OPCW for confirming that the document is genuine.
I assume that by “genuine,” he means it is what it is. Saying they didn't authorize the release of the document is not the same as taking ownership of it. They're just saying they had nothing to do with its release. It probably is a paper, the author called it a “note,” critiquing the final conclusions of the FFM and submitted by the author to the OPCW. It probably is genuine in that sense. Since it had no OPCW classification (see below), it's hard to understand what role OPCW would have had in authorizing its release.

Here is another maybe to consider. If Henderson was as close to this work as he makes it seem, he had to know that the final report was coming out two days after his paper, and so was already drafted, and in the final stages of approval, if not approved already. That means he knew his 15-page assessment would arrive too late to change the content of the final report, so maybe he wrote it for the purpose it is serving now, so that it could be “leaked” as a dissenting opinion from within the OPCW, or even the FFM engineering team. Given that timing, one has to wonder whether Henderson's motives were genuine. Fisk says of this 27 February “dissenting assessment, which the OPCW made no reference to in its published conclusions,” of 1 March:
It is difficult to underestimate the seriousness of this manipulative act by the OPCW.
Really, Fisk? Give me a break! Instead, he prattles on about “the engineers’ 'secret' assessment” that the OPCW “deliberately concealed,” and “the report which the OPCW suppressed.

The OPCW, like most science-based investigative bodies, applies the best science to the known or knowable facts and presents its conclusions at the end of the investigation. To be sure, there will be wrong turns taken in the course of the investigation, as well as differences of opinion among the investigators. Wrong turns always show themselves in due course, and differences of opinion can generally be worked out if the facts can be agreed upon and pure science is applied. When there are overriding political considerations involved, this can be more problematic.

For example, Russia has never seen a chemical weapons attack in Syria that it has been willing to blame on Assad or itself, so to the extent that it has any say in the make-up of the OPCW or its FFM teams, that member is as likely to deny Assad's responsibility for a CW attack, as a Trump appointee to the EPA is likely to deny climate change. The science be damned when politics are involved; and while we know nothing about Henderson's affiliations, this all but guarantees that UN organizations like the OPCW will almost always have “dissenting opinions” with regards to sensitive questions related to say, Syria, or Israel, because the “permanent members” always get a vote. Nonetheless, they can still get out-voted. This is important because what we need most from the OPCW is a scientific body that can apply its expertise to work out, as best it can, what happened in a given incident. We don't need to be handed an array of opinions, and told to figure it out for ourselves.

However, it is understandable that those with who disagree with the findings would still want a hearing in the final report and not be “suppressed.” This is Fisk's key ask:
This would have been no more than the practice of a public enquiry which includes a dissenting minority point of view. But that was obviously not what the OPCW wanted.
Why just one dissenting opinion? Why not include them all? Maybe because the purpose of the final OPCW report is to bring clarity, not muddy the waters. Maybe that's what the OPCW wanted.

Fisk's complaint is that the OPCW doesn't include the opinions that got voted down for its final report. This is how the OPCW explains the FFM:
In response to persistent allegations of chemical weapon attacks in Syria, the OPCW Fact Finding Mission (FFM) was set up in 2014 “to establish facts surrounding allegations of the use of toxic chemicals, reportedly chlorine, for hostile purposes in the Syrian Arab Republic”.
Fisk doesn't accept that their mission is finding and presenting facts. He is demanding that they also include an appendix of Kellyanne Conway style “Alternative Facts.” He writes of “The OPCW’s dishonesty” and calls it “the OPCW’s hidden report,” so now we must turn our attention to this report itself.

Ian Henderson's Engineering Sub-Team Report

I have already said it was dated 27 February 2019. Around 12 May, Paul McKeigue, David Miller, and Piers Robinson, members of Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, a group with history of pro-Assad conclusions, posted:
A copy of a 15-page Executive Summary of this report with the title “Engineering Assessment of two cylinders observed at the Douma incident” has been passed to us and we have posted it here.
The link is to Ian Henderson's document, and the PDF metadata indicates it was created 5/9/2019, 5:56:59AM on a high-end Canon iR-ADV multi-function printer. About Henderson they write:
In response to an enquiry on 11 May 2019, the OPCW press office stated that “the individual mentioned in the document has never been a member of the FFM.” This statement is false.
Saying it's false doesn't make it false. More to the point, Brian Whitaker reports:
Perhaps more significant is the OPCW press office's comment that the “engineering sub-team was not part of the FFM’s investigation.”
So maybe Henderson's engineering sub-team was an independent contractor. Henderson supporters point out that he was listed as one of the first P-5 level inspection team leaders in a 1998 OPCW report, and again as OPCW Inspection Team Leader in a March 2018 document. This makes it appear that Henderson has been with the OPCW for twenty years, but this is probably not the case. OPCW favors temporary workers over a permanent staff. A current job notice for Technical Support Officer (P-3) describes this policy:
This fixed-term appointment is for a duration of two years with a six-month probationary period, and is subject to the OPCW Staff Regulations and Interim Staff Rules, as applicable. The OPCW is a non-career organisation with limited staff tenure. The total length of service for Professional staff shall not exceed 7 years.
So, while it is clear that Henderson has worked for the OPCW a number of times over the past twenty years, it is most unlikely that he has been on their staff for 20 years, and while Henderson writes in such a way that it sounds like he is speaking for the FFM, he never says he was a member. Most significantly, the document is signed by him alone, without any title or OPCW position asserted at all.

The Henderson Report

Turning to the 15-page assessment that has created all this uproar, the first thing I noticed was that, unlike the OPCW documents I reviewed, which always carried the OPCW logo and name, as on a letter head, this document has none of that, not even a document number.

The very top line of each of the 15 pages states:
Do not circulate
This is a very curious declaration because it looks a lot like an OPCW confidentiality classification, but it actually isn't. OPCW Sensitive is not found in the OPCW Declarations Handbook 2013, which was revised in 2017 and is current, as are OPCW RESTRICED, OPCW PROTECTED, and OPCW HIGHLY PROTECTED. Those are the only three Classification categories listed in this 328-page paper. Most of those pages are spent describing how and why each of those classifications should be used, but this tells us what we need to know:
6. Confidentiality classification

The classification of a field on a declaration form should be provided in the column entitled “Confidentiality mark”. The OPCW’s recognised classification system is as follows:

R–OPCW Restricted, P–OPCW Protected, H–OPCW Highly protected.

In addition U is normally used to include information which is not considered confidential (Unclassified)
So, is it possible that “OPCW Sensitive” was created by Henderson to imitate an official OPCW confidentiality classification, without incurring the flack he might have gotten for using an official OPCW classification on a document that doesn't appear to be from the OPCW so much as it appears to be for the OPCW? That means ex-journalist Robert Fisk's reference to it as “the OPCW’s hidden report” is entirely misleading. It was never OPCW's report, hidden or not. It was Henderson's report. He doesn't define “OPCW Sensitive” and the OPCW Declarations Handbook never heard of it.

The second line in the page header “Do not circulate,” is also something of a mystery. What is it supposed to mean exactly? Even a “DRAFT FOR INTERNAL REVIEW” which is what this claims to be, needs to be circulated. Many of those 328 pages in the official policy guide go into great detail about how documents for each classification category can be circulated, i.e. who can and can't have access to them. That isn't generally spelled out in the document because it is built into its classification category. Here it is spelled out, in a way that makes the document sound very serious, but also in a way that makes no sense, below a “classification category” that has no meaning. Of course, the paper was going to be circulated. Was it just a note Henderson wrote to himself? Again, we must ask: What was the point of putting out a "DRAFT FOR INTERNAL REVIEW” when the findings it hopes to change, and took months to develop, are just days away from being published in final form. Did Henderson want to be known as the guy who tried to close the stable door after the horse was already at the starting gate?

Below the header comes the title:
Engineering Assessment of Two Cylinders Observed at the Douma Incident
- Executive Summary
Since it is an Executive Summary of materials we have no access to, it's a little hard to critique. For example, it uses a lot of space presenting the results of various experiments and calculations, but without details or data, and the graphs and graphics on the last five pages are of such poor quality as to be useless. One would expect an Executive Summary generated for INTERNAL REVIEW to have links, or notes, leading to the underlying material that is being summarized, but none are found here. Without those, it's hard to see how he expected it to be taken seriously, and arriving so late in the game. Really! Ian Henderson is the only named expert. Everything in the document rests on his words exclusively. He says:
This report summarises the findings of the engineering sub—team.
But we aren't told what that was, who was on it, or even if Henderson himself was on it. We do know from the OPCW that Henderson was never a member of the FFM and the engineering sub-team was not part of the FFM's investigation. Much about were this Executive Summary comes from is still shrouded in mystery.

As I said earlier, Henderson doesn't reveal any new evidence, just a rehash of the existing evidence. The paper says:
4. The studies on the two cylinders were conducted using sources of information available to the FFM team, which included: open—source material (images and videos); observations and measurements taken by the FFM team at both locations; photographs taken by the FFM team at both locations; and engineering data from open—source information relating to the dimensions, design code, specifications, materials of construction and mechanical properties of the cylinders, sourced from the manufacturer's stamps and country of manufacture. -

5. Samples were taken by the FFM team at both locations. Whilst the results of analysis are obviously relevant for the overall investigation of the alleged incident, they were not the central focus in the scope of this element of the fact—finding mission.
Since the engineering sub-team was not part of the FFM's investigation, it's hard to make out what Henderson meant by “this element of the fact—finding mission.” Ian Henderson is not a name that shows up in the OPCW report on the 7 April 2018 incident, or in connection to the FFM, and so far, his is the only name associated with this 15-page paper all the ruckus is about. It goes on:
6. To derive the inputs for an engineering assessment, it was necessary to develop hypotheses for what was thought (i.e. alleged) to have occurred. This needed to be done in a way that did not pre-judge the situation or lead prematurely to a mistaken interpretation of the facts. The situation was also complicated by the many sources of information and opinion about what was alleged to have occurred, including impressions and views of alleged witnesses, spokespersons, the media, representatives of States Parties, as well as the views of supposed experts in subsequent exchanges.
The method at work here makes a travesty of any concept of scientific investigation. How do you mix “information and opinion” like that? The investigation should be based on information [facts] and welcome it from many sources, it should not allow its work to be influenced by the many fact-free opinions about what happened. The first thing to be done with an “alleged witness,” is to vet it to determine if it is a real witness or not. If the witness is thought to be real, then certainly his or her impressions and views have value, should be taken on board, and may have input into the final report. The same cannot be said about “spokespersons, the media, [and] representatives of States Parties.” They should be ignored! But since he brought it up, I would like Ian Henderson to expound a little more on what “representatives of States Parties” may have had input into his investigation and report.

He then goes on to explain how his method starts by giving the information from witnesses and victims at the scene about what happened equal weight as the opinions of those who are alleged to have committed the war crime but claim they weren't involved or present:
7. Keeping the above in mind, an attempt was made to define a set of assumptions and at least two clear opposing hypotheses for each of the two locations, to use as inputs for the baseline cylinder studies.
This is in direct contradiction to the method the FFM described in their response to a Russian inquiry:
The analyses of the FFM are based on the facts and data collected and corroborated by the team and not on assumptions.
The emphasis was added by the OPCW. Henderson continues:
The baseline studies were aimed at examining the two situations in terms of what is alleged to have happened in each case, as best as is currently understood. This was then tested against an alternative explanation.
The “allegation” is made by witnesses, survivors, rescue workers, and finally, the OPCW FFM Team. The “alternative explanation” (not alternative allegation!) comes from Assad supporters who weren't witnesses and always blame everything on others. He describes the opposing hypotheses this way:
Hypothesis L2-1: The observed object was of a standard design for a cylinder used for storage of liquefied chlorine. The cylinder, full or partly full of liquefied chlorine, was dropped from an aircraft (most likely a helicopter) from an unknown altitude, and fell onto the reinforced concrete roof of the terrace.
That's what witnesses say happened.
Hypothesis L2-2: The observed object is of a standard design for a cylinder used for storage of liquefied chlorine. The cylinder, full 'or' partly full of liquefied chlorine, or empty, was in the possession of persons who placed it on the terrace next to a pre-existing crater.
Gas Tank in Bed at Location 4
This is based on fact-free claims from Moscow and Damascus that, as always, it was a false flag attack. Henderson has a similar pair of hypotheses for gas cylinder number two. (Wouldn't it be funny if coincidentally one was dropped by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), at the same time the other was “manually placed” by jihadists? Unfortunately, Henderson doesn't entertain that possibility.)

There is another important aspect of the hypotheses Henderson prefers that his report leaves unexamined: At least 70 people were killed, and more than 500 injured in these attacks. Henderson's hypotheses don't explain how these bright yellow cylinders were “manually placed” among the people they murdered without their knowledge. He doesn't address that problem as he goes on to speculate how one gas cylinder ended up on a bed:
The deformed cylinder, mostly full of liquefied chlorine, was in the possession of persons who placed it on the bed in the bedroom. The crater in the roof was created (by unspecified means) either prior to or after the cylinder was placed on the bed.
This sounds like a sloppy investigation. If the crater in the roof was created after the cylinder was placed on the bed, wouldn't that be made obvious by, for example, crater debris on top of, but not under the cylinder?

Gas Tank at Location 2
If the explanation for the craters isn't that they were made when the gas tanks were dropped from aircraft, the “alternative explanation” requires that someone manually place the two gas tanks below or near “pre-existing craters.” This raises the troublesome question of where these “pre-existing craters” would have come from. Here Henderson artfully uses the fact that the Assad forces have so pummeled the area with conventional bombs and artillery that the craters so caused can now be used in his defense:
The likelihood of the crater having been created by a mortar/artillery round or similar, was also supported by the presence of more than one crater of very similar appearance in concrete slabs on top of nearby buildings,
If that was an issue, then perhaps the suspect craters could have been examined for explosive residue or bomb fragments that wouldn't have been made by a dropped gas canister. If such testing was done Henderson makes no mention of it.
This Just In: Even in a small effort like this blog post, it can be challenging to incorporate late arriving material. As this post was getting its final edits and checks, I was alerted to a 21 May 2019 19-page response from the OPCW to questions put to it by Syria and Russia about the same report Henderson questioned. It answers, in some detail, every objection Henderson raises, which are, coincidentally, the same as those raised by Syria and Russia.

From this report we learn that they did make the examination of the crater that I suggest above, and Henderson fails to mention:
Regarding the comments about the possibility that a crater was formed by a mortar/projectile or similar munition, paragraph 8 of Annex 6 to the FFM Report states as follows: “The FFM analysed the damage on the rooftop terrace and below the crater in order to determine if it had been created by an explosive device. However, this hypothesis is unlikely given the absence of primary and secondary fragmentation characteristic of an explosion that may have created the crater and the damage surrounding it.”
Ironically, this OPCW response was published just two days before the Robert Fisk article. Since he fails to respond to it, or even mention it, shall I accuse him of “dishonesty” because he “deliberately concealed” OPCW's answer to most of the questions he was raising? Should I get on my high horse, and lament “It is difficult to underestimate the seriousness of this manipulative act by” Robert Fisk?
There is a lot of discussion of the “deformation geometry of the vessel” and “the impact of the vessel on a deformable concrete target,” and such, that comes to the conclusion that there is no way they could have been dropped from aircraft, but since we are presented only with the conclusions of the studies, rather than the studies themselves, there is no way to second guess them.

While much of the paper is very technical, it is often sprinkled with damning conclusions not supported by the evidence, as it this discussion of the condition of a cylinder:
29. Examination of the cylinder, including paintwork, condition of the metal surfaces, and the mild steel attachments, indicated a significant degree of degradation (corrosion) as a result of weathering in the areas that had been damaged through impact.
How was he able to determine exactly what areas the weathering took place in? He continues:
Whilst it may be speculative to consider it unlikely that an old, rusty, already-damaged cylinder would be deployed from an aircraft; the cylinder showed appearance of having spent some post—damage time being exposed to the elements, and would most likely not have degraded to such an extent in the case of it being inside the bedroom.
It most certainly is speculative, and far beyond the scope and “expertise” of this engineering report. Armies have done stranger things in the “fog of war.” A SAA officer might well think there is no better use for an old, rusty, already-damaged, an otherwise useless cylinder, than to fill it with chlorine and drop it on his enemy. He just might think that was a very good way to get rid of it. If that happened to be the case, then all of Henderson's engineering assumptions, based on a shiny new cylinder, just flew out the helo with the rusty old cylinder they could think of no better use for.

After taking us through a logical maze littered with unfounded assumptions, and unsupported conclusions, Henderson arrives at the key finding certain “spokespersons”, “media”, and “representatives of States Parties” are now delighted to hear:
In summary, observations at the scene of the two locations, together with subsequent analysis, suggest that there is a higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed at those two locations rather than being delivered from aircraft.
It's easy to see why the methods, as well as the conclusions of this 15-page paper weren't taken on board by the OPCW. It's easy to see why Ian Henderson didn't make it public months ago. Being unclassified doesn't mean it's not an embarrassment.

UPDATE! From the 21 May 2019 Update on the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria, we have the Russian response to the FFM Report, including this conclusion:
XIV. Conclusion

The Russian Federation does not challenge the findings contained in the FFM report regarding the possible presence of molecular chlorine on the cylinders. However, the parameters, characteristics and exterior of the cylinders, as well as the data obtained from the locations of those incidents, are not consistent with the argument that they were dropped from an aircraft.

The existing facts more likely indicate that there is a high probability that both cylinders were placed at Locations 2 and 4 manually rather than dropped from an aircraft.

Apparently the factual material contained in the report does not allow us to draw a conclusion as to the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon.

On that basis, the Russian Federation insists on the version that there was false evidence and on the staged character of the incident in Douma.
I have highlighted a paragraph from the Russian conclusion because I want you to notice how similar it is in logic, and even wording, to the Conclusion that Henderson's engineering sub-team report came to. Promoting that view by quoting a Russian source would be a daunting task. Selling it out of a first “suppressed” and now “leaked” engineering sub-team “dissenting opinion” is the smart move.

My Conclusion

Back when the OPCW was being tasked with investigating those early chemical attacks in Syria, the Russian veto made sure it operated under conditions that seemed bizarre at first, but now have become an existential aspect of our existence. OPCW would be allowed to find facts about a war crime, but it would not be allowed to fix blame. This was the vacuum Carla Del Ponte was able to so effectively fill by finding fault for it.

Now we have the OPCW investigation of the Douma attack, and in this case, it has concluded that the cylinders were air dropped, and since the opposition doesn't have aircraft, the finger is pointed squarely at its enemies. Still it hasn't been allowed to say definitively the Assad government was responsible, and Assad and his supporters have rushed to fill that vacuum by arguing that the cylinders were not dropped from aircraft at all, they were “manually placed” by unknown persons on the ground, which, naturally, they assume could only be from the opposition, and not Assad agents. Now they have Henderson's engineering sub-team report to counter the OPCW FFM report by ending with:
[T]here is a higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed at those two locations rather than being delivered from aircraft.
Without giving a minute's thought to the actual logistics of “manually placing” a gas cylinder on a child's bed in a crowded neighborhood.

Anyway, back here in the United States, few are paying much attention to these Syrian developments, because we have just received a long-awaited report describing the crimes of our president. This has created something of a crisis for the country because while the Mueller Investigation could catalog the crimes of the president, it couldn't fix blame by indicting him. This vacuum allowed AG Barr to rush in with what turns out to be a minority report that pushed the president's line of “No collusion - no obstruction.” As a result, many people are still very confused about what the Mueller Report said, so the US is likely to be preoccupied with it for some time and many simply won't have the time to read a long-winded paper like this about a Syrian concern. For them, I offer this Executive Summary: Henderson's note is to the FFM Report on Douma, what Bill Barr's 4-page summary is to the Mueller report.

Clay Claiborne, Linux Systems Administrator-L2

Special thanks to Bill Weinberg for his edits and suggestions, Brown Moses for the heads up on the most recent OPCW update, and Ruth R for bringing up the Del Ponte turn-around.

Follow Up Posts:
Where in the world is Ian Henderson?
More on the silent Ian Henderson and his "leaked" OPCW paper
More on the silent Ian Henderson and his "leaked" OPCW paper
Dr. Ted Postol rides again - right into the OPCW "leak" controversy
OPCW Word Games - Exposing the Politics of the Henderson "leak"


  1. Remarkably, given the underlying assumptions in this piece about what is possible, the CIA is never mentioned.