What ever happened with the Douma, Syria chemical attack investigation?

By Kent R. Kroeger (August 24, 2018)

On April 7, 2018, a chemical attack in the Douma, Syria reportedly killed at least 70 people. Initially, it was not certain what (if any) chemical had been used, though medics and rebel-allied witnesses mentioned smelling chlorine.

As with any war zone, reliable information on the attack was hard to secure.

Here is CNN’s initial reporting on the attack:

“And there is definitely something (sniffs) that stings,” said CNN correspondent Arwa Damon as she tweaked her nose after smelling some clothing allegedly involved in the chemical attack.

Unfortunately for CNN and the anti-Syrian government brigade on Capitol Hill, there was no definitive evidence that the Douma attack was perpetrated by the Bashar al-Assad regime.

The U.S. and most NATO countries attributed the attack to the Syrian Army, despite Russian and Syrian government claims that the attack was a ‘false flag’ attack engineered by rebel groups and British intelligence. No independent evidence was ever presented by Russia or Syria to support their assertion.

Despite the uncertainty of the source of the Douma attack, on April 14th, the U.S., France and the United Kingdom carried out military strikes against multiple government sites in Syria.

What did the OPCW investigation into the Douma attack find?

When there is a suspected chemical attack somewhere in the world, the internationally-respected investigation group, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), tries to get on the ground as soon as possible and collect its own independent evidence. Chemical attacks are against the Geneva Convention and are war crimes. Furthermore, the Assad regime (as did the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq) has used chemical weapons against its own people. That is not debatable. But so too have the anti-regime forces. That is also not debatable.

From a strategic point of view, some observers thought the Douma attack made little sense, assuming Assad was rational and wanted to stay in power. His forces were about to take over Douma from anti-regime forces when the alleged chemical attack occurred.

As a ‘false flag’ operation where anti-regime forces would try to pin the blame on Assad’s forces, the Douma attack made much more sense. In that scenario, if the blame could be assigned to the Assad regime, it would increase the chance of deepening the U.S. military commitment in Syria.

That did not happen, in part, because the OPCW could not verify that chlorine-gas canisters were the cause of the civilian deaths. In its preliminary report, the OPCW did verify the existence of chlorine gas residue in two locations where such chemical agents were known to have been produced, but “no organophosphorous nerve agents or their degradation products were detected in the environmental samples or in the plasma samples taken from alleged casualties.”

In other words, the OPCW confirmed that no nerve agent was used in Douma but could not confirm a chlorine-gas attack on civilians. More analysis will need to be done, said the OPCW.

However, in another OPCW report issued at the same time as the Douma preliminary report, the OPCW shared its final findings on allegations of chemical weapons used in Al-Hamadaniya, Syria on October 30, 2016, and Karm al-Tarrab, Syria on November 13, 2016.

Writes the OPCW: “On the basis of the information received and analysed, the prevailing narrative of the interviews, and the results of the laboratory analyses, the FFM cannot confidently determine whether or not a specific chemical was used as a weapon in the incidents that took place in the neighbourhood of Al-Hamadaniyah and in the area of Karm al-Tarrab. The FFM noted that the persons affected in the reported incidents may, in some instances, have been exposed to some type of non-persistent, irritating substance.”

But, strangely, I never heard about OPCW preliminary or final reports from mainstream U.S. news media outlets. I first read about it on Al Jazeera and again on RT.com (the Russian international news organization partially funded by the Russian government).

And, while I have no doubt in the 24–7 cable news cycle the OPCW’s findings on the Douma and other alleged chemical attacks were mentioned on CNN or MSNBC, it was certainly never emphasized.

I also saw the OPCW-Douma story on the Syrian government aligned news site called the Inside Syria Media Center. It is a pro-Syrian government news organization, probably financed by Iran, though it does not explicitly identify its funding sources on its website. Hence, it is considered a propagandist organization and is one of the hundreds of Facebook accounts recently suspended by Facebook for allegedly spreading “factually inaccurate” information.

I will let Facebook speak for themselves on this act of censorship:

We’ve removed 652 Pages, groups and accounts for coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in Iran and targeted people across multiple internet services in the Middle East, Latin America, UK and US. FireEye, a cybersecurity firm, gave us a tip in July about “Liberty Front Press,” a network of Facebook Pages as well as accounts on other online services. They’ve published an initial analysis and will release a full report of their findings soon. We wanted to take this opportunity to thank them for their work.

Based on FireEye’s tip, we started an investigation into “Liberty Front Press” and identified additional accounts and Pages from their network. We are able to link this network to Iranian state media through publicly available website registration information, as well as the use of related IP addresses and Facebook Pages sharing the same admins. For example, one part of the network, “Quest 4 Truth,” claims to be an independent Iranian media organization, but is in fact linked to Press TV, an English-language news network affiliated with Iranian state media. The first “Liberty Front Press” accounts we’ve found were created in 2013. Some of them attempted to conceal their location, and they primarily posted political content focused on the Middle East, as well as the UK, US, and Latin America. Beginning in 2017, they increased their focus on the UK and US. Accounts and Pages linked to “Liberty Front Press” typically posed as news and civil society organizations sharing information in multiple countries without revealing their true identity.

This was a voluntary act of censorship by Facebook.

In practicality, Facebook’s censorship campaign is hitting some groups more than others, says Olivia Solon, who writes for The Guardian. “The first campaign involved a network of Facebook pages and accounts on other platforms under the banner ‘Liberty Front Press’ that positioned themselves as independent but were discovered to have ties to Iranian state media. The 74 pages, 70 accounts and three groups on Facebook and 76 Instagram accounts — some dating back to 2013 — posted political content focused on the Middle East, UK, U.S. and Latin America. The pages had about 155,000 followers in total. The same group spent more than $6,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads paid for in U.S. dollars, the last one running in August 2018.”

“The cybersecurity company FireEye, which first identified the campaign and flagged the campaign to Facebook, said the intent behind the activity appeared to be to ‘promote Iranian political interests, including anti-Saudi, anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian themes, as well as promote support for specific US policies favorable to Iran, such as the US-Iran nuclear deal’. There was also significant anti-Trump messaging and the creation of sock puppet accounts masquerading as liberal Americans.”

So, as of today, if you are a Facebook user and want to learn more about U.S.-Saudi-UAE actions in Yemen, where dozens of Yemeni children were recently killed by a U.S.-supplied Saudi air attack, you will find it harder to be informed.

Instead, you are more likely to get a Saudi, Israeli, or Trump administration view on that senseless massacre.

That might be acceptable for the causal, intermittent news consumer. But that should not be acceptable for anyone that really wants to understand what is going on in Yemen or any other Middle East conflict where Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the U.S. are direct or indirect participants.

If the Saudi, Israeli and U.S. point of view is all you require from your Middle East news, Facebook is working for you.

For the rest of us, Facebook’s censorship campaign is doing us a tremendous disservice.


About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)