On April 14, 2018, the United States, Britain, and France launched a series of aircraft and ship-based missiles against multiple government sites in Syria. The initial report released by the White House justified the strike as retaliation against a Russian-backed chemical attack launched on Syrian citizens in the city of Douma by Bashar al-Assad. After the attack, an investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released a report confirming Assad’s use of chemical weapons. However, since the initial attacks, internal OPCW email exchanges leaked by whistleblowers to WikiLeaks and subsequent interviews since late 2019 severely undermine government and corporate media narratives about the attack.
The central whistleblower is Dr. Brendan Whelan, a 16-year veteran member of the OPCW. Aaron Maté from The Grayzone reports that Whelan was part of the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) that investigated Douma for traces of chemical weapons. Whelan has since revealed that the initial reports from the OPCW deviated from the FFM’s original findings. He argued that there was no direct evidence of chemicals being used on the attack’s victims. To support his claims, he cited reports from official NATO-member state toxicologists who found major inconsistencies with the reported cause of death being chlorine gas exposure— finding no evidence of alternative chemicals used on victims. Whelan, upset by the disregard and censorship of his team’s compelling findings, protested the matter by emailing higher up executives in the OPCW. Ultimately, Whelan’s dissent was met with his emails being both deleted from the servers and dismissed due to fears that his evidence may bolster a “pro-Russian narrative”. Whelan was then dismissed from the core Douma team and scheduled to leave the organization in early September of 2018. These events seriously called into question the legitimacy of claims about use of chemical weapons in the Douma attack, raising the possibility of it being purposefully staged.
Since The Grayzone’s original reporting, Whelan’s claims about lack of evidence for a chemical attack in Douma have become the focus of controversy. Bellingcat, a website that receives grant funding from the National Endowment of Democracy (NED), released a report arguing a letter from the OPCW was sent to Whelan in 2019 proving a chemical attack did occur, citing new tests conducted on a wood sample taken from Douma as proof that chlorine gas had been used. The report noted these new scientific techniques were developed after Whelan left the organization, challenged Whelan’s dissent, and re-affirmed the use of chemical weapons.
However, Maté has since responded to Bellingcat’s concerns by pointing out that the letter they refer to in their article was an unsent draft of the actual letter that was sent to Whelan, which omitted key information that the draft alleged. Maté also addressed the scientific concern raised by the draft. He argues the OPCW had not re-analyzed samples of wood from the attack site since Whelan left the organization. Further, the original report by Whelan in 2018 had already stated that chloride was detected in a single wood sample, “which can come from chlorine gas but can also come from other benign sources”—a consideration the final report ignored. Bellingcat has since revised its article claiming Whelan saw the draft letter, and they still maintain that chemical weapons were used during the Douma attack. The debate over the use of chemical weapons will continue, but it does not neglect the fact that the United States, Britain, and France were less than certain that a chemical attack had occurred when they agreed to strike Syria multiple times.
The scandal has kept growing throughout 2020, including the United States actively attempting to delegitimize the credibility of OPCW whistleblowers, and establishment news outlets attempting to censor journalists trying to cover the story. Alan Macleod from MintPress News reported that Newsweek journalist Tared Haddad tried to cover the story but was met with constant backlash from higher-ups who refused to publish his story. This happened multiple times, to the point where Haddad publicly quit his position, prioritizing his free speech rather than acquiescing to Newsweek’s’ position. The story reached a boiling point in October 2020, when Brazilian diplomat José Bustani, (the OPCW’s first president) was invited by the UN Security Council to give testimony on the manipulation of the OPCW findings, and how he fears the OPCW has become a tool for the US government. Sadly, the US and its allies blocked Bustani from testifying to the United Nations Security Council “on the basis that he was not in a position to provide expert details about chemical weapons attack”.
Establishment news had no issue reporting on the OPCW investigation—when the focus of the story was on Assad leading a Russian-backed chemical attack on Syrian citizens. However, those outlets have actively avoided following up with recent updates that delegitimize their original conclusions on the Douma attack. This is especially curious, since a few outlets such as the Washington Post, CNN, New York Times, and BBC had no problem publishing articles in 2020 re-affirming the existence of a separate 2017 Syrian chemical weapons scandal. Additionally, corporate news has completely ignored both the OPCW whistleblowers stories and the censorship of Jose Bustani by the US and its allies. Only a few establishment outlets have provided updates on the Douma attack, including one ABC News article, and a single Rolling Stone interview with Aaron Maté on the OPCW leaks. Alan Macleod from MintPress News reports, “There has been no mention of the continuing scandal in The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, CNBC, MSNBC. Even alternative media like Democracy Now! have made only fleeting reference to it.”
Alan Macleod, “Media Silence Marks Ongoing OPCW Cover-Up of Syria Chemical Weapons Scandal,” MintPress News, November 6, 2020, https://www.mintpressnews.com/media-silence-ongoing-opcw-cover-up-syria-chemical-weapons/272932/.
Aaron Maté, “OPCW Executives Praised Whistleblower and Criticized Syria Cover-up, Leaks Reveal,” The Grayzone, December 7, 2020, https://thegrayzone.com/2020/12/07/opcw-executives-whistleblower-syria-leaks/.
Student Researcher: Cem Ismail Addemir (North Central College)
Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)