Syria and chemical weapons-2

This is a compilation of blog posts about chemical weapons in Syria. The posts are in chronological order.

Method in Assad's madness?  21 August 2013

​Assad’s game-changer 22 August 2013 

Chemical weapons in Syria require action 25 August 2013

US rallies support for Syria air strikes 26 August 2013

It's time to cast off the 'Iraq war' mindset 27 August 2013

Syria: some unanswered questions 28 August 2013

Syria – from horror to farce 29 August 2013

Syria: another green light for Assad 30 August 2013

Syria: the view from US intelligence 31 August 2013

Syria: a question of international law 31 August 2013

Syria – a chilling hypothesis 1 September 2013

Syria – the waiting game 1 September 2013

Walking a fine line on Syria 4 September 2013

Has Putin changed his tune on Syria? 5 September 2013

Chemical weapons: a diplomatic way out? 6 September 2013

Syria airstrikes: is there another way? 7 September 2013

Put Russia to the test 8 September 2013

How to get Syria to give up chemical weapons 9 September 2013

Why a UN resolution on Syria is needed 11 September 2013

Syrian chemical weapons: reasons for hope 15 September 2013

More clues from the weapons inspectors? 15 September 2013

Russia and the weapons inspectors 17 September 2013

Chemical attacks and a mystery reporter 18 September 2013

Syria 'rebel chemicals' story gets weirder 21 September 2013

Syria 'rebel chemicals' mystery deepens 21 September 2013

Yahya Ababneh exposed 22 September 2013

Manufacturing credibility 25 September 2013

Lavrov cites mystery reporter Ababneh 26 September 2013

Ababneh trail leads to Iran 2 October 2013

Syria and its chemical weapons 12 October 2013

Investigating chemical weapons in Syria 10 December 2013

Syria chemical attacks: a question of sources 11 December 2013

Sarin in Syria 14 December 2013

Questions for the Syria Sarin sceptics 16 December 2013

Syria sarin attacks 5 March 2014

Why chemical weapons in Syria must not be ignored 7 April 2017

Former British ambassador in Syria has links to Assad family 23 April 2017

​Syria's hexamine: a smoking gun 27 April 2017

Syria, Seymour Hersh and the Sarin denialists 1 July 2017

Syria and Sarin: who was Hersh's anonymous source? 4 July 2017

Syria agrees that Sarin was used in Khan Sheikhoun 5 July 2017

Chemical weapons in Syria: the search for culprits begins 7 July 2017

Did Syrian rebels acquire sarin? If so, how? 17 July 2017

Syria accuses US and UK of supplying chemical weapons to rebels 17 August 2017


Syria airstrikes: is there another way?

Blog post, 7 September 2013: Returning from the G20 in St Petersburg, President Obama – in the words of the Associated Press – faces a "frenetic, high-stakes week" selling his plan for airstrikes in Syria to a sceptical Congress. Obama and his aides will engage in "a flurry of speeches, phone calls, briefings and personal visits to Democrats and Republicans alike" and on Tuesday he will makes his case to the American people in a TV broadcast from the White House.

While the media continues to build this up as a political cliffhanger, I'm not convinced that the coming week will be decisive. What if the two houses of Congress vote in opposite directions or choose to wait until they have heard from the UN weapons inspectors?

Internationally too, support for airstrikes is very thin. Yesterday, on the fringes of the G20, eleven countries issued a joint statement on Syria.

They condemned the chemical attack near Damascus on August 21 and agreed that "evidence clearly points to the Syrian government being responsible". They called for "a strong international response" but noted that the Security Council "remains paralysed" as far as taking action through the UN is concerned.

There was no direct mention of military action, though the statement did say: "We support efforts undertaken by the United States and other countries to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons."

The 11 signatories were Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States, plus Spain (which is not a G20 member but a permanent guest).

Those that didn't sign were Argentina, Brazil, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, South Africa and the European Union. (The EU countries are still struggling to reach a common position).

At a news conference in St Petersburg yesterday, Obama played down his call for airstrikes: "I’m not itching for military action" and "I was elected to end wars, not start them." Nor did he rule out non-military options – providing they are workable.

Obama was asked:

"Some in Congress have suggested giving the Syrian regime 45 days to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, get rid of its chemical stockpiles – do something that would enhance international sense of accountability for Syria but delay military action. Are you, Mr President, looking at any of these ideas?"

He replied:

"I am listening to all these ideas. And some of them are constructive. And I’m listening to ideas in Congress, and I’m listening to ideas here [in St Petersburg]. But I want to repeat here: My goal is to maintain the international norm on banning chemical weapons. I want that enforcement to be real. I want it to be serious ...

"If there are tools that we can use to ensure that, obviously my preference would be, again, to act internationally in a serious way and to make sure that Mr Assad gets the message ...

"So we will look at these ideas. So far, at least, I have not seen ideas presented that as a practical matter I think would do the job. But this is a situation where part of the reason I wanted to foster debate was to make sure that everybody thought about both the ramifications of action and inaction."

Even if Congress backs airstrikes, it seems increasingly unlikely that they will happen before the inspectors have reported their findings – one reason being that France, Obama's only real ally on the military front, wants to hold off until then.

Assuming the inspectors do produce evidence of sarin, Russia will then be in an awkward position. President Putin has already agreed that using such weapons is a crime. The Russian foreign ministry has also stated that the UN's testing methods comply "with scientific standards".

So, while Putin may continue to dispute who used the weapons, he will be in no position to dispute the chemical analysis or, if sarin is confirmed, the need to do something about it.

Even if Putin wants to continue insisting that the Assad regime is innocent, he presumably wouldn't want to see similar accusations made against the regime in future. And one way to ensure that (as I suggested in an earlier blog post) would be to put the regime's chemical stockpile beyond use – under UN supervision.


Put Russia to the test

Blog post, 8 September 2013: It now appears that a final vote on American airstrikes in Syria will not take place in Congress until after the UN weapons inspectors have issued their report.

Although the US Senate is still expected to vote this week, a vote in the House of Representatives will come later, according to several reports citing a memo written by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

In the memo, issued on Friday, Cantor (a Republican) said: "Members should expect a robust debate and vote on an authorisation of use of military force pertaining to Syria in the next two weeks."

Meanwhile, there are signs that the inspectors' report will be issued earlier than forecast. A few days ago diplomatic sources said it would not be ready for another two to three weeks but yesterday French president François Hollande said it is "likely" to arrive by the end of this coming week.

If these predictions are correct the result will be a more logical timetable – one that allows the House of Representatives to make its decision in the light of the inspectors' findings. (Whether the inspectors will add much to what we already know is unclear but it would be preferable to wait and see.)

The result could also be a further delay as far as actual military action is concerned. President Hollande indicated yesterday that France might then wish to refer the matter to the UN Security Council.

That, again, is a logical course to take. Even if Russia blocked a new Security Council resolution it would at least demonstrate that UN avenues had been exhausted and strengthen the American case for action outside the UN framework.

The US, of course, has already lost patience with the Security Council, and its ambassador, Samantha Power, explained why in a speech on Friday:

"People are asking, shouldn’t the United States work through the Security Council on an issue that so clearly implicates international peace and security? The answer is, of course, yes ... we would if we could, but we can’t.

"Every day for the two-and-a-half years of the Syrian conflict, we have shown how seriously we take the UN Security Council and our obligations to enforce international peace and security. Since 2011, Russia and China have vetoed three separate Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime’s violence or promoting a political solution to the conflict.

"This year alone, Russia has blocked at least three statements expressing humanitarian concern and calling for humanitarian access to besieged cities in Syria. And in the past two months, Russia has blocked two resolutions condemning the generic use of chemical weapons and two press statements expressing concern about their use.

"We believe that more than 1,400 people were killed in Damascus on August 21, and the Security Council could not even agree to put out a press statement expressing its disapproval."

A further hazard in taking the Security Council route is that on this occasion Russia might not use its veto but instead prevaricate and procrastinate, watering down any proposed action – even of a non-military kind. In her speech, Power asked:

"What would words in the form of belated diplomatic condemnation achieve? What could the International Criminal Court really do, even if Russia or China were to allow a referral? Would a drawn-out legal process really affect the immediate calculus of Assad and those who ordered chemical weapons attacks?

"We could try again to pursue economic sanctions, but even if Russia budged, would more asset freezes, travel bans, and banking restrictions convince Assad not to use chemical weapons again, when he has a pipeline to the resources of Hezbollah and Iran? Does anybody really believe that deploying the same approaches we have tried for the last year will suddenly be effective?"

These are valid points and it's entirely possible that Russia, despite all the evidence produced by other countries, and anything else that the inspectors may have found, will continue to insist that the Syrian regime was not responsible for the attacks on August 21.

On the other hand, there's little doubt that Russia and the Assad regime would prefer not to see American airstrikes – so the question is what price they would be willing to pay in order to avoid them. At present we don't know, but it might be worth finding out.

The bare minimum would be to prevent any further attacks in Syria using banned weapons (and I have suggested how that might be achieved in an earlier blog post). Putting the regime's chemical stockpile under UN control would not only prevent its use by the regime – thus avoiding further international confrontations on that issue – but would also remove the risk of it falling into rebel hands.

If that idea could be sold to Russia without endless quibbling, Assad would have to fall in line too or risk losing his key ally, and we might see some progress. Rejection, however, would close the diplomatic door and Assad would then face the military consequences.


How to get Syria to give up chemical weapons

Blog post, 9 September 2013: As regular readers of this blog will know, I have recently been advocating two things in connection with Syria:

First, to address the issue of chemical weapons separately from the wider conflict.

That's because it IS a separate issue. Although the chemical crisis has arisen out of the wider conflict, maintaining the international ban is a matter of global importance. Whatever people may think about the principle of intervening in another country's internal struggle, the use of banned weapons – wherever it happens – requires a strong international response.

Secondly, to explore diplomatic/political ways of dealing with chemical weapons in Syria.

On the first of these two points, things have got worse rather than better. In the US especially, the level of confusion – among the public and in the media – is now extraordinary. Much of the debate relates to internal politicking around Obama's "leadership" (or supposed lack of) rather than the matter in hand. As for chemical weapons, they have become little more than a peg for discussing more familiar but only marginally related topics like jihadists and Iran, as well as for expressions of isolationist sentiment.

On the second point, though, there are signs of progress. When I first suggested placing Syria's chemical stockpile in the hands of the UN, it was greeted with a mixture of silence and scepticism. But now it seems the idea may have legs after all.

Earlier today, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, suggested the Assad regime could avoid being attacked if it handed over its entire stock of chemical weapons. In the form delivered by Kerry it sounded like an ultimatum – hand them over within a week, or else – and Kerry added that he did not expect Assad to comply.

But then something very interesting happened. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, chipped in, unexpectedly agreed with Kerry about handing over the weapons (though without the threatening tone) and even went a bit further. He said:

"We are calling on the Syrian authorities not only [to] agree on putting chemical weapons storages under international control, but also for its further destruction and then joining the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

"We have passed our offer to Walid al-Muallem [the Syrian foreign minister] and hope to receive a fast and positive answer."

The best way the US can respond to this is not to add further demands, such as an admission of guilt from Assad, but to say to the Russians: "That's an interesting idea. Let's see what can be done."

There are two steps involved in dealing with the use of banned weapons:

1. Preventing any further use.

2. Holding accountable whoever was responsible.

As far as achieving these objectives is concerned, airstrikes are not a precise tool. They could hold the regime accountable to some extent by destroying some of its assets – in other words, punishment. Airstrikes would not directly prevent further use of chemical weapons, however. Bombing toxic stockpiles themselves could be dangerous, so the aim would be partly to reduce the military's ability to use them but mainly to serve as a deterrent – a message that further use of such weapons would result in increasingly severe airstrikes.

Apart from saving lives, the diplomatic route could prove more effective. Persuading Assad to hand over his chemicals to the UN, together with agreeing to inspections, etc, would – if done properly – ensure there could be no further use of these weapons. It would not address the issue of accountability, but that is less urgent and could be set aside till later.

In theory, it ought to be possible to secure Russian co-operation in a diplomatic initiative since President Putin has already said he regards use of chemical weapons as a crime. (As a side-note, Iran – another important ally of Assad – also takes a dim view of chemical weapons, having been on the receiving end during the Iran-Iraq war.)

It's necessary to recognise, though, that on other issues relating to the Syrian conflict Russia has been thoroughly obstructive, as Samantha Power, the US ambassador at the UN, explained recently. If the Americans want to test Russia's willingness to co-operate on chemical weapons, therefore, they will have to treat it as a self-contained issue in any discussions.

Another potential obstacle is that in the absence of any startling new evidence Russia will probably stick to its insistence that the Assad regime was not responsible for the attacks on August 21. If the Americans persist in trying to change the Russian view on point, talks will inevitably founder.

But, surprising as it may seem, disagreements over culpability need not necessarily be a problem. There are perfectly good arguments for urging Assad to give up his chemical weapons without blaming him for the events of August 21.

One is that surrendering the chemicals will protect him from further accusations (either true of false) of their use. Another is that it will prevent any of the weapons being captured – and even used – by rebel fighters.

The biggest unknown quantity in this, of course, is how Assad himself will react to the proposal. Currently, he seems to be neither confirming nor denying that he has chemical weapons (which is what Israel also does in connection with its nuclear weapons). But there's no real doubt that he has both actual weapons and a research programme which was originally developed as the "poor man's defence" against Israel's nuclear capability.

Assad might remain defiant, claiming that the weapons (if he admits to their existence at all) are purely for national defence. Or he could offer to give them up on condition that Israel does the same with its nuclear weapons.

That's the kind of bravado that made Saddam Hussein a hero among his supporters but ultimately led to his downfall. If Assad has any sense, though, he will weigh up the costs and benefits of keeping his weapons versus giving them up. If he's prepared to swallow his pride (and values his relationship with Russia) it shouldn't be a difficult choice to make.


Why a UN resolution on Syria is needed

Blog post, 11 September 2013: Arguments about Syria's chemical weapons have now shifted to the UN Security Council, with predictable results. Russia is resisting American and French attempts to issue a binding resolution – i.e. one that could be backed up with the use of force if Syria failed to comply.

"We need a full resolution from the Security Council to have the confidence that this has the force it ought to have,” US secretary of state John Kerry said in remarks quoted by the New York Times. "Right now the Russians are in a slightly different place on that."

The paper adds that Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, will meet in Geneva on Thursday to discuss this further.

While Russia's opposition to chemical weapons (in general) is well established, there is as yet no sign that its support for the Assad regime is waning. It appears to be trying to do just enough about Syria's chemical weapons to avert airstrikes while continuing to muddy the waters over who was responsible for the August 21 attacks.

Russia Today reports that it has now handed over unspecified "evidence" to the Security Council and quotes the head of the Russian Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee as saying:

"We have the basis to think not only the Syrian government has them [chemical weapons] … but we suspect that those weapons have been used by the rebels several times."

It will be interesting to see whether these suspicions about the rebels are backed up by the extremely high levels of proof that Russia has set in connection with chemical weapons.

Russia seems to be angling for a mere "statement" from the Security Council rather than a full-scale resolution. Yesterday, the foreign ministry said (see 19.14 GMT):

"Russia, on its part, is submitting a draft statement for the UN Security Council's chairman, welcoming the … initiative and calling on the UN Secretary General, the general director of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and all the interested parties to make efforts to facilitate the implementation of this proposal [on chemical weapons]."

That gives a clue as to where things may be headed next. Technically speaking, the Security Council doesn't have to be involved at all. Syria could simply sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and the matter would then automatically fall into the hands of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), triggering a lengthy disarmament process.

The trouble with the OPCW process is that it is designed for countries that have decided to renounced chemical weapons voluntarily, rather than under duress. It's all rather leisurely and gentle, since it assumes there's little prospect that a new member will be tempted to use its existing weapons in the meantime.

Under the OPCW procedures, for example, Syria's first step after joining the Convention would be to appoint a National Authority. The OPCW, very helpfully, would then provide "advice and assistance" to the Syrian National Authority, "in order to help them enhance their skills and expertise to facilitate effective, autonomous, national implementation".

Basically, member-countries are expected to do their own implementation at their own pace, with the OPCW merely assisting and verifying.

A further point to note is that the Chemical Weapons Convention also has an annex on confidentiality. Information, it says, shall be considered confidential "if it is so designated by the State Party from which the information was obtained and to which the information refers".

This seems to mean that the Assad regime could insist on as much confidentiality as it likes, thus preventing the level of public disclosure that would be needed to satisfy world opinion in the current circumstances.

Clearly, that is not the way to go if the Russian initiative is a genuine attempt to remove chemical weapons from the Syrian conflict. The situation demands something much stronger and, if airstrikes are to be avoided, that will have to be done through the Security Council. Which brings us back to Square One, and the question of whether Russia will continue to block it.


Syrian chemical weapons: reasons for hope

Blog post, 15 September 2013: When I first began advocating a diplomatic solution to the Syrian chemical weapons crisis (here, here, here, and here), it seemed like rather a hopeless quest. But now, nine days after my first blog post on the subject, there's an agreement in place. Syria has swiftly accepted the Chemical Weapons Convention – without any public quibbling – and the Americans and Russians have worked out a framework for dismantling the weapons along with their production facilities.

The Russian-American agreement (full text here) provides for dismantling under the auspices of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), but with reinforcement from the UN Security Council. This is essential because, as I pointed out last week, the OPCW mechanism is too weak on its own in a situation like this.

Although many people are still sceptical, there's a good chance that it will work – or at least succeed in two key objectives: (1) preventing further attacks in Syria and (2) maintaining the international red line against use of chemical weapons.

The main reason for optimism is that all three parties – Russia, the US and the Assad regime – have an interest in making it work.

Russia, of course, is basking in diplomatic kudos (undeserved in the light of its previous behaviour regarding Syria), but that will only continue so long as the agreement holds.

In the US, Obama is largely off the hook. He has avoided an extremely controversial military intervention so long as there is reasonable progress in dismantling Syria's chemical weapons. He can't withdraw the military threat entirely, though, because that provides an incentive for Syria to comply, and well as for the Russians to assist with Syria's compliance.

Meanwhile, the Assad regime can avoid airstrikes and direct American intervention in the conflict so long as it cooperates with the disarmament process – and all at very little cost.

Naturally there's a lot of wariness about whether Assad really will cooperate. But, once again, it's a mistake to view this too much through the prism of Iraq. Saddam Hussein's cat-and-mouse game with the weapons inspectors was motivated more by a sense of injured pride than an actual need to conceal anything. The Americans mis-read his intentions – and we all know where that led. Assad, if he knows what's good for him, will have learned from Saddam's mistake.

I have argued before that the chemical weapons issue in Syria should be kept separate, as far as possible, from questions about resolving the wider conflict there. Nevertheless, it's reasonable to ask whether the Russian-American agreement on chemical weapons can improve the prospects for a generalised political solution.

On that front, little has changed so far. The main obstacle to a settlement was – and still is – Russia's support for Assad. While Russia has shown itself more amenable on the chemical weapons issue, this is entirely consistent with its overall strategy.

Apart from its support for Assad, Russia's main goal has been to prevent direct western intervention in the conflict. It had previously blocked any moves towards intervention through the Security Council but, once Obama threatened intervention outside the Security Council, it was eager to negotiate. That in itself does not indicate a shift in Russia's position. In essence, it is a case of using different methods to achieve the same goal of avoiding direct western intervention.

As before, there is little hope for a political solution until Russia shifts position and accepts that Assad (along with his most important henchmen) cannot be part of the solution.

That, in turn, raises the question of how long Russia can maintain its support for Assad and what might cause it to change.

Russia's wholesale adoption of Assad's propaganda line on the August 21 attacks – that rebel fighters were responsible – looks increasingly ridiculous, and it's hard to imagine that Russia's own intelligence services really believe it. The UN inspectors' report, due to be released tomorrow, will probably weaken its stance further but may still not be enough to cause a shift.

At the same time, though, Russia does seem genuinely concerned about jihadist influence among the rebel fighters. At one level, that can be an argument for supporting Assad in his battle against them. Equally, though, it can be an argument for withdrawing support and bringing the conflict to a swift conclusion – since the longer it continues the more entrenched the jihadists are likely to become.


More clues from the weapons inspectors?

Blog post, 15 September 2013: UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon is due to brief the Security Council tomorrow on the findings of the weapons inspectors in Syria. Now that the immediate crisis has blown over as a result of yesterday's Russian-American agreement and Syria's formal acceptance of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the inspectors' report may have lost much of its previous urgency.

Ban Ki-moon has already said it will provide "overwhelming" confirmation that chemical weapons were used in Syria last month, though the inspectors' brief does not allow them to apportion blame – at least not directly.

Nevertheless, the report may provide several pointers as to who was responsible. Here are some of the things to look out for:

1. Chemical analysis

If the report merely identifies sarin as the offending chemical we shall be none the wiser. However, if it goes into more detail – describing any additives, for example – this could give some strong clues as to the method of manufacture.

In other words, it could indicate whether the sarin was produced expertly on an industrial scale (thus pointing to a government source) or in a more amateurish fashion (indicating a rebel source).

2. Delivery systems

Although the inspectors are prevented from from giving an opinion about who was responsible, there appears to be no reason why they can't identify the munitions used in the chemical attacks on August 21.

Interest has focused mainly on a type of rocket which Brown Moses, who blogs about weaponry used in the Syrian conflict, has dubbed the UMLACA (Unidentified Munition Linked to Alleged Chemical Attacks). Brown Moses' research suggests UMLACAs come in two version – one with an explosive warhead, the other with a chemical warhead.

Up to now, there has been no evidence of rebel fighters using UMLACAs and a video (below) appears to show one being launched – probably the non-chemical version – by the regime's fighters.

The remains of five UMLACAs have been photographed at the scene of the August 21 attacks. They lack the kind of damage that would be expected from an explosive warhead – suggesting that this was a chemical weapon. Those associated with chemical attacks also have numbering in red, whereas the explosive type appears to be numbered in black.

We know that the UN inspectors took an interest in these weapons, since they can be seen in videos examining and measuring them. In some of these videos (below) the inspector's electronic alarm starts beeping. Triggering of the alarm does not necessarily mean traces of sarin are present but it does indicate that as a possibility.

 

 

If subsequent and more elaborate tests have linked the UMLACAs conclusively to sarin use it will be very difficult to claim than anyone other than the regime was responsible for the attacks.

3. Quantity of chemicals used

Large-scale production of sarin is quite difficult without the use of government facilities. It's worth recalling that the attacks in Japan by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in 1994 and 1995 which killed 19 people involved only seven litres or so of chemical solution – of which only about 30% was actual sarin.

If UMLACAs are definitively linked by the inspectors to the chemical attacks on August 21, it will also be possible to work out the quantity of chemicals used. Measurements of the wreckage suggest each UMLACA could be filled with about 50 litres of chemicals and, since remains have been found of five UMLACAs (there may have been more), that indicates a total of at least 250 litres of chemicals.

Again, this would point to production on an industrial scale rather than in some makeshift rebel laboratory.


Russia and the weapons inspectors

Blog post, 17 September, 2013: While awaiting the UN weapons inspectors' report on Syria yesterday I was wondering how Russia would react to it. To dismiss the inspectors' findings – by implication questioning the integrity of the investigation process – was clearly not a sensible option. On the other hand, it would be difficult for Russia to suddenly abandon its current ultra-sceptical position.

Two days after the chemical attacks – the worst since Halabja in 1988 – Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich seemed unsure whether to deny that attacks had taken place or whether to claim they had been staged anti-Assad forces for propaganda purposes. He talked about an "alleged" attack and a "so-called" attack while claiming that "materials of the incident and accusations against government troops" had been posted on the internet several hours in advance. "Thus, it was a pre-planned action," he said.

Lukashevich's argument swiftly collapsed when it became clear that the apparent discrepancies were merely the result of automated time-stamping on videos and web pages in different time zones around the world (see explanations here and here).

In a TV interview on September 3, President Putin said "it would be totally absurd" for Syrian government forces to have used chemical weapons, but stopped short of directly accusing the rebels. He said:

"We can’t say for sure what happened. We think we should at least wait for the UN inspectors to give their report. We don’t have any evidence showing that it was the regular army of the Syrian government that used those chemicals. We don’t even know at this point if those were chemical weapons or just some hazardous chemicals)."

Last Saturday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was still claiming that the attacks had been "fabricated" in order to "provoke a retaliation strike against the regime" of Bashar al-Assad.

Yesterday though, after publication of the inspectors' report, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador at the United Nations, was far more circumspect."The report is diligent but very technical," he said. "It avoids categorical judgments and inferences, and it needs to be studied."

While pointing out that the report offers no "bulletproof data or conclusions" as to who ordered the attacks, he continued: "As people examine it, everyone can draw their own conclusion, but I hope that won't be driven by political motives."

It's hard, of course, to regard Russia's position – its eagerness to exonerate the Assad regime at all costs – as driven by anything other than political motives, but we'll let that pass.

Although Russia's official line on the attacks looks increasingly unsustainable it has not been put directly on the spot because the inspectors were prevented from making "categorical judgments and inferences". Russia's best option, therefore, may be to say as little as possible from now on regarding who was responsible.

Despite the lack of judgments and inferences in the report, however, there is plenty of material for others to make inferences.

The sheer quantity of chemicals used points to a government source rather than the rebels, and Åke Sellström, head of the inspection team, has since told reporters that quality of sarin found in Ghouta was of a higher quality than that used by Saddam Hussein in Iraq's chemical weapons programme – which again points to a government producer.

The munitions linked to the attacks are known to be in the possession of the Syrian regime, while there is no credible evidence of rebel fighters having used them.

In the case of two munitions where the inspectors were able to measure their trajectories, it appears they were fired from regime-controlled territory.

One of the munitions found at the scene of the attacks was a Russian-made M14 artillery rocket which, in one version, can be fitted with a chemical warhead. The number 179 on its side links it to a production plant in Novosibirsk.

Fortunately for Russia, this is not as embarrassing as it might seem. The rocket may have been acquired by Syria a long time ago, and possibly by corrupt means as Igor Sutyagin, a Russia expert at the Royal United Services Institute, explains in the video below.

Also, the inspectors were unable to find remains of the M14's warhead which seems to have separated from the motor section (which they did find, though it showed no traces of sarin). The report says:

"The inspectors followed the trajectory of the rocket and determined that it initially impacted the corner of the second floor of an adjacent apartment building to the east, with either the warhead functioning or shearing off from the body at that point and the motor section having sufficient kinetic energy to continue along its path to its terminal impact location."

In the absence of fragments from the warhead, the inspectors state that the rocket could have been fitted with either an "original" [Russian] or "improvised" warhead. An article on the website of Russia Today highlights the word "improvised" to suggest that the rocket could have been a rebel weapon – though that is not necessarily the implication of the inspectors' report. The regime is also capable of improvisation and rebels are not known to possess this type of rocket.


Chemical attacks and a mystery reporter

Blog post, 18 September 2013: Among those who blame Syrian rebels for the chemical attacks near Damascus on August 21, the most-circulated story during the last couple of weeks has been one headed: "Syrians in Ghouta claim Saudi-supplied rebels behind chemical attack".

Originally published with an "exclusive" tag by Mint Press, a website which says it is dedicated to covering "issues and stories often overlooked by the current establishment media", this flimsy tale has been widely re-posted as well as being uncritically cited by Russia Today and the Voice of Russia. In the US, too, it has been enthusiastically taken up by a number of the more eccentric websites.

Yesterday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to cite the story once again when he suggested rebel forces were responsible for the sarin deaths on August 21. Reuters reports:

"Lavrov said the UN report [from the weapons inspectors] should be examined not in isolation but along with evidence from sources such as the internet and other media, including accounts from 'nuns at a nearby convent' and a journalist who had spoken to rebels."

Basically, the Mint Press story alleged that Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia supplied some of the rebel fighters with chemical weapons which the rebels then handled "improperly".

This claim, the story said, was based on numerous interviews with doctors, residents, rebel fighters and their families. It continued:

Many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the dealing [sic] gas attack.

"My son came to me two weeks ago asking what I thought the weapons were that he had been asked to carry," said Abu Abdel-Moneim, the father of a rebel fighting to unseat Assad, who lives in Ghouta [on the outskirts of Damascus].

Abdel-Moneim said his son and 12 other rebels were killed inside of a tunnel used to store weapons provided by a Saudi militant, known as Abu Ayesha, who was leading a fighting battalion. The father described the weapons as having a "tube-like structure" while others were like a "huge gas bottle" ....

Abdel-Moneim said his son and the others died during the chemical weapons attack ...

"They didn't tell us what these arms were or how to use them," complained a female fighter named 'K'. "We didn't know they were chemical weapons. We never imagined they were chemical weapons.

"When Saudi Prince Bandar gives such weapons to people, he must give them to those who know how to handle and use them," she warned ...

A well-known rebel leader in Ghouta named 'J' agreed. "Jabhat al-Nusra militants do not cooperate with other rebels, except with fighting on the ground. They do not share secret information. They merely used some ordinary rebels to carry and operate this material,” he said.

"We were very curious about these arms. And unfortunately, some of the fighters handled the weapons improperly and set off the explosions," 'J' said.

The report ends with a caveat from Mint Press saying: "Some information in this article could not be independently verified."

That is an understatement, to put it mildly, and the way the story has been regurgitated is a classic example of how people who demand extremely high levels of proof where the Assad regime's crimes are concerned don't apply similar standards to reports blaming the rebels.

It's certainly possible that some kind of accident occurred in a tunnel with rebel-held weapons. But if it did happen, how do we know they were banned chemical weapons?

The story merely says some of them had a "tube-like structure" while others were like a "huge gas bottle".

Confronted with such a vague description, most reporters would have asked more questions. Roughly, how big were they? Did the "tube-like structures" resemble rockets, or what? Were there no markings on the things that resembled gas bottles? What, exactly, made Abu Abdel-Moneim's son puzzled about them? And so on.

The story also gives no indication of the injuries suffered by those who reportedly died in the tunnel – whether there were signs of chemical poisoning – or how this single incident could have caused so many deaths in multiple locations.

It's an intriguing tale, certainly, but the facts are so thin that it's difficult to take seriously without more information.

The story got a lot of attention partly because one of its authors was an established journalist – Dale Gavlak, who reports as a freelance from Jordan for the Associated Press – thus providing more credibility than it might otherwise have merited.

However, according to Mint Press, Gavlak only "assisted in the research and writing" of the article and was not on the ground in Syria. Gavlak's main contribution to the story, presumably, was to provide a lengthy section of general background about Prince Bandar and Saudi Arabia's involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Mint Press says its correspondent on the ground in Ghouta "who spoke directly with the rebels, their family members, victims of the chemical weapons attacks and local residents" was Yahya Ababneh.

None of the people quoted from Damascus are identified in the article which says they did not want their names used for fear of retribution. That is understandable in the circumstances but it does mean the article's credibility depends heavily on the reporter's previous track record.

So, who is Yahya Ababneh and what is his track record? According to Mint Press he is "a Jordanian freelance journalist and is currently working on a master's degree in journalism". It adds: "He has covered events in Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Libya. His stories have appeared on Amman Net, Saraya News, Gerasa News and elsewhere."

Meanwhile, Ababneh's LinkedIn profile says he has been a self-employed journalist since 2007 and that his work "includes assignments in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Libya for clients such as al-Jazeera, al-Quds al-Arabi, Amman Net, and other publications". He is also described as having been a freelance financial journalist for just over three years, from 2008 to 2011.

For most of that time, according to his profile, he has also been studying at universities in Jordan as well as doing voluntary work among the elderly and "poor Bedouin and Palestinians living in camps".

Oddly, though, examples of his previous reporting have proved very elusive. Internet searches (in Arabic and English) of the publications mentioned – al-Jazeera, al-Quds al-Arabi, Amman Net, Saraya News and Gerasa News – have all drawn a blank.

It is possible, of course, that Ababneh has worked for these organisations in some journalistic capacity other than reporting – though that is not what the biographical note at Mint News implies.

Someone using the name Yahya Ababneh does appear on the Amman Net website, in comments posted on a couple of articles (here and here). There's also a comment under the same name on the website of the Jordanian newspaper al-Ra'i.


Syria 'rebel chemicals' story gets weirder

Blog post, 21 September 2013: The story behind the story about Saudi Arabia supposedly providing Syrian rebels with chemical weapons gets weirder and weirder, though perhaps also a little clearer.

For readers who haven't been following the tale, I'll start with a quick catch-up. Last month an American website, Mint Press News, reported claims from anonymous sources in Syria suggesting that Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia had provided rebel fighters with chemical weapons which the rebels then handled "improperly", causing mass deaths on August 21.

The story was widely circulated on the internet and has since been cited by Russia and others in order to cast doubt on the findings of the UN weapons inspectors.

Mint Press named the journalists who wrote the story as Dale Gavlak (an established freelance based in Jordan who has worked regularly for the Associated Press) and Yahya Ababneh (a young Jordanian who claims to have carried out journalistic assignments "in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Libya for clients such as al-Jazeera, al-Quds al-Arabi, Amman Net, and other publications").

The story got more attention than it might otherwise have deserved because Gavlak's relationship with the Associated Press gave it an air of credibility. Ababneh, on the other hand, is virtually unknown and Google searches for examples of his previous journalistic work issued a statement denying that she was an "author" or "reporter" for the article. "Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author," she said. It was a carefully-worded statement which did not specifically exclude the possibility that Gavlak had been involved in some other capacity in helping to produce the story.

Today, Gavlak's actual role has become clearer. In an email to the Brown Moses blog she stated that although she did no reporting in Syria and could not corroborate Ababneh's account she had edited his article because he normally writes in Arabic, and submitted it to Mint Press on his behalf.

Gavlak also says she asked Mint Press to publish the article under Ababneh's name only, because "I helped him write up his story but he should get all the credit for this".

Mint Press apparently ignored this and published the article under both names and, according to Gavlak, has since refused to remove her name from it.

It seems that Mint Press wanted Gavlak's name to appear on the article for reasons of credibility but that Gavlak did not want to be publicly associated with it even though she had helped Ababneh to get it into shape and, judging by her email, may even have pitched it to Mint Press in the first place.

It's easy to see why Gavlak, as a correspondent for a major international news agency, might not want to be associated with it. The central part of the story was basically an account of some rumours circulating in Syria with no real supporting evidence.

If these had been reported simply as interesting rumours there might not have been a problem but they were presented in a way that promoted them as an alternative explanation for the hundreds of sarin deaths in Syria on August 21. Since Gavlak was editing/supervising Ababneh's work she clearly bears some responsibility for that.

Gavlak also states that she provided Mint Press with biographical information about Ababneh to accompany the article and had unspecified "further communications" with Mint Press about his background. In other words, she appears to have vouched for him as a reporter.

Given that nobody else has succeeded in discovering much about Ababneh or his work, let us hope that Gavlak's next statement or email will cast some light on that.


Syria 'rebel chemicals' mystery deepens

Blog post, 21 September 2013: The mystery surrounding an internet article cited by Russia to cast doubt on the findings of UN weapons inspectors in Syria took a new twist yesterday when one of the alleged authors denied having written the article.

The article, headed "Syrians in Ghouta claim Saudi-supplied rebels behind chemical attack", was originally published by an American website, Mint Press News, under the names of two journalists, Dale Gavlak and Yahya Ababneh. It reported uncorroborated claims by anonymous sources in Syria that Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia supplied some of the rebel fighters with chemical weapons which the rebels then handled "improperly", causing mass deaths on August 21.

Yesterday, Dale Gavlak, a respected freelance journalist who is a frequent correspondent for the Associated Press, issued the following statement:

"Mint Press News incorrectly used my byline for an article it published on August 29, 2013 alleging chemical weapons usage by Syrian rebels. Despite my repeated requests, made directly and through legal counsel, they have not been willing to issue a retraction stating that I was not the author. Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author of the Mint Press News piece. To date, Mint Press News has refused to act professionally or honestly in regards to disclosing the actual authorship and sources for this story.

"I did not travel to Syria, have any discussions with Syrian rebels, or do any other reporting on which the article is based. The article is not based on my personal observations and should not be given credence based on my journalistic reputation. Also, it is false and misleading to attribute comments made in the story as if they were my own statements."

Meanwhile, another website – antiwar.com – which collaborated with Mint Press in circulating the story, issued an apology. It said:

"We originally linked to [the article], but then reprinted [it] on our site at the request of Mint Press because traffic on their site was crashing their server. The validity of the story was primarily based on the fact that the supposed co-author (Dale Gavlak) is a reporter for Associated Press ...

"The staff of Antiwar.com sincerely and deeply apologises for being a part of spreading this article. We also apologise to Dale Gavlak."

Mint Press itself has so far made no comment beyond attaching a note to the original article which says:

"Dale Gavlak assisted in the research and writing process of this article, but was not on the ground in Syria. Reporter Yahya Ababneh, with whom the report was written in collaboration, was the correspondent on the ground ..."

While Gavlak insists that she was not an "author" of the article and did not contribute to the "reporting" in the story, the statement does not specifically say she had no involvement at all. This leaves open the possibility that she contributed in some other way – for example by helping to edit it.

Gavlak is plainly embarrassed at the extent to which her name has been linked to such a dubious and highly-publicised story but she does appear to have a more-than-casual relationship with Mint Press. Its website describes her as one of its Middle East correspondents; she has previously contributed at least 15 articles and has her own Mint Press email address.

There are two other oddities relating to Gavlak's role or non-role in this affair. One is that a "Dale Gavlak" Twitter account (see screenshot) was deleted around September 3 – just a few days after the Mint Press article appeared. The other is that someone created a "Dale Gavlak" Facebook page on August 30, one day after the Mint Press article, and there are claims that the page may be a fake.

Now that Gavlak has dissociated herself from the "rebel weapons" story, its credibility hinges entirely on her alleged co-author, Yahya Ababneh and his anonymous sources in Syria.

There seems to be no doubt that Ababneh does exist and that he is a Jordanian who has studied journalism. So far, however, no evidence has been uncovered to support his claim to have carried out journalistic assignments "in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Libya for clients such as al-Jazeera, al-Quds al-Arabi, Amman Net, and other publications".

Extensive Google searches in Arabic and English have so far failed to locate any article published under his name – apart from his apparent scoop for Mint News on Saudi-supplied chemical weapons in Syria (see earlier blog post). Various people have also been trying to contact him through social media, so far without any response.

If it turns out that Ababneh has made false claims about his journalistic career there will be no reason to trust his reporting from Syria either. Unless he surfaces soon to defend himself, people are surely going to assume the worst.


Yahya Ababneh exposed

Blog post, 22 September 2013: New questions have arisen about Yahya Ababneh, the alleged author of an article claiming that the chemical deaths in Damascus last month were caused by rebel fighters mishandling weapons supplied by Saudi Arabia.

The story, originally published by an American website, Mint Press News, has since been cited by Russian officials (and others) to cast doubt on the findings of the UN weapons inspectors in Syria.

Mint Press named the journalists who wrote the story as Dale Gavlak – an established freelance based in Jordan who has worked regularly for the Associated Press – and Yahya Ababneh, a Jordanian.

In a dramatic twist last Friday, Gavlak issued a statement denying that she was an "author" or "reporter" for the article. "Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author," she said. However, she followed this up yesterday with an email to the Brown Moses blog conceding that she had helped Ababneh to "write up" the story, that she had sent it to Mint Press herself once it was completed, and that she had vouched for Ababneh's journalistic credentials.

According to Ababneh's profile on LinkedIn, the professional networking website, he has carried out journalistic assignments "in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Libya for clients such as al-Jazeera, al-Quds al-Arabi, Amman Net, and other publications".

So far, though, no evidence has emerged to support this claim and internet searches in English and Arabic for articles that carry his byline have drawn a blank.

To add to this mystery, Ababneh's profile was deleted from LinkedIn yesterday, though a cached copy can be found here.

One thing that doesn't show up in the cache is the endorsements given to Ababneh by other LinkedIn users. On the deleted page, he had received endorsements for his skills from two people – Ghazal Omid of the Iran Future organisation and Sufian Ababneh, a legal adviser at the Jordanian embassy in London. Among other things, Sufian Ababneh had endorsed him for his skills as an actor.

* * *

Let's now turn to a column written by Peter Hitchens for the Mail on Sunday on 26 August, which a reader pointed out to me in an email. There's no need to read the column – just scroll down through the comments thread.

Here we find a comment posted at 9.31pm on August 28 in the name of Yan Barakat. Note the timing, because Dale Gavlak says she didn't send the "Saudi chemicals" story to Mint Press until August 29.

This means there is no way Yan Barakat could have read the article on Mint Press's website – and yet Barakat's comments bear some interesting resemblances to the story allegedly written by Ababneh.

"Who used the chemical weapons?" Barakat asks. He continues:

"The answer is neither the Syrian regime, nor the rebels. This is the game of Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief. He gave these weapons to the rebels via tunnels but they did not have enough information about them. Almost all of the rebels handling the weapons were killed because they used them incorrectly.

"Many people inside the village were really angry with Jabhat Al Nazrah [sic] (an Al Qaeda associate in Syria)."

Barakat then adds some information that wasn't included in the Mint Press story which has done so much to excite Russian officials:

"Some old men arrived in Damascus from Russia and one of them became friends with me. He told me that they have evidence that it was the rebels who used the weapons."

So who is Yan Barakat? Clicking on his name in the Mail on Sunday comments thread leads to his Facebook page where there is a photo of him.

Like Yahya Ababneh, Yan Barakat appears to be a Jordanian freelance journalist. There was an article published under his name in the Jerusalem Post.

* * *

Let's now turn to another website – this time a blog in Spanish about Cuba. Here we find another blogger getting excited about Ababneh's weapons story.

The interesting part of this is that it includes a link to Ababneh's now-deleted profile on LinkedIn – together with a photograph which bears a striking resemblance to that of Yan Barakat.

When I first visited the Cuba blog on September 11, the blog post did not point to Ababneh's LinkedIn profile, but to another Ababneh profile at Bayt International. Here, once again, we see a photo of someone resembling Yan Barakat.

This particular profile gives a somewhat different CV from that on the LinkedIn profile and describes Ababneh as working in education and training. However, it does say that he studied journalism in Jordan and says that one of his skills is acting.

Returning to Yan Barakat's Facebook page, we find this photo from a theatrical performance:

Another photo, which appears to be from the same performance appears on yet another Facebook page which carries the name "Yahya Barakat (Yahya Baraskat Ababneh)".

It may be pure coincidence, but another of the photos which Yan Barakat has used as a "cover photo" for his Facebook page is very similar to one which was also used by Yahya Barakat for his LinkedIn avatar.

All this points to the conclusion that Yahya Ababneh and Yan Barakat are different names for the same person. This appears to be confirmed by an Israeli blog post published last June – long before the controversy about the chemical weapons story erupted.

The blog post, by Yovav Kalifon, begins:

"I heard about a Jordanian on CouchSurfing who was inviting Israelis to meet over a cup of coffee. I didn’t make it to that meeting a year ago, but last week I ended up hosting him in Jerusalem!

"Yahya (Yan) Barakat Ababneh is a freelance journalist, Arabic tutor, tourist guide and stage actor. He covered events in Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Libya. His stories appeared on Amman Net, Saraya News, Gerasa News and elsewhere."

If Yahya Ababneh and Yan Barakat are indeed the same person, the question arises as to why Mint Press called him Ababneh rather than Barakat (which is the name he appears to have used for his other writing). If there were fears for his safety it would have been far better to be up-front about it and declare the use of a pseudonym.

With hindsight, this may also explain why Mint Press was so insistent on including Dale Gavlak's name in the joint by-line.

As far as the most crucial part of the article is concerned, we are also left wondering what to make of Barakat's statement that he was alerted to the "rebel weapons" tale by a Russian who befriended him in Damascus.


Manufacturing credibility

Blog post, 25th September 2013: I have spent a lot of time over the last couple of weeks looking into the story that Saudi Arabia provided rebel fighters in Syria with chemical weapons. More specifically, I have been looking at the story of how it became a story – along with the questions this raises about the boundaries between journalism and propaganda, and about attempts to manufacture credibility for a report that was lacking in evidence.

On August 29 Mint Press News, an "advocacy journalism" website in the United States reported claims from anonymous sources in Syria suggesting that Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia had provided rebel fighters with chemical weapons which the rebels – not knowing what the weapons were – then handled "improperly", causing mass deaths on August 21.

Mint Press named the journalists who wrote the story as Dale Gavlak (an established freelance based in Jordan who has worked regularly for the Associated Press) and Yahya Ababneh (a young Jordanian who claims to have carried out journalistic assignments "in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Libya for clients such as al-Jazeera, al-Quds al-Arabi, Amman Net, and other publications").

I read the story at the time and was unconvinced. It struck me as a fairly typical example of the wild rumours that can circulate in conflict situations. Apart from a few quotes from Syrians who could not be named for safety reasons there was no factual evidence in the story to support their claims. Simply stating that some unidentifiable people believe a story to be true does not automatically mean that it is true.

Despite that, and despite the fact that mainstream media have largely ignored it, the "rebel chemicals" tale has turned into one of the most influential stories of the Syrian conflict – for all the wrong reasons. As Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor noted yesterday, it has become Exhibit A for those who deny that the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical attacks on August 21. It has also become a pillar in Russia's propaganda effort to undermine the findings of the UN weapons inspectors.

The eagerness with which Syria "truthers" latched on to this tale was bizarre since it relied on anonymous sources and uncritical quoting of them – practices that the truthers object to vigorously when they are found in mainstream media. But on this occasion it told them what they wanted to hear.

This is not to suggest that the claims from Damascus shouldn't have been reported, but they should not have been given more weight than the evidence merited. To be fair to Mint Press, it did add a note at the end of the article saying that "some" of its content could not be independently verified but the article itself was constructed in a way that implied the claims were probably true.

Reporting unverified claims is something no journalist can totally avoid. It's often important to report what people are saying, even if some of the things they say may be untrue. There's also nothing wrong with journalists making judgments about such claims, so long as it's a judgment that can reasonably be supported by known facts.

A large portion of the Mint Press article is devoted to Saudi involvement in the Syrian conflict. It points out – correctly – that Saudi Arabia opposes the Assad regime and is generally acknowledged to have provided rebels in Syria with money and arms. However, none of this amounts to evidence that Saudi Arabia supplied chemical weapons to the rebels, or even serious grounds for suspecting that it might have done.

An interesting feature in this part of the article is the way it includes a series of links to mainstream publications – Business Insider, the Daily Telegraph, the Independent and the Wall Street Journal – and one effect of that is to give the article as a whole an air of authority and credibility.

This may seem like a minor point but it actually goes to the heart of the problem faced by Mint Press and others on the internet who seek to question received wisdom and promote alternative narratives: how do you persuade people to trust and believe you?

The short answer is that you need to establish a reputation of striving for accuracy, so that people can look back at your record and see that you have been right far more often than you have been wrong. It doesn't mean you have to be right all the time – no one can do that – but you have to show that you are trying; if you get something wrong, you own up to it and learn from the mistake.

That, basically, is what the more credible news organisations have sought to do over the years (even if, in practice, there have also been lapses). Establishing credibility in this way is a long, hard slog – which is why some are tempted to take a short cut.

Essentially, what Mint Press did with its chemical weapons story was to take a short cut by piggy-backing on the credibility of an international news agency, the Associated Press.

Dale Gavlak's association with AP added enormously to the story's credibility and helped to compensate for its flimsiness in terms of hard facts. That's why Mint Press insisted on including her name on the story, even though her actual role in it is disputed.

Writing for the New York Times blog, The Lede, Robert Mackey describes how Gavlak's name (and that of AP) was then misused:

"Since late August ... the MintPress report has been repeatedly mischaracterised as an admission of guilt made by Syrian rebels to an 'Associated Press correspondent'. As Russian officials continued to argue that the Syrian government might not have been responsible for the attack, one report in the state-owned Russian media began, 'In an interview with Dale Gavlak, a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and Mint Press News, Syrian rebels tacitly implied that they were responsible for last week’s chemical attack'."

Russian media were not the only ones to make that mistake and, from the way the story was originally presented, it's easy to see why. (The Russian report has now been corrected to make clear that Ababneh, not Gavlak, was the one who spoke to the rebels and a note at the top of the Mint Press article now makes it clear too.)

This brings us to the role of Yahya Ababneh, also known as Yan Barakat. There seems to have been an attempt to bolster his reporting credentials – it's not clear by whom – by saying at the end of the Mint Press article that he "has covered events in Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Libya. His stories have appeared on Amman Net, Saraya News, Gerasa News and elsewhere."

We still don't know how much of that is true. On social media people began searching for previous articles published under Ababneh's name and so far none have been found, either in English or Arabic. It later emerged that he also uses the name Yan Barakat, and one article under that name has been found in the Jerusalem Post. 

Using two names is not necessarily a problem in itself. "Barakat" and "Yahya Ababneh" are both parts of his real name and "Yan" is a translation of "Yahya" but his reason for using two names is still unexplained. 

More problematic, though, is the discrepancy between the profile of "Yahya Ababneh" on LinkedIn and his profile on another website, Bayt International.

His Bayt International profile says he studied journalism at university but states that since January 2009 he has been working in education and training. A further note, in Arabic, says he teaches Arabic to foreigners living in Jordan. A friend of Ababneh has since provided more information about this.

On the other hand, his LinkedIn profile (now deleted but preserved in a cached version) says he has been a freelance journalist since 2007. It also says this work "includes assignments in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Libya for clients such as al-Jazeera, al-Quds al-Arabi, Amman Net, and other publications".

Given that it can be difficult to make a living from freelance journalism in Jordan, it's entirely possible – even likely – that he has been doing more than one job. That doesn't, by itself, invalidate his reporting.

The key question, though, is credibility. Until Ababneh breaks his silence or someone else provides information to substantiate the claims about his journalistic activities no one can be sure whether the claims are genuine.


Lavrov cites mystery reporter Ababneh

Blog post, 26 September 2013: In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov continues to claim that Syrian rebels were responsible for the chemical attacks in Damascus on August 21.

Lavrov "recently presented his US counterpart John Kerry with the latest compilation of evidence, which was an analysis of publicly available information," Russia Today (RT) reports.

It quotes Lavrov as saying that his "evidence" includes "the reports by the journalists who visited the sites, who talked to the combatants, combatants telling the journalists that they were given some unusual rockets and munitions by some foreign country and they didn’t know how to use them".

Despite Lavrov's use of the plural ("reports" by "journalists"), he was obviously referring to the discredited Mint Press article last month which reported claims from anonymous sources in Syria suggesting that Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia had provided rebel fighters with chemical weapons which the rebels – not knowing what the weapons were – then handled "improperly".

However, RT also reports Lavrov as saying that Russia has "enough evidence to assert" that the sarin used on August 21 was "homemade" – suggesting that Saudi Arabia could not have been the supplier (unless he thinks the sarin was something Prince Bandar had cooked up in his kitchen).

Describing the "evidence" he has presented to Kerry, Lavrov cited several published items – all of which have been challenged – but the Mint Press article was first on his list.

The central claim in the Mint Press article hinges on a series of quotes from unidentified Syrian rebels which were gathered by Yahya Ababneh, a Jordanian who also uses the name Yan Barakat.

In a comment posted on the internet on August 28, Barakat/Ababneh said he had been told about the rebels' chemicals by a Russian who befriended him:

"Some old men arrived in Damascus from Russia and one of them became friends with me. He told me that they have evidence that it was the rebels who used the weapons."

This raises the question of whether it was his Russian friend who first alerted him to the story and whether the Russian provided any further assistance.

Yahya Ababneh / Yan Barakat

Ababneh's own credibility as a reporter has been questioned because claims made by Ababneh and Mint Press about his previous journalistic work have so far not been substantiated.

Mint Press said he "has covered events in Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Libya" and "his stories have appeared on Amman Net, Saraya News, Gerasa News and elsewhere".

Ababneh's recently-deleted LinkedIn profile said says this work "includes assignments in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Libya for clients such as al-Jazeera, al-Quds al-Arabi, Amman Net, and other publications".

Yesterday, Amman Net, one of the Jordanian news organisations that Ababneh claims to have worked for published an article headed: "Who is Yahya Ababneh?"

According to Amman Net, his work has not been published on any Jordanian websites. Amman Net also says it acquired his private telephone number "but he did not answer any calls".

A friend of Ababneh says he is travelling at the moment.

I have already posted a series of questions that I would like to ask Ababneh and if he wishes to make a statement giving his side of the story I shall be happy to post it here.


Ababneh trail leads to Iran

Blog post, 2 October 2013: There's yet another twist in the story of Yahya Ababneh, the mystery journalist who reported claims that Saudi Arabia supplied chemical weapons to Syrian rebels. After more than a month's silence since the claims were published on an American "advocacy journalism" website, Ababneh has now surfaced – apparently in Iran.

An article for BuzzFeed by Rosie Gray quotes emails sent by Ababneh, a Jordanian who also uses the name Yan Barakat:

Ababneh revealed that he was currently in Iran: “I am really busy with my master study because that I am in Tehran ( just Try to write my paper in master to see their media and their opinion about Arab spring), also since 3 months try to get this visa for vacation.”

Besides working as a freelance journalist, Ababneh is "currently working on a master’s degree in journalism", according to Mint Press News, which first published the allegations about Saudi-supplied chemical weapons. The BuzzFeed article continues:

He refused to elaborate further on what exactly he was doing there [in Iran].

“All what can I say for you : I wrote to many media organisations who they will write about me soon,” Ababneh wrote. “I did not writ [sic] my name before because I had a good connect between the regimes and rebels in libya and syria. Now after my name were every where I think I must find another job.”

According to Ababneh's profile on LinkedIn, the professional networking website, he has carried out journalistic assignments "in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Libya for clients such as al-Jazeera, al-Quds al-Arabi, Amman Net, and other publications".

So far, though, no evidence has emerged to support these claims. Apart from the Mint Press article (which also carried the by-line of AP correspondent Dale Gavlak), internet searches in English and Arabic for other articles that carry his byline have drawn a blank.

A single article under his alternative name appeared in the Jerusalem Post. Last week, Amman Net, one of the Jordanian news organisations that Ababneh claims to have worked for published an article headed: "Who is Yahya Ababneh?" According to Amman Net, his work has not been published on any Jordanian websites.

He is known to have visited St Petersburg in Russia but there is no evidence that this was a journalistic assignment. In one of the emails quoted by BuzzFeed he says he was only there for a week to visit a friend.

BuzzFeed also quotes him as saying "I don't publish my true name all times" – which raises the possibility that he may have written under other names that are as yet unknown.

Last weekend, a comment purporting to come from a friend of Ababneh was posted several times in discussion threads relating to Ababneh at al-bab.com.

The comment claimed that Ababneh was the first journalist to visit Benghazi in Libya after the killing of the US ambassador last year.

It also included a photograph of a child, with the advice: "Check who take this picture and how many picture he published." The photograph, which has been widely used, seems to have been taken by a Turkish phographer in 2009.

The comments came from an unverified email address (k.kristina40@yahoo.com) with the user name "kristina - Lebanon". A check on the sender's IP address (91.98.39.36) indicated a server in Iran.

Despite the lack of a verified email address, I thought the comments were interesting and decided to leave them in the thread but I posted a note questioning their authenticity and indicating that they came from Iran.

Shortly after I posted the sceptical note, a visitor to al-bab flagged the original comments from "Kristina" for moderation. Whoever flagged them was using the same IP address in Iran as the original commenter.

The Iran-Ababneh connection is intriguing but I'm not sure that it casts much light on his political views. There are indications that point in a variety of directions:

  • When using his Yan Barakat persona, Ababneh seems well-disposed towards Israel. Besides the article in the Jerusalem Post he has been involved with the CouchSurfing movement.

  • He has also expressed enthusiasm for Russia (as a country) and says he was befriended by some Russians in Syria who told him rebels caused the chemical weapons deaths on August 21.

  • According to the BuzzFeed emails he had "a good connect between the regimes and rebels in Libya and Syria".

  • Also, according to BuzzFeed, he sent an "essay" to the US embassy in Jordan urging the US to curb Saudi influence in the Middle East.

A further Iranian connection (but not a pro-regime one) appeared on Ababneh's now-deleted LinkedIn profile where he had received a number of endorsements from two people. One was Sufian Ababneh, a legal adviser at the Jordanian embassy in London, and the other was Ghazal Omid of the Iran Future organisation.

Ghazal Omid is the daughter of an Iranian multi-millionaire who fled after the fall of the Shah. Omid now lives in Canada and is the author of a book, "Living In Hell: A True Odyssey of a Woman's Struggle in Islamic Iran Against Personal and Political Forces".

UPDATE, 3 July 2014: I have recently had email correspondence with Ghazal Omid who states that despite her endorsement of Yahya Ababneh on LinkedIn she does not actually know him. She says that he endorsed her on LinkedIn and that she endorsed him in return, "to be polite".


Syria and its chemical weapons

Blog post, 12 October 2013: The destruction of Syria's chemical weapons got under way this week. In a letter to the Security Council, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon reported:

"Under the supervision of OPCW experts, supported by the United Nations, the Syrian Arab Republic began to destroy its chemical weapons. Syrian personnel used cutting torches and angle grinders to destroy or disable a range of materials, including missile warheads, aerial bombs and mixing and filling equipment."

This first stage of the process is basically about making Syria's chemical weapons unusable before moving on to destroying the chemicals themselves. A note on the OPCW's website refers to the destruction of "certain Category 3 chemical weapons". Category 3 includes "unfilled munitions, devices and equipment designed specifically to employ chemical weapons".

So far, though, no detail has been released about what these Category 3 weapons were and it's not at all certain that we shall ever be allowed to find out.

Although the task of the OPCW is merely to ensure Syrian compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, knowing exactly what "unfilled munitions, devices and equipment" have been destroyed would cast some useful new light on who was responsible for the chemical attacks near Damascus last August.

Last month's report from UN inspectors implicated two types of munition in the August attacks. One was a type of rocket which seems to be unique to the Syrian conflict and which blogger Brown Moses has dubbed the UMLACA ("Unidentified Munition Linked to Alleged Chemical Attacks") and the other was a 140mm rocket thought to be a Soviet-made M14.

Since the Assad regime and Russia both deny that Syrian government forces were responsible for the August attacks, it's relevant to ask whether either type of munition has been declared to the OPCW as part of the government's stockpile.

If the answer is yes, it will be extremely difficult for anyone to continue blaming rebel fighters for the attacks. A negative answer, on the other hand, (assuming Syria has made a full declaration) would exonerate the regime.

Either way, it shouldn't be difficult to provide an answer – except that the OPCW may not be allowed to say. This is because the Chemical Weapons Convention includes an annexe on confidentiality which imposes strict rules on what may or may not be disclosed.

Among other things, it says:

Information shall be considered confidential if:

(i) It is so designated by the State Party from which the information was obtained and to which the information refers; or

(ii) In the judgement of the Director-General, its unauthorised disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the State Party to which it refers or to the mechanisms for implementation of this Convention

However, it also goes on to say:

Any information may be released with the express consent of the State Party to which the information refers.

So it appears from that the information could be made public if the Syrian government agreed. And if the Syrian government really had no part in the chemical attacks last August, why not seize this opportunity to prove it?


Investigating chemical weapons in Syria

Blog post, 10 December 2013: In the blue corner, Seymour Hersh, one of America's most famous and highly paid investigative reporters. In the red corner, Eliot Higgins, who sits at home in an English provincial town trawling the internet and tweets and blogs about his findings under the screen name Brown Moses.

On Sunday, in a 5,000-word article for the London Review of Books, Hersh suggested Syrian rebels, rather than the regime, could have been responsible for the chemical weapons attacks near Damascus on August 21.

On Monday, Higgins responded on the Foreign Policy website, demolishing the core of Hersh's argument in a mere 1,700 words.

While seeking to re-ignite the "whodunnit" debate about chemical weapons, Hersh's article unwittingly revealed a lot about the changing nature of investigative journalism. Hersh is old-school. He operates in a world of hush-hush contacts – often-anonymous well-placed sources passing snippets of information around which he constructs an article that challenges received wisdom.

The Hersh style of journalism certainly has a place, but in the age of the internet it's a diminishing one – as the web-based work of Higgins and others continually shows.

The main problem with Hersh's article is that he seems to have spent so much time listening to his secretive sources, and perhaps became so enthralled with them, that he never got round to looking at a wealth of information about the chemical attacks which is freely available on the internet. The result was that his article posed a number of once-important questions which others had already answered.

This was a serious flaw and it may explain reports that the article was turned down by the New Yorker and the Washington Post before finally appearing in the London Review of Books.

But the interesting question is why Hersh failed to take account of the open-source evidence. Did he dismiss it, or was he unaware of its existence?

A lot of old-style journalists are still very sniffy about social media, if not the internet itself. They view it as somehow inferior to the "real" (formerly printed) media, and perhaps that's only to be expected because their livelihoods are at stake.

Then there's the argument that the internet contains a lot of rubbish and misinformation. It's true, but only up to a point. There are plenty of valuable nuggets too, and the skill comes in sifting them out. For that, we have to look to the likes of Higgins rather than the likes of Hersh.

There's also the not-so-small matter of journalistic egos and showmanship. Readers, unfortunately, are more likely to be impressed by a reporter who apparently has access to shadowy figures in high places than someone who makes an important discovery from several hours of Googling.

For those interested in the details of Hersh's argument, in addition to Higgins' response, there's a dissection of it at EAWorldView.

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