Peter Hitchens and an imaginary battle over chemical weapons reports

Peter Hitchens, the Mail On Sunday columnist, claims to have detected a "very interesting pattern" in official reports about chemical weapon allegations in Syria. The pattern, he says, is that "if official reports don't justify punitive attacks on Syria, new reports then appear, which do provide such justification". 

This has now happened twice, he adds – first in connection with Khan Sheikhoun last year and again in connection with Douma earlier this year. On both occasions western powers launched airstrikes in response to claims that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons. 

The events in Khan Sheikhoun and Douma have also been the subject of reports by international bodies – more than one such body in both cases. Hitchens describes these as "rival" reports, with the suggestion that since the first report failed to say what "warmongers" were hoping to hear, a second one was obtained to give them a more favourable answer.

Interesting as that theory might be, the evidence doesn't support it. It's based on a misunderstanding of the processes that led to the reports being produced. 

The Khan Sheikhoun reports

In the case of Khan Sheikhoun, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was involved in both of the supposedly competing reports. One came from the OPCW's Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) and the other from the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) in which the UN and OPCW were partners.

The main conclusion of the FFM report, issued in June last year, was that a noxious chemical had been released in Khan Sheikhoun, and that "such a release can only be determined as the use of the Schedule 1A(1) chemical sarin, as a chemical weapon". 

Four months later, the JIM report said the sarin in question was "most likely" to have been made using a precursor from the Assad regime's original stockpile, and it was "confident" the regime had been responsible for its release in Khan Sheikhoun.

According to Hitchens, the earlier report "was not an adequate basis for military action"; the JIM "then re-examined the case, and claimed that it did justify military action". (For what it's worth, the JIM made no such claim – that wasn't part of its remit – and in any case the relevant military action had already been taken long before either report appeared.)

The fact that the JIM's findings went further than those of the FFM's report was not, as Hitchens seems to think, a sign that they were competing reports. They were complementary and had been assigned different tasks.

The role of the FFM was to establish whether a chemical attack had taken place but its mandate prevented it from investigating who might be to blame.

The purpose of the JIM, on the other hand, was "to identify, to the greatest extent feasible, individuals, entities, groups or governments who were perpetrators, organisers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons" in Syria.

The Douma reports

Similarly in the case of Douma, western powers carried out punitive strikes (apparently based on their own intelligence assessments) without waiting for investigative reports from international bodies to provide them with a justification.

In July, the FFM issued a progress report on its Douma investigation. It described what the investigators had been doing in Syria and reported the results of laboratory tests on some of the chemical samples collected. They found no evidence that sarin had been used but hinted at the possible use of chlorine. The report made clear that the investigation is continuing, so we shall have to wait for a further report to find out its conclusions.

Douma featured again – briefly – in a report released last week by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria. The Commission, established shortly after the war began, works under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council. It issues periodic reports in line with its brief "to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law" in Syria since March 2011. Its brief also says it should try to identify those responsible for violations, with a view to holding them accountable.

The Commission's latest report, a 24-page document, is mostly a review of the the war's impact on civilians during the first half of this year but it also has a section headed "Ongoing Investigations" which includes a couple of paragraphs on Douma. Part of it says:

"Throughout 7 April, numerous aerial attacks were carried out in Douma, striking various residential areas. A vast body of evidence collected by the Commission suggests that, at approximately 7.30 pm, a gas cylinder containing a chlorine payload delivered by helicopter struck a multi-storey residential apartment building located approximately 100 metres south-west of Shohada Square."

This, Hitchens says, has more appeal to "the warmongers' choir" than the preliminary report from the FFM. "Its wording appears to suit them better, just as the JIM report on Khan Sheikhoun appeared to suit them better."

His claim, though, is not only that the Commission's report suited the warmongers but that this was its intended purpose. In the words of the headline on his article: "Have your Experts come up with the Wrong Answer? Well, then, find some other experts."

The trouble with that idea is that there's no "wrong answer" from the FFM for the Commission to correct. The FFM hasn't yet published any conclusions; nothing in its preliminary report conflicts with what the Commission is saying and, conversely, nothing in the Commission's report conflicts with anything the FFM has said so far.

Propaganda line

Fanciful as Hitchens' claims might be, they are also troubling because he seems to have swallowed the line propagated by the Assad regime and Russia that the chemical weapons issue has been cooked up to justify military action. He talks of an "incessant campaign to justify a full-scale US military involvement" in Syria and says that war, these days, "has to be fought by pretext".

But if the US is really itching to get its military deeply involved in Syria we have to ask why it hasn't done so already. There has been no shortage of atrocities that might be used as an excuse – so what, exactly, are the Americans waiting for?

The "pretext" meme regarding western intervention in Syria has been running for more than five years and and it has now worn so thin that Hitchens and others really should know better than to keep repeating it.