After a lengthy silence the head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has revealed some interesting new details about a controversial internal document that surfaced recently on the internet.
The document in question was an “engineering assessment” relating to the OPCW’s investigation of an alleged chemical attack in Douma, Syria, last year. Written by OPCW staff member Ian Henderson it was marked “draft for internal review” and “do not circulate”.
In his assessment Henderson suggested that two gas cylinders found in Douma and examined by the OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission had been “manually placed”. This conflicted with the published official report of the investigation which implied they had been dropped from the air (though it did not explicitly say so).
The argument about “air-dropped” versus “manually placed” is an important one. If the cylinders were dropped from the air the obvious implication is the Assad regime was responsible, since rebel fighters in Syria had no aircraft. “Manually placed”, on the other hand, could support claims by the regime’s defenders that rebel fighters faked a chemical attack in order to discredit the regime.
Henderson’s assessment was not mentioned in the FFM’s official report — prompting claims on social media that it had been suppressed for political reasons. The Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media — which published the leaked document — presented it as evidence that the OPCW “has been hijacked at the top by France, UK and the US”.
For more background see previous blog posts:
Leaked document revives controversy over Syria chemical attacks
16 May 2019
OPCW and the leaked Douma document: what we know so far
21 May 2019
Leaked OPCW document: where’s the conspiracy?
25 May 2019
Russia issues new challenge to OPCW over Douma report
28 May 2019
OPCW replies to Russian and Syrian critiques of its Douma report
29 May 2019
The OPCW has now given its own version of events in the form of a statement by Fernando Arias, the organisation’s director-general. Arias’s statement was originally part of a private briefing on 28 May for states parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention but earlier today the OPCW made it public by posting the text on its website.
At the briefing Arias suggested Henderson’s document was part of the OPCW’s normal internal processes. “The Secretariat encourages serious and professional debates within,” he said. “Diverse views were expressed, discussed and considered against the overall facts and evidence collected and analysed.”
Arias also implied that Henderson’s view about “manually placed” cylinders was ignored in the official report because it came too close to attributing responsibility — which was not allowed under the Fact-Finding Mission’s terms of reference:
“The document produced by this staff member pointed at possible attribution, which is outside of the mandate of the FFM [Fact-Finding Mission] with regard to the formulation of its findings. Therefore, I instructed that, beyond the copy that would exclusively be kept by the FFM, the staff member be advised to submit his assessment to the IIT [Investigation and Identification Team], which he did, so that this document could later be used by the IIT.”
The brief of the IIT is to identify “the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons” in Syria and to report on “all information potentially relevant to the origin of those chemical weapons”. It is a newly-created body within the OPCW and has not yet started work.
Henderson’s exact role at the OPCW has been much debated on social media. The Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media claimed he was “the engineering expert” on the FFM and “was assigned to lead the investigation of the cylinders and alleged impact sites”. However, the OPCW’s press office denied he had ever been a member of the FFM.
In his briefing on 28 May, Arias clarified the picture a bit. At the time of the FFM’s deployment in Douma, he said, Henderson “was a liaison officer at our Command Post office in Damascus. As such, and as is customary with all deployments in Syria, he was tasked with temporarily assisting the FFM with information collection at some sites in Douma.”
So it appears that Henderson did take part in the investigation, though not as an official member of the FFM — and he was clearly not leading the investigation as the Working Group claimed.
Perhaps the most intriguing snippet of information in Arias’s briefing concerns the leaking of Henderson’s document, which was dated 27 February. Arias said:
“In March 2019, I received the first indication that an internal document pertaining to the Douma incident, produced by a staff member could have been disclosed outside of the Secretariat.”
This suggests that whoever obtained it from inside the Secretariat hung on to it for a couple of months (or thereabouts) before passing it to the Working Group for publication.
On 26 April — a fortnight before Henderson’s document surfaced on the internet — Russia sent the OPCW a nine-page critique of the official Douma report (to which the OPCW has since replied).
Some of the arguments deployed in the Russian critique were remarkably similar to those in Henderson’s document, even though at that stage it was still unpublished.
The Russian document said:
“The parameters, characteristics and exterior of the cylinders, as well as the data obtained from the locations of those incidents, are not consistent with the argument that they were dropped from an aircraft.”
Henderson’s document said:
“The dimensions, characteristics and appearance of the cylinders and the surrounding scene of the incidents, were inconsistent with what would have been expected in the case of either cylinder having been delivered from an aircraft.”
The Russian document said:
“The existing facts more likely indicate that there is a high probability that both cylinders were placed at Locations 2 and 4 manually rather than dropped from an aircraft.”
Henderson’s document said:
“Observations at the scene of the two locations, together with subsequent analysis, suggest that there is a higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed at those two locations rather than being delivered from aircraft.”
The following is the relevant part of Arias’s briefing statement:
The Douma incident took place on 7 April 2018. The members of the FFM were appointed and because of security reasons, they only had access to the site two weeks after the incident.
I started my duties on 25 July 2018. From then on, while ensuring the independence and impartiality of the work undertaken by the FFM, I had regular briefings with FFM leadership. Because of the complexity of the investigation and the large amount of evidence collected, I was informed that the FFM would require more time to produce its final report.
In March 2019, I received the first indication that an internal document pertaining to the Douma incident, produced by a staff member could have been disclosed outside of the Secretariat. It should be noted that, the time of the FFM deployment in Douma in 2018, this staff member was a liaison officer at our Command Post Office in Damascus. As such, and as is customary with all deployments in Syria, he was tasked with temporarily assisting the FFM with information collection at some sites in Douma.
The document produced by this staff member pointed at possible attribution, which is outside of the mandate of the FFM with regard to the formulation of its findings. Therefore, I instructed that, beyond the copy that would exclusively be kept by the FFM, the staff member be advised to submit his assessment to the IIT, which he did, so that this document could later be used by the IIT.
As is the case with all FFM investigations, the Secretariat encourages serious and professional debates within, so all views, analysis, information and opinions are considered. This is what the FFM did with the information included in the publicly disclosed document; all available information was examined, weighed and deliberated. Diverse views were expressed, discussed and considered against the overall facts and evidence collected and analysed.
With regard to the ballistics data collected by the FFM, they were analysed by three external experts commissioned by the FFM, and working independently from one another. In the end, while using different methods and instruments, they all reached the same conclusions that can be found in the FFM final report.
When further evidence appeared that the document drafted by the staff member had been shared outside this framework, I considered I had sufficient information to authorise the initiation of an investigation to clarify the situation. At this moment, and consistent with my responsibilities as Director-General towards States Parties, actions had to be taken.
Taking into account that the issue is under investigation, I will not make any further commentaries or evaluations that could be incompatible with the requirements of the investigation. I intend to keep you informed about the outcome of the investigation, as appropriate, in due time.
I have provided all the information I have so far.
For now, I would like to reiterate that I stand by the impartial and professional conclusions of the FFM that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place in Douma on 7 April 2018. This toxic chemical contained reactive chlorine. The toxic chemical was likely molecular chlorine.
I remain available to all States Parties for further clarifications through bilateral discussions and written correspondence, as I have endeavoured to do since taking office.