False flags and fakery: the battle of narratives in Syria

Banned chemical weapons have been used repeatedly during the Syrian conflict and in most cases, if not quite all of them, the Assad regime is the obvious suspect. By its own admission the regime had stockpiles of chemical weapons, and almost all the reported attacks struck rebel-held areas.

Nevertheless, President Assad insists his regime has never used such weapons and is vigorously supported in his denial by Syria's chief ally, Russia, along with various elements on social media. They accuse rebel fighters of staging "provocations" – faked or false flag attacks – and making them look like the work of the regime in the hope that western powers would then respond militarily by toppling Assad.

But if rebels have expended so much effort over the last eight-or-so years fabricating chemical attacks in order to falsely accuse the regime, we might ask why no concrete evidence of these activities has so far come to light. We might expect that by now Syria and Russia, with the intelligence resources at their disposal inside the country, would have come up with a credible explanation of how the charade was being organised. It would certainly be in Assad's interests to do so.


The claims of rebel fabrications in Syria have been around for as long as there have been reports of chemical attacks. One early example came in August 2013 when hundreds of people in Ghouta, a rebel-held area on the outskirts of Damascus, were killed by the nerve agent sarin.

Shortly afterwards, a website with links to Iran and Hizbullah claimed that news reports of the attack and YouTube videos of the dead and injured had been posted on the internet several hours beforehand. This, it said, showed "that the terrorists massacred people then recorded the scenes to deceive people of the world" but in their rush to spread the story had given themselves away by releasing the videos prematurely.

Russia's foreign ministry then adopted the claim without bothering to check it – and was proven wrong almost immediately. Nevertheless, it still insisted there was evidence of a plot to discredit the regime and this became the standard response to subsequent reports of chemical attacks.

The Iraq analogy

Most people in the west don't readily believe Russian conspiracy theories but those about chemical weapons in Syria have resonated more widely than might have been expected. There are significant numbers on social media and "alternative" websites who talk of false flags and fakery as if the claims are self-evidently true.

For some, this is basically a matter of politics: it supports their narrative of the conflict where Assad is a victim, not a perpetrator. Others, though, are caught up in the Iraq syndrome. We all know that false claims about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction were used as a pretext to launch the US-led invasion in 2003. Based on that, many people believe the same thing has been happening in Syria – that the reports about chemical attacks are false and intended to create a pretext for full-scale western intervention.

Not surprisingly, many of those who fall for this argument congratulate themselves on having spotted an attempt at deception and not being fooled by it. But the logic of analogies with Iraq is flawed. Just because false claims were made in connection with Iraq it doesn't automatically follow that claims made in connection with Syria are false too. Nor does the fact that such claims were used as a pretext for war in Iraq make them a pretext for war in Syria.

America's intentions

But let's imagine it's true and that rebels were fabricating chemical attacks aimed at triggering full-scale intervention. This hinges on two assumptions: firstly, that rebels wanted the US to intervene and, secondly, that the US was looking for an excuse to do so.

Again, there are people on social media who treat both these assumptions as self-evident and, again, some view them as essential components in their political narrative about western intentions towards Syria.

The problem, though, is that neither assumption stands up to much scrutiny. When sarin killed hundreds of people in Ghouta in August 2013, photos and videos of the victims caused international shockwaves. If western powers were actually looking for reasons to intervene, this was as strong a reason as they were likely to get. But in the event, they dithered.

A year earlier, President Obama had warned Syria that chemical weapons were a red line as far as the US was concerned. At the time, he didn't elaborate on what would happen if the line was crossed (maybe hoping that his words alone would be enough discouragement) but when the Ghouta attack occurred it put him on the spot.

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In considering the options Obama insisted that any action over Ghouta should focus on chemical weapons rather than the wider war. "The world has an obligation to make sure that we maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons," he said, adding:

"In no event are we considering any kind of military action that would involve boots on the ground; that would involve a long-term campaign. But we are looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act that would help make sure that not only Syria, but others around the world, understand that the international community cares about maintaining this chemical weapons ban and norm."

While supporting armed opposition to Assad inside Syria, the US was reluctant to commit American forces directly – and this was broadly in line with public opinion which showed little appetite for war. Even with Obama's proposal for a "limited, narrow act" he found himself struggling to gain approval from Congress. Meanwhile in Britain the Cameron government's plans to take part in any US-led military action were rejected by parliament.

The situation was eventually defused when Syria agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and dismantle its stockpile along with related equipment and production facilities.

Rebels' expectations

Up to this point many among the Syrian opposition had been hoping the US would intervene directly and tip the military balance in their favour but the outcome of the Ghouta crisis put paid to those expectations. If hopes of American support had indeed motivated them to launch a false flag attack it was clear by now that their ploy had failed.

It's also worth noting that jihadist elements in the opposition had never been enthusiastic about American intervention. They argued that the US was indifferent to the plight of Syrians, and appeared vindicated when the Ghouta crisis blew over without military action by western powers.

In the immediate aftermath of the Ghouta attack, while military action still seemed a possibility, statements from various jihadist leaders showed they were apprehensive about what the Americans might do. In particular, they feared airstrikes would be used as an opportunity to target them as well as the regime.

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In a note headed "Important instructions … before the US initiates its mission", a senior leader of Fatah al-Islam warned: "For each and every missile that strikes a [Syrian] missile site, there will be another that targets the mujahideen’s positions." He urged all jihadists to "change your positions, take shelter, and do not move in public" and advised them not to deploy anti-aircraft weapons against US warplanes as this would "practically be suicidal".

Other groups, including less extreme ones, also declared their opposition to US airstrikes. In Damascus, a joint statement from various Islamist factions and local sheikhs said they would amount to "an aggression against Muslims", while the Syrian Islamic Front said they would only "advance the interests of the perpetrators".

In neighbouring Jordan the leader of the local jihadist Salafi movement declared: "For over two years this monstrous regime slaughtered Muslim men, women and children and the West was silent. Why is it ready to act now? There is only one true reason – to prevent the Syrian people from establishing an Islamic state."

Sarin in rebel hands?

A fundamental problem with false flag narratives of Ghouta is the sarin: how could the rebels have got hold of it?

According to President Assad it's easy: "Anyone can make sarin in his house". This gives the impression that all you need is a few pots and pans plus the right ingredients. But it's a lot more complicated than that.

While it's true that a chemist, working in a laboratory and taking suitable precautions, could make a tiny amount of sarin without undue difficulty producing it in the quantities needed for chemical weapons is a very different proposition.

Worldwide, there is only one known example of anyone other than a government manufacturing sarin on a significant scale. This was the Japanese doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, which used sarin to kill 12 people on the Toyko subway and eight others in a separate attack at Matsumoto in the 1990s.

Aum had spent $10 million on a secret production facility but it produced only 20 litres of sarin over a two-month period before something went wrong and it had to be shut down. Twenty litres is less than half what would be needed to fill just one of the rockets used in the 2013 attack on Ghouta in Syria.

The quantities involved in Ghouta, plus the quality of the sarin detected, meant it was unlikely to have been made by rebels and far more likely to have come from a government source.

Libya and Iraq have been suggested as possible sources but neither of those claims stands up to serious scrutiny. Meanwhile, the Syrian government insists that none of its own sarin stockpile was lost or stolen.

Rebels undeterred?

If triggering western intervention had really been the purpose of the Ghouta attack, the outcome of the ensuing crisis should have been enough to persuade rebels to abandon any further attempts. But apparently not. We are invited to believe that instead of abandoning that hope they kept trying – dozens of times over the next few years.

What's more, most of the attacks reported after Ghouta involved chlorine rather than sarin – implying that what rebels had failed to achieve in Ghouta with a nerve agent they were now trying to achieve with a less deadly chemical that generally had less shock value.

With the notable exception of Douma in 2018, the casualty figures attributed to chlorine attacks were mostly low, usually involving injuries rather than deaths, and they caused barely a flutter of interest in the international media.

If rebels were fabricating these attacks it's hard to see why they persisted for so long, to so little political effect. They were, after all, in the midst of a war and the effort involved in fakery that seemed to be achieving nothing would surely be a waste of resources.

Among the many reported chemical attacks only two, Khan Sheikhoun in 2017 and Douma a year later (both of them after Trump had become president), resulted in western airstrikes. These were limited in scope, targeting regime facilities associated with the attacks, and didn't assist the rebels directly.

Fabricating attacks

A common feature of conspiracy theories is that their supporters rarely put much effort into trying to prove them. Instead, they spend most of the time looking for holes in more probable interpretations, and in that way they avoid having to explain how the conspiracy might have been organised. While claiming the US government was involved in the 9/11 attacks, for example, conspiracy theorists talk of "controlled demolitions" but don't explain how the World Trade Center towers could have been rigged in advance with explosives without anyone noticing or why no one among the many people presumably involved in the plot has blabbed about it since.

Similarly with Syria. Fabricating chemical attacks isn't as simple as it might look, especially under war conditions. In Ghouta, rebels would not only have had to acquire large quantities of sarin but also suitable munitions and launchers, together with specialised equipment for filling the munitions and the necessary expertise.

In theory, faking a chlorine attack might be simpler: obtain a standard chlorine gas cylinder then fit it into a metal frame with wheels and tail fins to give the impression it has been rolled out of a helicopter (Syrian soldiers have previously videoed themselves doing this with barrel bombs).

Douma, though, would have been more elaborate because two cylinders were found – one on a balcony where it had apparently pierced a hole in the concrete, releasing chlorine into the building below. The other appeared to have crashed through a concrete roof before landing on a bed.

To fake this scene, the rebels – who were on the brink of surrendering – would first have to find two pre-existing holes that could plausibly have been caused by the falling cylinders. They would then have to manhandle the cylinders up several flights of stairs to place them in position.

For one of the buildings, they also would need 40 or more dead bodies with no obvious blast or bullet wounds to place in the basement and on the staircase. As a finishing touch they would apply a frothy substance to the mouths of some of them to make it look as if they had been choked by chlorine.

While this – or something like it – may not be beyond the bounds of possibility, there are people who not only consider it more likely than a real chemical attack but insist that it's what actually happened.

Chemical discoveries

Meanwhile, Syria and Russia were happy to make allegations about rebel fakery but with little or no effort to substantiate them. "Chemicals" and "laboratory" were buzz-words and it didn't really matter what sort of chemicals or what sort of laboratory.

In 2013, for example, Russia's RT channel broadcast clips from Syrian state TV showing poisonous materials allegedly found in a rebel "laboratory". The only identifiable substance in the video was a series of bags labelled as caustic soda produced in Saudi Arabia. Images of other supposedly sinister rebel-held equipment included medical supplies from a Qatari-German company.

One alleged chemical weapons facility captured from rebel hands was investigated by the OPCW at the behest of the Syrian government. The investigators found no evidence it was connected with chemical weapons and concluded that its purpose was related to the manufacture of conventional explosives.

Assad's defence

According to President Assad the use of chemical weapons by his regime is "impossible ... for many reasons". Ironically, considering the effort Syria put into developing its chemical weapons, one reason given is that they are ineffective. In a letter to the UN Security Council in 2016, the Syrian ambassador said:

"Chemical weapons containing chlorine gas date back to the First World War and are antiquated; they are far less effective than conventional weapons.

"Chemical weapons have limited effectiveness in low-lying areas. Their effectiveness is completely dependent on ideal weather conditions, and it is not possible to control the winds. It is also easy to avoid the effects of such weapons by leaving the area."

Having asserted that it's easy to escape from chemical attacks, the ambassador went on to claim that the low number of casualties in some of the reported attacks was "inconsistent" with the use of chemical weapons.

Assad emphasised this point himself in a TV interview last year when he claimed small numbers of casualties provide "very concrete evidence" that chemical weapons were not used: "When you use chemical weapons – this is a weapon of mass destruction, you talk about thousands of dead or at least hundreds. That never happened, never – you only have these videos of staged chemical weapons attacks."

Asked about the alleged attack in Douma, Assad said there was no reason to use chemical weapons there because his forces were advancing at the time: "We are in a very good situation so why use it, especially in 2018?"

He went on to say there were examples from earlier in the war when the army lost "a number of important, strategic locations" but had refrained from using chemical weapons to save them from capture.

Despite these claims, there are some military situations where chemical weapons can be more effective than conventional weapons – even when the user is winning – and the objective is not necessarily to kill vast numbers of people. In urban combat, for example, they offer a way to clear out pockets of resistance without needing to fight at close quarters – thus minimising casualties among the advancing forces.

One characteristic of chlorine gas and sarin vapour is that they are both heavier than air. This means they can penetrate tunnels and other underground facilities which in Syria were used by rebels to protect themselves from conventional weapons. A side-effect of this was they also penetrated basements and cellars where civilians often sheltered from bombs.

In addition to that, chemical weapons have a powerful psychological effect and in 2017 a report by Human Rights Watch noted: "Some of the chemical attacks hit residential areas far from the frontlines without any obvious military target and appear to have killed and injured only civilians."

Some see this as implementing a specific counter-insurgency theory known as the "enemy-centric" approach which includes punishing inhabitants in areas where insurgents are active. The alternative "population-centric" approach favours supporting the local inhabitants in the hope of driving a wedge between them and the insurgents.

Why chlorine?

The choice of chlorine as a chemical weapon makes more sense from a regime perspective than it does from a rebel perspective. The first reported chlorine attacks – in April 2014 – came just a few months after Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention and began destroying its stocks and production facilities under the OPCW's supervision. Chlorine, unlike sarin, was not part of that process. There was no obligation to declare it to the inspectors because in normal circumstances chlorine it is not regarded as a chemical weapon.

Under an annex to the Convention, some substances – such as nerve agents – are specifically designated as chemical weapons on the grounds that they are unlikely to be produced for legitimate purposes. Chlorine, on the other hand, has so many legitimate uses that possessing it is not, in itself, forbidden by the Convention. It does, however, become a banned weapon if produced or used with the intention of causing "death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through its chemical action".

Another point, which became apparent later, is that use of chlorine gas is more difficult to confirm by laboratory testing after the event than use of sarin, because sarin leaves distinctive chemical traces. Chlorine, on the other hand, is a very common element and it's difficult to distinguish between chlorine released in a chemical attack and chlorine that already exists in the environment. There may be other evidence, such as witness statements, the symptoms of victims and remains of munitions, but while laboratory tests may point to chlorine use they cannot confirm it with the same degree of certainty as sarin use.

'Gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies'

Joining the Chemical Weapons Convention after the Ghouta attack created an opportunity for Syria to demonstrate the sincerity of its intentions by making a full and honest declaration of its chemical weapons and related facilities. But more than six years later, despite numerous amendments to the original declaration, the OPCW has still not accepted it as complete. In the official phrase, there are "gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies" that have still to be explained.

While some issues were resolved, new ones arose. In a blistering report in 2016, Ahmet Üzümcü, the OPCW's director-general at the time, complained that many of Syria's answers to questions were "not scientifically or technically plausible" and the number of outstanding issues needing to be clarified had "increased steadily over time".

In many instances, he said, new information proffered by Syria amounted to "a considerable change in narrative from information provided previously" and in some cases it contradicted the regime's earlier narratives.

Without a "change in approach" by the Syrian authorities, efforts to resolve all outstanding issues were unlikely to yield concrete results, Üzümcü said. He called on Syria "to provide information that is scientifically and technically plausible, to facilitate access to individuals with strategic knowledge and oversight of the Syrian chemical weapons programme, and to engage in a dialogue that is proactive and fully transparent."

Full details of Syria's declaration have not been made public but documents on the OPCW's website show it declared 41 chemical facilities at 23 sites, plus 1,000 tonnes of chemicals defined as Category 1 under the Convention – which includes nerve agents.

Despite Syria's claim of making "all possible efforts" to fulfil its obligations, there is no doubt its initial declaration was incomplete – though how incomplete remains an unanswered question. Syria had originally declared four different chemical warfare agents but following "consultations" with the OPCW and sampling by inspectors Syria admitted to working on some previously undeclared chemical warfare agents – and two more were added to the list.

There were also discrepancies between Syria's records of chemical weapons production and the quantities it had declared. The OPCW said it was "unable to verify the precise quantity of chemical weapons that were destroyed or consumed" before Syria signed up to the convention. At one point Syria claimed it had used 15 tonnes of nerve agent and 70 tonnes of sulfur mustard for research purposes – figures that the inspectors found hard to believe since only tiny amounts would be needed for research.

On the munitions front, there were difficulties accounting for 2,000 or more chemical shells which Syria said it had either used or destroyed – after purportedly adapting them for non-chemical purposes. Again, the inspectors doubted the truth of this because converting the shells into conventional weapons would scarcely have been justified by the effort and expense.

Evidence melted down

During one field visit inspectors noticed that remains of destroyed chemical munitions and production equipment which Syria had agreed to retain for further investigation had disappeared. A military official later told the inspectors he had sent them to a local smelting company where they were melted down.

On another occasion, reported by the OPCW last year, inspectors visiting a previously-declared chemical weapons production facility noticed some gas cylinders by a side road behind the facility. Syria said it had previously declared them but by that stage all declared material was supposed to have been destroyed – which raised questions about why the cylinders were still there.

Towards the end of 2018 inspectors visited the Barzah and Jamrayah branches of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (which carried out chemical weapons research, among other things) and found "ongoing construction activities" at both sites. The OPCW "advised" Syria that in future it should be notified about "the nature and scope" of any such activity before construction began.

While visiting Barzah the inspectors also took samples – one of which revealed a Schedule 2 chemical (ethyl ethylphosphonate) which laboratory reports said "could be the primary hydrolysis product" of a Schedule 1 chemical. The Syrian authorities said they would look into the matter and – a year later – provided an explanation which the OPCW is now studying.

The question of blame

While protesting its innocence, Syria has become increasingly resistant to international attempts to identify perpetrators and has been actively supported in this by Russia which has its own issues with the OPCW following the nerve agent attack on the Skripals in Britain in 2018.

The initial investigations of reported attacks, first by the UN and later by the OPCW's Fact-Finding Mission (FFM), were limited to "establishing facts" – which meant they were not allowed to attribute blame. In August 2015, however, the UN Security Council unanimously decided to set up a Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) 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, including chlorine or any other toxic chemical, in the Syrian Arab Republic".

The JIM's activities were confined to those cases where the FFM had already determined that chemical weapons were used or likely to have been used, and its task was to examine all available evidence with view to assigning culpability. However, the JIM was not a judicial body; it could identify suspects but had no power to take action against them.

The JIM decided to focus on nine specific cases and by August 2016 had attributed three of the chemical attacks to Syrian government forces and a fourth one – involving sulfur mustard – to ISIS/Daesh fighters. In the remaining five cases it said there was not enough evidence to reach a conclusion. The Assad regime responded with a 17-page critique complaining about the JIM's reliance on "unprofessional and politicised" reports by the Fact-Finding Mission.

As the JIM's initial one-year mandate came to an end with work still to be done, wrangling broke out over an extension, with Russia demanding that the JIM should not be used as a tool to criticise the Syrian government. Nevertheless, the JIM's mandate was extended for a further twelve months and it took up two new cases identified by the FFM. One was the sarin attack in Khan Sheikoun which, according to reports at the time, killed at least 74 people and injured hundreds more. The other was a mustard gas attack in Um Housh, in Idlib province, the previous September which injured two women.

In what turned out to be its final report, the JIM blamed ISIS/Daesh for the Um Housh attack and the Syrian government for Khan Sheikhoun. Reviewing the two cases in tandem helped to give an appearance of even-handedness but Russia had already rejected the FFM's version of events in Khan Sheikhoun on which the JIM based its findings.

Not surprisingly, when the JIM's mandate next came up for renewal in November 2017 Russia used its veto and the JIM ceased to exist.

That was not the end of attempts to identify chemical weapon users and in June 2018 a special session of the OPCW's governing body, the Conference of the States Parties, voted to establish a new attribution mechanism under the auspices of the OPCW rather than the Security Council – which meant Russia would not be able to veto it. Russia and its allies did oppose the move but were unable to muster enough votes to block it.

The new body, known as the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) is revisiting cases where the FFM concluded that a chemical weapon was used or likely to have been used. It hasn't issued any reports yet but is said to be "in the process of concluding its work on the first incidents under investigation".

Last September the IIT circulated all the Chemical Weapons Convention's member states requesting "information potentially relevant to establish the origin of the chemical weapons used in the nine identified incidents and useful to identify perpetrators (including delivery methods and background information related to actors that might have the capabilities to use such weapons), evidence suggesting or contradicting attribution to certain actors, as well as any element related to the relevance, probative value, and reliability of such information, as well as the credibility of sources".

Syria, however, had already said it did not recognise the IIT and would not cooperate with it.

A dangerous precedent

The importance of completing these investigations is not to be underestimated. Since 1997, when the OPCW was established, 97% of the world's known stockpiles have been destroyed and an almost global consensus developed against their use.

War in Syria, though, broke that consensus. Numerous allegations of chemical attacks there have brought the OPCW face to face with what former Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü actfully described as "a political reality that prevents action beyond a certain point".

Put more bluntly, a small group of countries – headed by Russia – have repeatedly sought to obstruct its investigations in connection with Syria. This has fundamental implications that stretch far beyond the current conflict. If chemical weapons can be used with impunity in Syria, others will be tempted to use them elsewhere.

It's a dangerous precedent that not only jeopardises the OPCW's future effectiveness but threatens to unravel more than two decades of painstaking work towards eliminating chemical weapons completely.