Chapter 15: Fakes and Fantasies

Advocates of conspiracy theories usually avoid questions about how any particular conspiracy might have been organised. They talk about “controlled demolitions” in connection with the 9/11 attacks but don’t explain how the buildings could have been rigged with explosives without anyone noticing or why no one among the many people who would be needed to implement such a plot has spoken about it since.

Similarly with Syria, fabricating chemical attacks wasn’t as simple as the regime’s defenders made it sound, especially under war conditions. To create a trail of false evidence for a sarin attack rebels would, at the very least, need some sarin. But laboratory tests on samples from the scene of attacks showed it couldn’t just be any kind of sarin. It would have to be sarin with chemical “signatures” that were consistent with the formula and production process used – apparently uniquely – by the Syrian government. Questions about how this deception might have been contrived drew only vague answers from the believers in rebel fakery but they were questions that the OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) had to consider as part of its brief to identify perpetrators.

The IIT had a list of nine cases to work through – including Douma – and its first report focused on three incidents in Ltamenah during March 2017. Two of them, on 24 and 30 March, involved sarin and the IIT found “reasonable grounds” to believe that both attacks were carried out by an Su-22 warplane belonging to the 50th Brigade of the Syrian 22nd Air Division and operating from Shayrat airbase. At least 16 people were affected by the first attack and at least 60 by the second one.

“Reasonable grounds” is a term used in law which refers to the conclusion that “reasonable” person would reach if presented with all the available evidence. It has also been the standard of proof adopted by various international fact-finding bodies and commissions of inquiry. 

The IIT said its conclusions were based on a “holistic assessment” of the evidence, and on “the combination, consistency, and corroboration of all of the information gathered as a whole”. Explaining the phrase “reasonable grounds”, it said this degree of certainty was in line with standard practice of international fact-finding bodies and commissions of inquiry and meant that “an objective observer would reasonably conclude that a violation was committed”. A classified version of the IIT’s report available only to OPCW member states named military commanders on the government and rebel sides who were active in the area at the time. Names were omitted from the published version, though it retained their job titles, making some of them very easy to identify. One was “General [REDACTED]”, the armed forces’ Chief of Staff, reportedly acting “upon the directives of President [REDACTED]”.

Based on metal fragments recovered from Ltamenah, the IIT concluded that the munition involved on 24 and 30 March was a M4000 aerial bomb designed and made by the Syrian government for use as a chemical weapon. Syria’s sarin was stored in binary form as two separate chemical components to be mixed just before use, and for that reason the M4000 had two compartments separated by a membrane. One compartment was to be filled with methylphosphonyl difluoride (DF) and the other with hexamine and isopropanol. The rear compartment included a paddle to pierce the membrane and start the mixing process before attaching the bomb to an aircraft. To release sarin, the M4000 contained a small bursting charge of TNT triggered by a fuse attached to the nose.

The Syrian government denied having any M4000 bombs in its possession at the time of the Ltamenah attacks. It claimed they had all been destroyed or converted into explosive bombs shortly after Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, though in the absence of supporting evidence OPCW officials were sceptical of the claim.

Before reaching its conclusion that government forces were responsible, the IIT considered various alternative scenarios where the attacks might have been faked by rebels. Since the rebels were not in a position to drop bombs from aircraft, one hypothesis was that they could have obtained an empty M4000 bomb and blown it up with explosives (so as to appear that it had been used), later adding illicit chemicals to the wreckage.

Munition specialists consulted by the IIT found this an unrealistic proposition. In particular, they pointed out that a fuse recovered from the scene in Ltamenah showed signs of having functioned “in a normal way on impact”, with no evidence of damage from an external explosion. If the rebels had used their own explosives to damage the munition they would also have had to ensure that the resulting crater was the right size, since in normal use the M4000 left a smaller crater than conventional bombs. The idea that rebels had obtained an empty M4000 was also ruled out by the Syrian government, which repeatedly denied that any of its stockpile had been lost, stolen or captured.

The IIT also explored an alternative suggestion: that rebels might have gathered fragments of chemical munitions from an old testing range. It considered this implausible, partly because of the difficulty rebels would have had in keeping the fragments “in appropriate conditions” for later use in a faked attack. It did, however, learn of a testing range which the Syrian government had stopped using in 2009. Armed groups close to ISIL/Daesh had reached the area in 2016 and early 2017 though it was unclear whether they ever took over the facility and, according to further information obtained by the IIT, none of the aerial munitions tested at the range had contained sarin.

The overriding problem with these alternative scenarios was that laboratory tests revealed evidence of sarin not only in the remains of the munitions but also in soil samples. This meant that even if rebels had faked the attacks they would still have needed their own supplies of sarin. Furthermore, the only known source for the type of sarin involved was the Syrian government.

Various chemical markers showed that the sarin used in Ltamenah was “consistent” with sarin from the Syrian government’s stockpile and also with the government’s production processes. The report said: “The IIT received no information that the sarin found in Ltamenah could have been developed in this way elsewhere, yet resulting in the ‘signature’ evidenced by that specific collection of chemicals. On the basis of the investigations of the IIT, this type of sarin is not known to have been developed and manufactured by states or entities other than the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic.” The report added that the chemical “signature” from the two incidents in Ltamenah suggested the sarin was from the same source as that used in the Khan Sheikhoun attack a few days later – for which the UN’s Joint Investigative Mechanism had previously blamed the Syrian government.

Regarding the other incident in Ltameneh, on 25 March, witnesses had reported seeing a helicopter dropping cylinders, one of which crashed through the roof of an underground hospital, releasing a chemical. The hospital was quickly evacuated but a doctor who stayed behind to complete an operation later died.

An earlier report from the Fact-Finding Mission concluded it was “very likely” that chlorine had been used as a chemical weapon and after further investigation the IIT reported: “There are reasonable grounds to believe that, at approximately 15:00 on 25 March 2017, a helicopter of the Syrian Arab Air Force, departing from Hama airbase, dropped a cylinder on the Ltamenah hospital; the cylinder broke into the hospital through its roof, ruptured, and released chlorine, affecting at least 30 persons.” The IIT said it had considered the possibility that the cylinder “was delivered not by helicopter, but rather by surface-to-surface weapons or placed in the hospital” but found such a conclusion “incompatible with the information obtained, considered in its totality”.

The IIT’s second report, issued in April 2021, concerned an incident in Saraqeb three years earlier. It found “reasonable grounds” to believe that a military helicopter from the regime’s Tiger Forces had dropped at least one cylinder. “The cylinder ruptured and released a toxic gas, chlorine, which dispersed over a large area affecting 12 named individuals,” the report said.

The Syrian authorities had claimed the Saraqeb attack was faked and, according to the IIT, suggested specific leads for investigation but without providing concrete evidence. Nevertheless, the report said, the IIT had “pursued these avenues of inquiry with a variety of other sources”. In that context, the IIT said it received information that the damage on two cylinders found in the area was the result of being dropped from a 200-metre radio mast in the vicinity rather than from a helicopter. However, the IIT said it could find no source, other than mere speculation, supporting the idea. It added that imagery of the ground near the radio mast showed craters caused by explosions but not the type of crater that would be caused by dropping a cylinder.

Pursuing the perpetrators

The IIT’s findings had no automatic consequences for those identified as perpetrators but its investigations were a step towards accountability and a way of supporting the norm against chemical weapons. At an international level it was about maintaining a rules-based international order – specifically, compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention by its signatories – but the obstacles were not to be underestimated, as a report from the UN Institute for Disarmament Research noted:

“In international law, states are, at the same time, the source of the law, the prosecutor of violations, the judge, the executioner, and (if in violation of norms) the culprit. Enforcing international law requires a degree of cooperation and acceptance of generally agreed rules by all states concerned. Unity in the Security Council is key to creating conditions that would ensure such cooperation. When this willingness to cooperate and apply common rules is lacking, narrow national interest and geopolitical considerations can become predominant and collectively enforcing the law becomes increasingly difficult.”

At the level of individuals, though, it was about criminal responsibility and there were various initiatives to compile evidence for eventual use in war crime trials. One of these was the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), established by the UN General Assembly in 2016 “to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights violations and abuses and to prepare files in order to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings, in accordance with international law standards”.

This was followed in 2018 by the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, initiated by France and supported by the European Union and 40 individual countries. Unlike the IIIM, which was concerned specifically with breaches of international humanitarian law in Syria, the focus of the International Partnership was on combating the proliferation or use of chemical weapons – potentially in other countries besides Syria. One of its stated aims was “to gather, compile and retain all available information on those who use chemical weapons” and another was to share this information “with countries and relevant international organisations so that the perpetrators will one day be held accountable for their actions”. It maintained a public list of individuals and entities sanctioned as a result of being identified for involvement in the use or development of chemical weapons.

Previous experience in the Balkans, Libya and the Democratic Republic of Congo had shown the importance of collecting evidence of atrocities while a conflict is ongoing, rather than waiting for it to end. The Commission for International Justice and Accountability (Cija) sought to do so and by 2021 it had collected more than 1.3 million documents from Syria, including 300,000 items relating to the Islamic State group (Daesh). As a non-governmental organisation, though with funding from governments, it worked largely undercover collecting documents in bulk from recently abandoned offices and other facilities in Syria. These were then transported abroad, often at considerable risk, and stored in a safe location. Cija staff worked with scanned copies to index them and analyse their content.

These activities began to bear fruit when a court in Germany jailed Eyad al-Gharib, a Syrian security officer, on charges of “aiding and abetting a crime against humanity in the form of torture and deprivation of liberty”. It was the first trial of its kind for a Syrian government official and Cija’s evidence played a part in his conviction.

Cija also uncovered evidence that helped authenticate photographs passed to an opposition group, the Syrian National Movement, by a defector codenamed “Caesar”. Caesar worked as a police photographer in Syria and had access to a vast database of images, many of them showing the bodies of people who had died in custody after being tortured. By the time he defected, Caesar had copied more than 50,000 images from the database.

Many of the photos showed bodies of soldiers, rebel fighters and civilians killed in the conflict but others showed people who had who died in detention or after being transferred from detention to a military hospital – a total of at least 6,786 detainees, according to Human Rights Watch. President Assad claimed the photographs were faked, though there was plenty of evidence indicating they were genuine. Many of the detainees’ bodies had obvious signs of torture – including eyes gouged out – and had a prisoner number, either marked on the body or attached to it. Documents retrieved by Cija provided further verification because of some the numbers on the bodies matched those in documents detailing where individual prisoners had been held.

Cija’s activities had come to the attention of Paul McKeigue of the Working Group on Syria, Progaganda and Media – the Edinburgh University professor who believed rebel groups were killing people in gas chambers. McKeigue wrote in an email that his group had “serious concerns” about the reliability of the evidence provided by Cija and “the possibility that this could lead to miscarriages of justice”. To counter Cija’s activities he proposed using what he described as the Al Capone tactic. “Even if we can’t bring them down over war crimes we may be able to get them over fraud,” he wrote.

At the time, Cija was facing allegations of financial irregularities and was under investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud agency, Olaf. However, according to the European Commission the issue was about invoicing on an EU contract and did not cast doubt on Cija’s work compiling evidence from Syria.

Exchanging emails with Ivan

Meanwhile, Professor McKeigue had begun his own investigation of Cija and he sent a list of questions to Bill Wiley, the organisation’s Canadian founder and director. Wiley was immediately suspicious because McKeigue didn’t ask about Cija’s work and seemed only interested in Wiley’s business activities.

Shortly afterwards, McKeigue received an email from an unknown sender. It said: “My office heard from London yesterday that you have some questions about Cija. Perhaps we can help you get to the truth.” This marked the start of an email correspondence that continued for three months. McKeigue’s new contact told him: “We know your work which is consistent with our thinking. Send your questions. One or two to build confidence. Any answers will be on background only.”

In response, McKeigue asked about Wiley’s sex life and whether he might have a drug habit, but the contact steered him away from that: “We are interested in Wylie’s attacks on Syria and its people, not these personal matters ... He is an American CIA asset hiding in the open.”

McKeigue replied that he would need more details of the alleged CIA connection: “If we just come straight out with ‘Wylie is CIA’ I think we will be derided as conspiracy theorists making wild unsourced allegations.” His contact responded: “My colleagues laughed in a knowing way when this was read to them. What sort of evidence would you want to feel comfortable stating this fact? If we can provide it without damage to our sources we will do that.”

The contact’s use of English was a bit odd, suggesting it was not his mother tongue. After a while he identified himself as “Ivan” and began addressing McKeigue by his first name. “Dear Paul,” Ivan wrote. “Thank you very much for your letters from last night and now. We translated it and pasted your email yesterday into cable to Moscow. Your letter from today we will also send it to Moscow without a translation, to not cost time because some speak English but not the bosses.”

Ivan gave plenty of hints that he was working for Russian intelligence, though he never said so explicitly. He advised McKeigue about people to speak to and people to avoid, and McKeigue agreed not to contact any Cija staff without checking with Ivan first.

McKeigue eventually reported to Ivan that he had found evidence of Bill Wiley’s CIA connection. Although Wiley said he had never worked for the intelligence services he had been employed by the US Defense Department in Iraq in connection with the trial of Saddam Hussein. McKeigue, however, had discovered a book which mentioned a briefing for Vice-President Dick Cheney attended by “Bill, the CIA analyst” in Baghdad.

Apparently untroubled by the lack of a surname, McKeigue told Ivan: “This can only be Wiley. What do you think? The CIA’s Publication Review Board redacted many other passages [in the book], but missed this.” Ivan replied: “This is why we admire you and your work so much ... Funny, we did not know that the meeting [with Cheney] was in the public. We thought it was our secret!”

On another occasion McKeigue sent Ivan details of “the UK network of Syria narrative enforcers” – journalists and academics who had been openly critical of the Working Group – implying that Ivan and his colleagues might like to investigate them further: “If you don’t have any leads from these names, I can add a few more that might help to make connections.” [1]

He also alerted Ivan to a journalist at Ruptly, a video news agency funded by the Russian government, who had emailed the Working Group with some unwelcome information about Douma. The Working Group claimed the bodies found in Douma were not those of local residents and McKeigue believed they had been murdered by rebels in a gas chamber. However, emails from the journalist suggested otherwise. Ruptly’s “stringers” (freelance reporters) on the ground in Syria had found a man who said his wife and four children were all killed in the Douma chemical attack – thus casting doubt on claims that it was faked. This made McKeigue suspicious of the Ruptly journalist and he advised Ivan: “I suggest that your office keeps an eye on what [he] and his stringers (if they exist) are doing, without letting him know that anyone has raised concerns.”

From time to time McKeigue provided Ivan with updates on the Working Group’s activities. He drew Ivan’s attention to a “Statement of Concern” about the OPCW’s Douma investigation, signed by various prominent figures, which he said Piers Robinson, the group’s convenor, had “worked over the last few months to coordinate”. Ivan seemed puzzled by this and asked McKeigue why he and Robinson had not added their own signatures to the document. McKeigue informed him that the Working Group was “somewhat controversial” and had been smeared in the media. “Piers [Robinson] thinks it’s best for him to stay behind the scenes.”

Ivan was also curious about how Lord West, a former admiral in the British navy, had been persuaded to sign the statement. “Lord West is not a friend of Russia,” he said. McKeigue replied that Lord West was important “precisely because he is not a friend of Russia” and could therefore not be smeared as a Kremlin stooge. “In April 2018 both he and the former commander of UK Special Forces, Jonathan Shaw, gave TV interviews in which they were sceptical about the alleged chemical attack in Douma.”

McKeigue added: “A new interview with Lord West will be in the Mail on Sunday newspaper tomorrow. He is now on Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee which is chaired by Julian Lewis MP, another independent minded sceptic ... We hope that they'll use the committee to launch an investigation of how the intelligence services briefed the Prime Minister in April 2018 that the Douma incident was a chemical attack by the regime.”

McKeigue’s emails to Ivan were a mixture of truth, fantasy, conspiracy theory and wishful thinking, and he admitted later that he had embellished some of them. Their content might never have come to light except for one thing. “Ivan” was not a Russian agent – in fact, he didn’t exist. McKeigue had been caught in a sting set up by staff at Cijra when they became aware of his efforts to discredit them.

The IIT's report on Douma

In January 2023 the IIT issued its long-awaited report on Douma which – not surprisingly – confirmed that Syrian government forces had carried out a chlorine gas attack. More specifically, it concluded that the two cylinders found at the scene had been dropped by helicopter, that chlorine gas had been released and that people had died from exposure to it.

In line with its remit, the IIT considered all possible scenarios – which meant its conclusions were based not only on the ample supply of evidence pointing to a chemical attack but also the lack of evidence for alternative explanations. As a result, large parts of its report focused on the implausibility of claims that the attack had been “staged” or faked by rebels, and this was the first time the OPCW had publicly addressed them in any detail.

The FFM's earlier investigation had identified the gas cylinders as the “possible” source of chlorine used in the attack. One lay on a bed after apparently crashing through the roof and bouncing off the floor. The other was on a balcony/patio where it had apparently pierced a hole into the room below.

The crucial question was how they got there, and the most obvious explanation was that they had been dropped from the air – in which case Syrian government forces had to be the culprit because rebels didn’t have the use of aircraft. Syrian forces had long used helicopters to drop improvised bombs in the form of barrels stuffed with explosives and on occasions they had also dropped chlorine cylinders. Cylinders used in this way were often wrapped in a steel frame or cradle with wheels and lifting lugs, making it easier to manoeuvre them in and out of helicopters. The frames also provided three tail fins to point the cylinder’s valve-end downwards during its fall, so that the valve would break on impact and release the gas. Frames of that type were found with the cylinders in Douma – a strong indication that they had been dropped from air.

Despite that, the deniers insisted the Douma attack had been faked by rebels and in 2019 activists known as the Working Group of Syria, Propaganda and Media received a leaked document that appeared to support their claims. It was an internal – and unofficial – report by an OPCW employee, Ian Henderson, which said the cylinders were more likely to have been “manually placed” than dropped from the air. Noting that Henderson’s views had not been mentioned in the FFM’s final report on Douma, the group accused the OPCW of suppressing evidence and claimed that it had been “hijacked at the top by France, UK and the US”. On that basis they denounced the organisation as unfit to carry out the attribution tasks assigned to it via the IIT.

Henderson had contended that the holes seen in the concrete could not have been made by the cylinders falling from the sky, implying that rebels had placed the cylinders there. The “balcony cylinder” had been found with its valve-end pointing into a hole in the concrete floor. Henderson questioned why the cylinder had stopped there and not passed through the hole. His computer simulations suggested that the cylinder would have carried enough energy to do so if dropped from a height of more than 500 meters. But as the IIT’s report noted (paragraph 6.289), that didn’t prove the cylinder wasn’t dropped from an aircraft – merely that it must have been dropped from a lower altitude, thus hitting the concrete with less energy. Other evidence compiled by the IIT showed the cylinders were indeed dropped by aircraft, and from an altitude well below 500 meters. 

Regarding the other cylinder, found in a bedroom of a different building after apparently making a hole in the roof, Henderson wrote that “it was not possible to establish a set of circumstances” where the cylinder could have passed through the hole without sustaining further damage beyond what was observed. “The dimensions, characteristics and appearance of the cylinders and the surrounding scene of the incidents,” he concluded, “were inconsistent with what would have been expected in the case of either cylinder having been delivered from an aircraft.” He also suggested the cylinder was too long to have passed through the hole above it. But as the IIT analysis noted, the cylinder was 1.5 cm longer than the 166 cm hole only if if that included the length of the flimsy fins – and they had been bent on impact. The hole was large enough for the cylinder to have passed through at an almost horizontal angle, the IIT said (paragraph 6.291).

The report concluded that the cylinders were dropped by at least one Syrian air force helicopter. It dismissed the idea that someone placed them in position, a scenario it described as highly unlikely, and not supported by any evidence (6.301). It said:

“Manual placement of the cylinders would have required the heavy and cumbersome cylinder’s assemblies to be carried up several flights of stairs, through narrow corridors and, in the case of the cylinder on the roof at Location 2 [the balcony cylinder], through a narrow door or through a small window opening. This sequence of actions would have had to have taken place at two different locations, and under the heavy shelling in the days and hours preceding the chemical attack in Douma. Furthermore, it would have had to have gone undetected and/or unnoticed in a densely populated urban area, considering the lack of supporting evidence (photographs, images, satellite/drone imagery) identified or obtained by the IIT.” (6.299)

In its search for chemical evidence of a chlorine gas attack in Douma, the FFM sent more than 100 samples for laboratory analysis but interpreting the results proved complicated. When chlorine gas comes into contact with other substances it reacts with some of them to form chlorinated compounds which can be detected later through laboratory testing. However, chlorinated compounds also occur naturally – so the problem was how to distinguish between compounds produced in a chemical attack and compounds that were already present in the environment. The investigators’ approach was to check for compounds that could be caused by exposure to chlorine gas and then try to eliminate other possibilities.

One example of this elimination process was a piece of copper electrical wire found hanging from the ceiling in the room below the balcony cylinder. The copper had acquired a green-coloured patina and forensic analysis showed this was consistent with exposure to chlorine gas. Further analysis ruled out natural corrosion or exposure to saline conditions as causes of the patina – leading the IIT to view the wire as evidence that chlorine gas had been present in the room under the cylinder. (6.65)

Another substance of interest was trichlorophenol (TCP) which is not naturally present in wood but was found in all the wood samples from Douma. Laboratory experiments showed that TCP could be produced in wood by exposure to chlorine gas. The snag, though, was that it could also be produced by contact with sodium hypochlorite – which is the main ingredient in household bleach. Two of the wood samples also contained bornyl chloride (BC) which could be caused by chlorine gas, though only in wood from conifer trees. One of those samples came from the wooden support for a water tank in the basement where bodies were found. The other was a piece of wet wood found under the bedroom cylinder.

The IIT report commented: “Chlorine gas is the only chemical that, alone, would produce both BC and TCP in conifer wood” (6.60).  Generating BC and TCP without chlorine gas would need separate applications of bleach and hydrochloric acid, with thorough rinsing in between, it says (6.89). That would not happen accidentally and the report adds that there’s also no reason why anyone in Douma, perhaps trying to deceive investigators as part of a “staging” scenario, would have thought of doing it deliberately. At the time of the attack the ability of chlorine gas to produce BC and TCP in conifer wood was not common knowledge, even among scientists: it only came to light as a result of the OPCW investigation.

Viewing the chemical evidence in its totality, the IIT emphasised that a release of chlorine gas was the only realistic explanation and that there was no viable alternative scenario. The same lab results couldn’t happen by accident and anyone seeking to fake the results would need to do an enormous amount of careful planning. In the building where the balcony cylinder was found, for example, they would not only need to apply a bleach solution but also adjust its strength “from the highest levels in the room directly under the cylinder to the intermediate concentrations at the crater’s edge on the fourth floor, to the low levels on the street,” the report says (6.86). 

Although nerve agents leave traces that can be detected in humans some time after exposure, there is no equivalent test for people’s exposure to chlorine. Because of that, and after discussions with more toxicologists, the FFM’s final report said: “It is not currently possible to precisely link the cause of the signs and symptoms to a specific chemical.” The IIT’s conclusions were much stronger. 

“While none of the symptoms described by victims and medical personnel are exclusive to chlorine exposure, when they are taken into consideration alongside chemical samples, clinical data, the distribution of fatalities, gas dispersion, ballistics, and the characteristics of the substance as described by survivors ... these symptoms are consistent with those originating from chlorine gas exposure at high concentrations” (6.119).

The report also noted that the laboratory data points to chlorine and “does not support evidence of any types of chemical compounds except for chlorine” (6.116).

Deniers of the chemical attack needed some way to account for the bodies found in Douma without involving chlorine. Paul McKeigue, a prominent member of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (and an Edinburgh University professor), speculated that the dead were civilian captives who had been murdered by rebels in a gas chamber before being planted at the scene as part of the alleged “staging”. He presented no evidence, and the IIT report discounts that as a possibility. By early morning on the day after the attack, it says, full rigor mortis had set in – indicating that death had occurred only about 9-16 hours previously (6.117).

Deniers also disputed that a real chlorine attack would have killed so many, arguing that the gas was not particularly lethal. That was true up to a point but its lethality depends on how concentrated the gas is and the length of exposure to it. Previous experience in Syria was that people often had time to escape. Chlorine is heavier than air and civilians in the past had escaped its worse effects by moving to upper floors when they noticed its distinctive smell.

In the building with the “balcony cylinder”, though, escape was difficult. The cylinder had fallen on the fourth floor and was discharging gas into the floors below. ”The dispersion was so rapid that it obstructed the only possible escape route from the apartments via the stairwell,” the IIT says. “Approximately 20 seconds after the release of chlorine, escape from the apartments on the third floor was almost certainly no longer possible and after 60 seconds escape from the apartments on the second floor was almost certainly no longer possible either” (6.112). Some people had died on the stairs, others in the basement. Airstrikes with conventional weapons were taking place at the time and basements were the recommended place to shelter. But since chlorine is heavier than air, basements were also the most dangerous place to be. The choice was either death by bombing outside or death by gas inside. 

What the IIT’s report showed, in considerable detail, was the enormous amount of planning and organization that would have been needed to fake the Douma chemical attack. This was something that conspiracy theorists didn’t consider. They expected people to believe that Syrian rebels had the time and resources to engage in extraordinary theatrics in the midst of a desperate battle to stave off defeat. Douma lies in Eastern Ghouta, about six miles from the center of Damascus, which government forces had been steadily recapturing since February 2018. By March they had succeeded in splitting the region into three enclaves, each controlled by a different rebel militia. At that point, according to a  French government report, “the Syrian regime’s political and military strategy consisted in alternating indiscriminate military offensives against local populations, which sometimes included the use of chlorine, and pauses in operations for negotiations”. Two of the armed groups, Ahrar al-Sham and Failaq al-Rahman, had accepted surrender terms which allowed fighters and their families to be bussed off to northern Syria. The third group, Jaish al-Islam (“The Army of Islam”), was still holding out. On 4 April some members of Jaish al-Islam also accepted terms, but about 5,000 of them – mostly in Douma – refused. The regime resumed bombardment and on 7 April it launched the chemical attack. Jaish al-Islam surrendered the next day. 

The chemical attack had hastened the regime’s victory. “According to insiders privy to the content of the negotiations and interviewed by the IIT,” the report says, “the pressure on the civilian population following the chemical attack, as well as the warning by pro-government forces that the shelling would continue and intensify had the group not accepted to negotiate, played a key role in the decision by Jaysh al-Islam’s leadership to eventually surrender” (6.22).

Despite all the evidence presented in the IIT's report, Russia’s first response was to describe it as a “fabricated concoction”. A foreign ministry statement said the “incontestable conclusion” was that what happened in Douma had been “a brash falsification” and repeated old claims which the IIT had found implausible: that Syrian forces had no reason to use chlorine in military action, that “falsifiers” had brought the cylinders to the buildings, that there was “no way” the cylinders had been dropped from an aircraft because they “lacked any visible impacts”, and that bodies found in Douma had been brought in advance from “nearby territories”.

  • This chapter was expanded in February 2023 to include the findings of the IIT's report on Douma.

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[1] Author’s note: In the emails I was described as one of the “narrative enforcers”. McKeigue added: “We conclude ... that Whitaker is close to the inner core of the UK operation to stage chemical attacks, and that planning for this operation began in 2012.”