Chapter 16: Epilogue

The destruction of all chemical weapons declared by the Syrian regime had been completed in 2014, so when the IIT reported that the regime had used sarin to attack Ltamenah three years later the implication was that it had either secretly retained some of its stockpile or resumed illicit production. This prompted a resolution from the OPCW’s governing body – the Conference of the States Parties – calling on Syria to declare the facilities where the weapons used in Ltamenah had been “developed, produced, stockpiled, and operationally stored for delivery”. It also called on Syria to declare all chemical weapons currently in its possession and to resolve all outstanding issues regarding its initial declaration.

Syria was given a 90-day deadline to comply, and when it failed to do so the states parties suspended its voting rights and banned it from holding any office within the OPCW. This action was in line with Article 12 of the Chemical Weapons Convention and although relatively mild it was the first time the OPCW had taken such action against a member state. The decision – approved by 87 votes to 15 at a sparsely attended meeting – added that the restrictions would end once Syria complied fully with the earlier resolution’s demands.

By that stage Syria had amended its original 2013 declaration 17 times as a result of discoveries by OPCW investigators and a further 19 issues were still unresolved. The outstanding matters included an unnamed site which the OPCW believed to be an undeclared facility for producing or weaponising nerve agents.

Further concern was raised at a briefing for the Security Council in May 2021, when Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, revealed that OPCW inspections the previous September had detected “a neat [unadulterated] chemical warfare agent, the production of which has not been declared”. Nakamitsu said the chemical had been found “inside storage containers of large volume” – suggesting industrial-scale production. Although Nakamitsu did not name it, her statement that it was a previously undeclared chemical warfare agent indicated that it was not sarin, VX or sulfur mustard (which Syria had already declared).

A further twist came in July 2021 when Syria claimed that some of the evidence connected with OPCW investigations – including the two gas cylinders from Douma – had been destroyed by an Israeli airstrike. According to Syria, Israel had carried out a “flagrant” missile attack on a military site known as Nasiriyah-1 at 23:40 on 8 June. The site itself was of interest to the OPCW because it housed a previously-declared underground chemical weapons facility, though the Syrians maintained it had never been used.

Israel was known to carry out airstrikes in Syria from time to time, usually targeting Iranian-linked elements, though it rarely admitted to them. A day after the alleged attack on Nasiriyah-1 the Syrian state news agency reported that a series of Israeli strikes had occurred during the previous night, but without mentioning exact locations. Before-and-after satellite images appeared to show the Nasiriyah site had been damaged around the date in question but there was no indication as to whether that was the result of Israeli bombing.

The alleged destruction of the Douma cylinders was of particular concern to the OPCW, not only because of their relevance to the ongoing IIT investigation but because they were supposed to have been stored at a different site 60km from Nasiriyah. The OPCW had wanted to transport them to its headquarters in the Hague for forensic examination but the Syrian authorities refused to allow them out of the country, saying they were needed for its own “criminal investigation”. As a result of that impasse the cylinders had been placed in sealed containers and according to the OPCW the Syrians were told not to tamper with them or move them without written authorisation.

By the summer of 2021 disputes between Syria and the OPCW looked set to rumble on indefinitely. To maintain the international norm against chemical weapons the OPCW was obliged to continue with its work identifying those responsible for attacks and keep pressing Syria to explain the large number of “gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies” in its declaration.

In doing so the OPCW could be said to be fulfilling its remit to oversee adherence to the Chemical Weapons Convention but that was as far as it could be reasonably expected to go. Once suspects had been identified there was no automatic pathway for holding them accountable, and while it was possibile that some individuals might eventually be prosecuted, holding the regime itself to account was a more difficult proposition. The scope for action through the UN was limited when – as in this case – the accused regime was protected by a Security Council member with the power of veto.

It was also difficult to see how the declaration-related issues could be resolved without an admission from Syria that it had been cheating – and there was little prospect of that happening while Assad remained president. Although suspending some of Syria’s OPCW membership privileges was intended to encourage compliance, in reality if was of no great consequence and the regime quickly turned it into a propaganda point, claiming the country was being victimised in pursuit of a “hostile agenda”.

The campaign loses steam

Meanwhile, the campaign to discredit the OPCW’s investigations was losing steam. In the absence of any major new developments, and with the IIT’s report attributing responsibility for Douma still awaited, the activists were left with nothing much new to say – though that didn’t stop them endlessly recirculating old and previously discredited claims on Twitter.

An attempt to reinvigorate the campaign came in March 2021 when the newly-formed “Berlin Group 21” circulated a “Statement of Concern” accusing the OPCW of “procedural and scientific irregularities”. Among the 28 signatories were film director Oliver Stone, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, former US presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard, Professor Noam Chomsky, and Lord West of Spithead, a former admiral in the British navy. There were also several former employees of the OPCW, though none of them appeared to have worked for the organisation recently.

The Berlin Group also sent a letter to all 193 delegations of the OPCW States Parties, ahead of their April meeting, calling for “the concerns of all the [Douma] investigators to be heard and judged on their merits”. In essence, this was a repeat of the tactic used unsuccessfully by the Courage Foundation in connection with the 2019 meeting of the States Parties but the Berlin Group’s proposal was more specific. “The most appropriate body to process and assess the claims of the inspectors would seem to be the OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board,” it said. The hearing, it suggested, “could be low-key, conducted behind closed doors and without any media involvement. It could take place even in small groups, and in a confidential setting that is not intimidating to the inspectors but is nonetheless transparent and accountable. After such a meeting has taken place a press conference could be convened to inform the public of the outcome.”

The Berlin Group was said to have been established by Jose Bustani, the OPCW’s first director-general, Richard Falk, the Princeton professor (and 9/11 sceptic), and Hans von Sponeck, a former UN assistant secretary-general. However, both the Courage Foundation and Piers Robinson of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, appeared to have had a hand in organising it. The Courage Foundation, which simultaneously published the “statement of concern” on its website, gave its own email as an address for media enquiries.

According to Working Group member Paul McKeigue, in his correspondence with “Ivan” the imaginary Russian agent, Robinson had spent several months coordinating the Berlin Group initiative but wanted to stay behind the scenes because the Working Group was “somewhat controversial” and had been “smeared” in the media. However, after the correspondence became public McKeigue denied that the Working Group had anything to do with the Berlin Group and the Berlin Group itself issued a statement saying it was “entirely independent of any other group or organisation”.

Robinson, who was then living in Berlin, played down his involvement, saying any help he had given was in a personal capacity rather than as a member of the Working Group. He conceded that he had access to the Berlin Group’s website but said he was not running it. He had looked at the “Statement of Concern” at various stages of its drafting and, according to von Sponeck, had helped to identify potential signatories.

Von Sponeck, who was 81 at the time, had served as the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, in charge of the Oil-for-Food Programme, though he later resigned in a protest against sanctions. A noted peace campaigner, he was the son of a famous German general who had been decorated (and later executed) by Hitler.

When contacted by the Bellingcat website, von Sponeck insisted that he was “nobody’s useful idiot”. He was aware that Robinson had been labelled in the media as a conspiracy theorist but did not see that as an obstacle to consulting him about the Statement of Concern: “I don’t even know what Piers Robinson and his working group are doing. I do not know. I don’t need to know.” The integrity of the OPCW and allowing scientists to be listened to was the Berlin Group’s primary concern, he said, and if he felt people were trying to “play games” or had “intentions … that are not known to the public,” he would “drop out very quickly”.

Barring some surprise new development, the campaign seemed likely to fizzle out. Despite all the noise generated on social media it appeared to have had no significant influence on the course of events apart from making the OPCW's work more difficult. It had also made little or no impact on mainstream public discourse about chemical attacks in Syria. Beyond Syria, though, it was a significant element in the construction of an online community based on counter-factual politics.

The distrust of western governments and media that the campaign promoted in connection with Syria was readily transferable to other issues and it was no surprise that when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out many of the activists turned their attention to that. Lockdowns, face-masks and vaccination passports were all presented as sinister attempts to subjugate the population (for reasons that were unclear). On Twitter, Robinson could be found railing against “medical tyranny” and recommending an article that drew parallels between “the Covid bio-security state now emerging” and the rise of Nazi Germany.