MINNEAPOLIS– While foreign nations that support regime change in Syria were quick to condemn the Syrian government for its alleged complicity in an April 4 gas attack in the country’s province of Idlib, other nations – notably Russia, Iran and Syria itself – called for a complete and thorough investigation of the incident before the U.S.-led coalition decided to take further premature, punitive action against Syria.
Among those countries seeking an independent investigation of the incident, eyes turned to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the most well-known and ostensibly most reputable chemical weapons watchdog group. Soon after the attack, the OPCW announced it would be investigating the incident via the group’s fact-finding mission, which has been active in Syria since 2014.
Last week, the OPCW released an update on its investigation into the Idlib incident, stating they had found “incontrovertible” proof that sarin had been used in the attack. After receiving biomedical samples from the victims and survivors of the attack, Ahmet Üzümcü, OPCW’s director-general, stated “the results of these analyses from four OPCW-designated laboratories indicate exposure to sarin or a sarin-like substance.
While further details of the laboratory analyses will follow, the analytical results already obtained are incontrovertible.” The press release noted that interviews, evidence management and sample acquisition related to the investigation are ongoing.
While the OPCW did offer an update on the status of is investigation, its press release was notable for what it did not say. For instance, the statement failed to explain how the samples were collected. The French and U.K. governments, both of whom have been vocal opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and have been actively arming and funding rebel groups to oust him, claimed to have obtained blood samples from victims that were later provided to the OPCW. Neither government elaborated on how these samples were obtained or if they were received through an intermediary.
The OPCW did not respond to MintPress News’ repeated requests for comment regarding how the samples were obtained.
Russia immediately questioned the OPCW’s swift conclusion, as the organization has failed to act with such speed when opposition groups have stood accused of chemical weapons use.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov gave the following statement at a press conference last Thursday:
“Russian specialists on the site of the crime [in Aleppo] collected samples of the agent, which had been delivered to representatives of the OPCW and transported to the Hague. By the way, the Syrian leadership at the time offered safety guarantees and insisted that OPCW experts visit Aleppo, but nobody came. Four months later the OPCW still cannot come to a conclusion and call the mustard gas found there mustard gas, saying additional analysis is necessary.”
The OPCW’s conclusion that sarin gas was used is curious, as it previously confirmed that the Assad government had no chemical weapons, as all were destroyed under UN and OPCW supervision in 2013. This would assumably make it highly unlikely that the Syrian military would carry out an attack using weapons they no longer possessed.
Furthermore, pictures that were widely circulated after the Idlib attack showed rescue workers – working with the al-Nusra affiliate group known as the White Helmets – touching the bodies of victims without protective body gear, a move that – if sarin really was present – would prove to be a fatal mistake.
As Paul Antonopoulos of Al-Masdar News noted soon after the Idlib attack:
[…] in the above picture, the White Helmets are handling the corpses of people without sufficient safety gear, most particularly with masks mostly used, as well as no gloves. […] Within seconds of exposure to sarin, the affects [sic] of the gas begin to target the muscle and nervous system. There is an almost immediate release of the bowels and the bladder, and vomiting is induced. When sarin is used in a concentrated area, it has the likelihood of killing thousands of people. Yet, such a dangerous gas, and the White Helmets are treating bodies with little concern to their exposed skin. This has to raise questions.”
MIT professor and chemical weapons expert Theodore Postol has also provided substantial evidence that sarin was not used and that the attack itself was staged. However, the OPCW has not acknowledged the findings of this report, instead content to rely on samples given to them by the intelligence services of foreign governments invested in the removal of Assad from power.
In addition, there is plenty of reason to consider the OPCW’s investigation to be suspect, as the OPCW has openly refused to send investigators to the site of the attack. This refusal prevents the ostensibly independent watchdog group from taking samples themselves or to investigate the incident in any capacity, forcing them to rely on the samples they have been given by a handful of Western governments.
Assad has asserted that the investigators have refused to travel to the attack site because Western powers are blocking them. “We formally sent a letter to the United Nations, we asked them in that letter to send a delegation in order to investigate what happened in Khan Shaykhun,” Assad told Sputnik News. “Of course till this moment they didn’t send (the experts) because the West and the U.S. blocked any delegation from coming,”
Last week, the OPCW also rejected Russian and Iranian calls for a complete and independent investigation of the incident, leading Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov to state that “I think we are very close to this organization [OPCW] being discredited.”
The OPCW previously investigated the 2013 gas attack in Ghouta, an incident that U.S. coalition members had also quickly blamed on Assad. However, the OPCW – in its report on the Ghouta incident – caused problems for the U.S.’ narrative, as it raised serious questions regarding claims that only the Syrian government could have perpetrated the chemical weapons attack while also suggesting that rebel groups in the area were to blame.
Eyewitness accounts, along with investigations carried out by chemical weapons experts like Ted Postol and Pulitzer Prize winning-war journalists like Seymour Hersh, later placed blame on the Al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups active in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. However, this time around, it seems that the OPCW has decided to only report findings that complement statements made by members of the U.S. coalition, suggesting that it has sacrificed its legitimacy in exchange for political convenience.
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