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Assessment by the engineering sub-team of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission investigating the alleged chemical attack in Douma in April 2018


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1 Introduction

In our Briefing note on the Final Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission on the Douma incident, we noted that the FFM had sought assessments in October 2018 from unidentified engineering experts on the “the trajectory and damage to the cylinders found at Locations 2 and 4”. The Final Report provided no explanation for why the FFM had not sought engineering assessments in April 2018, when the experts could have inspected the sites with cylinders in position, rather than six months later when inspection of the sites with cylinders in position was no longer possible and the assessments had to rely on images and measurements obtained by others. We raised this as an obvious anomaly.

OPCW staff members have communicated with the Working Group. We have learned that an investigation was undertaken by an engineering sub-team of the FFM, beginning with on-site inspections in April-May 2018, followed by a detailed engineering analysis including collaboration on computer modelling studies with two European universities. The report of this investigation was excluded from the published Final Report of the Fact-Finding Mission, which referred only to assessments sought from unidentified “engineering experts” commissioned in October 2018 and obtained in December 2018.

A copy of a 15-page Executive Summary of this report with the title “Engineering Assessment of two cylinders observed at the Douma incident” has been passed to us and we have posted it here. Please download and share this document via your own server if you link to it, so as not to overload our server.

We are studying this document, and encourage others with relevant expertise to contribute. We provide some initial comments below:

2 Commentary on the Engineering Assessment

The report is signed by Ian Henderson, who is listed as one of the first P-5 level inspection team leaders trained at OPCW in a reportdated 1998. We have confirmed that as the engineering expert on the FFM, Henderson was assigned to lead the investigation of the cylinders and alleged impact sites at Locations 2 and 4. We understand that “TM” in the handwritten annotation denotes Team Members of the FFM.

In response to an enquiry on 11 May 2019, the OPCW press office stated that “the individual mentioned in the document has never been a member of the FFM”. This statement is false. The engineering sub-team could not have been carrying out studies in Douma at Locations 2 and 4 unless they had been notified by OPCW to the Syrian National Authority (the body that oversees compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention) as FFM inspectors: it is unlikely that Henderson arrived on a tourist visa.

The OPCW press office also attempted to suggest that the report of the engineering sub-team was not part of the FFM’s investigation. This statement also is false. The sub-team report refers to external collaborators and consultants: we understand that this included two European universities. This external collaboration on such a sensitive matter could not have gone ahead unless it had been authorised: otherwise Henderson would have been dismissed instantly for breach of confidentiality. We can therefore be confident that the preparation of the report had received the necessary authorisation within OPCW. What happened after the report was written is another matter.

2.1 Methodology

As we have repeatedly emphasized, evidence can be evaluated only by comparison of competing hypotheses. This is a corollary of the likelihood principle, which can be derived from simple rules of logical consistency.

We noted that a key weakness of the published Final Report was that no competing hypotheses were considered. Thus the Final Report stated that engineering experts were asked to provide assessments of the “trajectory” of each of the two cylinders found: implying that they were not asked to assess whether the holes in the roof and the positions of the cylinders could be accounted for by anything other than cylinders being dropped from the sky.

The FFM’s Engineering Assessment does not make this error: competing hypotheses are clearly set out in advance.

  • For Location 2 (cylinder on roof terrace lying over a hole), the alternative hypotheses are stated as:
    • (2-1) the cylinder containing liquid chlorine was dropped from an aircraft, pierced the roof to form the hole and the impact fractured the valve causing release of chlorine.
    • (2-2) the cylinder was placed on the terrace next to a pre-existing crater
  • For Location 4 (cylinder on bed), the alternative hypothesis are stated as:
    • (4-1) the cylinder fitted with frame and fins was dropped from an aircraft, pierced the roof to form the hole, fell through the hole and was deflected laterally to end up on the bed, while the valve remained intact
    • (4-2) the cylinder fitted with frame and fins pierced the roof as for hypothesis (1), landed on the floor below the hole and was placed on the bed
    • (4-3) the cylinder fitted with frame and fins was placed on the bed, and the hole in the roof was created (by unspecified means) either before or after the cylinder was placed on the bed

2.2 Results: Location 2

  • An impact angle of approximately 20 degrees from the vertical “was found to be required for results to bear any resemblance to observations”
  • A concrete slab could not have stopped a cylinder falling at such an angle from a height of at least 500 metres. The front of the cylinder showed no sign of interaction with the concrete slab.
  • If the cylinder had been stopped by the steel reinforcing bars (rebars), this would have left indents on the cylinder, but no such indents were observed.
  • Modelling the impact of a falling cylinder could not reproduce the bending of the rebars to an angle of more than 90 degrees to point away from the impact. This was more consistent with an explosive blast.

The results of the modelling studies were summarized with the following sentence:

All the elements listed above point to the conclusion that the alleged impact event or events leading to observed vessel deformation and concrete damage were not compatible.

A criss-cross pattern on the paintwork of the cylinder body, that had been attributed by some observers to the cylinder falling through the wire mesh, was inconsistent with the near-vertical angle of incidence that would have been required to create the crater.

Experts consulted to assess the appearance of the crater took the view that it was more consistent with a blast (from a mortar round or rocket artillery) than with an impact from the falling object. Similar craters were present in concrete slabs on top of nearby buildings.

The mangled remains of the steel frame and fins found on the terrace were not consistent with the appearance of the cylinder, which showed no signs of having been fitted with such a frame or of the frame having been stripped from the cylinder as a result of impact.

2.3 Results: Location 4

  • The analysis of Location 4, where a cylinder was found on a bed, showed that the cylinder with intact valve and fins attached could not have fitted through the hole in the roof:

it was not possible to establish a set of circumstances where the post-deformation cylinder could fit through the crater with the valve still intact (whether or not an end-cap was assumed to have been fitted at the front end of the cylinder), and the fins deformed in the manner observed.

2.4 Conclusions of the Engineering Assessment

In summary:

  • The analysis at Location 4 showed simply that the cylinder with fins and valve attached could not have fitted through the hole.
  • The analysis at Location 2, using finite element analysis and computer simulation, was more complicated. This showed that the concrete slab could not have stopped the cylinder, that if the cylinder had been stopped by the rebars there would have been indents on the cylinder, and that an impact could not have bent the rebars through more than 90 degrees to point away from the impact location.

We note that several of the anomalies reported by the Engineering Assessment have been identified independently from open source images by members of the Working Group: these include the inability to fit the cylinder through the hole at Location 4, the presence of similar craters on nearby buildings at Location 2, and the incompatibility of the criss-cross pattern on the paintwork of the cylinder with a fall through wire mesh.

The results from both locations are summarized in paragraph 32:

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 being delivered from an aircraft. In each case the alternative hypothesis produced the only plausible explanation for observations at the scene.

3 Implications of the Engineering Assessment combined with other findings

The conclusion of the Engineering Assessment is unequivocal: the alternative hypothesis that the cylinders were manually placed in position is “the only plausible explanation for observations at the scene”.

Our last Briefing Note listed two other key findings:

  • It is no longer seriously disputed that the hospital scene was staged: there are multiple eyewitness reports supported by video evidence
  • The case fatality rate of 100%, with no attempt by the victims to escape, is unlike any recorded chlorine attack.

Taken together, these findings establish beyond reasonable doubt that the alleged chemical attack in Douma on 7 April 2018 was staged.

This raises the question of where and how did the 35 victims seen in the images recorded at location 2 die? The images show signs of acute inhalation injury with blood and mucus flowing from the nose and mouth of most victims. Even though faces had apparently been washed to remove most of the mucus, yellow staining of the skin remained.

A few weeks before the release of the Final Report, two journalists appeared to suggest that there had been an earlier chemical attack somewhere else in Douma, perhaps attempting to prepare a fallback position in case the Final Report were to indicate that the scenes at Location 2 and 4 had been staged. This is to say the least an implausible explanation of the staging at Locations 2 and 4 – why move the bodies of the victims to Location 2 for a staged scene, rather than show the real chemical attack scene if there was one?

As emphasized above, in a real chemical attack with chlorine or any other irritant gas, most victims would try to escape and non-fatal cases requiring prolonged hospital treatment would far outnumber fatal cases. The images of the victims seen at Location 2 show that they were evidently exposed to an irritant gas but were unable to escape. A careful examination of these images leaves little doubt that the victims were murdered as captives. The staining of the victims’ faces by mucus flowing from their noses and mouths shows in at least some cases the mucus flowed up their faces towards the eyes. This implies that they were hung upside down while exposed to the agent. Bizarrely, the eyes of most victims appear to have been masked so that the eyes were not affected by gas or mucus. In a few victims there are visible strap marks suggesting that the eyes were protected by something like swimming goggles. A possible motive for masking the eyes may have been to make it less obvious that the victims had suffered prolonged exposure to an irritant gas.

We conclude that the staging of the Douma incident entailed mass murder of at least 35 civilians to provide the bodies at Location 2.It follows from this that people dressed as White Helmets and endorsed by the leadership of that organization had a key role in this murder.

We note that the Douma incident was the first alleged chemical attack in Syria where OPCW investigators were able to carry out an unimpeded on-site inspection. Since 2014, OPCW Fact-Finding Missions investigating alleged chemical attacks in opposition-held territory have relied for evidence on witnesses and materials collected by opposition-linked NGOs of doubtful provenance, including the CBRN Task Force, the Chemical Violations Documentation Centre Syria, and the White Helmets. Even for the investigation of the Ghouta incident in 2013, the OPCW-WHO mission was able to visit the the alleged attack sites for only a few hours, and was under the close supervision of the armed opposition. For those who until now have been prepared to accept the findings of OPCW Fact-Finding Missions that did not include on-site inspections, the finding that the Douma incident was staged, based on a careful on-site inspection, should cast doubt on the findings of these earlier Missions.

4 The hijacking of OPCW

In our last Briefing Note, we concluded by asserting that “It is doubtful whether [OPCW’s] reputation as an impartial monitor of compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention can be restored without radical reform of its governance and working practices”. The new information we have removes all doubt that the organization has been hijacked at the top by France, UK and the US. We have no doubt that most OPCW staff continue to do their jobs professionally, and that some who are uneasy about the direction that the organization has taken nevertheless wish to protect its reputation. However what is at stake here is more than the reputation of the organization: the staged incident in Douma provoked a missile attack by the US, UK and France on 14 April 2018 that could have led to all-out war.

The cover-up of evidence that the Douma incident was staged is not merely misconduct. As the staging of the Douma incident entailed mass murder of civilians, those in OPCW who have suppressed the evidence of staging are, unwittingly or otherwise, colluding with mass murder. We think that in most jurisdictions the legal duty to disclose the cover-up of such a crime would override any confidentiality agreement with an employer. We would welcome legal opinions on this, given publicly, by those with relevant expertise. OPCW employees have to sign a strict confidentiality agreement, and face instant dismissal and loss of pension rights if they breach this agreement. We would welcome any initiative to set up a legal defence fund for OPCW staff members who come forward publicly as whistleblowers.

5 Acknowledgements

We thank the OPCW staff members who have communicated with us at considerable personal risk. We undertake to protect the identities of any sources who communicate with us. Emails to our protonmail addresses, if sent from another protonmail account (free to set up), are secure. We thank also the other open-source investigators and journalists who publicly questioned the official line on the Douma incident and thus created the climate for OPCW staff members to come forward.

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