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Newsweek Engages in Easily Debunkable Syria Chemical Weapon Trutherism with the Help of Ian Wilkie

February 9, 2018

By Eliot Higgins

Following a series of fresh allegations of chemical weapon use in Syria, Newsweek published an article on February 8th, “Now Mattis admits there was no evidence Assad used poison gas on his people” by Ian Wilkie, described as “an international lawyer, U.S. Army veteran and former intelligence community contractor. The central argument of the article is that in recent comments by Secretary of Defense James Mattis he admitted that the US government had no evidence Assad had ever used Sarin, including in the August 21st 2013 Damascus attack, and the attack on Khan Sheikhoun on April 4th 2017 that resulted in US cruise missiles strikes against Shayrat airbase:

“Lost in the hyper-politicized hullabaloo surrounding the Nunes Memorandum and the Steele Dossier was the striking statement by Secretary of Defense James Mattis that the U.S. has “no evidence” that the Syrian government used the banned nerve agent Sarin against its own people.

This assertion flies in the face of the White House (NSC) Memorandum which was rapidly produced and declassified to justify an American Tomahawk missile strike against the Shayrat airbase in Syria.

Mattis offered no temporal qualifications, which means that both the 2017 event in Khan Sheikhoun and the 2013 tragedy in Ghouta are unsolved cases in the eyes of the Defense Department and Defense Intelligence Agency.”

From this central premise Wilkie hangs various conspiracy theories, half truths, and outright untruths. This is particularly problematic when this central claim is entirely wrong, as Mattis did refer to earlier Sarin attacks in the press conference:

“Q:  Just make sure I heard you correctly, you’re saying you think it’s likely they have used it and you’re looking for the evidence?  Is that what you said?

SEC. MATTIS:  That’s — we think that they did not carry out what they said they would do back when — in the previous administration, when they were caught using it. Obviously they didn’t, cause they used it again during our administration.

And that gives us a lot of reason to suspect them.  And now we have other reports from the battlefield from people who claim it’s been used.

We do not have evidence of it.  But we’re not refuting them; we’re looking for evidence of it.  Since clearly we are using — we are dealing with the Assad regime that has used denial and deceit to hide their outlaw actions, okay?”

It’s clear from the full transcript of the press conference that Mattis is referring to allegations of Sarin use since the US attack on Shayrat airbase, which means Wilkie either didn’t read the transcript, read it and misunderstood it, or read it and decided to claim something it didn’t say. More disturbingly still is Newsweek published the article without first doing basic fact checking on the central premise of the article.

The article is also filled with other untrue statements, for example claiming the following about the munitions used in the August 21st 2013 Sarin attacks:

Serious, experienced chemical weapons experts and investigators such as Hans Blix, Scott Ritter, Gareth Porter and Theodore Postol have all cast doubt on “official” American narratives regarding President Assad employing Sarin.

These analysts have all focused on the technical aspects of the two attacks and found them not to be consistent with the use of nation-state quality Sarin munitions.

The 2013 Ghouta event, for example, employed home-made rockets of the type favored by insurgents.

The claim that the rockets used on August 21st 2013 were a “type favored by insurgents” is totally untrue. The type of rocket used, known as the “Volcano rocket” has been well-documented, and is known to come in two types, explosive and chemical. The chemical variant of the munition has been documented at not only the impact sites of the August 21st 2013 Sarin attacks, but in previous attacks against opposition areas and positions as well.

Only a couple of weeks before the August 21st attacks, the remains of three of the same type of munition had been filmed in Adra, Damascus.  The remains of the same type of rocket had also been filmed in Adra in June 2013, Daraya, Damascus at the start of the 2013, and again in Daraya in December 2012.

The explosive variant of the rockets have featured in numerous videos published by pro-government forces, clearly demonstrating the type of rocket used in the August 21st 2013 attack originates from pro-government forces, not “type favored by insurgents” as Wilkie wrongly claims:

Wilkie also repeats one of the popular theories among chemical weapon conspiracy theorists that people filmed at the impact site of the Sarin bomb after the attack would have died from Sarin exposure, stating “these people would all be dead if they had come into contact with real military-grade Sarin.” This is based on the popular misconception among chemical weapon conspiracy theorists that Sarin is a persistent agent, in that it remains in the environment in lethal quantities long after an attack has occurred.

A number of studies have been done on the persistency of Sarin. The 2013 Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) report “Chemical warfare agents and their interactions with solid surfaces” defines chemical warfare agents as “considered persistent if it remains able to cause casualties for more than 24 hr to several days after it was released, whereas a non-persistent one dissipates or loses ability to cause casualties after 10 to 15 minutes,” and uses the following chart to demonstrate the persistency of various chemical warfare agents

According to local weather reports, the temperature in Khan Sheikhoun on the day of the attack would have started at 7°C and raised to 23°C. With Sarin dispersing in 30 minutes at 15°C according to  Norwegian Defence Research Establishment report this would clearly debunk any claims that people visiting the site after the attack would certainly die.

Wilkie then goes on to make the following claim:

“Chemical weapons are abhorrent and illegal, and no one knows this more than Carla Del Ponte. She, however, was unable to fulfill her U.N. Joint Investigative Mechanism mandate in Syria and withdrew in protest over the United States refusing to fully investigate allegations of chemical weapons use by “rebels” (jihadis) allied with the American effort to oust President Assad (including the use of Sarin by anti-Assad rebels).”

In fact, when asked about why she resigned, she pointed the finger at Russia’s veto in the UN Security Council blocking action in Syria:

“GREENE: You had enough and quit. How much do you point the finger at Russia? Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council. They can veto anything. And they, of course, support the government of Bashar al-Assad. Are they a big reason that nothing has happened, in your mind?

DEL PONTE: Absolutely because they are putting the veto right – that no resolution for the constitution of the international tribunal. So, of course, Russia (unintelligible) because in the end what I mean is that the other states are not making pressure to Russia to change in his opinion. But in any case, that’s politics. So myself – I’m ready to be prosecutor of a tribunal for Syria, but I’m not ready to continue to sit in this commission that just is an alibi for the international community.”

In fact, Del Ponte had quickly blamed the Syrian government for the April 4th 2017 Khan Sheikhoun Sarin attack, a point she reiterated as she resigned:

“Leaving the council, del Ponte told Syria’s ambassador that she had been right to quickly reach the conclusion that Assad’s government had used chemical weapons during an attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in April.

“It was me, mister ambassador,” she said.

“I said that in my opinion and based on the elements we already had, the Syrian government was responsible. Today we have the confirmation after an official commission’s inquiry. So now, we ask for justice, we ask justice for those victims.””

Wilkie then moves on to chemistry, citing claims by Gareth Porter in an article for Alternet’s “Grayzone Project”:

“There is compelling analysis from Gareth Porter suggesting that phosphine could have been released by an airborne munition striking a chemical depot, since the clouds and casualties (while organophosphate-appearing in some respects) do not appear to be similar to MilSpec Sarin, particularly the high-test Russian bomb-carried Sarin which independent groups like “bellingcat” insist was deployed.”

Gareth Porter’s article relies heavily on ignoring the tests by the OPCW that detected Sarin in samples from both the impact site, and the indications of Sarin use from biological samples taken from victims. Porter relies on the usual chemical weapon truther claims that these results were from samples being tampered with in someway, without presenting any actual evidence it took place. Porter does not address a key piece of evidence, that chemical tests by the OPCW show that not only Sarin was used, but it had marker chemicals that linked it to the chemical weapon stockpiles of the Syrian government. It also ignores that objects recovered from the Khan Sheikhoun craters matched filling caps from Syrian airdropped chemical bombs:

According to information obtained by the Mechanism, the filler cap, with two closure plugs, is uniquely consistent with Syrian chemical aerial bombs. The Mechanism was provided with an assessment of the filler cap and with chemical analysis showing sarin and a reaction product of sarin with hexamine that can only be formed under very high heat. Information was also received that additional metal fragments collected from the crater may possibly correspond to parts of Syrian aerial chemical munitions.

Neither Porter nor Wilkie addresses these issues, which clearly debunks those claims of Porter’s that Wilkie cites.

Wilkie ends with:

“Now Secretary Mattis has added fuel to the WMD propaganda doubters’ fire by retroactively calling into question the rationale for an American cruise missile strike.

While in no way detracting from the horror of what took place against innocent civilians in Syria, it is time for America to stop shooting first and asking questions later.”

But in the final analysis, it seems it is Wilkie who should “stop shooting first and asking questions later.”

Eliot Higgins

Eliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat and the Brown Moses Blog. Eliot focuses on the weapons used in the conflict in Syria, and open source investigation tools and techniques.

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40 Comments

    • Eliot Higgins

      No, because I’m specifically referring to one article published by Newsweek, which I’m pretty sure the above article is quite clear about.

      Reply
  1. Aran McCall

    “It also ignores that objects recovered from the Khan Sheikhoun craters matched filling caps from Syrian airdropped chemical bombs:”

    Given that there is no record of Syria having ever “airdropped” a chemical bomb I am wondering how you reached this conclusion? Have you any evidence to support this claim because that would help answer a lot of unanswered questions if you do.

    Reply
    • Kline

      One of the version of the Syrian was that they airdroped a bomb in Khan Sheikhoun and that this bomb has hit a chemical depot.

      Even the regime admit that he “airdropped” something at Khan Sheikhoun.

      Try again….

      Reply
    • Aran McCall

      Hi guys I don’t want to appear to be trolling as that’s not my intention but I am very interested in the above claim made by Eliot Higgins that:

      “It also ignores that objects recovered from the Khan Sheikhoun craters matched filling caps from Syrian airdropped chemical bombs:”

      Firstly he speaks of “Khan Sheikhoun craters” when there was, I believe, only 1 crater. Can some clarity be brought to this point?

      Then he speaks of “objects recovered….[that] matched Syrian airdropped chemical” when, again I believe, there has never been a Syrian airdropped chemical bomb previous to the Khan Sheikhoun claims so what exactly is he matching it to?

      Reply
    • Azriel

      @ Aran McCall

      What do you mean by “records”?

      There are plenty of witnesses who identified aircraft that dropped bombs in the area where the chemical attack took place.

      Reply
  2. Andrea

    So who is the idiot who shot without asking himself questions ?

    The problem is that nowadays an article like this is believed by too many peoples, and these peoples won’t even bother reading a follow-up in which the original writers admits being wrong…

    In an ideal world a guy that messes things up like this should not be let to touch a “pen” anymore. Cause if mistakes are forgivable, mistakes that come from being superficial, easily preventable with minimal effort, that accuses/put in doubt other’s work are not forgivable!

    Reply
  3. Jim Rosentreter

    This article is more U.S. propaganda. This is all about what the U.S. says and their corrupt UN. There was never an equal option to allow investigaters from Assad or Russia to be there or proof by true pictures or proof from opposition doctors. Only the rigged propaganda of the U.S. and UN so the U.S. can take control of Syria’s oil and natural gas by using a fake proxy army of Kurds to say they’re helping the Kurds fight for a state but don’t help the Palestinian people against Israel because the U.S. has nothing there to steal. This is propaganda and corruption.

    Reply
    • DDTea

      That’s funny, because Russia is actually taking control of Syria’s oil and natural gas for the next few decades. Russia will also take a majority stake in profits from any petroleum resources recaptured from ISIS / SDF by Russian PMC’s. Also, Assad is allowing Iran and Russia to exploit Syrian phosphate mines at sub market prices, to the detriment of the Syrian people. Assad sold his country and its resources to foreign imperialists so that he could maintain his family’s claim to the throne through their military support against his own people. He cares about nothing but his own power. Such vanity.

      http://articles.latimes.com/2013/dec/26/world/la-fg-wn-russia-energy-oil-gas-syria-20131226

      http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/russias-energy-goals-in-syria

      http://english.enabbaladi.net/archives/2017/06/syrian-phosphate-war-tehrans-large-acquisition-versus-little-interference-opposition/

      Reply
      • Aran McCall

        DDTea said:

        “Correction: the filling cap did not “appear” only after the “pipe” (looks more like bent sheet metal) disappeared. It was present the entire time, and you can see it in the main image for this article alongside the larger green debris.”

        The first image to appear of the crater was the one showing the red toxicity warning sign if my memory serves me? It doesn’t show the “filler cap” in the crater then but please correct me if I’m missing something.

        Regarding the shape of the fragment of metal we could disagree on this forever. The important questions we should ask are, where is it now and how does Bellingcat relate it to the M4000? What is very clear is that this “pipe” has been repositioned in the crater a few times according to the varying images available. It was never handed over to the OPCW though which is very odd I find.

        Here is the first image of the crater that I recall (stand to be corrected)
        https://i.imgur.com/QORpsVb.jpg

        Here is another image of the crater that day with investigators onsite. Both this image and the previous one I supplied are a match when rotated, “pipe” is a matching grey colour and pointed in the same direction. The investigator in this picture would kneeling on top of the “filler cap” if it were there.
        https://i.imgur.com/yxpYpuB.png

        Now compare these images and azimuth of the “pipe” to the previous ones and note the glaring differences.

        https://i.imgur.com/WGw78m7.jpg
        https://i.imgur.com/JROSJtQ.png

        Here is the image you refer to (note “pipe” showing more green colouring and pointed in a different direction)

        Alos note the road scorch marks that are missing on the first images.

        Reply
        • DDTea

          “Now compare these images and azimuth of the “pipe” to the previous ones and note the glaring differences.”

          Looks to me as if the images are reversed/mirrored along the X axis. They seem to show the same scene. I don’t see anything suspicious.

          In the photo of the guy from the Idlib medical directorate, the filling cap would be behind him (correct me if I’m wrong).

          You do realize that what you put in quotation marks, “filler cap,” has been described by OPCW investigators as, “a unique match to Syrian chemical bombs.”

          So there is a “pipe” and a filling cap. Note the quotation marks. And also pay attention to which of those you care about more. It’s important to give evidence their due (not necessarily equal) weight.

          Reply
          • Aran McCall

            “You do realize that what you put in quotation marks, “filler cap,” has been described by OPCW investigators as, “a unique match to Syrian chemical bombs.”

            Yes I am aware of that but I am also aware that the JIM didn’t give any further evidence of their claim. Are you aware of any other instances in which these “filler caps” were used?

    • Aran McCall

      Good question. I don’t believe that it was ever handed over to the OPCW-FFM or JIM. Indeed it has been pretty much ignored.

      Reply
    • Aran McCall

      Having not heard anything about this bent pipe for months then today I see your comment and have now just finished reading a very interesting Twitter exchange from today between Bellingcat (Eliot I assume given the writing) and another person.

      The person exchanging with Bellingcat does ask some pertinent questions for which she/he receives no response. It might interest you.

      https://twitter.com/mistik0s/status/961955812506767361

      Reply
      • Thomas Peterson

        Seems Bellingcat wants to avoid talking about the bent green pipe. But there it was, right in the crater.

        Reply
          • Thomas Peterson

            Well yes. Not only is the bent green pipe, not recognisable as part of any chemical bomb present, but other parts which should be there are absent.

            The whole thing stinks of fakery.

          • DDTea

            In the case of Ltamineh, pieces of the bomb used to disperse sarin were spread over a debris field spanning 170 m.

            If such a device were dropped in an urban area like Khan Sheikhoun, many pieces of the bomb may not be found immediately. They surely would not be located in the immediate vicinity of the dispersal site.

            Likewise, the Syrian regime was able to procure pieces of the sarin-soaked shrapnel from Khan Sheikhoun by its own sources. They handed some of these pieces over to the OPCW. Who knows where they might be hiding the rest.

          • Aran McCall

            In the first images of the crater the only remnants that appear in it are that of this green “pipe”. Soon after the pipe was removed and a “filler cap” appeared in the crater. What happened to the “pipe” and where is it now? Why was it never handed over to the FFM or JIM? Questions that are being ignored.

          • DDTea

            Correction: the filling cap did not “appear” only after the “pipe” (looks more like bent sheet metal) disappeared. It was present the entire time, and you can see it in the main image for this article alongside the larger green debris.

      • Aran McCall

        From my point I use the term “pipe” loosely to reflect what it resembles. It is definitely a cylindric shape by all accounts. That said, where is it and how does it fit with BellingCat’s M4000 proposed munition? I do stand to be corrected on this but I have yet to see any explanation from BellingCat and/or Eliot Higgins on how this “pipe” fits with the M4000 munition he refers to. What part of the M4000 is this “pipe”?

        Reply
  4. Zan

    As has been demonstrated time and again, the methodology of all inquiries has been from the beginning flawed.

    Chain of custody of evidence was improperly maintained from the very beginning in inquiries into KS.

    That, combined with assorted countervailing circumstantial facts, require that one remain absolutely agnostic on the source and type of the attack.

    Higgins has not sufficiently answered the problem with chain of custody, so his case is entirely circumstantial, hinging on the claim that other facts “outweigh” the problem with evidence collection. But logically, they can never do so.

    Reply
    • DDTea

      Why don’t you just tell us your thesis of what happened on the morning of April 4, 2017 in Khan Sheikhoun?

      Are you just asking aimless, pointless questions, or do you have a specific theory that would absolve the Syrian government of the sarin attack that morning?

      The truth is knowable. We do not have to “remain agnostic.” Only dictators and their Orwellian supporters claim that truth is some unknowable thing.

      Reply
  5. Thomas Peterson

    “Higgins has not sufficiently answered the problem with chain of custody, so his case is entirely circumstantial, hinging on the claim that other facts “outweigh” the problem with evidence collection”

    The ‘other facts’ are basically White Helmets produced videos about which there are many serious questions.

    One such being that the child victims have severe head injuries which appear while they are in White Helmets custody. After which they are dead.

    Reply
    • DDTea

      Those head injuries were more likely caused by fainting after being exposed to sarin and diisopropyl fluorophosphate.

      Reply
  6. Ken

    My only questions would be.. Why would Assad not use chemical weapons against Isis while fighting them for 6 years, but use them against his own citizens whom Isis is killing regularly? And also.. Who benefits from him being responsible for those 2 chemical attacks?

    Reply
    • DDTea

      Actually, SAA allegedly used Sarin twice against ISIS last year in Homs province. These incidents were mentioned in a UN-OPCW JIM report which I don’t have in front of me right now.

      Reply
    • kim

      I follow up on the event in Syria since the start of the “Syrian Spring” by youth in Syria. Assad has only way to survive is to have an organization such ISIS to convince his people and the world that he is fighting terrorism. Assad has already infiltrated the extremists organizations and even has a hand in the event in Iraq during the rise of extremists, he supplied men and power as a third party to them to gain a hand in molding events in Iraq and to build a structure in case the US turned on him. During the all the event of 7 years of war in Syria, he was 95% of the time fighting rebels against him and leaving ISIS alone. Actually, part of his strategy is allow them in to fight rebels in many places. One more thing, he worked with ISIS pretty well when ISIS controlled the oil filed.

      Reply
      • Zan

        simply swap “U.S.” for “Assad” in this paragraph, and it will be equally true.

        the question is: who is sovereign?

        eliot asset higgins cannot answer:

        “Assad has only way to survive is to have an organization such ISIS to convince his people and the world that he is fighting terrorism. Assad has already infiltrated the extremists organizations and even has a hand in the event in Iraq during the rise of extremists, he supplied men and power as a third party to them to gain a hand in molding events in Iraq”

        Reply
  7. DDTea

    Assad’s government is not sovereign. Words have actual meanings, and no definition of “sovereign” can be stretched to cover the sorry state of the Assad regime.

    Reply

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