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What a Khan Sheikhoun False Flag Conspiracy Would Actually Mean

July 4, 2017

By Eliot Higgins

Translations: Русский

Since the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun on April 4th 2017 multiple attempts have been made to dismiss what happened as being part of a conspiracy against the Syrian government. A wide range of conspiracy websites and alternative media reported claims and theories around the attack being a false flag, with even Russia Today reporting President Putin describing the attack as a false flag.

Despite the wealth of witness statements, analysis of samples collected from the ground, reports by the OPCW, and other information, there’s still many people who cling to the idea the attack was a false flag conspiracy theory against the Syrian government. But what would this actually mean?

Any conspiracy theory would, of course, need conspirators, and the scale of the Khan Sheikhoun attack would require a lot of them. Often the involvement of the White Helmets in the aftermath of attack is held up as the key piece of proof needed to show that the attack was a false flag, generally with the usual accusations of them being an imperialist funded Al Qaeda allied (if not just Al Qaeda) organisation that spends the majority of its time faking rescue videos, if not outright murdering and robbing people. It’s often claimed (erroneously) all samples from the site and victims were collected by White Helmets, and therefore the samples cannot be trusted.

Let us assume, therefore, that samples have been tampered with, and the OPCW have tested doctored samples, what would this actually mean?

First, those doctoring the samples would have to have access to Sarin, as samples tested by the OPCW have found Sarin along with other related products from the production process and degradation of Sarin. They’d also make sure it included hexamine, which was detected in previous Sarin attacks, and claimed by some to link that Sarin to the Syrian governments manufacturing process, including French intelligence in their recent National Evaluation of the Khan Sheikhoun attack.

They’d also have individuals collecting samples for the Syrian government also doctor those samples with Sarin and hexamine, so tests by the Syrian governments labs and OPCW would show the presence in those samples as well.

Then they’d even have volunteers or unwilling victims expose themselves to Sarin and cross the border with Turkey, where some would die from Sarin exposure, and where the OPCW would run tests on the living and dead which resulted tests results consistent with exposure to Sarin.

Then they would ensure that all witnesses told the same version of events, even those exposed to Sarin, which indicated the origin of the Sarin was one crater in Khan Sheikhoun. This includes insuring that the locations victims were reportedly found were all consistent with a spread of Sarin from the crater in the same direction.

This consistency of witnesses telling the same version of events would also be required if the sample tampering scenario was abandoned and instead some version of a device being denoted by some opposition faction, or an attack with a rocket of some sort by an opposition faction was proposed, which just happened to be filled with Sarin that contained hexamine to make it look like Syrian government Sarin.

Now after all these shenanigans, which the OPCW falls for completely (unless they’re also complicit) we have the Russians and Syrians presenting a totally different version of events where a chemical weapons warehouse in the East of Khan Sheikhoun was bombed. Although it happened hours after the attack was first reported and documented, let’s imagine you’re still clinging to this scenario.

The question is then why does the Syrian and Russian government not publish any evidence to support their claim? Even something as simple as publishing the co-ordinates of this chemical weapons warehouse would allow anyone to check April 6th 2017 satellite imagery available on Terraserver to see if there’s a destroyed building. Every piece of open source evidence and the OPCW reports run counter to this claim, so if it really was a conspiracy against Syria, then revealing this information would expose a massive conspiracy that resulted in the US wrongly bombing Syria, and threatening Syria with further attacks.

Yet Russia and Syria stays quiet, so what does that mean? Well it can only mean one thing, that Syria and Russia themselves are complicit in the conspiracy to fake a Syrian chemical attack, resulting in Syria being falsely accused of using chemical weapons by the US, and being bombed as a result.

Or Russia and Syria are simply lying, and Syria really did use Sarin in Khan Sheikhoun.

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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  1. Adrian D.

    I’ll ask again, can you please show me where I can find the ‘wealth of witness statements’ that you mention?

    • trak

      OPCW clearly stated there was no air attack in the morning. And OPCW clearly stated they don´t know if the one and only Sarin sample was from Khan Sheikhoun.
      They also said most of other samples with sarin/sarin-like (they could only detect processed materials, not if sarin or sarin-like itself) could not be verified as to be from Khan Sheikhoun.
      Bellingcat, the master of bias of informations just produced a new conspiracy theory with the help of reuters and NATO state medias.

  2. ex-Russian

    Just want to inject an important and totally overlooked point into the conversation.
    Those claiming that the attack couldn’t have been carried out by the Syrians because Assad stood nothing to win and much to lose from it, are guilty of a false dichotomy. In fact, there is absolutely no reason to believe that the attack was in fact ordered by Assad himself. The supposition that in the total chaos of the Syrian war all bombing sorties as well as other significant military actions are carefully choreographed from Damascus, sounds dubious at best. It is far more likely that some level of these are authorized by local commanders who may be burdened more by their own and their troops’ survival and tactical gains than concerned with global geopolitical considerations of how it’s going to look on the 8 o’clock news.

    There is so much that usually goes wrong during an actual war that it’s completely possible that this was in fact either a blunder, or perhaps even a premeditated revenge attack taken at a moment’s notice by the local command or pilots. Could not a pilot upon learning news of his loved ones’ demise decide to avenge his fallen family or comrades with a chemical attack?

    In fact, we don’t even have to go too far. All evidence suggests that the downing of MH17 was unintentional and too hurt the separatists’ cause because they could no longer deploy anti aircraft weaponry for fear of repeating the same mistake twice. Were they shooting themselves in the leg intentionally, or is it more likely that all this was caused by simple (yet so tragic) human error? And the war in the Donbas is a walk in the park compared with Syria where there are more casualties per month than in the entire 3 years in the Ukraine.

    • Clay Claiborne

      All Russian and Syrian flights are controlled by the Russian air controllers. Russian military controls all Syrian air operations. Preparing a plane to deliver sarin is a big enough deal that Russians on the base would have noticed. True, Assad didn’t order the sarin attack, Putin did, and his reasons had little to do with Syria. He did it so that Trump could strike back in a completely ineffective way so that he could stage a “falling out” with Russia in an attempt to derail Russiagate. That’s why no cruise missiles where shot down while they transversed the S400 MEZ,

      • Germann Arlington

        Interesting idea, but what if American Intelligence Services were to have looked at the facts and thought – something odd is going on, lets try to organise independent international investigation before making any hasty decisions.
        It would have been very unlike American Intelligence Services but still.
        The independent international investigation would have uncovered that the strike was probably carried out directly on Putin’s orders and I don’t think it would have been anywhere close to the desired outcome, do you?

      • ex-Russian

        Conspiracy much? I can’t believe I’m actually defending Putin here, but the idea that he personally ordered a chemical attack strikes me as too far fetched, let alone for the infinitely more unlikely reasons you’ve mentioned. “Elegant” theories like yours never play out in the real world, and are the stuff of too much imagination and free time.

        To get back to the only actual argument you made, I don’t know, and neither do you, whether all flights are indeed controlled by Russian air traffic controllers. And even if they were, they do not prevent planes from taking off without coordination either. Given the mess that is the Syrian war, the total control theory just doesn’t sound very convincing. Same goes for Sarin preparation. I am open to hearing some expert opinion on this, but not your conjecture.

      • frank

        I do not believe there was any attack at all in Sheikoun (maybe something sold as …) . I do think Trump’s cruise missile strike at the time was more to do with Chinese negotiations. Also note that present negotiations with China are held under the military context of Guam/N.Korea. Not much has changed.

        • Clay Claiborne

          I thought the first two paragraphs of this article are so laden with contempt and bias that you found it impossible to read further.

    • Germann Arlington

      The fact that the CW use does nothing good for Assad is just one of the side notes.
      The fact that a lot of the evidence which allegedly proved Assad’s involvement does not stack up rings major alarm bells.

      Let’s not bring in MH17 into the this situation unless you can prove that Assad shot it down with his CW.

    • Germann Arlington

      “There is so much that usually goes wrong during an actual war that it’s completely possible that this was in fact either a blunder, or perhaps even a premeditated revenge attack taken at a moment’s notice by the local command or pilots. Could not a pilot upon learning news of his loved ones’ demise decide to avenge his fallen family or comrades with a chemical attack?”
      Sarin has fairly short shelf life and it is fairly difficult to produce.
      So your theory is probably not going to hold water.

      • ex-Russian

        Sorry, but can’t take either of your claims about Sarin at face value. Can you support these by linking to actual reports? If chemical agents such as Sarin have a short life, then how could Syria be using stockpiles of it produced decades ago (there is no indication of recent production of this stuff, or is there?). If the two precursors are stored separately in the same shell, then shelf life is no longer an issue, at least from what I found through a quick search online.

        • Germann Arlington

          “Sorry, but can’t take either of your claims about Sarin at face value.”
          My claims about Sarin
          “Sarin has fairly short shelf life”
          “Sarin is fairly difficult to produce”
          and not actually my claims.
          These are the claims made in the original reports in mass media and by USA/UK and many others and they seem to be supported by OPCW reports too.
          You can look these reports up yourself using Google


          It may take a little longer than me linking to OPCW reports but at least your research will be fully independent of mine.

          “If the two precursors are stored separately in the same shell, then shelf life is no longer an issue”
          Precursors are usually stored in separate containers (as nobody wants the incidental release in their back room).
          In flight mixing is uncommon due to various technical difficulties.
          I have read few documents from OPCW and similar organisations to that effect, you will have to find these documents yourself as I did not save links.

          “If chemical agents such as Sarin have a short life, then how could Syria be using stockpiles of it produced decades ago”
          That is one of the many odd claims made in the press.
          I have no idea if that is true.

          If it were that easy to produce and mix Sarin there would be a reasonable possibility that Sarin was delivered by someone other than Assad’s forces.
          So far mass media and the Western governments gave no indication that they consider such a possibility and bellingcat is repeating the same claims.

  3. Adrian D.

    I’ve asked a few times now for links to any of the ‘wealth of witness’ statements that Mr Higgins says existes in this post.

    Can we all now assume that they simply do not exist?

  4. frank

    The first two paragraphs of this article are so laden with contempt and bias (” dismiss what happened “) that it is impossible to read further and take the article seriously.

  5. Stephen Oliver

    Where is the green tube that is supposed to be part of the weapon that was found in the hole in the road. Being covered in paint it most likely absorbed some of the alleged Sarin so might provide good evidence for what was actually used. Did it ever reach the west? I only ask because it seems to have completely disappeared which suggests very strongly that it was not what the jihadists in Khan Sheikhoun claimed it to be – that is part of the alleged chemical weapon. BTW, don’t bother claiming that it was impossible to get it out of Khan Sheikhoun/Syria because you know as well as I do that casualties of the alleged attack were evacuated to Turkish hospitals within hours of the attack.


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