Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. A generous donor is matching all donations of $100 or more! So please donate now to double your punch!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

How Can We Know If a Chemical Weapons Attack Took Place in Syria?

Photo by Gwydion M. Williams | CC BY 2.0

Every atrocity in the Syrian civil war provokes a furious row about whether it happened and, if so, who was responsible for carrying it out. The merciless brutality of all sides combines with partisan reporting and lack of access for independent investigators to make it possible for doubts to be generated about even the most blatant war crime. One good rule is that participants in the war are often accurate about the crimes of their opponents while they invariably lie or are silent about their own.

This rule appears to hold good in the case of the poison gas attack on the city of Douma on 7 April, which killed at least 34 people and possibly twice as many. The Russian military claim that the attack was faked by pro-opposition activists and that samples taken from the site of where the civilians died were not toxic. The Syrian government issues blanket denials when accused of using poison gas.

But there is mounting evidence from neutral observers to confirm that chlorine was used last Saturday. The World Health Organisation says that local health authorities in Douma, with whom it is cooperating, confirm that on the day of the alleged bombing they treated 500 patients with the symptoms of exposure to toxic chemicals. It reports that “there were signs of severe irritation of mucous membranes, respiratory failure and disruption to the central nervous systems of those exposed”.

Other evidence for the gassing of civilians is cumulatively convincing: large gas cylinders, like those used in past chlorine gas attacks, were filmed on the roof of the building where most bodies were found. Local people report that Syrian government helicopters were seen in the area at the time of the attack. Such helicopters have been used in chlorine gas bombings in the past.

The Russian and Syrian government accounts of what happened, varying between saying there were no attacks or that evidence for them has been fabricated, are contradictory. A Russian spokeswoman said on Wednesday that the use of “smart missiles” on Syrian government forces could be an attempt to destroy the evidence.

The allegations of fabrication are generalised and non-specific and amount to a conspiracy theory for which no evidence is ever produced, other than to throw doubt on the partiality of those who say that chlorine was used. It is true that many of the sources cited by the Western media as if they were bipartisan eye-witness accounts are committed supporters of the opposition. But the Russian and Syrian governments have never produced any counter-evidence to give credence to the elaborate plot that would be necessary to fake the use of poison gas or to really use it, but put the blame on Syrian government air power.

The most convincing reason advanced by those who argue that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces did not carry out the attack is that it was entirely against their interests to do so. They have already won militarily in Douma and the second of two convoys carrying thousands of Army of Islam fighters and their families left for Turkish-controlled northern Syria today. And this latest success brings Assad with sight – though it is still a distant one – of a complete victory over his enemies.

For all the furore about the proposed missile strike on Syrian forces– likely to happen in the very near future – it is difficult to see what it will achieve other than as a general sign of international disapproval of the use of chemical weapons. Hawks in the US and Europe may want to use the occasion to reopen the door to armed intervention in the Syrian civil war with the aim of weakening or displacing Assad, but the time for this is long past, if it was ever there.

There is a widely held myth that US air strikes against government forces in 2013, which President Barack Obama is blamed for not having carried out, would have brought the war to a different and happier conclusion. But such air strikes would only have been effective if they had been conducted on a mass scale and on a daily basis in support of ground troops. These would either have been Sunni Arab armed opposition forces, which were already dominated by al-Qaeda-type movements, or the US army in a rerun of the Iraq War of 2003.

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

Weekend Edition
October 19, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jason Hirthler
The Pieties of the Liberal Class
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Day in My Life at CounterPunch
Paul Street
“Male Energy,” Authoritarian Whiteness and Creeping Fascism in the Age of Trump
Nick Pemberton
Reflections on Chomsky’s Voting Strategy: Why The Democratic Party Can’t Be Saved
John Davis
The Last History of the United States
Yigal Bronner
The Road to Khan al-Akhmar
Robert Hunziker
The Negan Syndrome
Andrew Levine
Democrats Ahead: Progressives Beware
Rannie Amiri
There is No “Proxy War” in Yemen
David Rosen
America’s Lost Souls: the 21st Century Lumpen-Proletariat?
Joseph Natoli
The Age of Misrepresentations
Ron Jacobs
History Is Not Kind
John Laforge
White House Radiation: Weakened Regulations Would Save Industry Billions
Ramzy Baroud
The UN ‘Sheriff’: Nikki Haley Elevated Israel, Damaged US Standing
Robert Fantina
Trump, Human Rights and the Middle East
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
NAFTA 2.0 Will Help Corporations More Than Farmers
Jill Richardson
Identity Crisis: Elizabeth Warren’s Claims Cherokee Heritage
Sam Husseini
The Most Strategic Midterm Race: Elder Challenges Hoyer
Maria Foscarinis – John Tharp
The Criminalization of Homelessness
Robert Fisk
The Story of the Armenian Legion: a Dark Tale of Anger and Revenge
Jacques R. Pauwels
Dinner With Marx in the House of the Swan
Dave Lindorff
US ‘Outrage’ over Slaying of US Residents Depends on the Nation Responsible
Ricardo Vaz
How Many Yemenis is a DC Pundit Worth?
Elliot Sperber
Build More Gardens, Phase out Cars
Chris Gilbert
In the Wake of Nepal’s Incomplete Revolution: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian 
Muhammad Othman
Let Us Bray
Gerry Brown
Are Chinese Municipal $6 Trillion (40 Trillion Yuan) Hidden Debts Posing Titanic Risks?
Rev. William Alberts
Judge Kavanaugh’s Defenders Doth Protest Too Much
Ralph Nader
Unmasking Phony Values Campaigns by the Corporatists
Victor Grossman
A Big Rally and a Bavarian Vote
James Bovard
Groped at the Airport: Congress Must End TSA’s Sexual Assaults on Women
Jeff Roby
Florida After Hurricane Michael: the Sad State of the Unheeded Planner
Wim Laven
Intentional or Incompetence—Voter Suppression Where We Live
Bradley Kaye
The Policy of Policing
Wim Laven
The Catholic Church Fails Sexual Abuse Victims
Kevin Cashman
One Year After Hurricane Maria: Employment in Puerto Rico is Down by 26,000
Dr. Hakim Young
Nonviolent Afghans Bring a Breath of Fresh Air
Karl Grossman
Irving Like vs. Big Nuke
Dan Corjescu
The New Politics of Climate Change
John Carter
The Plight of the Pyrenees: the Abandoned Guard Dogs of the West
Ted Rall
Brett Kavanaugh and the Politics of Emotion-Shaming
Graham Peebles
Sharing is Key to a New Economic and Democratic Order
Ed Rampell
The Advocates
Louis Proyect
The Education Business
David Yearsley
Shock-and-Awe Inside Oracle Arena
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail