Douma, Chlorine Gas and Occam’s Razor

On June 21, 2019 I wrote an article for CounterPunch titled “The Douma Gas Attack: What’s the Evidence It was a False Flag?” It was a critique of a self-described whistleblower’s report that implicitly absolved Bashar al-Assad for the April 7, 2018 chlorine gas attack that left between forty and fifty people dead in Douma, a town six miles northeast of Damascus. The author was Ian Henderson, an employee of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), but not part of the official Fact-Finding Mission team that identified airborne weaponized chlorine tanks for the slaughter. Since Assad was the only one who had helicopters at his disposal, the evidence implicated him even though the OPCW’s charter prevents it from assigning blame in such instances.

The Working Group on Syria, led by British academic Tim Hayward, released Henderson’s report last May, which many on the left hoped would shore up support for the Syrian state. Just six days after the Douma attack, Trump authorized a Cruise missile strike on Damascus that targeted its chemical weapons development infrastructure. Since the chlorine tanks dropped on Douma could be purchased at any store serving the sewage treatment or swimming pool sterilization market, it was likely that Trump’s missile attack was more for show than anything else.

If Jonathan Cooke had not written an article for CounterPunch on May 29, 2019 supporting Ian Henderson’s findings, I probably would not have written my own opposing it. After having written more than three hundred articles about Syria since March 2011 (nearly all for my blog rather than CounterPunch), I had wound down my efforts since it was apparent that Assad had won the war.

What I cannot understand is why people like Tim Hayward, Jonathan Cooke, Vanessa Beeley and Max Blumenthal continue to write obsessively about the threat of American intervention as if Syria were Iraq in 2002. You have to be delusional to think that a “false flag” chlorine gas attack could function in the same way as Colin Powell’s WMD speech to the UN. It did not seem to matter to them that on July 7, 2019 Trump cut off all funding to Syrian rebels. This decision foreshadowed the “axis of resistance” that made Trump, Putin and Erdogan partners in the burial of the dying embers of armed resistance to a mafia state.

Regrettably, I must again answer a CounterPunch article that portrays the Douma chlorine gas attack as a false flag. It relies on the testimony of “Alex”, another OPCW whistleblower who agrees with Ian Henderson. (For his safety, the Courage Foundation felt it necessary to conceal his last name. Since nobody has assassinated a single Assad supporter in the West, let alone beat one up in the past eight years, this measure seems specious.) Unlike Henderson, Alex was a member of the official Fact-Finding team and therefore spoke with more authority. In a November 15th CounterPunch article titled “The OPCW and Douma: Chemical Weapons Watchdog Accused of Evidence-Tampering by Its Own Inspectors”. , Jonathan Steele promotes Alex after the fashion of Jonathan Cooke and Ian Henderson only five months ago.

Jonathan Steele was the former chief foreign correspondent for the Guardian. He had an opinion piece in The Guardian dated September 21, 2018 titled “If ending Syria’s war means accepting Assad and Russia have won, so be it.” It refers to Russian planes dropping leaflets urging Idlib rebels to surrender. One supposes that if they ignore the leaflets, the bombs that Russian jets are dropping on Idlib hospitals might do the trick. Indeed, it was the chlorine gas attack of April 7. 2018 that convinced Douma’s rebels and their supporters to pack their bags and relocate to Idlib, a Gaza like enclave for Syria’s outcasts.

I first became aware of Steele’s politics back in 2012 when he cited a Doha poll expressing support for Assad, once again in an opinion piece for the Guardian. The poll revealed that 55% of Syrians wanted Assad to stay, motivated by fear of civil war. If you took a few minutes to analyze the polling methodology, you’d learn that only ninety-eight Syrians living inside the country took part in the survey. To participate in the poll, they had to be on the Internet. In other words, if you were a farmer or a baker from the countryside with nothing more advanced than a flip phone, your opinion did not count.

Steele reports that Alex spoke at a panel discussion sponsored by the Courage Foundation in Brussels last month. The panel included Richard Falk, former UN special rapporteur on Palestine, and Major-General John Holmes, a man that Steele described as a “distinguished former commander of Britain’s special forces.” While Major-General John Holmes is probably not familiar to most of you, the 89-year old Richard Falk has a long and distinguished past as a peace activist. One can understand why Steele would mention Falk since his reputation precedes him.

Unfortunately, Falk has bought into the stereotype of the White Helmets as fiendish allies of al-Qaeda. Just days after Trump launched his Cruise missile attack on Syria, Falk blogged that the White Helmets gave Trump the excuse he needed to bomb Syria. He decried “their long standing links to the U.S. Government, and past skepticism about their inflammatory accusations that critics claim reflect fabricated evidence conveniently available at crisis moments.” Fabricated evidence, of course, is another way of saying false flag.

As for Holmes, his military service for British imperialism does “distinguish” him, but in the interests of transparency Steele might have mentioned that he is a member of the British Syrian Society (BSS). Bashar al-Assad’s father-in-law Fawas Akhras founded the BSS in 2003 and still leads it. Akhras proffered advice to his son-in-law in the early days of the revolt, including how to respond to a Channel 4 film showing the evidence of torture on civilians, including children. He urged dismissing the film as British propaganda meant to trigger a Syrian genocide.

In addition to Falk and Holmes, you had Guenter Meyer, a professor at the University of Mainz. He believes that the civil war in Syria was the result of the CIA flying in jihadists from other countries. No Syrian would ever revolt against such a benevolent leader who routinely gets up to ninety-seven percent of the vote, after all. Meyer is also on record as stating that most videos depicting Assad’s military killing peaceful protestors are fraudulent.

Elizabeth Murray, a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), also served as a panelist. In early November, she went on Scott Horton’s Libertarian Institute radio show to expose “the lies about Douma”.

Was such a panel interested in scrutinizing Alex’s testimony with an open and critical mind? Suffice it to say that the Courage Foundation event was a meaningless exercise only meant to feed the pro-Assad propaganda network some juicy red meat.

Turning to Alex’s testimony, Steele does not get into specifics. Still, we can assume that he agrees with the key point made by Ian Henderson, namely that the OPCW final report lied about weaponized chlorine gas tanks being responsible for deaths in Douma. He claimed that the holes in the ceilings left by chlorine tanks dropped from a thousand feet above were not consistent with their shape—square pegs in a round hole, so to speak. As such, you had to assume that malefactors snuck in when nobody was looking and placed the tanks in an apartment building to “fabricate evidence”, as Richard Falk put it. Since so much of the pro-Assad left also believes that controlled demolitions brought down the WTC, including a former member of Hayward’s group Mark Crispin Miller, it is no wonder that such beliefs keep bubbling up.

Alex makes the startling claim that the rest of the official OPCW inspection team also ruled out a helicopter attack. The team also gauged the amount of chlorine either in the corpses or in the soil and buildings nearby the attack as beneath the lethal level. Alex charges higher-ups in the OPCW with trashing their findings. They then conspired with the Trump administration to prepare a final report that framed Assad even though Trump intended to deliver Syria to Putin on a silver platter.

Whatever the outcome of the planned challenge to OPCW officials by dissidents at a November 25th conference, the burden will fall upon them to make a compelling case for a false flag. For people so committed to truth and integrity, they hardly ever consider the implications of a false flag narrative. If you believe that bearded bad guys manually placed chlorine tanks in a Douma apartment building on April 7, 2018, you must be able to answer such questions:

1. If the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, the name of the jihadis who controlled Douma), were capable of weaponizing chlorine gas tanks, why wouldn’t they have used them in confrontations with Assad’s military especially since it was closing in on them in 2018? According to Tobias Schneider and Theresa Lütkefend of the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute, there have been 336 chemical weapons attacks in Syria since 2012. They attribute two percent of them to ISIS and all the rest to the dictatorship. A search in Nexis for “chlorine & attack & Syria” in Lexis-Nexis will return 5,404 articles sorted by relevance. After a review of the first twenty-five, I found not a single one referring to rebel usage. You’re welcome to work your way through the remaining 5,379.

2. Procuring chlorine tanks might have been relatively easy, but how could the HTS construct the fins, harness, axis, and wheels that are necessary for both loading into and then dropping them from helicopters? If you are going to frame Assad, you’d better be in a position to replicate the weapon he has been using for at least five years. Would Henderson and Alex argue that the pictures of the two weaponized chlorine tanks seen in the OPCW report were photoshopped? If not, how do you construct the fins, harness, axis and wheels from scratch? Did HTS make them in a machine shop? As someone with a night school diploma in lathe and milling machine from my days colonizing industry, I can tell you that this is not an easy task during constant bombardment and electrical blackouts.

3. The HTS had to use a pneumatic drill or sledgehammers to create large holes in concrete ceilings or find apartments that had them already. If the apartment already had a hole, what accounted for the rubble on the floor beneath it? And what about the attention such tools would draw during a heavy-duty penetration of concrete ceilings? The racket would be enough to awaken the dead. Furthermore, what would their neighbors make of them hauling 300-pound chlorine tanks to the building and up the stairs? Clunkety-clunkety-clunk. Anybody spotting them would figure out that they were up to no good, especially since Douma tenement buildings were not likely to have rooftop swimming pools in need of sterilization.

4. To make sure that the forty to fifty people who were to become sacrificial lambs in this unlikely false flag operation, the HTS had to prevent them from fleeing from the bottom floors, where they had taken refuge. But what if they tried to flee the minute chlorine gas was detected? If anybody escaped, wouldn’t they finger HTS? How would HTS not lose all support immediately? The HTS might have been authoritarian, but it was not about to risk its reputation killing innocent civilians, especially those they were supposed to be protecting. Groups like the HTS were not the same as ISIS, after all. In Idlib today, there are frequent protests against hard-core Islamist groups. Less than a month ago, hundreds of people in Idlib protested against the self-proclaimed National Salvation Government, an affiliate of the HTS. Not a single person was injured or killed. By the standards of Baathist or ISIS rule, they are enjoying freedoms that remain as tangible gains of the revolution that began in 2011.

Perhaps the only reason Douma became such a cause célèbre was the large number of casualties. If it had only been four or five people who died, which was the usual number for a chlorine gas attack, I doubt that Trump would have paid it any attention. Douma had already been attacked with chlorine gas three times that year. On February first, for example, a Syrian American Medical Society hospital received three patients suffering from suffocation, a dry cough, and vomiting, all of which were consistent with exposure to chlorine gas. Would anybody pay attention to such minor ailments? For the world to sit up and take notice of the suffering in Syria, the ante must rise to a higher level. But even then, with such a broad spectrum of the left reducing such human beings to terrorists or extremists, the task of generating sympathy is an uphill battle.

While his credibility is miles beneath that of the OPCW whistleblowers, it is worth pointing out that Ted Postol has also chimed in on Douma. In the past, Postol has written numerous articles (often with clashing interpretations) absolving Assad of sarin gas attacks but has now branched out to chlorine using Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign website as a platform. There you will find his report that states that a hole in the ceiling does not match the diameter of a tank. In other words, another square peg in a round hole analysis. Bellingcat has examined that and other of Postol’s errors.

It is also worth mentioning Gabbard’s take on the Douma attack: “The hole in the roof at Douma is consistent with an artillery [sic] rather than an airstrike, which suggests that the cylinder was placed in an opening created by an earlier artillery attack, and its contents released into the building below.” Like all of the other “false flag” narratives, this one does not pass the smell test. It assumes that HTS got its hands on an unexploded chlorine tank well before the morning of April 7, 2018 and hauled it up to the top floor of the building. How does this jibe with the 40 to 50 people huddled in the lower floors? Were they ordered there at gunpoint by evil jihadis? Or, to follow Occam’s razor that “The simplest solution is most likely the right one”, did they seek such refuge because a helicopter attack was underway? It was their misfortune apparently to be in a building that suffered a chlorine gas attack.

Postol’s reputation—what’s left of it anyway—is in tatters right now. He submitted an article to Science & Global Security (SGS), a peer-reviewed journal at Princeton University, that absolved Assad from a sarin gas attack in Khan Shaykhun in 2017. The journal eventually decided to reject it because it didn’t meet their standards. Since Postol was a member of the journal’s editorial board, this was a sign that his peers now viewed him as a renegade from reality. You can read the editorial board’s statement on the rejection here. It states:

To ensure the high standards of editorial control, integrity, and rigor that this journal has always sought to maintain, we conducted an independent internal review of the editorial process for this manuscript. This review identified a number of issues with the peer-review and revision process. As a result, the editors have decided to withhold the publication of this article to examine whether the editors can rectify the problems that we identified.

Postol failed to rectify the problems.

Did the editors conspire with the Trump White House to suppress the truth just like the OPCW higher-ups? Fortunately, Ted Postol has other outlets to make his case starting with Gabbard’s website and others that have been justifying Assad’s genocidal policies for the past eight years.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.