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Conspiracy Theories and Tragedy in Douma, Syria

Still from a video by The Intercept.

On April 7, 2018, two Syrian Air Force Mi-8 Helicopters were spotted departing from Dumayr airbase towards the besieged Damascus suburb of Douma, which was in the final days of a years-long conflict between the Assad regime and various rebel groups, most prominently the Saudi-backed extremist faction Jaysh Al Islam. The group was known colloquially for Zahran Alloush, the despised warlord who ruled Douma and Eastern Ghouta with an iron fist until his assassination in a 2015 airstrike. The impoverished suburbs of Damascus had been among the first to rebel against the government of Bashar al Assad when the Arab Spring protests spread from Tunisia and Egypt to Syria in 2011. By 2012 the Syrian regime had been ejected or withdrawn from much of Damascus, Aleppo, Daraa, Homs, Afrin, and Idlib.

In Douma and across Syria, protestors and activists set up councils known as the Local Coordination Committees, a beloved human rights lawyer and activist named Razan Zeitouna helped set up an organization known as the Violations Documentation Center which was intended to keep a record of crimes against humanity. Douma’s civilians paid the price for the uprising, as the regime military bombed and besieged rebel-held neighborhoods across the nation. On August 21, 2013, Eastern Ghouta, also in the besieged Damascus suburbs, faced a sarin attack that killed upwards of a thousand people, the worst use of Chemical Weapons since the 1988 Halajba attack, when Saddam Hussein’s forces killed over 3000 civilians in Northern Iraq. The 2013 Eastern Ghouta incident brought the US to the brink of a military confrontation with the Syrian regime, which was averted by a last-minute agreement between the US, Russia, and Syria that the regime would ostensibly dismantle their chemical weapons arsenal.  A subsequent UN investigation pointed to overwhelming evidence that the sarin used in the East Ghouta attack came from the Syrian military’s arsenal. With the threat of US strikes the regime handed over significant stockpiles of chemical weapons to be disarmed and destroyed, certain facilities were subjected to inspection by officials and for the time being, it appeared that a major risk was now under control, sadly the regime’s campaign of chemical warfare was far from over.

The regime continued bombing opposition-held neighborhoods across the country, killing thousands of civilians and displacing millions. Back on the ground in Douma and Eastern Ghouta, Jaysh al Islam had become a terrifying dictatorship, moving against opposition activists, hoarding supplies, and demanding bribes. In December of 2013 Razan Zeitouna, whose colleagues at the Violations Documentation Center had documented the Eastern Ghouta sarin attack and refused to back down after criticizing Jaysh al Islam, disappeared with three of her comrades, Samira Al Khalil, Wael Hamade, Nazem Hammadi, the famous Douma 4, icons of Syria’s revolution. The besieged Damascus suburbs lived at the whims of two dictatorships, one in the sky in the form of Assad’s bombs and chemical rockets, and one on the ground, in the form of Zahran Alloush’s gangs, who terrorized the population, paraded Allawi hostages in cages, kidnapped opposition activists, dismantled revolutionary organizations, and used civilian hostages as slave labor to dig tunnel fortifications.

By 7:38 PM on April 7, 2018, civilian witnesses in Douma began to report the all-too-common occurrence of chlorine canisters crashing into yet another Syrian neighborhood and spewing noxious heavy chlorine liquid which evaporated into a toxic gas, as it had before in Aleppo, Sarmin, and hundreds of other incidents throughout the war. According to published reports, and leaked documents from the body in charge of monitoring compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), some civilians reacted by seeking higher ground to escape the heavy gas, as they had been instructed to by doctors and rescue workers in the aftermath of hundreds of chlorine attacks prior to Douma. In the panicked reaction to yet another, in a long pattern of similar attacks, civilians sheltering from conventional bombing in the basement of a block of flats, referred to as “Location 2” by the OPCW, had nowhere to go when they realized they were under attack from poison gas, some tried to flee upstairs, unaware that a canister was lodged above them, pouring deadly chlorine gas down into the very building where they sought shelter from relentless bombardment.

By ‪8:15 PM, and over the course of the next few hours, reports began to emerge from Douma of a chemical attack. Soon rescuers arrived on the scene of a grisly crime, over 40 bodies were found in a single block of flats, they were filmed by many of the first responders on the scene who checked the corpses for signs of life and left the cameras rolling as they opened the eyes of some of the victims to record the burning of their corneas, a detail which has been erroneously seized upon by conspiracy theorists who claim the moving of bodies was proof of the bodies having been planted outright. Victims bodies were found in the stairwell of the location 2 apartment building, they were also found on the first floor, additionally, it was reported that bodies were found down in the basement where civilians had sought shelter from conventional bombing, where heavy chlorine gas would have settled after being dispersed from the higher floors. Footage from amongst the first civilians on the scene actually showed the murder weapon in the form of a frost-covered canister poking through the ceiling of a terraced roof in the block of flats where their victims were found. It would eventually be revealed that the frost was the result of rapid depressurization as the canister released its deadly payload into the apartments below.

Confusion reigned, civilians were unsure of what had just happened. Initial reports indicated that many believed sarin had been used, as it had during the 2013 attack on the nearby suburb of Eastern Ghouta. Panic spread amongst the rest of Douma’s civilians as conventional shells and bombs rained down on, and killed, many of them through the last day of the army’s years-long assault.

Later across town, shell-shocked civilians poured into an underground hospital, referred to as Location 1 in leaked and published OPCW documents, where many were hosed down as onlooking cameramen stood back and filmed. A young boy named Hasan Diab, who had come into the facility during conventional shelling with his father, was filmed being hosed down in footage that became a PG-13 stand-in for the much grislier scene that had occurred earlier at Location 2, the block of flats where dozens had died. At an entirely separate location, a canister was found on a bed after having crashed through the roof and a shower installation in yet another block of flats. Mercifully, no one was killed by chlorine in this apartment building, referred to as Location 4 in Leaked, and published OPCW documents.

The next morning rescuers were filmed removing and hosing down the bodies of victims before they were moved to the underground hospital in preparation for burial. In the days following the Douma attack, an image of a young boy and girl in what seemed to be a final embrace was taken at the underground hospital and uploaded by a Douma-based activist with the caption “last hug.” A BBC producer Named Riam Dalati expressed disgust on Twitter, suggesting the victims had been placed in an evocative pose by an activist cameraman after being removed from location 2. Dalati felt that opposition activists were manipulating the optics of a real tragedy for more emotive images, he would eventually come out on record that despite the reality of the Douma chlorine attack, there was evidence that Jaysh Al Islam had staged the hospital chaos to create a more evocative scene for international media. The ruthlessness with which Jaysh al Islam had tried to seize control of narratives, even those which painted the Syrian government in a terrible light, is hardly surprising, they had kidnapped activists involved with the very organizations that had documented the 2013 East Ghouta Sarin attack after all. Despite Dalati’s public rebukes and explicit insistence that the attack indeed took place, his claims have been endlessly misread and misquoted by conspiracy theorists who, unlike Dalati, claim the attack itself was staged. Conspiracy theorists have additionally claimed the hospital footage was filmed before the attack itself, a claim which can be contradicted by following a simple timeline of the available evidence.

The night of ‪April 7 two very different sets of images began to circulate across international media, one showing panicked civilians, notably the young Hassan Diab, after the attack in the underground hospital attached to a tunnel facility controlled by Jaysh al Islam, one showing the gruesome footage of the victims of the actual crime itself. According to leaked and published documents from the OPCW, as Syria’s forces closed in, a frantic race to preserve evidence ensued as Syrian Civil Defense, aka the White Helmets hurried to protect the bodies of those who had perished in the attack. The bodies of the dead were buried alongside the mass graves of hundreds of other victims of “conventional warfare” so that their location would remain hidden from regime forces who would inevitably attempt to tamper with any investigation. The detail of chlorine victims being buried alongside a much larger number of victims of conventional warfare has been erroneously seized upon by conspiracy theorists seeking to discredit the eyewitness accounts. Within less than two days of the chlorine attack, Douma had fallen to regime forces, a familiar scene played out as part of the surrender deal, Rebels were bussed out of the neighborhood along with their light weapons and certain civilians, including witnesses and survivors, towards rebel-held Idlib, and relative safety.

Subsequent international coverage of the incident gave the impression that the panicked civilians filmed at the underground hospital were all victims of the chlorine attack, which had killed civilians at a block of flats earlier when in reality many were sheltering from conventional bombing in the chaos following the chlorine strike. This confusion has been at the center of Russian and Assad regime attempts to obfuscate guilt for the crime. Details from a leaked interim OPCW draft on Douma offer insight regarding the way bodies were hidden to preserve evidence, they also corroborate reporting from the Independent that Syrian Civil Defense had sincerely fought to provide accurate information to the OPCW on the locations of the bodies killed in an attack they themselves were struggling to understand. The reports of confusion among rescuers also paint a picture that could not possibly be more different than the conspiratorial scenario where the civil defense would serve master-chemist forgers. In reality, as the regime prepared to swoop in on witnesses and their relatives, the rescuers, though frightened and confused by the attack, sought to facilitate international inspectors’ access to forensic evidence in the form of victims’ bodies.

According to documents from Wikileaks, civilian survivors and witnesses were soon identified by the OPCW after fleeing to a third, unspecified country, referred to in the leaks as “Country X” (presumably Turkey). Back in Douma the regime and Russia had given certain news crews access to Douma itself, some were able to interview witnesses who claimed to have lost relatives, some, clearly exposed to regime forces, claimed the rebels had carried out the chemical attack. In the aftermath, the regime was clearly unsure if they were running with the idea that there had indeed been an attack or not, and the confusing statements from survivors at their mercy track closely with the lack of a coherent counter-narrative from the Assad’s government.

Meanwhile, survivors in “Country X” recounted a panicked struggle for survival to OPCW investigators. Back in Damascus, it would soon become clear that Survivors who had stayed behind after Douma fell to the Assad regime, faced an entirely new set of threats when Russian media broadcast an interview with Hassan Diab and his father, accidentally admitting the footage was filmed at a regime military facility far from Douma, a facility which is used by Russian Military Intelligence. Bodies rotted in the ground and munitions were exposed to the elements as witnesses and survivors were shuttled between the hands of various intimidating military outfits. With corroboration from the OPCW leaks, we can now confirm that this is the environment of witness intimidation investigators were forced to operate in, with many of the witnesses being interviewed by the OPCW in Damascus, a situation where they were clearly known to the authorities and subject to the kind of public and private pressure on full display from the Syrian and Russian authorities.

The Center for Reconciliations

Part of Russia’s military deployment in Syria is the so-called “Center for Reconciliations” a branch of military intelligence, which was under the authority of Major General Yuri Grigoryevich Yevtushenko in early 2018. The organization deploys military advisors who are tasked with registering civilians in areas reconquered by the regime, in other words, despite the innocuous-sounding title, the Center for Reconciliations is a powerful military intelligence unit, which works hand in glove with regime intelligence services who have disappeared tens of thousands of civilians without a trace. Russian state media rather clumsily revealed that the menacing intelligence unit had conducted interviews with survivors of the Douma siege as well as medical staff who were captured in the aftermath of the regime takeover.

The reporting from Russian outlets matched reporting from the Guardian that survivors, medical staff, and their families faced extraordinary pressure from the Syrian government and its allies. In the confusion following the fall of Douma, it was clear Russian military intelligence would tamper with the inevitable OPCW investigation, it would be a year before WikiLeaks would provide startling insight into how brazen and successful they were at compromising the OPCW’s ability to investigate the attack. In the wake of the Syrian regime’s sweep for doctors, medics, and other undesirables, the reporter Robert Fisk was given access to Dr. Assim Rahaibani, a senior doctor who had worked at the underground hospital where panicked civilians had been filmed after the attack. In the unusual interview, Rahaibani claimed the living victims there had been suffering from nothing more than inhalation symptoms from smoke and dust, effectively ignoring the more relevant issue of the deceased individuals at location 2. By April 9 interviews conducted by the center or reconciliation began to emerge featuring medical staff who would eventually become unwitting pawns in Russia’s efforts to obstruct the OPCW’s investigation.

A man identifying himself as one of the Douma hospital medical personnel appears in a video provided by the Russian military.

Access

Despite the fact that the Center For Reconciliation and then Robert Fisk had the opportunity to interrogate and interview medical staff on the ground, the OPCW still struggled to obtain full access to the Crime Scene in Douma early in the investigation. Leaks reveal a struggle that was frustrating and at times harrowing, with the OPCW being forced to rely on the regime along with the Russian military to address the security concerns of their personnel in Douma. The Fact-Finding Mission, which was tasked with collecting evidence, and establishing if chemical weapons had been used, rather than making final conclusions or attributing blame, was even physically attacked by unidentified gunmen during one of their first visits to Douma. Additionally, the leaked interim draft of the OPCW Douma report reveals that in some cases access to parts of the crime scene was entirely obscured, with the Syrian government refusing to remove a lock that had been installed over the door to one of the apartments where a large number of victims had died.

Spooks at The Hague

As the events in Douma unfolded, the OPCW, and the nation it is headquartered out of, Holland, was already a target for the Russian intelligence services who had been caught trying to assassinate Russian defector Sergie Skripal in Salisbury using an advanced toxic substance called Novichok – Russia was also keenly interested in the Dutch investigation into the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, which was destroyed by a Russian supplied BUK missile over eastern Ukraine in 2014. As the OPCW struggled to access Douma, a Russian surveillance team had, according to the Dutch government, set up advanced surveillance gear as well as equipment for electronic attacks around the OPCW headquarters. On April 13, 2018, the Dutch authorities “rolled up” the espionage operation against the OPCW as they swooped in on the four Russian citizens carrying diplomatic passports. Laptops discovered in the spies’ possession contained information linking them to the targeting of the World Anti-Doping Agency, as well as the MH-17 investigation. The four were quickly deported due to their immunity from prosecution and the Douma investigation continued, so did Russian obstruction.

“We Will Find Another Little Boy”

As the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission began deploying to Douma, Russia, a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and therefore an OPCW member state, prepared for a press conference at the organization’s Hauge Headquarters where Douma survivors, including the young Hassan Diab, accompanied by Russian and Syrian diplomats, were flown in from Syria to take part in a press conference which was intended to absolve the Syrian regime. Awkwardly, the conference occurred in the immediate aftermath of a report from the Intercept which proved that Hasan Diab and his father had been held at a military facility used by the Center for Reconciliations, in addition to the center itself releasing interviews with other witnesses who had been interrogated by the influential military intelligence unit. Instead of presenting a confident image of an innocent Syrian regime the bizarre spectacle only gave credence to reports from the Guardian that witnesses had been intimidated by regime-allied forces. Even more conspicuously, some of the medics who were presented were the same individuals who had been previously featured in videos of interrogations conducted by the powerful Russian military intelligence unit. The survivors’ short statements were overshadowed by long-winded tirades from the Russian Ambassador Alexander Shulgin and Syrian Envoy Ghassan Obaid, accusing the White Helmets of injecting children’s hearts with poisons, and vaguely suggesting Britain was behind the attack, additionally suggesting the Skripal poisonings, carried out by Russian military intelligence, and the 2017 Khan Shaykoun sarin attacks, had been false flags. At one point a reporter asked the Syrian witnesses if they agreed with the government’s position that the White Helmets were terrorists.

The reaction to this question was revealing, as the Syrian and Russian Officials chose to respond on behalf of the witnesses instead of risking an unscripted response from the Syrians present. Before witnesses could sort through the confusion, much less respond to direct questions about the Russian allegations, Shulgin declared on behalf of the timid survivors that they had to leave in order to “pack.”  Shulgin also promised to debunk the 2017 Khan Shaykoun sarin attack on top of the 2018 Douma chlorine attack Hassan Diab had allegedly debunked with approximately 40 seconds of prepared remarks in which he recalled being confused and getting doused with water during the incident. In one of the most unusual moments of an already unusual press conference, Shulgin stated “I’m absolutely sure a time will come when we expose this provocation in Khan Shaykoun, just like we found this little boy, we will find another little boy who will tell us what happened there.” The OPCW issued a typically diplomatic statement complaining that investigators should have access to the witnesses before they are made to participate in such an event.

The same Douma medic who appeared in a previous video provided by the Russian military.

Hassan Diab at the OPCW Press Conference arranged by the Russian Delegation.

Despite the fact that witnesses were never able to respond to key questions from reporters and that many of the responses were in Russian rather than Arabic, conspiracy theorists have since taken the surreal moment as evidence that witnesses testified that the White Helmets had staged the attack, a notion which clearly originates with the Syrian and Russian diplomats, and not the witnesses, many of whom had been spotted at the hospital as opposed to the block of flats where the attack actually occurred. As an aforementioned BBC producer mentioned, this is why Russia chose to focus on the hospital and not the block of flats where the attack actually occurred.

While conspiracy theorists have kept a single, overly narrow focus, choosing to ignore the frightening circumstances under which the witnesses were brought before the world, reporters at the OPCW press conference were not so easily convinced, pointing out that Russia had promised to produce a far greater number of witnesses to back up claims that were ultimately never substantiated, raising further questions about the location and safety of the witnesses who never showed up. With added context from the OPCW leaks, it can now be revealed that many witnesses who could have helped the investigation were subjected to military interrogation before the OPCW could get a chance to interview them. Years later, a Canadian reporter would repeat the bewildered lie that the attack itself had been staged in the emptied ruins of Douma.

Part Two coming soon.