Little Grey Rabbit's Historical Skepticism Blog

BBC on chlorine gas use in Syria

Posted in Uncategorized by littlegreyrabbit on June 24, 2014

Al Jazeera journalist, Peter Greste, was sentenced to 7 years jail in Cairo for spreading false news.  According to James Harding, Director of BBC Current Affaris and News, Peter Greste is “a hard-working, honourable journalist, with a track record of achievement….honestly practising his trade.”  Which sounds terrible, however it might be worth testing what the BBC’s idea of a hard-working, honourable journalist honestly practising his trade actually is by examining how they dealt with the report of the recent OPCW fact-finding mission regarding chemical weapon usage in Syria.  The BBC report can be read here while the actual report is uploaded here s-1191-2014_e_ .

The BBC relies heavily on Human Rights Watch for its information, who appear to be getting lazy in these days as they aren’t bothering to maintain simulacrum of credibility to their reports.  HRW alleges these stills from a youtube video indicate chemical weapons use

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While it looks like fairly standard explosive-based munition cloud to me, HRW insist that it is chlorine gas on the grounds that a small portion of the smoke cloud has a yellow tinge.   If so it is a highly counterproductive way to deploy a chemical weapon as most of it would either be destroyed in the explosion or dispersed way up into the atmosphere and/or diluted to such a concentration to be harmless.  Since we know the Syrian Army possessed the technology to effectively deploy chemical weapons in an orthodox manner, i.e. not using large amounts of explosives that effectively destroy or disperse harmlessly the chemical agent, one is left with the question of why the Syrian government would use chemical agents in a fashion that not only was military useless, but provide a free kick to the opposition?  But there is further reason to believe that HRW is being knowingly dishonest, it presents testimony that:

I was in my office one kilometer from the site of the attack. I heard the helicopter overhead so I went outside [and] I saw the barrel bomb fall. I know it is a barrel bomb because it was falling slowly. Then I saw the explosion. The barrel bomb fell on the western part of the neighborhood in a residential area. The FSA [Free Syria Army] were at least 500 meters away [and] not located in the residential neighborhoods. I saw two barrel bombs dropped from the same helicopter, but not at the same time. The second barrel bomb fell few minutes after the first one.

Whatever may or may not be concluded about the color of the smoke, one thing is certain: there is no helicopter or aircraft anywhere that was able to drop such a barrel bomb.  Worse, in as far it indicates the deliberate dishonesty of Human Rights Watch, the original youtube video not only confirms the absence of helicopters

it very audibly records jihadists chanting Allah Akhbar culminating in a crescendo at the point of explosion – sounding identical to the chanting invariably heard whenever insurgents fire off rockets or other missiles.  The inescapable conclusion is the whoever aimed that video camera with the centre of vision right at the point of the explosion, also aimed the rocket that caused the explosion and celebrated their achievement with their customary war whoop.  In this context it is not insignificant that the eyewitness testimony stresses the explosion took place quite distant from the FSA positions.   Hence, if this yellow tinged smoke does indicate the presence of chlorine, then it was the jihadists themselves who were responsible – the fact the camera is perfectly centered on the explosion alone would suggest this.  HRW admits the rebels have access to chlorine:

While media reports suggest that the armed group Jabhat al-Nusra has access to chlorine gas, all the available evidence indicates that the attacks were conducted from helicopters, which only the government has. In April 2013, Time magazine reported that fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra had in August 2012 captured the only facility in Syria capable of producing chlorine gas, 30 kilometers from Aleppo. It was reported that approximately 400 containers, each with one ton of chlorine inside, were stored at the facility.

But dismisses the possibility of rebel culpability on the spurious grounds the evidence indicates the attacks were conducted from helicopters – even though no helicopters at all are visible.  Surely if there had been helicopters this perfectly position camera would have captured them?

So given the spurious nature of the HRW report, does the OPCW report give the BBC any more comfort?  Well not really, the OPCW reports does confirm they believe that chlorine was used, but insists that every attempt to investigate further was stymied by the rebels.

23. Over the course of the following days, the Advance Team met with General Al-Sharif and his team. In these meetings, the position of the Syrian Government that armed terrorist groups, some of which included foreigners, were engaged in efforts to obtain and use toxic chemicals was elaborated upon. Incidents of smuggling of certain chemicals across the borders from neighbouring countries were highlighted. The FFM members were also informed that at two locations, in Tartous and Al-Bayda, chemicals had been captured from armed opposition groups (AOGs) and that a chlorine-producing plant located some 40 kilometers from Aleppo had been seized by armed groups. The delegation presented a video at the meeting showing an apparently abandoned plant being visited by a camera crew from one of the AOGs interviewing two guards at the facility. The General further recalled that, on 8 December 2012, the Syrian Permanent Representative to the United Nations in NewYork had asked for the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) to make an inventory of the chemicals at the plant. The UNSMIS contingent heading for
the plant was fired upon and the effort was aborted.

One of the striking characteristics of the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government is they always seem to do so within days of a team arriving to investigate just such claims.   However, since it is taken for granted by the BBC that the peculiarly suicidal Syrian Government also unleashed chemical Armageddon on Ghouta within hours of the first chemical weapons inspectors arriving in Damascus in August 2013 to investigate suspected gas use by the opposition near Aleppo, we can’t be surprised that the BBC didn’t find this second coincidental timing odd either.

26. By 18 May, the FFM team had reached full strength. The FFM office was set up at the Four Seasons Hotel.

30. On 19 May, it was decided that the first on-site field mission would be conducted on 22 May to Harasta, which was one of the first locations to have been allegedly attacked with chlorine and was also located close to Damascus. Since the arrival of the FFM in early May, no further attacks had been reported. However, on that same day, allegations of a new attack on the town of Kafr Zeyta came to light. This was followed by another allegation on 21 May of an attack on the nearby town of Al-Lataminah. As its contacts with representatives of the opposition were already well under way, the FFM was in a position to establish contacts with two treating physicians in Kafr Zeyta and obtained their verbal medical reports relating to the treatment of individuals allegedly affected by exposure to chlorine. In addition, the Team was also able to review video footage covering the alleged attack, as well as showing items reported to be the remnants of the munitions used, as well as some that remained intact. On the same day, the FFM decided to change its plans and to head to Kafr Zeyta instead of Harasta. This decision was welcomed by the opposition.

Well this is good news – both the Government and the opposition doing everything they can to accommodate the inspectors.  What could possibly go wrong?

36. On 23 May, a conference call was held with all key players involved in the security arrangements from the side of the opposition, and their commitment to these arrangements was confirmed.

43. Various routes had been under discussion with the opposition. The selected route, including the access road, was agreed with two major groups operating in the area. They informed the team that they would also make arrangements with some other field commanders heading different armed factions in the area.

45. The route map that clearly identifies the access road was fully shared with both the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic and the opposition interlocutors.

Then a snag:

46. In a letter dated 25 May, the National Authority of the Syrian Arab Republic informed the FFM that, on 19 May, an armed group had tested a “locally made rocket with a gas cylinder warhead”, which had resulted in a toxic release. The letter also claimed that the Syrian Government had come across information on the existence of barrels containing chlorine gas in a certain house owned by an individual in the town of Kafr Zeyta, together with other unidentified canisters stored at another location. The Team was requested to inspect these locations when it arrived in Kafr Zeyta.

Oh dear.  Upon entering into opposition controlled territory:

At 9:35, the leading vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device, causing severe damage to the vehicle but no injuries to
the occupants except for minor soft-tissue injuries to the left arm of the driver.
50. After the occupants were evacuated into the other vehicles, the convoy made an effort to return to safety. On re-entering the town, the first vehicle in this convoy was attacked with automatic gun fire. While this vehicle managed to get away, somedistance ahead from the point of the shooting, the remaining two vehicles were intercepted by armed gunmen and members of the team detained for some time.
Upon the intervention of the opposition group with which the arrangements for the visit had been made, all team members were released unharmed.
51. Given the circumstances and the loss of time, together with the approaching deadline for the end of the cease fire, the field mission was aborted and the team returned to Damascus via Homs.

Technically, of course, the BBC said nothing outright false.  It used the cover of an HRW report which they knew was twaddle to make the original “alleged” claim of government chlorine gas use and then faithfully reported that OPCW concluded that it was likely chlorine had been used.  The BBC simply neglected to mentioned that the reason the inspection had not gone ahead was the opposition had sabotaged the mission when learning that the inspectors had information that suggested the chlorine gas had been stored and used by the opposition themselves.  Nor that this is not the first time the opposition has sabotaged the attempts of inspectors to visit sites under their control.  Although the inspectors aren’t exactly guiltless in this regard either, they were after all, first admitted into Syria to investigate the sites of suspected chemical weapons usage by the opposition near Aleppo, which they seem to have never followed through with.  The casual reader of the BBC report would have picked none of this detail up.  In fact when combined with the HRW report that can really only be understood as jihadists filming themselves fire rockets, we see a definite pattern of opposition deceit in regards to releasing chemical agents in order to blame the government and overt media and NGO complicity with this deceit.

If this is what the BBC understands as “honestly practising their trade”, then it is a shame a few more of them aren’t inside with Peter Greste.

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