Analysis, Latest, News, Report Russia

OPCW investigation of Khan Sheikhoun attack collapses before it starts

With the stakes impossibly high and an independent investigation compromised before it starts by Western declarations of President Assad's guilt, the OPCW investigation into the Khan Sheikhoun attack is already the subject of recrimination and conflict between the Western Powers and Russia.

Ever since President Trump of the United States declared President Assad of Syria guilty of the Khan Sheikhoun attack within hours of it happening and before any investigation had taken place, I have said that any investigation of the attack had been fatally prejudiced.

Especially after the US missile attack on Al-Shayrat air base, which resulted in people being killed, the honour and prestige of the President of the United States and of the Western alliance is bound up with a finding that President Assad and the Syrian military were guilty of the Khan Sheikhoun attack.  Given the stakes involved, and given the enormous power of the US President and of the Western alliance, any truly independent and objective investigation of the Khan Sheikhoun attack is now impossible.

The Khan Sheikhoun attack took place on 4th April 2017, ie. 17 days ago.  To date no independent investigator has visited the scene, and no attempt has been made to secure the crime scene to prevent tampering.  Following the attack on the humanitarian convoy in September 2016, this is what I said about the importance of this

It is sometimes possible to infer the truth of who was behind a particular attack by looking at the evidence, but can it actually be done in this case?  The short answer I would say is no. 

Since the attack is being called by some a war crime, it would seem a basic step first to secure and inspect what in that case would be a crime scene before drawing any inferences and making any accusations.  Almost a week after the attack not only has that not been done, but no one seems to be in any hurry to do it.

With the crime scene not secured, the possibility of contamination or outright manipulation of the evidence is very real, especially given the strong incentive to do so of the Jihadi fighters who are in physical control of it.  After all that is what many claim the Jihadi fighters did to the scene of the chemical attack on Ghouta in August 2013. 

The Syrians have offered the OPCW inspectors access to the Al-Shayrat air base from where the US claims the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun was launched.  The OPCW investigators have however declined to go there, and nor have they gone to Khan Sheikhoun itself, which is under Jihadi control.  A joint Russia-Iranian proposal for the OPCW to set up a new inquiry, which would immediately despatch investigators to Al-Shayrat air base and Khan Sheikhoun, ran into opposition from the Western powers and was voted down by the OPCW Board yesterday.

There might be legitimate fears preventing the investigators going to Khan Sheikhoun, which is under Jihadi control, though the Jihadis did permit a journalist from the Guardian to travel there within days of the alleged chemical attack.  However there can be no such fears about going to Al-Shayrat air base, which is firmly under the Syrian government’s control.  The UN investigators who eventually investigated the attack on the humanitarian convoy in September 2016 ran into delays getting visas from the Syrian government to travel to Syria.  The same is obviously not true in this case, with the Russians, the Iranians and the Syrians seemingly pulling out the stops to get the OPCW investigators to Al-Shayrat air base as soon as possible.  In the event they are not going there, and there seems no wish or desire for them to go.  Nor does there seem to be any rush to get the Jihadis who control Khan Sheikhoun to provide guarantees of access to the OPCW investigators so that they can visit the actual site of the alleged attack.

In the absence of any actual inspections of the scenes of the alleged crime, it looks like we are going to have another investigation carried out remotely, from the comfort of the OPCW’s headquarters in The Hague or from some other Western capital, as happened in the case of the investigation of the attack on the humanitarian convoy.

That this is highly unsatisfactory hardly needs to be said.  Here however is what I said about it in connection with the investigation into the attack on the humanitarian convoy in September 2016, which was also carried out remotely

The Board of Inquiry’s findings are open to challenge.  This is because of the delay in setting up the inquiry and the failure to secure the crime scene.  As a result the Board of Inquiry was unable to carry out a physical inspection of the crime scene.  Here is what the report says about this

The Board was not allowed to visit the scene of the incident in Urem al-Kubra, the [Syrian] Government stating that it was unable to ensure the safety of the Board, given the ongoing military operations at that location. In this regard, the Board noted that 11 weeks had already elapsed by then since the date of the incident, by which time damaged vehicles had been removed and some destroyed structures had been repaired or rebuilt. Subsequent actions had therefore adversely affected the integrity of the site of the incident and consequently the availability of physical evidence. A visit to the site might therefore not have yielded commensurate results.  The Board accordingly developed alternative methods of evidence collection.

All this is true but it is also deeply regrettable.  As I said in my article of 26th September 2016 (see above) securing the crime scene immediately following the attack ought to have been the immediate priority.  Realistically that would have required cooperation by all the Great Powers (including the US, Russia, Syria and Turkey) and probably a Resolution of the UN Security Council.  The way the Western powers politicised the incident and sought to make political capital out of it made all that impossible, which is why an inspection of the crime scene has never happened.

Unfortunately without a proper inspection of the crime scene the Inquiry report is incomplete, and its findings open to challenge.

The bitter truth is that by now, 17 days after the attack, the crime scenes at both Khan Sheikhoun and Al-Shayrat air base have almost certainly been far too contaminated already to make fully secure findings possible.  In the case of Al-Shayrat air base, the fact that immediately following the alleged chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun it was itself the subject of a missile attack by the US military, will of course have contaminated it further.

Alongside the OPCW’s failure to despatch investigators to the crime scene, the Russians are alleging that an attempt is underway to pack the OPCW investigation with Western investigators, with the Russians complaining that two Britons have been appointed to senior posts in the investigation.

I know nothing of these people and it may be that the Russian criticism of them is unfair.  However I wonder what Western governments and the Western media would say if instead of Britons the OPCW had appointed Russians.

The Russians are now hinting that they are so dissatisfied with the way the OPCW investigation is being conducted that they are going to set up a parallel investigation of their own, though it is difficult to see how such a Russian investigation could gain access to Khan Sheikhoun unless it is recaptured by the Syrian army, which by the way is possible.

The Russians have conducted their own investigations of these sort of incidents in the past, and the results of any parallel investigation they set up into the Khan Sheikhoun affair should not be automatically discounted in advance.  A Russian investigation into the Sarajevo market bombing of 1994, and one carried out by the Russian missile Almaz-Antey into the shooting down of MH17, both produced interesting results, though the Western media and Western governments and the ‘official’ investigations have either ignored them or suppressed or distorted their findings.

However those who will criticise any Russian decision to set up a parallel investigation into the Khan Sheikhoun attack as politicised and self-serving are of course right.  That criticism does not however address the larger truth, which is that following the rush to pronounce President Assad and the Syrian military guilty within hours of the Khan Sheikhoun attack before any investigation had taken place, any investigation of the Khan Sheikhoun attack, irrespective of who carries it out, is now hopelessly prejudiced and politicised before it starts.

In the case of the attack on the humanitarian convoy in September 2016 the Board of Inquiry UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon set up at least tried to do a proper job, even though its failure to inspect the actual crime scene means its conclusions are incomplete and open to challenge.

However the report of that inquiry shows that it came under intense pressure behind the scenes from the Western powers to implicate the Russians in the attack.  That it refused to do so, and (unlike the MH17 inquiry) refused to accept the US’s word about ‘evidence’ the US refused to show to it, or to rely on ‘evidence’ obtained via social media or the internet, was almost certainly due to the toughness and integrity of the inquiry’s chairman, an Indian military officer, who proved impervious to Western pressure, and who seems to have been determined that his inquiry would do a proper and honest job.

An OPCW inquiry staffed by citizens of the Western powers may not be so resistant to pressure.  Even if the people who staff it are honest and decent, they will inevitably be concerned about the future of their careers if they produce a report that contradicts what was said by the President of the United States supported by all the other Western governments, especially over an issue where so much now is at stake.

In conclusion, the prospects of any sort of truly impartial and independent investigation taking place into what happened in Khan Sheikhoun on 4th April 2017 are now vanishingly small, and the failure to inspect the crime scene may have already made it physically impossible.  The blame for that must rest with the President of the United States and with Western governments, who ignoring basic principles of due process, made a pronouncement of guilt before any investigation had taken place.

Previous ArticleNext Article
Alexander Mercouris
Editor-in-Chief atThe Duran.

Follow me:Facebook