Part 1 : The Russian narrative
On 7 April 2018 a chemical weapons attack was launched on the Syrian city of Douma, which was in the final stages of an assault by Russia and the Syrian regime to take control of the city. The attack was reported on social media by local media activists, and the local civil defence unit, and several videos were posted on You Tube, These centred on two sites – the local hospital in Douma where several people, including children, were shown being doused with water and treated for breathing difficulties, and two apartment blocks where a number of dead bodies were filmed.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) launched an investigation into the incident on10 April , and published a Report on 1 March 2019 which found that chlorine had been used as a weapon in Douma, under circumstances which strongly implied that it had been dropped by a military aircraft, implicating the Syrian regime.
Since that date a cloud of controversy has enveloped Douma, with the Russian authorities contesting the OPCW findings, along with a small British-based clique of conspiracy theorists called the Working group on Syria, Propaganda, and Media. Accusations of bias from a pair of alleged OPCW whistleblowers has kept the controversy bubbling.
Anyone wanting to follow this aspect of the Douma attack should consult the blog of Brian Whitaker who has meticulously chronicled and analysed the whole affair. Here I just want to examine one aspect of the matter – the parade of witnesses assembled by the Russian authorities who took charge of the city after its capture to testify that no such chemical attack had taken place.
The Russian military took control of the city on 12 April, four days later, began to admit western and Russian journalists, and a number of conflicting reports began to emerge.
The Hospital video
Reports on by the Russian media centred around a video that was shot of the events in Douma’s main hospital, linking it to testimony they secured from a young boy, Hassan Diab, who features prominently in it. This video was played over and over in reports on their various propaganda channels. There are a number of videos in circulation, none it must be said – despite various claims – shot by the White Helmets. Some are very short, but this lengthier one is the one the Russians regularly referenced.
The core of the case assembled by the Russians rests on a series of interviews Russian media carried out with participants in the scene shown in the video, culminating in an event at the OPCW headquarters in the Hague on 26 April where they brought together all of the witnesses, they had rounded up to put their case.
The first interview
The first interview from Douma was carried out by the Russian military authorities and broadcast on 13 April; featuring two medical staff – a paramedic and a medical student – who had been on duty in the hospital at the time of the attack. The two medics were shown viewing the hospital video; they identified themselves in it, and told an almost identical story: On 7 April a bomb struck a building near to the hospital destroying part of it and starting a fire. This caused widespread dust and smoke in the area, and prompted people to come to the hospital with severe breathing difficulties. As they were being treated an unidentified person shouted “chemical attack” and the patients panicked and started spraying each other with water.
The Robert Fisk interview
In a report to a small Irish radio station on 16 April, followed up by an article in The Independent, the journalist Robert Fisk recounted that during his visit to Douma, he met a local doctor, Assim Rahaibani, who told him that while he was not on duty on the day of the attack, he had been told by colleagues that there was a panic in the clinic that night, but the victims were not suffering from a chemical attack but from breathing difficulties due to the intense conventional bombardment of the city and the dust it generated.
The Russians’ great “catch” when it came to witnesses was Hassan Diab – a young boy who had been filmed in the hospital– an image that was broadcast around the world. Hassan was so valuable to them that they interviewed him three times.
An interview conducted by RT Arabic was published as part of a news story by RT on 20 April; while a much more elaborate “showpiece” appeared two days before on RT and Sputnik. However, it seems likely that the interview broadcast on 20 April was actually carried out first, so I’ll deal with them in that order.
The 20 April interview was conducted in the grounds of the Douma hospital where Hassan had been filmed. the interviewer tells us Hassan was with his mother when, in his words “we were outside and they told us to go to the hospital. I was taken upstairs and they started pouring water on me they then took me upstairs to my mother. The doctors started pouring water and filming us. Then my father came and took me away”. His father is then quoted as saying “: I went upstairs and found my wife and children there … when I took my son, they first told me that they needed him but I still took him away.”
The interview broadcast on 18 April was a more elaborate affair – it featured both Hassan and his father Omar in the grounds of a stylish building (while the Russian broadcast datelined it “Douma”, a sharp- eyed journalist discovered that it was actually shot in an army officers’ club in Damascus). Hassan opens the interview by stating “we were in the basement, my mother told me that we had run out of food and wouldn’t have anything to eat until tomorrow I heard a noise outside, someone was shouting that we had to go to the hospital, so we went. When I came in some people grabbed me and started pouring water on my head” His father added that he first went to his house, where he saw no evidence of a chemical attack, and then went to the hospital where he found his wife and children, who told him they had been given “dates and cookies.”
On 26 April The Russians flew all 5 members of the Diab family to the Hague for a presentation at the OPCW headquarters along with medical staff from the Douma emergency clinic. Hassan and his father were the first to testify, with the Douma hospital video playing as a backdrop. The father was the first to speak, “My children heard screams that they needed to go to the hospital. They went to the hospital, they saw fires in the street, they saw smoke. They came to the hospital through the tunnels near our house. In the hospital some people took my children and poured cold water on them; because of that they suffered … Later we found out that this was a fake, no evidence of chemical weapons.”
Hassan, obviously disoriented by the proceedings, spoke very briefly, saying only “We were in the basement and we heard people shouting that we needed to go to the hospital We went there through the tunnels. At the hospital they started pouring cold water on me “
There are discrepancies in the various accounts from Hassan and his father – but he is an 11-year old, drawing on memories of a traumatic experience in a confused situation, so I won’t dwell on them here, although I think there are some points that can be fairly made, so I will return to this in Part II.
The Hague Testimonies
As mentioned, On 26 April Russia assembled a contingent of witnesses at the OPCW headquarters in the Hague to back up their case. In addition to the Diabs the Russians produced 9 further witnesses, who they hailed as “Syrian Patriots”. This included 4 doctors, an hospital administrator, a patient, and three paramedics, who were all at the clinic when the alleged “staging” occurred. One of the doctors had appeared in the first Russian video. There was a conspicuous absence – Dr Assim Rahaibani who had provided the account to Robert Fisk that fitted the Russian narrative, did not appear.
All the nine witnesses were at pains to confirm that they had seen no evidence of a chemical attack, and that what they had been treating was smoke inhalation; but beyond that their accounts differed significantly. Three of them agreed that there was some sort of influx of people into the clinic, and that a panic had ensued after someone had shouted about a chemical attack; another said that someone had come in with just a single child and had started a panic; another had not witnessed the start of the panic but attributed it to people “from the shelter upstairs” coming in to the clinic; however four of the doctors made no mention at all of their being a panic – they just reported having to deal with a large number of people suffering from smoke inhalation.
The above is a summary of all of the evidence that the Russians presented relating to the events of 7 April at the Douma emergency clinic. It was of course disingenuous to claim that this was proof that there was no “chemical attack” (and when the Russians and their witnesses repeated that mantra that they seemed to be referring to a nerve gas attack) since it did not deal with the events at the apartment blocks where the attack and resulting deaths actually took place.
I will be returning to take a closer look at this material, how the Russian propaganda machine used it, and some of the issues it raises in Part II, which I hope to publish next week.