What are the allegations?
President Assad’s government has been accused of launching a chemical weapons attack on the Syrian town of Douma on 7 April, 2018.
Barrel bombs containing toxic substances were allegedly dropped from helicopters, killing “up to 75 people”, with as many as 500 further casualties.
The British prime minister, Theresa May, has said the chemical “appears” to have been chlorine.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has suggested that a second chemical may have also been used. “We are very much aware of one of the agents,” he said. “There may have been more than one agent used. We are not clear on that yet.”
But Russia has claimed the attack was “staged” by Britain and anti-Assad rebels.
Videos from the scene
Detailed analysis of videos from the scene confirm that they were filmed in Douma, near Damascus.
The Bellingcat website has set out how these films can be geolocated with pinpoint precision. Because the tools they use for this are open source, it is possible for us to check their work and we believe their findings are extremely compelling.
For instance, one video purportedly shows a chemical gas canister in Douma. Towards the end, the camera pans across the horizon and we can spot several buildings that can be matched to satellite images.
Videos showing dead and injured people are far too graphic for us to include here, although they are included in the Bellingcat report. They relate to one of at least two separate locations which were reportedly hit with chemical weapons.
Again, we can compare elements in these videos with satellite images like the one below.
It is impossible for us to fully verify when the videos and photos were actually taken, but metadata confirms they were uploaded to the internet shortly after the attack is reported to have happened.
What do the images show?
Let’s deal with the gas canister first. Without an independent analysis, we cannot confirm what was in it, nor where it came from.
Based purely on the image, it looks like it has fallen from a height – but it is also not inconceivable that it was placed in this position.
It also appears visually very similar to other alleged gas cylinders that were purportedly dropped by the Syrian government in 2016. Photographs of these have been compiled by Human Rights Watch here.
For instance, this first photo allegedly shows a yellow gas cylinder found in Aleppo following a chlorine attack in 2016. The second photo is taken from the video above, filmed in Douma.
As for the victims, it is also impossible for us to verify with 100 per cent certainty exactly what the video shows, or what has caused their conditions. However, organisations which support medics working in Syria have said the symptoms displayed are consistent with exposure to toxic gas.
The World Health Organisation has explained: “There were signs of severe irritation of mucous membranes, respiratory failure and disruption to central nervous systems of those exposed.”
The graphic video evidence showing these symptoms is extensive, showing dozens of bodies.
Who filmed the attack?
There is little doubt about where these videos were filmed, or what they appear to show. But some commentators have raised concerns about the motives of those who filmed it.
Before the chemical attack, Douma was one of the last remaining pockets of Syria’s Eastern Ghouta region to still be held by rebels, who were facing the prospect of defeat by advancing government forces. Reports said the city was controlled by a rebel group called Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), which is opposed to both the Assad government and to ISIS.
Jaysh al-Islam is a hardline Islamist group. Reports in 2015 said that the group had released a video showing its members shooting 18 ISIS fighters dead. And, in 2012, the group claimed responsibility for bombing the headquarters of Syria’s National Security Bureau, killing several senior government officials.
Most significantly, there are also unproven allegations that Jaysh al-Islam has used chemical weapons itself.
The claims were reported in 2016 by Amnesty International and were backed by video evidence of victims. A toxicologist told Amnesty that the symptoms displayed could be the effects of a chlorine attack.
Amnesty reported that “a subsequent statement purportedly issued by the leader of the Army of Islam armed group [Jaysh al-Islam] said that a field commander had deployed an ‘unauthorised weapon’ … and that he would be held to account”.
In the case of Douma, the rebels’ hold of the town poses two questions for us: does footage of the chemical attack come from these rebels, who have a clear agenda? If so, does that make a material difference to the evidence?
We cannot say with certainty whether the people who uploaded videos are the same people who actually filmed it. For instance, some of the footage may have circulated on WhatsApp before being posted online.
However, let’s look at a few of the main sources, who uploaded key footage within hours of the suspected attack which has since been widely circulated.
One of the first places to post graphic images was the Douma.Revolution Facebook page. The initial uploads (a series of still photographs which appear to show a room full of dead bodies) are from the same scene that we geolocated before.
The Facebook page itself does not appear to specifically endorse the Jaysh al-Islam rebel group itself. However, it is clear from the name that this is a very pro-rebel page, rather than an impartial source.
Because of limited access to the region, this Facebook page has been one of the main sources of news from Douma over the last couple of years. While it obviously has a strong political agenda, we have no evidence that it is involved in conducting hoaxes. Many of the posts simply document the deaths and injuries inflicted on “martyrs” in rebel-held communities.
A YouTube account under the name فادي عبد الله (Fadi Abdullah) posted several of the main videos, with extremely graphic footage of dead bodies. Again, they are from the same location as before.
Some, but not all, of these videos bear the Douma.Revolution logo in the corner. It is not clear whether this account has simply re-posted other people’s videos, or whether Fadi Abdullah is affiliated with the Douma.Revolution Facebook group in some way. However, we believe the latter is likely, based on the fact he appears to be a cameraman and has been posting Douma.Revolution-branded videos for years. His first YouTube video of the attack was uploaded just hours after it reportedly took place.
He has previously posted several propaganda videos from the Liwa al-Islam rebel group (such as this and this). Liwa al-Islam was another hardline Islamic rebel group active in the area, which later developed into what is now Jaysh al-Islam.
Another video, uploaded by Fadi Abdullah in 2012, shows a man stamping on picture of President Assad.
Therefore, it is clear that this is a highly partisan account. But, as before, lots of the videos posted on it are simply eyewitness footage, documenting death and destruction in the Douma area.
The White Helmets
Much has been written about this group before, but here’s the basics:
Officially known as Syria Civil Defence, the volunteer rescue group are part-funded by several western governments including Britain. Immediately following the reported chemical attack in Douma, the White Helmet’s social media channels were one of the main sources of videos and information – including crucial footage of the yellow gas cylinder.
The group is regularly accused of everything from pumping out fake news footage, to being terrorist fighters. They deny all the allegations.
In 2016, we investigated claims that the White Helmets used actors to fake video footage that showed children being pulled out of rubble following airstrikes. It was claimed that three girls pictured on different occasions were, in fact, the same girl.
Our analysis concluded there was no evidence to support these claims. However, not all of the claims and criticism about the White Helmets are unfounded.
The organisation “fired” one of its members after he was filmed handling mutilated corpses, and helping armed militants to dispose of the dead bodies of pro-Assad fighters. In a statement, the White Helmets claimed this was just one rogue individual acting alone.
There is also video evidence of White Helmets “assisting” with a public execution, by taking a man’s body away from the scene straight after he was shot dead.
And the group attracted criticism in 2016, when it staged a surreal video of an injured man being rescued from rubble as their version of the Mannequin Challenge craze. The group said it was meant “to raise awareness of the suffering of the Syrian people”.
They group later apologised, saying it was an “error of judgement”.
The White Helmet’s claims of neutrality are the subject of much debate. However, whatever their stance, few doubt that they are considered a threat by Assad’s regime.
To sum up, much of the original footage filmed at the scene in the immediate hours after the attack appears to come from sources which may be partisan or potentially compromised. Some of it may even have come from people associated with a group that’s alleged to have used chemical weapons itself, in the past.
But the fact that sources may be partisan is not surprising, given that Douma was held by rebels and was under attack. It would actually be far more surprising if the footage was all filmed by independent journalists and experts.
Evidence from the hospital
Reports say that more than 500 patients were brought to nearby hospitals with symptoms “indicative of exposure to a chemical agent”.
The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), which supports hospitals in rebel-held areas, said: “Patients have shown signs of respiratory distress, central cyanosis, excessive oral foaming, corneal burns, and the emission of chlorine-like odor.”
Some of the doctors who treated these patients have since talked to journalists. On the whole, their accounts are similar – describing symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals.
For instance, one doctor described a patient to a BBC reporter, saying: “His pupils were dilated and he had foam in his mouth. His heart was very slow. Then he coughed blood into his mouth as well. I could see he was going to die.”
However, some medics have claimed that no patients had these symptoms, and they were actually asphyxiated by dust and smoke.
There may well have been victims suffering from smoke and dust inhalation – rather than exposure to chemicals. But that doesn’t mean all the patients were the same.
Indeed, according to a Reuters report, some of doctors who made these claims had been working in a different part of the hospital.
The news agency said: “A government-organised media tour did not include the building where, according to rescue workers and medics who were in town at the time, dozens of people were killed by poison gas.”
Reuters added: “Medical aid groups and the White Helmets rescue organisation have said such statements – already aired on state television in recent days – were made under duress.”
A Russian news channel has also made claims about a boy who it says “participated in filming a fake video”. He and his father were quoted saying they went to the hospital following a panic, and were then offered food by militants.
We cannot rule out the possibility that some people were brought to the hospital under false pretences, or that some militants tried to exploit the situation. But we have to set that against the rest of the evidence: dozens of dead bodies and eyewitness accounts from victims and doctors.
The most important evidence that could come from local medical facilities are blood, hair and urine samples – which have been used in previous investigations to identify chemical weapons.
At the time of writing, however, the UN’s Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has still not been able to get to the scene.
Their security detail, who went ahead, were shot at while touring the city. Now, the UN says that key parties have met in Syria’s capital to discuss security arrangements.
Western powers accusing Assad of carrying out the attack in Douma also point to helicopter sightings over the city.
The UK has said: “Open source accounts allege a barrel bomb was used to deliver the chemicals, and a regime helicopter was seen above Douma on the evening of 7 April. The Opposition [i.e. rebel forces in Syria] does not operate helicopters or use barrel bombs.”
Reports have suggested that sightings were made by a network called Sentry Syria, which is widely used in Syria as an alert system about approaching aircrafts and is linked to the White Helmets.
Added to this, Western powers may also have their own system for monitoring flight paths over Syria.
Reports also say that sightings of the helicopters were corroborated by eyewitnesses in Douma itself.
Douma represents the latest in a series of suspected chemical attacks in Syria.
In the past, investigators from the OPCW have been successful in confirming the use of toxic substances, but have not always drawn conclusions about who was to blame. But, time and again, there is at least some evidence that points towards the Assad regime – even if it’s not always definitive.
Last April, there were reports of 80 people being killed in a suspected chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun in northwestern Syria. The OPCW concluded that “a large number of people, some of whom died, were exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance”.
Because of security risks, the investigators were not able to get to the scene themselves, so could not verify exactly how the chemicals were dispersed. However, they confirmed it was a deliberate chemical weapons attack, rather than an accident.
The findings were based on analysis of biomedical specimens, interviews, environmental samples and other evidence, which was “cross-referenced and subsequently corroborated”.
The report said: “The only determination that could be made was that sarin had been used as a weapon.”
On other occasions, the OPCW has managed to find sufficient evidence to blame Assad. These include two attacks, in 2014 and 2015, where Syrian Arab Air Force helicopters dropped devices which then released toxic chlorine gas.
Was there a chemical attack? And, if so, were Assad’s forces responsible?
For the first question, the evidence seems overwhelming.
It is true that many of the sources of information are partisan. It is even possible that certain rebels in Douma may have sought to exploit the attack.
But to deny that a chemical weapons attack occurred at all, we would need to believe that scores of people have been involved in a vast and elaborate hoax, executed without any flaws. They would have needed to coordinate without any problems through a war-torn area, to ensure civilians, doctors, aircraft-spotters, and people on social media all came out with the right story at the right time. Plus, they needed to plant a gas canister at the right spot, and produce fake videos to such a high quality they not only fool millions across the world, but also medical experts assessing the symptoms.
The OPCW has not yet done its investigation, but it’s worth noting that they have already confirmed that it considers the allegations to be “credible”.
However, the evidence is perhaps slightly less strong when it comes to apportioning blame.
When we look at the full body of evidence, including footage of the gas cylinder, sightings of helicopters, and the Assad regime’s track record with chemical weapons, it is seems very likely that Assad is responsible for Douma.
However, at the moment, the evidence we have seen stops short of conclusive proof. The idea, pushed forward by some, that rebel forces are responsible (attacking an area they control themselves in a bid to encourage Western intervention against Assad) may seem far-fetched but has not yet been categorically ruled out.
Indeed, Theresa May herself has used slightly cautious language, saying: “A significant body of information including intelligence indicates the Syrian Regime is responsible for this latest attack.”
(This article has been revised to include reference to the 2016 report by Amnesty International.)