The US was aiding rebels fighting the government of Bashar Al-Assad at the outset of the Syrian Civil War in March 2011. During the second year of the war, on July 20, 2012, Syria acknowledged possessing chemical weapons. A month later, President Barack Obama stated, in a White House press conference, that he had informed every player in the region that “chemical weapons are a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.” Suspicious types might imagine that he was setting up a pretext for the US/NATO missile strikes that came later.
In January 2013, reports did begin coming in that the Syrian government had in fact crossed Obama’s red line, but why would Syria dare the US, the greatest military power the world has ever seen, to attack it directly? It defied rationality, but pundits answered that Assad was a madman, a sociopath who couldn’t be expected to behave rationally. The same has been said of a long list of leaders the US has removed or tried to remove from power, including Slobodan Milosevic, Muammar Gadaffi, Nicholas Maduro, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and various Iranian leaders.
I spoke to The Grayzone’s Aaron Maté about the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons docs published by Wikileaks, which prove that the organization released fraudulent reports to justify US, UK, and French aerial bombing attacks on government facilities in Douma, Syria in April 2018.
Ann Garrison: Could you tell us why you think this is the most important story you’ve ever covered?
Aaron Maté: We’re talking about allegations of a cover-up at the world’s top chemical weapons watchdog to justify US military strikes. And the evidence is overwhelming. So it’s certainly the most important story that I’ve ever covered. And it’s just incredible that it continues to be ignored by most of the media.
You have this instance where the US bombed Syria in April 2018, along with Britain and France, claiming that Syria was guilty of a chlorine gas attack. About a year later, in March 2019, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the OPCW, comes out with a report that aligns with the US narrative that Syria was guilty of a chlorine attack. But then you get this extraordinary series of leaks that would show that the actual OPCW team that went to Syria wrote up a report, found no evidence of a chemical weapons attack and raised major inconsistencies in the claims that chlorine gas was used, but that their report and their findings were censored. And not just censored. In fact, their superiors tried to write a bogus report, a bogus version of their report, falsely suggesting that Syria was guilty.
That led to the standoff internally, within the OPCW, where the original team led by the key inspector who wrote the original report, protested the censorship.
And that resulted in two extraordinary things. First, a US delegation came to The Hague to meet with the team, something that has never happened before, to my knowledge, in OPCW history, and tried to convince them to basically ignore their own findings and conclude that Syria was guilty of a chlorine attack. And when that didn’t work, the original team was taken off of the case and replaced by a so-called core team that consisted mostly of people who didn’t even set foot in Syria.
And since this has come out, what has happened? The OPCW has refused to address the documented scientific fraud. They refuse to meet with the inspectors. And when you have people alleging wrongdoing, and you have documents showing the massive distortions that took place internally, and you have a multi-year refusal to meet with the people lodging the complaint, what does that tell you? It tells you that there’s something to hide and what the OPCW is hiding is its cover-up. So it’s basically covering up its own cover-up. And amazingly, the US has been basically complicit in the cover-up, because with the exception of a couple of outlets like The Grayzone, where I work, the story has been completely ignored. So, it’s a story in itself, just given the facts of it, but then, compounding that, you have the prevailing media refusal to cover it, which makes it even more important for me to go after it.
AG: To many of us, the US war in Syria has been an abomination and a violation of international law from the beginning with the covert support of forces that were trying to topple the Syrian government. Why is this incident so much more important than the others?
AM: I’m not saying it’s more important, only that it’s extensively documented. There are reasons to doubt all the previous allegations of these chemical weapons attacks by Syria. Just on the surface, they make no rational sense. Why would Syria do the one thing that it knows would invite US military intervention, especially if you look at case after case when it’s on the brink of victory in the areas involved, as was the case of Douma.
But in the case of Douma, you have this added component of a cover-up at the OPCW. You have the censorship of the investigation that actually got on the ground to investigate this. And all this effort is now being made to ignore the inspectors who brought that cover-up to light, who challenged it from within. So I’m not saying it’s more important; it’s just so extensively documented that the prevailing refusal to cover it is that much more shameful.
AG: Were there any autopsies or death certificates?
AM: No. The bodies were buried by the White Helmets, who claimed that they gave the coordinates of their graves to the OPCW. The OPCW discussed trying to exhume the bodies but ultimately decided against it.
Arria Formula meetings of the United Nations Security Council
AG: Okay, can you talk about Arria Formula meetings of the United Nations Security Council that you addressed first on September 29, 2020, and then on April 16, 2021. This is the first time I’ve heard of this type of meeting, but a UN website says they’re less formal in that they might not require consensus about agendizing the issue, and some members might choose not to attend. Who organized those meetings and invited you?
AM: Those meetings were held in the context of a prevailing refusal by the OPCW leadership and the states that bombed Syria–the US, UK and France–to hear from the inspectors. There have been multiple proposals at the OPCW, at the executive level, to let the dissenting inspectors speak, to let them air the evidence that was suppressed. Those have been blocked.
At the UN Security Council, the US and its allies have gone so far as to prevent the first Director General of the OPC, José Bustani from speaking.
Bustani wanted to come to the Security Council to speak in support of them, and to advocate for them to be heard. What happened to him? He was blocked by the US, UK, and France, the nations that bombed Syria over the alleged chlorine attacks.
So in that context, Russia and China have used the mechanism at the UN Security Council called the Arria Formula, which allows member states to convene meetings on certain topics without the consensus of all five permanent members of the Council [US, UK, France, Russia, and China]. They’ve done that to address the Douma cover-up, and they’ve invited people like myself. They’ve also invited Ian Henderson, who is one of the standing OPCW inspectors. They’ve also invited Hans von Sponeck, the former UN Assistant Secretary General, and Lawrence Wilkerson, who was the former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell.
Bustani was invited to address the Council in an Arria Formula meeting in the fall of 2020 because of two things. One, he was the first chief of the organization and so he basically designed the protocols that are used in missions like the one in Syria, the one that was suppressed. And also, these dissenting inspectors who were on that Douma mission, are so senior, so veteran with the OPCW, that their tenure coincides with Bustani’s. Going back to the founding of the organization, that’s how long the two key dissenting inspectors have been with the organization on two separate tours of duty going back to 1997-1998, when the organization was founded.
And all of us have raised concerns about the cover-up. And that underscores the fact that you have people like Hans von Sponeck and Lawrence Wilkerson raising alarm about this. It shows that concern about it is not just limited to people like me, and my colleagues at The Grayzone. It includes some of our world’s most experienced and conscientious diplomats.
Lawrence Wilkerson has first-hand experience with lies used to justify war. He helped write that speech that Colin Powell made at the UN Security Council to make the phony case for invading Iraq back in 2003. So here he was this year, returning to the UN Security Council to actually raise concerns about another pro-war deception, and that is the Syria cover-up at the OPCW.
And, of course, what was the response from the states that have tried to bury the scandal? They don’t address it on the substance. They just say that all this is the result of Russian disinformation, and they change the topic. They bring up side issues like Alexei Navalny, which, whatever you think about that issue, has nothing to do with the OPCW cover-up. They don’t want to address the cover-up because the facts are so damning to their narrative, so they just have to try to pretend that it doesn’t exist and change the topic.
AG: UN Security Council meetings are usually webcast and archived in the UNSC webcast archives. Is an archive of this meeting available there?
AG: That’s good to know.
OPCW Chief José Bustani, who lost his job in 2003, at the time of the Iraq war, was trying to negotiate with Iraq—as the Russian government ultimately did with Syria—to negotiate an agreement to comply with the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Vladimir Putin seemed to prevent a US NATO attack in 2013 by actually doing what José Bustani was fired just for trying to do 10 years earlier. Could you talk some more about that?
AM: Well, yeah, but I’m not sure if the agreement brokered by Russia to bring Syria into the Chemical Weapons Convention prevented an attack. I mean, that’s the official story. But look, the reality is we know from the reporting of Seymour Hersh, that US intelligence officials, including James Clapper, came to Obama and told him that the intelligence was not there to find Syria guilty of committing that chemical attack in Ghouta in 2013. In fact, they had ample evidence that it was carried out by the insurgents who had received sarin gas materials from Turkey.
The British military lab at Porton Down did an analysis, and they found that the sarin found in Ghouta did not match the sarin found in the Syrian government arsenal. So already at the time, the US basically knew that it wasn’t Syria. But there were people inside the administration who were pushing for missile strikes anyway, because they really wanted to bomb Syria and take the regime change war even further. They kept pushing Obama to do it.
But Obama was basically saved, not even so much by Russia, but by his own intelligence officials telling him that the intelligence wasn’t there, because they all knew that it was so implausible that Syria would do it. Why would Syria do the one thing that they knew would invite US military intervention? And by the way, why would they do it after they had just invited UN investigators to come into the country to investigate another alleged chemical attack by the insurgents in Syria? So it made no sense. Obama knew that, and having Russia come in to broker this agreement, was convenient for him. He was able to use that as an official story for why he didn’t bomb Syria. But the real reason, I think, was that he knew the intelligence wasn’t there.
AG: Can you tell us who made an issue of the OPCW leaks in the European Parliament and what unfolded there?
AM: That was two Irish members of the European Parliament, Mick Wallace and Claire Daly. And they both question OPCW Chief Fernando Arias directly about why he wouldn’t simply meet with the dissenting inspectors, and he didn’t give them a direct answer. He instead told a whole series of lies. He said he doesn’t even know why the Douma report was contested, which is just patently false. Arias himself, even if he’s managed to ignore somehow all of the leaked documents that have come out, and all the media reports on the issue, even if he somehow avoided all that, he received a personal letter from the key dissenting inspector, Dr. Brendan Whelan, who wrote the original report, the one that got doctored and censored. Arias received a letter from Dr. Whelan back in April 2019, before this issue was even public. It was a private letter, just raising Whelan’s concerns with the investigation. Whelan wrote this in response to the final report that had come out one month earlier.
And Arias responded to Whelan, saying, “I read your letter with great interest.” So assuming that that’s correct, that he actually read Whelan’s letter, there’s no way that Arias can now claim that he doesn’t know why Whelan and the other dissenting inspectors contested the investigation. So his response to critical questions has been to either avoid them or to make false statements.
AG: From your testimony and Lawrence Wilkerson’s, I got the idea that you feel this international institution, the OPCW, and other institutions created to investigate atrocity reports and/or rule on issues of international law are important, but that they’ve obviously been corrupted at many points.
AM: Even before this serious scandal, we knew that the OPCW was seriously jeopardized in its ability to carry out its functions independently. I mean, what happened to José Bustani, back before the Iraq War, when he was trying to bring Iraq into the Chemical Weapons Convention? That would have been great for world peace, but it would have been a disaster for the Bush Administration’s plans to invade Iraq, because it would have subjected Iraq to the kinds of inspections that would have undermined the Bush Administration’s pro-war, weapons-of-mass-destruction propaganda.
So what did John Bolton do? He personally flew to The Hague, went into the office of José Bustani, told him to basically resign, and said to him, “We know where your kids live,” which was a physical threat to Bustani’s children, but Bustani refused to back down.
So what did Bolton then do? He threatened the OPCW’s budget, and they bullied enough states into going along. And Bustani actually told me last year in an interview that, even if he had survived the vote to keep him in his job, he still would have resigned because there’s no way the OPCW could have functioned without the US budgetary contribution. It would have been completely gutted. So the US, because of its extreme power and financial leverage, was able to bully the OPCW into ousting its first Director General.
And by the way, this happened shortly after Bustani’s second term was renewed. So right after the guy gets a unanimous vote of confidence to a second term, John Bolton strolls in, threatens his kids, and manages to get him kicked out, because he’s standing in the way of the Iraq War. So that right there completely undermined the integrity of OPCW, and it’s not surprising that 15 years later, the same sort of bullying is repeating itself. Agents of the US were able to come in, have a very unusual briefing with the inspectors who went to Syria, meet them face to face, and basically tell the inspectors what they think they should conclude.
And according to Bustani, when I spoke to him, he said that would have never happened under his watch. It’s a complete breach of the OPCW’s independence, and it also puts the inspectors at risk, because they’re not supposed to be identified. They’re supposed to be protected and have their privacy secured. So the fact that the OPCW’s integrity is now compromised is not even in question, especially when you look at what the reaction has been.
In any normal case, when you have allegations of wrongdoing, especially these kinds of allegations, what’s the obvious response? Investigate them; at least meet with the whistleblowers who are lodging the allegation, but the OPCW basically refused to acknowledge their existence. The only time they talk about them is to attack them in public, and make false statements about them, as I’ve documented many times in The Grayzone. So the OPCW is an organization with a major credibility problem.
And it doesn’t just raise a credibility issue with this particular investigation in Douma, but with all its other investigations in Syria, because it’s very clear that there’s an agenda here.
AG: Norman Finkelstein said recently, with regard to the ICC, Human Rights Watch and other international institutions devoted to international law, that these institutions are fallible, because humans are fallible. He even said that 99 of 100 humans are corruptible. But he said that these institutions have a lot of status nevertheless, so you have to challenge them when they’re wrong, but cite them if they actually get something right, instead of dismissing them altogether. Would you agree?
AM: Sure, yeah, of course. And in the case of the OPCW, the dissenters have been portrayed as people attacking the OPCW, which is not true. They actually believe in the OPCW’s mission and purpose very strongly. They spent a large part of their lives working for it and trying to carry out its noble mission of freeing the world from chemical weapons.
What they’re doing now is trying to protect the OPCW from political influence. So there’s no contradiction here in saying that the OPCW has been compromised, but that if that issue is addressed, it could be a noble institution. It’s not irredeemable.
AG: There really is no alternative, is there?
AM: No, there is no alternative.
Aaron Maté is the host of Pushback and an investigative reporter for The Grayzone. He has also been a host and producer at Democracy Now, Al Jazeera, and the Real News Network. In 2019 he received an I.F. Stone Award for his deconstruction of Russiagate fabrications. He can be reached on Twitter at @aaronjmate.
Ann Garrison is a Black Agenda Report Contributing Editor based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for promoting peace through her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes Region. She can be reached on Twitter @AnnGarrison and at ann(at)anngarrison(dot)com.