Towards dissipating the fog of war

Following on from my previous post – and my work on the gas attacks on Douma in April 2018 (see here) – I’ve been reading a detailed analysis by James Harkin over at the Intercept, ‘What Happened in Douma? Searching for Facts in the Fog of Syria’s Propaganda War.’

James emphasises the multiple versions of the Douma attack that were produced (and remain in circulation) and the wider implications of this studied polyvocality:

At least one chemical attack did take place in Douma on April 7 [2018], and people died as a result. There could have been no other culprit but a Syrian army helicopter. But the way it happened bears little resemblance to what was broadcast to the world. From the start, the evidence presented by rebel media activists was fraught and confusing. That’s hardly surprising, because some of those behind it — including some who produced immediate and detailed reports — weren’t actually there. Into the gaps of that initial propaganda barrage seeped skepticism, which morphed into confusion and outright conspiracy-theorizing. State actors, Russian propagandists, and international observers joined the fray, cherry-picking details to illustrate the story they wanted told. Added to the fog of war, in other words, was a fractious new layer of electronic propaganda that turned every tweet or screengrab into a potential weapon in the hands of one of the belligerents.

Beyond the war in Syria, the cloud of misinformation that enveloped the attack in Douma stands as a cautionary tale. In the era of “fake news,” it is a case study in the choreography of our new propaganda wars. With the mainstream media in wholesale retreat — and, in the case of Syria, credibly threatened with death from many sides — new information actors have stepped into the breach. Reading the runes of their imagery is an exciting reporting tool. But their photos, video, and social media posts also offers a vanishingly narrow, excoriatingly subjective view of how conflicts unfold. As a result, such artifacts have become light weapons in an information war that easily becomes an end in itself.

He then provides an intricate choreography of his own visit to Douma on 9 July 2018, three days after the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) published its interim report on the attack (see also here).

James was accompanied by officials from the Syrian Information Ministry – and he’s clearly aware of the limitations this imposed on what he saw and what he heard from those who remained in Douma after the forced evacuations – and interlaces his observations and interviews with the digital evidence examined by Forensic Architecture and bellingcat that I discussed in my original essay.

It’s an unsettling analysis, though I think it makes remarkably little (much too little) of two issues.  First, the pre-existing pattern of chemical attacks in Syria in general and East Ghouta in particular (see, for example, here):

And second, the deliberate disinformation campaigns launched by Russia and Syria, revolving around multiple and demonstrably false narratives of ‘staging’ (again, the details are in my original essay here) and their circulation by witting or unwitting commentator-journalists.  This matters because (as is the case with other, ongoing investigations that have exposed systematic falsehoods on the grand, one might say presidential scale) the core question is surely: why lie if you have nothing to hide?

For all that, James’s investigation adds significant layers to our understanding of what happened on that awful April night.

First, like several analysts, James is puzzled by the location of the gas canisters shown on videos after the attack, and his interview with a former official with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is highly suggestive:

[S]uspicions that the canisters had been moved didn’t lead the former OPCW official to conclude that there hadn’t been a chemical attack by Syrian military aircraft. In fact, given the dozens dead, which didn’t fit with the usual toll of injuries from breathing difficulties and vomiting that result from a Syrian chlorine bomb, and that the victims had apparently dropped unconscious on the spot, he thought it possible that the Syrian air force had used another more murderous poison, one that hadn’t been captured in the OPCW report. But for camerapeople desperate to show they had the goods and get the world on their side, he guessed, those videos of gas canisters and outsized gas masks made “compelling images.” The temptation, he said, is to “bring your own munition in.”

He’d seen such staging himself, the former OPCW official confided. In an infamous attack on an aid convoy on the outskirts of Aleppo in September 2016, which killed 14 civilians, he concluded that pieces of alleged photographic evidence had very likely been introduced or faked. In addition, he maintained, “some opposition witnesses had clearly been coached.” Ultimately, it didn’t matter, the official said; six months later the United Nations had rightly declared the Syrian government responsible. It was just “media ops,” he said; the activists had simply been concerned to get their narrative out as quickly and forcefully as they could.

Second, James contacts Theodore Postol – who, as I noted in my own essay, had cast doubt on reports of earlier chemical attacks on East Ghouta – who provides a plausible counter-narrative to claims that the attack was somehow staged:

When I showed videos of the canisters to Theodore Postol in Boston, he was immediately certain that both had been launched from the sky by the Syrian military and that any “brouhaha” from the Russians to the contrary could be safely ignored…

[He] concurred with the analysis of internet investigators like Eliot Higgins [at bellingcat], with whom he often ferociously disagrees. The canister, he reckoned, would have weighed around 250 pounds and carried about 120 kilos of chorine. But it landed in an entirely unexpected way. Since the concrete-and-steel-mesh roof wasn’t very strong, the bomb punched a hole in the ceiling. The effect was as if the nose of the canister had been deliberately rammed into the external wall, so as to point gas directly into the room below, creating a gas chamber. That room would have filled with chlorine in one or two minutes. Drawing on Forensic Architecture’s modeling of the building onto which it fell, Postol estimated that the chlorine gas would have poured out into the upper floor at a magnitude several hundred times higher than a lethal dose, its density much greater because the release occurred in an enclosed space. As it made its way down into the two floors below, its density would have decreased, but still would have been much more than enough for a lethal dose.

When it filled the building, the chlorine would have spilled out via open windows and doors and then drifted along the street, like a thick fog, at much lower concentrations. As it sank through the building, the residents hunkered down in the basement would have smelled it too. Many likely ran headfirst onto the street, only to be confronted by a chlorine gas cloud forming all around them. Instinct and training likely kicked in; since chlorine is thicker than air, the instructions they’d been given would have been to head for the roof. Under most circumstances, this would have been excellent advice, like the injunction to workers at the World Trade Center on 9/11 to stay put at their desks, but in this case, it failed the residents of Douma. As they ran back upward through the building, they’d have been rendered unconscious very quickly and dead within minutes. Delivered at that kind of dosage — thousands of milligrams per cubic meter — chlorine could easily have caused the frothing at the mouth, skin burns, and damaged corneas observed by medical workers, as well as the horrible smell and breathing difficulties of which residents complained. It also makes sense of what the motorbike rider had told me: that the whole street had been affected by the foul odor. To panic and terrorize the population was, after all, what this was for.

The murderous result, concluded Postol, was “a very peculiar set of circumstances” and a terrible twist of fate. If the building had had been larger with a firmer roof, the balcony canister would probably not have fallen through; even if it had broken open and begun dispersing its payload, the chlorine would have wafted off into the open air and likely not injured anyone. If the roof had been even weaker and the canister had fallen right through onto the third floor, its valve might not have opened at all, like the one on the bed. But because of the way the canister punctured the concrete, its valve snapped so as to spew the contents directly into the enclosed space below. A lot of stars would have had to align for something like this to happen, just as the former OPCW inspector had said. But in this case, they did.

And James ends with a sobering counter-factual.  Throughout my analysis of siege warfare in Syria, I have criticised the selectivity of public concern (where there has been any at all), and in particular the outrage over chemical weapons compared with the insouciant disregard for other, no less murderous forms of military and paramilitary violence.  (I admit this has become an obsession: hence my dismay at the political and critical energy directed against drone strikes in the world’s borderlands to the exclusion of other forms of aerial violence that have killed and maimed many, many more people).

If a 500-pound bomb had collided with the roof of that apartment block near al-Shuhada Square instead of a chlorine canister, it would have punched clean through and landed slap on one of the higher floors. There would have been a tiny delay, only a fraction of a second, while the fuse sensed that it had reached its destination, after which the building would have blown apart and its entire weight fallen downward onto the basement. Everyone hiding there would likely have been buried alive.

Whose voices would have been raised against that?