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Syria’s Alleged Sarin-Gas Attack: Questioning a Flawed Investigation

Posted on Jul 5, 2017

(Page 5)

As a former U.N. chief weapons inspector who has led sampling missions involving great political sensitivity, I was aghast at the collection and handling of what the White Helmets purported to be samples from the chemical attack scene. The samples were virtually unusable as collected—the cross-contamination issues alone should preclude their being used. The lack of any discernable documentation, the lack of any tamper-proof seals, and the lack of viable sampling containers, techniques and methodology likewise meant that anything collected by the White Helmets in the manner indicated on film had absolutely zero inspection utility.

These observations are obvious and self-evident to anyone possessing a modicum of professional training and experience, as certainly the members of the OPCW FFM in Turkey could claim—especially the team leader, Leonard Phillips. When the shock of the nonexistent health and safety standards used by the White Helmets wore off, it became clear to me that this wasn’t simply a scene neutrally depicting the actions of innocents trying to do a good deed. Rather, the videotape of the sampling activities was, like the videos and images of the White Helmets rescuing stricken survivors on April 4, which energized the OPCW information cell into recommending the dispatch of the FFM to begin with, a deliberate effort to deceive. The OPCW fell victim to this deception twice: first in sending the FFM to Turkey, and second in receiving and processing evidence, whether in the form of victims or environmental samples.

But even if one gives the OPCW the benefit of the doubt and forgives its absolute lack of discerning cynicism regarding the work of the White Helmets, the failure on the part of the FFM to adhere to even a modicum of professionalism when considering the samples turned over by the White Helmets is unforgivable. The Russians have singled out the British team leaders of the FFM, in particular Phillips, as being complicit. On the surface, the Russians seem to have a case; it was Phillips, after all, who initiated contact with the White Helmets in 2015, legitimizing their presence in the OPCW inspection process. This embrace of the White Helmets by the OPCW seems to have contributed to its willingness to accept at face value whatever the White Helmets turned over for its use, including videos, samples and victim identification.

Phillips, however, is not the final authority on the work of the FFM in Turkey. This is the purview of the director-general of the OPCW, Ahmet Üzümcü. Before Phillips and his team deployed to Turkey, they were issued an “inspection mandate” by the director-general that detailed the scope of their mission, up to and including the type of equipment to accompany the team. Normally the inspection mandate is an ironclad document derived from the specific authorities enjoyed by an inspection team in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Treaty. But Üzümcü has spoken of the specific need for flexibility in approaching the unique circumstances faced by the FFM. One wonders which specific instructions the inspection mandate for Phillips included—what, for instance, was the nature of the FFM’s relationship with Turkey (not an inspected states party); what was the specific authority given in terms of establishing a working relationship with the White Helmets; and what waivers of procedures and guidelines were granted in terms of sampling and assessment activity?

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I have no doubt that Phillips, like his fellow FFM team leader Steven Wallis, is a consummate professional. The notion of an OPCW team leader of his stature deviating from standard operating procedure is virtually unthinkable. At the end of the day, the onus for explaining the conduct of the FFM in Turkey falls on the shoulders of Ahmet Üzümcü. If he indeed provided an inspection mandate with such blatant deviations from the kind of strict procedure-based protocols that give the OPCW its legitimacy, upon whose authority did he do so?

The hand-in-glove relationship between Üzümcü and the governments of Turkey, the United States, the United Kingdom and France that emerges from this process can only lead to the conclusion that, in the desire for regime change in Damascus, the narrow-minded self interests of a few governments, facilitated by an international civil servant lacking the courage to stand up and challenge an abuse of authority by these nations, has led to the discrediting of yet another international disarmament organization.

I witnessed this process firsthand as a weapons inspector with UNSCOM in 1997-1998, when the United States and its British allies exploited the personal failings of the UNSCOM Executive Chairman Richard Butler to undermine and ultimately destroy the U.N. disarmament effort on Iraq, all in the name of removing Saddam Hussein from power. Sadly, the same process is being used today regarding the work of the OPCW.

The cooperation of Ahmet Üzümcü in allowing the White Helmets to infiltrate the very inspection processes that gave the OPCW its credibility, and likewise to permit the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Turkey to use this very OPCW investigation process to attack the government of Syria as part of their collective efforts for regime change in Damascus, is a case study in history repeating itself. Ambassador Üzümcü’s cavalier approach toward inspection integrity in the name of “flexibility” has tarnished the once stellar work record of the OPCW and undermined the principles of international peace and security that were inherent in the decision by the Nobel committee to award the organization the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.

Russia would do well to stop picking on the two British inspectors, Wallis and Phillips, and instead single out the true culprit in the debacle that has become of the OPCW experience in Syria—Ahmet Üzümcü. His resignation as director-general of the OPCW would be the start of a healing process that would hopefully return the OPCW to the status it once enjoyed as one of the world’s pre-eminent disarmament organizations.

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