Across the last few months, it has been reported by many outlets that the Syrian government, led by Bashar al-Assad, has essentially won its bloody civil war with both ISIS and rebel forces in the region, with the aid of Russia and the United States. [^Brookings1] However, on the 7th of April, 2018, a controversial volunteer search-and-rescue group known as Syrian Civil Defense, colloquially called the White Helmets, began posting photos and videos of children being treated for what they alleged was a chemical weapons attack perpetrated by the Syrian government. [^WhiteHelmetsTwitter1] In their first tweet on the subject, they state:
At 20:22 on Saturday, the 7th of April, a helicopter dropped a barrel bomb that contained a chemical agent in Douma, an enclave in Eastern Ghouta. 40 people, largely children and women, have been killed with hundreds being treated at medical centers.
Many dead, including women and children, in mindless chemical attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to the outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay. Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever.
The BBC and other media outlets began reporting higher and higher death counts, climbing from 40 to 70 to more than 150 throughout the 8th of April, with the primary symptom reported being death by suffocation. On this same day, it was reported by al-Jazeera that a deal had been reached between Jaish al-Islam, the last remaining rebel group in Eastern Ghouta, and the Syrian government, which would see the rebel fighters surrender, release the hostages they held, and evacuate to an area on the shared Turkish/Syrian border.
At this time, there are no independent verifications of the alleged gas attack, however the UN Security Council has been quite busy attempting to draft and pass a resolution in response to the allegations.[^UN1] From their announcement on the 10th of April:
The Security Council, voting today on three separate draft resolutions in response to recent allegations of a chemical weapons attack in the Syrian town of Douma, failed to rally the votes needed to launch an “independent mechanism of investigation” into the incident, as delegates voiced frustration over the continued paralysis and the expanding rifts between nations.
By the terms of a draft resolution submitted by the United States — which was not adopted, following a vote of 12 in favour to 2 against (Bolivia, Russian Federation) with 1 abstention (China), owing to a veto by the Russian Federation — the Council would have established the United Nations independent mechanism for an initial period of one year. It would have requested the Secretary-General to make recommendations about the mechanism including its terms of reference, based on the principles of impartiality, independence and professionalism, to identify those responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
The Council then proceeded to vote on a competing draft submitted by the Russian Federation, also rejecting it, by a recorded vote of 6 in favour (Bolivia, China, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Russian Federation) to 7 against (France, Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States), with 2 abstentions (Côte d’Ivoire, Kuwait).
By the terms of that text, the Council would have established a United Nations independent mechanism of investigation, also for an initial period of one year, and urged it to fully ensure a truly impartial, independent, professional and credible way to conduct its investigation. It would have further directed the mechanism to make full use of all credible, verified and corroborated evidence collected by the OPCW fact-finding mission, while also directing it to collect and examine additional information and sources not obtained or prepared by the mission, including all information provided by the Government of Syria and others on the activities of non-State actors.
The representative of the United Kingdom, speaking after that vote, described the Russian Federation’s draft as a “distraction” and noted that its sponsor had sought no input from other delegations. It was inappropriate to set up any “quasi-judicial” investigation, she stressed, adding that the text also applied a selective approach to the OPCW parameters. Above all, the draft was unacceptable because it sought to assert that sovereign States were above international law. “This is breath-taking in its arrogance and its ignorance,” she emphasized.
This disagreement is strongly concerning for many reasons, but primarily because it centers not on the subject of gaining independent investigation into the alleged chemical weapons attack, but rather the rights of a sovereign nation in light of international law. The United States, United Kingdom, France and others seek unhindered humanitarian and investigative access to Douma, wherein the Syrian Army would stand down and cooperate, but would not be able to submit their own reports for comparison in the matter, whereas Russia and Bolivia assert that this violates the sovereignty of Syria and instead request that an independent investigative mechanism be put in place, following the standards set by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and allowing Russian and Syrian Army investigators to submit their own reports to the independent commission, to be taken into consideration in addition to the independent investigation.
As horrific as these allegations are, without independent investigation, the attack on the 7th of April is still only alleged, and many questions arise once you start looking into the details. There seems to be disagreement on just what chemical weapon has been used, with some saying it was a Sarin gas attack, and others reporting a chlorine gas attack. From the Washington Post:
Witnesses to this weekend's bombings in Douma described a powerful smell of chlorine during the attack, but some also said that the effects of the gas appeared stronger than in previous such attacks.
Mohammed Marhoum, a medical worker, told The Post that he saw symptoms he had never seen before, including twitching, abnormal pupils and foaming at the mouth. “We believe the gas used was chlorine and another kind of gas,” he said.
Outside experts have said that the speed with which the victims died suggested that a nerve agent was used. Chlorine usually takes longer to work.
Not only are the reports coming out conflated, but the original source of the news story is, at best, controversial. The White Helmets are reported to be a neutral, non-profit, and volunteer search-and-rescue organization in Syria, funded by France, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and the United States; however, they have been repeatedly found to produce false information and stage videos, as well as directly supporting the rebels and acting against Bashar al-Assad's government. Independent investigators on the internet have repeatedly found photographs and videos which show the White Helmets using the same children for propagandaic photos of rescues, as well as one video which seems to show the White Helmets staging the rescue of a man.
Sputnik News has reported on the inconsistencies and falsehoods seen in the White Helmets' media releases, following the work of British independent investigator Robert Stuart who has been researching into the White Helmets since their founding in 2014. From the Sputnik article:
For some, the presence of the White Helmets at the hospital might not be that notable — after all, it entirely befits their mainstream depiction as a band of humanitarian volunteer rescue workers, working to rescue civilians injured in bombing raids.
However, journalists and researchers who've travelled to Syria and interviewed local residents have formed an entirely different perception of the group. For instance, Vanessa Beeley previously suggested to Sputnik the White Helmets are a "propaganda construct," supporting the "neo-colonialist" ambitions of Western powers and violent extremist groups operating in Syria. Moreover, she has collected documentation indicating the group plays an active, often armed role in the terrorist war on the government of Bashar al-Assad.
"The White Helmets have been crucial to anti-Assad propaganda efforts, offering first-hand‘proof' of chemical weapons attacks and other alleged atrocities carried out by government forces, which are then used to make the case for intervention. These attacks are often proven to have been staged — or the work of opposition forces — later down the line. Another interesting feature of their videos is they never document actual strikes, just the aftermath, and there are always a vast number of cameras on-site," Vanessa told Sputnik in March 2018.
With so much confusion on the ground in Ghouta, Syria, and no verifiable independent investigations to reference, we truly know very little about what actually happened on the 7th and 8th of April. The US and UK seem to have gotten onto a war-path over the alleged chemical weapons attack without any proof, and stand ready to strike whether or not these allegations are proven true. If the UN is unable to reach a resolution regarding the independent investigation of these allegations in Syria, the UK and US know that they can use Article 51 of the UN Charter, which states that any nation may strike if it is in self-defense, and the assertion that the proliferation of chemical weapons is a threat to their nations, in order to strike Syria without UN resolution.
But striking Syria is not a solution to the problem -- in fact, it could likely further exacerbate the warlike situation that has evolved between Russia and the West across the last couple years. Independent investigation is needed, and that will require both the Western governments and Russia to humble themselves in order to discover the truth. If we strike Syria without that proof, then we are nothing more than what our greatest enemies in the region consider us: invaders with no respect for the sovereignty of a nation.
Does international law supercede sovereignty with regards to independent investigation? Is Bashar al-Assad just as violent and psychotic as his father? We cannot know for sure, yet; however, I am inclined to trust Gen. James Mattis on the matter -- as before the alleged attack he has stated there is no evidence that Bashar al-Assad has gassed his own people, and afterwards he still remained reserved on making such accusations until assessments of the intelligence have come in.