Life returns to normal in Douma after SAA liberation. Photo © Vanessa Beeley.
As controversy rages over the alleged April 2018 Douma “chemical weapon attacks” that signaled the end of Jaish Al Islam’s occupation, life in the Syrian city gradually returns to peace and stability.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) interim report and final report have thrown the Western media community into disarray. Already scrambling to salvage their loss of face after the “no sarin” conclusions were drawn by the OPCW in July 2018, they are now trying to convert an inconclusive OPCW report into a definitive claim regarding chlorine use, in order to reassert their declining narrative supremacy.
A “chemical weapon” narrative that has effectively sustained the criminalization of the Syrian government and thus the continued unlawful aggression, direct and through Takfiri proxies, by the US coalition against Syria.
“Reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place” is transformed into “OPCW confirms chlorine gas used in attack on Douma by Syrian government” by the state media revisionists across the Western media echo chambers.
A retraction for the Western media’s earlier certainty that Sarin was used is above their pay grade, presumably. An apology to the Syrian people for enabling the unlawful bombing of Syrian territory by a rapacious FUKUS alliance is clearly not within their moral remit.
Putting aside the almost unassailable evidence that the NATO-member-state-financed White Helmets staged the now notorious hospital scenes that were universally distributed by NATO-aligned media outlets and incredulity that a yellow cylinder could be dropped from a helicopter through the roof of an apartment and then bounce from the floor and onto an undamaged bed, what is largely being ignored by the West and the OPCW is the context of the attack.
Who was in charge in Douma? How had they treated civilians leading up to the attack? To what degree should we rely upon the dubious testimony of organizations collaborating with the extremist regime ruling Douma with a rod of iron?
When we start to examine these and other questions, we can begin to comprehend the extent to which the OPCW report has failed to take into account the conditions on the ground and the relevance of these for understanding the alleged attack on April 7, 2018.
I returned to Douma on the March 9, 2019. I had previously visited a week after the alleged “chemical attack” in April 2018 and interviewed hospital staff who had already informed me that the White Helmet hospital scenes had been staged.
I revisited a Douma brimming with life, and markets overflowing with fruit, vegetables, meat, and even fish – something that had not been available for ordinary civilians when Douma was occupied by one of the most extremist, sectarian armed groups in Syria, Jaish Al Islam (JAI).
One stall-holder described life under JAI. “The most important thing was hunger, people were starving, there was no food, no drink, no medicine, no medical care, people were starving.”
Another vegetable seller told me: “Now things became better thanks to God, as you can see, everything is functioning and we are happy, everything is very good, thank God. The situation was very bad, we wouldn’t feel safe to sit here the way we are sitting now. Now, thank God, it’s safe and secure, we go to Damascus, purchase our goods from there and come back here”
A thorough examination of what happened in Douma during April 2018 requires history and context including the Adra massacre of December 2013. At this time, Adra Al Balad (Adra City) and Adra Al-Ummaliyyeh (Adra’s industrial zone) were attacked by Jaish Al Islam and Nusra Front.
According to witness testimony, a bloodbath ensued that was barely reported by Western media. An official at the Syrian Information Ministry told me recently that only one mainstream media report on this heinous massacre was published at the time.
Workers in a bakery were executed and their bodies incinerated in the bread furnaces. Many of the predominantly Alawite civilians were executed and their severed heads suspended from trees according to reports from survivors. Many were kidnapped and transported to Tawba Jail in Douma (Repentance prison) where they were incarcerated for the next five years.
These civilians were subjected to terrible torture and humiliation during this time. Children were forced to dig the labyrinthine tunnels that snaked underground, connecting buildings of the prison complex.
In January 2019 I had the opportunity to interview three survivors from Tawba Jail. Their testimony has a particular bearing upon the April 2018 alleged chemical attack. I have focused on two of the interviews in this article:
Hassan Al-Othman was kidnapped from Adra Al-Ummaliyyeh on December 11, 2013 and he was held in a prison cell in the area by JAI and Nusra Front. He was systematically tortured for one month before being transferred to work in a building where JAI would bring civilians for execution.
Al-Othman told me: “They (JAI) used to take me into the building at 11pm and say to me: ‘you have to take the bodies out.’ I used to keep taking bodies out until 5am and put them in the bulldozer bucket. We used to take them out, and start burying them at 9 or 10 in the morning, I kept doing this job for two and a half or three months, burying bodies.”
Al-Othman told me that JAI took control of the police station in the area. One day they brought civilians to the station and executed them with a sword. Al-Othman was ordered to dispose of the decapitated bodies.
After five months of enduring the inhumane treatment of the JAI and Nusra Front gangs, Al-Othman was taken to Tawba Jail in Douma. There, he was detained in solitary confinement for three years, beaten every day and hung by his wrists from the wall for long periods of time.
After three years, Al Othman was allowed access to a “communal cell” where he was joined by one other prisoner. The campaign of torture continued if JAI decided that Al-Othman had violated their “rules”. When Al-Othman refused to persuade his own brother, former president of Adra City Council, to “repent” and join the armed groups, the torture intensified.
Al-Othman described the last moments before liberation by the Syrian Arab Army as terrifying. He had overheard JAI fighters discussing a plan to blow up the prison and blame it on the SAA. The Tawba Jail complex comprised roughly twelve buildings all housing hundreds if not thousands of kidnapped victims.
The massacre that began in Adra in December 2013 would have ended with the deaths of all survivors in Tawba Jail had the SAA not put enough pressure on JAI to flee the area and leave many prisoners alive or to take others with them to Idlib as part of the Russian brokered reconciliation deal.
Al-Othman told me: “If the Syrian Army hadn’t tightened the noose on them, they wouldn’t have released us […] They wanted to send us to Idlib. When we arrived to the Syrian Arab Army checkpoint in al-Mukhayyam, I turned myself in to the Army.”
Al-Othman explained that the SAA took him in and treated him well. He also told me that many of the JAI fighters were foreigners from Jordan, Somalia and Saudi Arabia among other countries.
He apologised frequently for “babbling”, for talking so much, but for many years he had endured terrible torture and abuse, he never expected to return home and now he needed to talk about his experiences.
Al-Othman also described the other prisons established by JAI. Al Batoun Prison (the concrete prison), also called Al-Khandaq (trench prison), was another site where prisoners were tortured and interrogated. Women were imprisoned separately to the men - their prisons were known as the 16th and 28th prison.
When I asked Al-Othman about the role played by the White Helmets in Douma, he became even more animated. He told me that he often saw them receive large amounts of dollars – “new notes in sealed packages” – and, according to Al-Othman, cash was their sole motivation.
He said: “Regarding the White Helmets, they are part of the terrorists, and they are the ones who are responsible for the misleading about the crimes that the terrorists are committing […] the West is very deluded by them, they are terrorists and Takfiris […] when they used to see an injured civilian, the White helmets would finish him […] for example, he would be still alive, and then they would slaughter him, or he would be choking and they would finish him, those were the White Helmets.”
Another of the Tawba Jail survivors spoke to me in Adra Al Balad. Kidnapped on December 14, 2013, Yasser Ali Al-Hweish was held for one year inside Al Batoun where he was interrogated and tortured on a daily basis before being transferred to Tawba Jail.
Al-Hweish told me that the prisoners were regularly used to stage alleged attacks by the SAA. The White Helmets would bring them outside and make them act out an attack, they would be filmed and then taken back inside the prison.
Hweish also claimed they would be taken out and told to rescue dead bodies from under the rubble, the White Helmets would film them and then film themselves taking credit for the rescue.
He said: “For example if someone was dead under the rubble, we would dig and take him out, and after we finish, they (White Helmets) would film themselves as if it was them who have done the work, but in the end, we were doing it, not them.”
Al-Hweish believes that the White Helmets were “subordinate” to JAI and were responsible for the PR and media campaigns to secure further financial support for the terrorist group. This claim is made more plausible by the fact that the UK Foreign Office was reported to be funding the PR for JAI via an international communications consultancy called Incostrat.
The UK FCO and intelligence agencies were also involved in the creation of the White Helmets in 2013 and their continued funding via the same Conflict Stability and Security Fund that siphoned money to Incostrat. Therefore it is no great leap of logic to make the connection between the UK FCO, the White Helmets and the PR campaign for JAI to whitewash their murderous, extremist reputation in Syria.
It is worth noting that these testimonies were not isolated. I interviewed many civilians from Eastern Ghouta after liberation both in Ghouta and outside in the camps for the internally displaced in the Damascus suburbs. Most of them echoed much of what Hweish and Al-Othman told me regarding the White Helmets and their collaboration with the armed extremist groups.
JAI had a reputation as one of the most savage and barbaric armed groups in the region. They had a history of suspected chemical attacks carried out against the Kurdish community in Sheikh Maqsoud, Aleppo in April 2016.
JAI had imprisoned Alawite kidnap victims in metal cages and used them as human shields to deter SAA military campaigns or aerial bombardments. Of the thousands of kidnap victims taken from Adra or from other areas of Eastern Ghouta, only an estimated 200 emerged alive when JAI finally evacuated their fighters to Idlib on the green buses.
I explored the Tawba Jail complex, it was a harrowing experience. I was accompanied by SAA soldiers for my own security as there is still a high risk of terrorist sleeper cells in Douma. One young soldier was entering the prison for the first time. He was shocked when we stumbled upon the heartbreaking graffiti on the walls of the cells and the caged outdoor spaces where prisoners were allowed short periods of sky and fresh air, seen through the bars of an iron cage.
He was photographing the scrawled messages, muttering “haram, haram” under his breath “shame, shame.”
Often we saw that prisoners were recording the number of days they had spent in prison but most of the messages were personal cries for respite and relief, sorrow at being parted from loved ones. Despair and hope expressed in poetry and verse.
One message was translated for me: “Please God help Maya and heal her. God we have nobody but you to help us. My daughter is very sick and I can’t bear to see her suffering. Please help us.”
BBC producer, Riam Dalati, who recently tweeted that the Douma “chemical attack” hospital scenes had been faked also alluded to the “brute and shifty” JAI-affiliated doctor, Dr Abu Bakr Hanan, who had been filming the media scenes.
Dalati further confirmed that JAI ruled the district with an “iron fist.” Dalati had also previously accused JAI-partisan “activists” of rearranging the bodies of children into a more appealing hug scenario when the alleged attack actually occurred. All of these elements must surely lead to questions over the role JAI played in the possible staging of the Douma “chemical attack” and indeed to what extent previous such attacks were staged or manipulated.
This article is by no means intended to be an in depth analysis of the OPCW report or of the events on the April 7, 2018. I hope it raises questions about the FFM (Fact Finding Mission) methodology which evaluates evidence only for one conclusion – a chemical attack. The possibility of staging or the possible use of civilian prisoners as props in the production is not taken into consideration even though, as I have shown here, there is ample reason to believe JAI to have been capable of such actions.
Professor Piers Robinson of the Working Group on Syria, Media and Propaganda told me: “The FFM final report for the OPCW fails to clearly establish the cause of death for the deceased civilians filmed and photographed by ‘media activists’ on the ground; it fails to account for the release of chlorine from yellow cylinders found at the two sites, and it presents a highly unlikely if not impossible scenario regarding the cylinder found at location 4. The report is anonymous, cites anonymous ‘experts’ and provides little clarity with respect to the information sources it relies upon. It also appears to downgrade and ignore Hassan Diab who was filmed having water poured over him in a hospital scene and famously testified that these scenes were staged. This FFM report, even more than previous ones, discredits OPCW as a source of impartial investigation and undermines it as an international institution.”
In fact the FFM final report arguably raises more questions than it has answered. The missing kidnap victims who were not released during the final stages of negotiation before the liberation of Douma are still unaccounted for. The bodies of alleged victims of the “chemical attacks” have not been exhumed or identified as far as we know.
JAI were a tyrannical organisation that routinely executed, abused, tortured and murdered civilians in the areas they occupied in Syria. It is well within the realms of possibility that JAI used prisoners to stage a “chemical attack” to delay the inevitable SAA victory in Douma.
It is also feasible that the White Helmets were fulfilling their media and PR role for JAI when staging the hospital scenes as part of an attempt to buy JAI time and international sympathy. Until all these alternative theories are fully explored, the Douma “chemical attack” case must remain open and the Western media rush to judgement and desire to circle their wagons around an increasingly shaky narrative must be condemned.
Reprinted with permission from RT.