Chemical Confusion: From Salisbury to Syria

by Ben Tippet and Jack Browne

23 April 2018

Ken Hammond

Chemical weapons can be difficult to detach from conspiracy. The public is rarely given the full facts about a strain of military technology that is synthesised in secret, stored under tight security and never used without significant contention.

That’s not to say they always make the news. Few people know, for example, about the US military’s fondness for white phosphorus during the Iraq War and, more recently, in the siege on Mosul last year. Yet in times like today the political logic becomes miraculously clear. The use of chemical agents on civilians – be they in Syria or Salisbury – is sadism, whereas the killing of innocent people with ‘conventional’ weapons is unfortunate collateral.

Back in March, during the peak of the Skripal media circus, Boris Johnson declared that scientists at Porton Down defence research laboratory were “absolutely categorical” that the nerve agent used on the Skripals was from a Russian source – a claim that he would effectively redact a couple of weeks later with some clumsy doublespeak and the deletion of an incriminating tweet from the Foreign Office. Around the same time, the Russian Ambassador to the UK deviously implied that the chemical may well have been from the laboratory of Porton Down itself, which is only a few miles from Salisbury.

A similar fog hangs over the ostensive use of a chemical agent on civilians by Assad’s forces in the Syrian town of Douma. To the US, British and French governments, the evidence of their use is categorical and justification for a one-off bombing raid on Assad’s military sites. The Russian government, once again, is primed with a counter, suggesting it had evidence that the rebels in Eastern Ghouta were planning a fake chemical weapons attack as an excuse for the US to bomb Syria.

At the forefront of those who claim the facts have been hidden from us is Craig Murray: a former diplomat turned arch-scourge of the British establishment. On his blog, Murray has tirelessly questioned public statements made by Johnson and intelligence officials following both chemical weapon events – from the notion that the Skripals could have been poisoned via their front door knob, to a lengthy analysis of why the bombing of Syria has no legitimacy under international law.

At least one of  Murray’s accusations has been vindicated. He claimed, in the midst of Boris Johnson’s anti-Russia mania in March, that Porton Down scientists were unable to confirm the nerve agent was made in Russia and that they resented the political pressure being placed on them by the Foreign Office. Two weeks later, Johnson would be covering his tracks – and Murray toasting his victory online.

Yet despite Murray’s – at times clearly legitimate – exposing of distortive intelligence from the British government, he also has an undeniable penchant for conspiracy. A recent blog post on his website – titled ‘Just who’s pulling the strings?’ – implies a hidden connection between the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s recent visit to London and the subsequent attacks in Salisbury and Douma. He suggests that the Skripal poisoning could well have been condoned, or even enacted, by the British state after a series of shady meetings with Saudi officials – principally as a means to create public anxiety around chemical weapons. That anxiety would later serve to propel an intervention in Syria, and knock back Iran and Russia’s growing influence in the region.

That Saudi Arabia and its western allies are eager to militarily impede Iran is highly plausible; it no doubt hastened the British government into last week’s bombing strike. And Murray would likely claim he is not suggesting that they are definitely the culprits, so much as raising awareness of their potential motives. But his blog reads like it is sketching a causal connection between Skripal and Saudi foreign policy. Murray lacks concrete evidence, but says it anyway – a tried and tested move from the Boris Johnson playbook.

Nonetheless, Murray has many interesting things to say, yet he’s either ignored or patronised by the mainstream media. Such treatment likely pushes him towards a conspiratorial mindset. When you’re on the periphery, as Murray is, with your legitimate expertise barred from the public conversation, the feeling will inevitably be that the machine is against you. The worst conspiracies are not just possible, but likely – because you yourself have been at the mercy of them.

From within the whirlpool of this pseudo cold war, it’s easy for the left to fall back on familiar tropes – namely, that western intervention is the only recognisable form of imperialism. In the shadow of Iraq, the British state has certainly debased its claims to legitimacy as an arbiter of international justice. But by decrying any political intervention by the west, some claim that anti-war campaigners are effectively condoning killing on a catastrophic scale. As Leila Al Shami comments in a recent article,’The anti-imperialism of idiots’, more than 500 000 people have died in Syria since 2011 – and “94% of these victims were killed by the Syrian-Russian-Iranian alliance”. When campaigners say “Hands off Syria”, she writes, they really mean “Hands off Assad”.

It can be easy to forget that there are journalists on the ground in Syria – and the picture they paint is complex. Among those working in the country is Robert Fisk – an Independent correspondent with over thirty years’ experience in the region, who visited the site at Douma earlier this week.

According to Fisk, there’s no definitive evidence of chemical weapon use in the area; a doctor he met suggested that the coughing of the children was caused by “oxygen starvation in the rubbish-filled tunnels and basements in which they lived”. Yet, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that a chemical attack did happen, Fisk acknowledges. Many of the Douma locals are pro-Assad, including perhaps the doctor he spoke to. Having suffered under the puritanical grip of the islamist group that had controlled the city, they may prefer to believe that Assad’s forces had nothing to do with illegal weaponry.

Seth Doane, a CBS correspondent currently in Syria, has spoken to Douma civilians who were in a building when the alleged chemical weapons hit. They recount choking and smelling chlorine, and point him to a mortar buried into the roof of their apartment block. The clearest picture from Doane’s video report, however, is of a people who have lived under extreme duress. The above clip shows locals scrambling for food from an aid truck with, somewhat surreally, Doane jostling among them. The use of a single mode of chemical weaponry – while certainly worthy of legal investigation and, if the evidence stacks up, criminal charges – begins to pale in importance when seen within a wider panorama of suffering.

Accusations about the misuse of chemical weapons are increasingly defining British politics at home and abroad. But the inability to clarify responsibility can lead to spurious conspiracy and, at worst, outright propaganda. If we want to hold those in power in Syria, Russia and the UK to account, we should rely on reliable journalism and thorough, investigative accounts – and accept that the reality of war will rarely give us simple answers.

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