By enlisting the sectarian insurgent-allied, US-funded White Helmets for chemical weapons probes in Syria, the OPCW abandoned impartiality and broke its fundamental rules for collecting evidence.
Before it mired the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in an international cover-up scandal, the April 2018 probe of an alleged gas attack in the Syrian town of Douma achieved a milestone. After numerous claims of chemical weapons use in Syria, Douma marked the first time that an OPCW fact-finding mission (FFM) deployed on-site to conduct its own investigation.
Douma was not the OPCW’s first try. Four years earlier, in May 2014, the chemical watchdog sent a team to the town of Kafr Zita. As in Douma, the organization was mandated to scrutinize insurgent-generated claims of a toxic bombing by the Syrian army. But unlike in Douma, the OPCW never reached its destination. After a roadside bomb hit the OPCW’s four-vehicle convoy, armed insurgents opened fire and briefly kidnapped the inspectors.
The assault proved fateful. The OPCW abandoned not only the Kafr Zita mission, but all other on-site deployments in Syria going forward. It was not until the Syrian and Russian armies regained control of Douma in April 2018 — and after another violent attack, this time on a UN security team — that the OPCW would get back on the ground.
The four-year period between Kafr Zita and Douma, however, did not put an end to the OPCW’s investigations in Syria. No longer sending its own staff into a war zone, the OPCW outsourced its duties to groups still able to operate there. Most of these missions concerned alleged chemical attacks in insurgent-controlled territory, where the Syrian government was always the accused culprit. In such cases, one of the OPCW’s main newfound proxies was a group known as the White Helmets.
As an OPCW partner, the White Helmets carried out many of the sidelined scientists’ normal tasks. White Helmets members identified sampling locations; collected and tagged the samples; gathered video and photo evidence; and, in some cases, selected witnesses for interview. They then traveled to the neighboring Turkish border and handed material to OPCW staffers operating out of hotels. Some White Helmets members even claimed to be victims or witnesses of chemical attacks, and provided their testimony.
In enlisting the White Helmets, the OPCW pointed to the group’s claim to be a neutral organization that conducts rescue missions and other life-saving work. But from the outfit’s founding abroad to its activities on the Syrian battlefield, the reality was very different. Far from being impartial, the White Helmets were allies of – and funded by – belligerents in the Syria dirty war. And in the OPCW investigations in which the White Helmets participated, this overlooked conflict of interest shaped the outcome in their side’s favor.
OPCW partners with White Helmets, the “hidden soldiers” of Syria’s sectarian insurgency
The White Helmets were established in Turkey by the late James Le Mesurier, a British military veteran, and his then-employer, the Western intelligence contractor Analysis, Research, and Knowledge, or ARK. With funding from the State Department and UK Foreign Office, ARK “branded the White Helmets and provided its training and equipment,” according to a 2019 report in The Intercept. The US and UK governments have funded the White Helmets to the tune of $70 million since 2014. Millions more have flowed into its coffers from NATO and Gulf allies….