The chemical weapon was not simply one among various tools of violence employed by the Assad regime; it was, rather, employed to systematically obliterate populations residing in areas of rebellion. It functioned as its primary instrument of terror, resulting in the massive displacement of hundreds of thousands of Syrians. The following article seeks to unravel a parallel storyline running alongside the heinous crime involving the use of chemical weapons in Syria. This is a tale of orchestrated deception, aimed at manipulating global public opinion and distorting reality, all with the objective of aiding the Syrian regime’s denial of culpability for employing a weapon of mass destruction against its own populace.

According to records provided by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the Assad regime has utilized chemical weapons against civilians and rebel factions on 217 occasions since December 23, 2012. Consequently, the use of these weapons has emerged as one of the most conspicuous manifestations of the regime’s genocidal acts from the outbreak of the 2011 Revolution until today.

The initial documented instance of chemical weapons being used in Syria was in the Bayada neighborhood of Homs. Regime forces directed shells loaded with sarin gas at the area in an effort to eradicate rebel fighters stationed there. This assault was followed by multiple similar attacks, the majority of which targeted innocent civilians. However, the most devastating incident was the chemical massacre that unfolded in the eastern and western parts of Ghouta in Damascus. During this event, the regime’s forces, notably the Fourth Armored Division, launched missiles laden with sarin gas at the towns of Moadamiyet al-Sham in Western Ghouta and Ain Tarma and Zamalka in Eastern Ghouta. The result was the swift demise of 1,347 civilians across these two districts. The horrific scenes of mass fatalities caused by nerve gas were utterly chilling, even when compared to the preceding calamities and atrocities that had plagued Syria.

Occurring on August 21, 2013, this massacre marked a significant turning point in the framework of the regime’s lethal apparatus, which had been meticulously crafted to suppress the Syrian population. In the initial stages of the revolution, victims primarily comprised those facing security crackdowns during protests, later expanding to encompass individuals targeted in military and security force operations within protest-stricken regions. The year 2012 witnessed an escalation, characterized by widespread bombardment campaigns that featured a medley of destructive weaponry, including SCUD missiles and makeshift “barrel bombs” dropped from helicopters. However, the chemical massacre marked a pivotal juncture, shifting the objective of killing from mere suppression or subjugation to wholesale extermination.

Following this massacre, the regime not only eluded punishment despite threats issued by the United States and Western nations, but also continued its usage of chemical weapons. This included the recurrent use of sarin gas, despite the regime’s assertion that it had relinquished its entire stockpile of sarin. This claim rose again in the wake of a notorious deal brokered by Moscow and Washington, designed to prevent a military intervention threatened by former US President Barack Obama in the event of further chemical weapons use.

This weapon of mass destruction became a predominant tool for instilling terror and executing large-scale extermination. The regime’s impunity and the international community’s inaction in the face of its warnings culminated in the grim scenes witnessed in Ghouta during August 2013, which were subsequently repeated in Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017, and Douma on 7 April 2018. In the interim, the limited retaliatory strikes launched by the United States against the regime in response to these massacres proved ineffective in deterring al-Assad from pursuing his strategy of wielding weapons of extermination.

Sarin (nerve gas) and highly concentrated chlorine gas stood out as the two primary weapons employed by the regime to inflict maximum harm upon civilians. The systematic deployment of these weapons of extermination facilitated the regime’s objectives of displacing and instilling terror within populations. The 2018 chemical massacre in Douma had direct influence in accelerating the surrender of regions beyond the regime’s control through settlement agreements brokered by Russia. Under the terms of these agreements, significant numbers of rebel fighters and civilians were relocated from the eastern Qalamoun, rural Homs, and Daraa regions to the north of the country. The inhabitants’ response was immediate: “We refuse to perish by the hands of chemical weapons.” This nightmare constituted the regime’s ultimate weapon in its campaign of terror against rebel areas.

In tandem with its campaign of extermination, the regime’s propaganda tactics evolved in various phases, consistently accompanied by security intimidation, death threats, and targeted assassinations. Initially, the regime’s response to allegations of chemical weapon usage consisted of unequivocal denials, rejecting any involvement in these incidents. Starting from early 2013, the regime’s official narrative positioned itself as a victim of chemical attacks, placing blame on opposition factions for deploying such weapons in the town of Khan Al-Assal in March 2013. This particular incident, where sarin gas was claimed to be used on a town under the regime’s control, was utilized as evidence of the regime’s innocence regarding such chemical attacks. This incident was referenced on multiple occasions, including statements made by the regime’s envoy to the United Nations, Bashar al-Jaafari, as a rebuttal to the UN Secretary-General’s update on investigations into the August 2013 chemical massacre in Eastern Ghouta. Furthermore, in an interview with the Swedish newspaper Expressen in April 2015, Bashar al-Assad, the regime leader, asserted that Western nations were discussing chemical weapon use without a shred of substantiating evidence. Assad further claimed that the sole proof of chemical weapon deployment was the report from the investigation committee of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concerning the use of sarin gas in Eastern Ghouta in August 2013. He elaborated that the committee had not explicitly attributed responsibility for the incident, and emphasized that the regime had actually urged the United Nations to investigate the use of the weapon following Khan al-Assal.

Bashar al-Assad in interview with Swedish newspaper Expressen

Until that point, the regime had anchored its strategy in absolute denial and shifting blame onto the opposition whenever denial was no longer tenable. This phase in the regime’s narrative was marked by heightened turbulence and the circulation of deeply sensationalized accounts. Notably, Bashar al-Assad’s advisor, Buthaina Shaaban, propagated the widely circulated narrative of opposition factions abducting children from Latakia’s villages in the northwest and subsequently subjecting them to chemical weapons attacks in Ghouta, all to frame the regime.

These narratives were strategically tailored for the regime’s loyalist base. As the truth began to chip away at the regime’s façade, it attempted, albeit in vain, to launch a propaganda campaign featuring explicit sectarian incitement with the notion that the deceased children from Ghouta had been kidnapped from Alawite-majority areas.

While its propaganda was met with derision, the regime persisted in disavowing its use of chemical weapons, even as it perpetrated more systematic massacres using these same weapons. This remained the case both before and after the disgraceful deal by which the regime pledged to surrender its entire chemical stockpile in exchange for evading accountability. At that moment, this arrangement rendered an internationally coordinated propaganda effort superfluous, granting the regime a period of respite in which its web of lies sufficed for local consumption. Meanwhile, as Washington accused the regime of wielding weapons of mass destruction, the precedent of the United States’ fallacious claims about such weapons in Iraq bolstered the Assad regime’s narrative, at least in the eyes of certain segments of the international audience.

The regime’s disinformation strategy entered its second stage in late 2016 and early 2017, a period which saw the arrival of a new American president to the White House. Donald Trump’s statements about Syria were based on criticism of the policies of Barack Obama, including the retreat from striking the regime after the Ghouta chemical massacre. As part of his attempt to show himself firmer than his predecessor, Trump’s statements tried to be “tough” on the Middle East, including Syria, and focused on his commitment to the red lines that Obama had disregarded.

The first litmus test for Trump’s assertions came with the Khan Sheikhoun massacre in April 2017, where the regime employed sarin gas against civilians, resulting in the death of dozens. In response, Trump ordered a strike against the Shayrat airbase in the Homs governorate, the departure point for the aircraft responsible for deploying sarin over Khan Sheikhoun. This limited military action marked the inaugural move by the United States against the Syrian regime since the onset of the revolution. The strike positioned the regime in a context where it necessitated an international public relations endeavor to forestall the likelihood of similar reprisals in the future.

Khan Sheikhoun massacre 2017

During this phase, the regime’s propaganda efforts centered on a fundamental narrative, wherein it accused the Syrian Civil Defense (known as the White Helmets) of maintaining links with the al-Nusra Front (an al-Qaeda offshoot known today as HTS) and jointly orchestrating what the regime termed “staged demonstrations” of chemical massacres. Media affiliated with the regime consistently propagated this storyline in response to accusations of chemical weapon use. Additionally, figures aligned with the regime generated content portraying the civil defense teams as collaborators in contriving these events alongside anti-regime fighters. Notable examples include the film “Man of the Revolution” directed by Najdat Anzour, and an episode from the television series “Contact” produced by Samer Foz’s media company and featuring the renowned Syrian actress Amal Arafa.

Nevertheless, a pivotal shift during this phase was the extensive Russian endorsement of this narrative, coupled with Russia’s orchestration of a global misinformation effort. Prominent figures were enlisted to propagate this misinformation, including renowned musician Roger Waters who interrupted a performance to discuss instances of alleged staged chemical weapons usage in Syria. Waters accused the White Helmets of deploying chemical weapons against civilians and generating fabricated footage of massacres.

Ivonarmi Omran

This surge of falsehoods was in response to the altered landscape following the Trump administration’s military response. Simultaneously, it marked an effort to exploit a novel form of disinformation, involving the dissemination of false news through social media. This approach, previously employed by Moscow to sway elections in Europe and the United States, was harnessed to tarnish the reputation of the Syrian Civil Defense, an organization primarily dedicated to rescuing civilian survivors from the regime’s brutal bombardments. A report by The Guardian unveiled Moscow’s backing of platforms that propagated conspiracy theories and disseminated spurious information to undermine the Syrian Civil Defense’s credibility.

While persistently advancing this narrative, Moscow was concurrently orchestrating an intelligence operation aimed at influencing international investigations into the regime’s deployment of chemical weapons. An investigation by Al-Jumhuriya, originally published on 22 March 2019, unveiled that Moscow’s efforts extended beyond the scope of counter-propaganda. It revealed a process wherein Moscow enticed and recruited two doctors from Ghouta shortly after its intervention in Syria. These medical professionals were deployed from early 2018 to intimidate and co-opt individuals engaged in medical and humanitarian efforts. This strategy was aimed at obscuring evidence of chemical weapon usage and silencing credible witnesses, including doctors, humanitarian workers, and journalists who had firsthand accounts of these massacres.

More specifically, the General Intelligence Directorate (aka State Security), extracted two doctors, Saif Khebiyyeh and Adnan Tabajo, from Eastern Ghouta in early 2018 after a recruitment process that began in 2015. The two doctors would then directly contact medical staff after each chemical attack, such as the strikes on Hamouriyeh and Al-Shifouniyyeh in February 2018, and the Douma attack on 7 April 2018, threatening their families in regime-held areas, or threatening their lives directly, in order to push them to hide all the evidence, refuse to speak to the media and deny the occurrence of the strikes. This strategy succeeded to a large extent in the first strikes, but the availability of footage showing injuries in Douma after the massacre succeeded in encouraging the medical staff to record their testimonies to human rights organizations and publish them in the media. However, they provided their testimonies anonymously, in contrast to previous doctors who appeared directly in the media to expose the regime’s violations.

This process continued after the displacement of a large part of the population of Eastern Ghouta and Douma in particular, as a number of medical personnel were lured to Damascus under the pretext of handing over the health facilities in Douma to them so that they could continue their work in serving the population after the regime took control of the area. These doctors and nurses were then transferred to al-Khatib branch of the General Intelligence Directorate, where they were filmed, after being threatened, in interviews for Syrian TV. In these interviews, they denied the use of chemical weapons in Douma; Moscow later transferred (or rather, kidnapped) a number of these medical staff, alongside civilians and children, to the Hague (where the OPCW headquarters is), in order to strengthen its propaganda in denying the Douma massacre and then accuse the White Helmets of filming “staged” clips about chemical weapons use or cooperating with al-Nusra to actually use this weapon against civilians.

Over these years, the regime’s strategy shifted from total denial to accusing opposition factions of using chemical weapons, and then carrying out intelligence operations to threaten and silence witnesses. In parallel, propaganda campaigns were engineered and supported by Moscow to obfuscate facts and spread lies on a global level, in addition to operations to conceal evidence in areas subjected to chemical attacks and subsequently returned to the control of the regime forces, such as Eastern Ghouta.

* * * * *

International investigations into the Syrian regime’s employment of chemical weapons were initiated in the spring of 2013. During this time, the United Nations concurred on the formation of an investigative team with the objective of verifying whether chemical weapons had been used within Syria. This team, however, lacked the mandate to attribute responsibility to any specific parties. Through several visits to Syria, the team collected evidence. One of these visits coincided with the harrowing chemical massacre in Ghouta in August 2013. This attack prompted the Security Council to urge the regime to facilitate the investigative committee’s access to the sites of the massacre. Under mounting international pressure, the committee ultimately reached Eastern Ghouta, collected samples, and subsequent laboratory analyses and supplementary investigations conducted within the affected areas confirmed the deployment of sarin gas through surface-to-surface missile warheads. Despite these findings, the committee’s mandate did not extend to assigning blame to the Syrian regime.

In the aftermath of the Ghouta massacre and following the Moscow and Washington-sponsored chemical accord, a joint mission involving the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the United Nations was formed on October 16, 2013. The mission was tasked with overseeing the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons.

Two separate initiatives aimed at evidence collection emerged: the United Nations Human Rights Council’s International Commission of Inquiry on Syria (IICI) and the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), which stemmed from a UNGA resolution. In addition, the OPCW established the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) in 2014, focusing on substantiating the use of poisonous chemicals as weapons in Syria. While the FFM did not possess the authority to determine the culprits, its findings served as the foundation for the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM). The JIM, established by Security Council Resolution 2235 on 7 August 2015, possessed the requisite powers to identify those responsible for chemical weapons usage. Russia’s acceptance of this resolution seemingly resulted from Western pressure it could not evade, coupled with the need to divert suspicions that its consistent refusal to empower UN investigative bodies had caused, hinting at Russia’s potential complicity in conjunction with the Syrian regime. Nonetheless, the JIM’s mandate expired in November 2017 after confirming the regime’s responsibility for the Khan Sheikhoun attack involving sarin gas. Russia rejected and questioned the findings and proceeded to veto a proposal for renewing the JIM’s mandate.

In July 2018, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) established the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) within its Technical Secretariat. The IIT was tasked with identifying those responsible for chemical weapons use in Syria across all previously reported cases, specifically those addressed by the UN-OPCW joint mission. This coincided with the renewal of the UN-OPCW joint mission’s mandate. It took a year to finalize the establishment of the Investigation and Identification Team, with the OPCW Technical Secretariat formally announcing its readiness in July 2019 to initiate its mandated work.

These investigative teams often managed to incontrovertibly establish the deployment of chemical weapons in Syria. Whenever within their purview, these investigative committees attributed responsibility for the violations to the Syrian regime. On the other hand, a notable aspect characterizing the work of international commissions investigating chemical weapons use or broader violations within Syria is the painstakingly slow pace of their operations. Additionally, they frequently refrained from exchanging information and findings with one another. This resulted in instances where investigations into a single incident occurred on multiple tiers, diluting the efficacy of their efforts and leading many witnesses to lose faith in the effectiveness of these committees, whose reports were frequently delayed for months or even years. Meanwhile, Syrians enduring various forms of violations continued to require prompt and unequivocal international decisions to halt the wholesale carnage targeting their lives.

Similarly, the investigation mechanisms have yet to implement any programs or initiatives aimed at safeguarding witnesses and survivors of chemical massacres. This oversight has enabled Russia and the regime to orchestrate a systematic campaign of witness intimidation, leading to the inhibition of numerous individuals from offering testimonies, whether in public or even confidentially, to investigative bodies. All the while, the international community has largely overlooked the perils associated with Moscow’s role in driving this intimidation campaign.

* * * * *

The 6th anniversary of the horrifying chemical massacre in Ghouta passed a few days ago. Unfortunately, to this day, none of the responsible perpetrators for this abhorrent crime have faced justice. Survivors and witnesses find themselves trapped in tragic circumstances, hovering between displacement and life under the control of those who committed the atrocities against their loved ones.

Despite the wealth of available evidence and the declarations by international inquiry commissions pointing to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, the achievement of accountability remains a distant possibility. We, the families, friends, and fellow citizens of the victims, stand as survivors of the massacre and as mourners, enduring a world that mirrors the actions of the murderers and the subsequent agreements made in the aftermath.

We persistently await justice with patience and an overwhelming sense of betrayal.