Satellite image showing location of the Nasiriyah chemical weapons site

Syria’s claim that crucial evidence relating to chemical weapons was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes has been greeted with widespread scepticism: it sounds too convenient to be true.

In a diplomatic note to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Syria announced that an underground site known as al-Nasiriyah1 had been “flagrantly” attacked by Israeli missiles at 23:40 on 8 June.

The effect of this, if confirmed, would be to obstruct two ongoing investigations by the OPCW. One concerns the declaration of chemical weapons and related equipment made by Syria in 2013 when it joined the Chemical Weapons Convention…


One of the cylinders was found on a bed

Two gas cylinders that formed crucial evidence in the OPCW’s investigations of an alleged chlorine attack have been destroyed in Syria, the head of the chemical weapons watchdog reported on Friday.

The Assad regime is blaming Israel for their destruction.

The cylinders had been examined by inspectors from the OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) in connection with its investigation of events in Douma in 2018 but at the time the Syrian authorities did not allow them to be taken out of the country for forensic examination.

Consequently the cylinders had been placed in sealed containers and the Syrians were told they…


Facebook reported this week that it removed 2,784 accounts in June for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”. Among those, 947 related to countries in the Middle East and North Africa region: Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Algeria and Sudan.

Facebook treats online campaigns as “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” if they seek “to mislead people about who they are and what they are doing while relying on fake accounts”. Accounts, groups and pages “directly involved” in this activity are removed when Facebook detects them.

Orchestrated misuse of social media is very common in the Middle East — often for political or sectarian purposes — though according…


Brenntag’s distribution centre in Switzerland

Four tonnes of a chemical supplied by a German firm and supposedly intended for making pharmaceuticals vanished after arriving in Syria, according to a Swiss newspaper investigation. The chemical — isopropanol — has multiple civilian uses but also is a crucial ingredient in the nerve agent sarin. If diverted for military purposes it would be enough to produce about eight tonnes of sarin.

In 2013, under international pressure following a sarin attack on rebel-held Ghouta, Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. That meant it had to declare all existing chemical weapons stockpiles together with related equipment and production facilities, and…


In tune with the Assad regime: activist Paul Larudee. Photo: Facebook

The Serena Shim Award for Uncompromised Integrity in Journalism is named in memory of a Lebanese-American journalist who died in a car crash while working for Iran’s Press TV in 2014. The purpose of the award, according to its website, is to honour non-mainstream journalists who “tell challenging truths” and to help them financially “in an environment that penalises them for their clarity of vision and willingness to expose the powerful”.

Winners of the award get a substantial cash prize but, sadly for any journalists who might be hoping to qualify, its website gives no details of the nomination process…


Taking shape: the replacement roof at Jeddah’s Haramain station. Photo: @Osama_333

When Saudi Arabia’s Haramain railway opened in 2018 it was hailed as a triumph of technology and engineering. The 450-km line linking the holy cities of Mecca and Medina was designed to carry passengers at 350 km an hour. It took 10 years to build and cost more than $16 billion. A year after its opening, though, disaster struck and the line was shut down when fire devastated one of the stations on the route.

The blaze, in Jeddah, swept across the station’s roof, dropping smouldering debris on to the concourse below. Firefighters took around 12 hours to bring it…


Former UN assistant secretary-general Hans von Sponeck. Photo: Justus Nussbaum

A newly-formed group has joined the campaign to discredit investigations of chemical weapons in Syria and has recruited a former high-ranking UN official to its cause.

Berlin Group 21”, whose website was registered on 10 March, is promoting a “statement of concern” which accuses the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) of “procedural and scientific irregularities” in its investigation of a suspected chemical attack in Syria.

The OPCW found “reasonable grounds” for believing an attack took place in Douma, near Damascus, in April 2018. However, the investigation’s findings were rejected by Syria and its principal ally, Russia, along…


Professor Paul McKeigue: spreading conspiracy theories

It emerged last week that a university professor who spreads conspiracy theories about chemical weapons in Syria has been passing information to someone who he mistakenly believed was working for Russian intelligence.

In a lengthy email correspondence with the supposed Russian agent, Prof Paul McKeigue of Edinburgh University talked about numerous people who he claims are involved in plots to discredit the Assad regime in Syria. As one of the alleged plotters, I have made a formal complaint to the university:

To the Principal and Vice-Chancellor

Dear Professor Mathieson,

You are no doubt aware that one of your university’s professors…


The Yemeni city of Marib lies 120 km to the east of the capital, Sana’a, with mountainous territory in between. It was from Marib, in the early stages of the six-year war, that pro-government forces hoped to launch an assault against the Houthi rebels who had seized Sana’a. Since then, though, the tables have turned and Houthi forces are now threatening Marib.

The Houthis have been preparing for a push on Marib since early last year. There have been periodic clashes but fighting has intensified during the last week or so. …


Yemen’s Houthis struck a civilian airliner at Abha airport in Saudi Arabia last week. Photo via Saudi state television

The US State Department confirmed on Friday that it is revoking a last-minute decision by the Trump administration to designate Yemen’s Houthi movement as a terrorist organisation.

The issue is not whether the Houthis deserve to be designated — their atrocities are well known — but Trump’s action, just days before leaving office, had legal implications for aid agencies, threatening to jeopardise relief efforts in the midst of what many regard as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The incoming Biden administration responded initially by putting the designation on hold for review and has now formally cancelled it, with effect from…

Brian Whitaker

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: www.al-bab.com. Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

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