The Search for Truth in the Rubble of Douma

Robert Fisk

This is the story of a town called Douma, a ravaged, stinking place of smashed apartment blocks – and of an underground clinic whose images of suffering allowed three of the Western world’s most powerful nations to bomb Syria last week. There’s even a friendly doctor in a green coat who, when I track him down in the very same clinic, cheerfully tells me that the “gas” videotape which horrified the world – despite all the doubters – is perfectly genuine.

Douma

War stories, however, have a habit of growing darker. For the same 58-year old senior Syrian doctor then adds something profoundly uncomfortable: the patients, he says, were overcome not by gas but by oxygen starvation in the rubbish-filled tunnels and basements in which they lived, on a night of wind and heavy shelling that stirred up a dust storm.

As Dr Assim Rahaibani announces this extraordinary conclusion, it is worth observing that he is by his own admission not an eyewitness himself and, as he speaks good English, he refers twice to the “jihadi” gunmen of Jaish el-Islam [the Army of Islam] in Douma as “terrorists” – the regime’s word for their enemies, and a term used by many people across Syria. Am I hearing this right? Which version of events are we to believe?

By bad luck, too, the doctors who were on duty that night on 7 April were all in Damascus giving evidence to a chemical weapons enquiry, which will be attempting to provide a definitive answer to that question in the coming weeks.

France, meanwhile, has said it has “proof” chemical weapons were used, and US media have quoted sources saying urine and blood tests showed this too. The WHO has said its partners on the ground treated 500 patients “exhibiting signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals”.

At the same time, inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are currently blocked from coming here to the site of the alleged gas attack themselves, ostensibly because they lacked the correct UN permits.

Before we go any further, readers should be aware that this is not the only story in Douma. There are the many people I talked to amid the ruins of the town who said they had “never believed in” gas stories – which were usually put about, they claimed, by the armed groups. These particular “jihadis” survived under a blizzard of shellfire by living in other’s people’s homes and in vast, wide tunnels with underground roads carved through the living rock by prisoners with pick-axes on three levels beneath the town. I walked through three of them yesterday, vast corridors of living rock which still contained Russian – yes, Russian – rockets and burned-out cars.

So the story of Douma is thus not just a story of gas – or no gas, as the case may be. It’s about thousands of people who did not opt for evacuation from Douma on buses that left last week, alongside the gunmen with whom they had to live like troglodytes for months in order to survive. I walked across this town quite freely yesterday without soldier, policeman or minder to haunt my footsteps, just two Syrian friends, a camera and a notebook. I sometimes had to clamber across 20-foot-high ramparts, up and down almost sheer walls of earth. Happy to see foreigners among them, happier still that the siege is finally over, they are mostly smiling; those whose faces you can see, of course, because a surprising number of Douma’s women wear full-length black hijab.

I first drove into Douma as part of an escorted convoy of journalists. But once a boring general had announced outside a wrecked council house “I have no information” – that most helpful rubbish-dump of Arab officialdom – I just walked away. Several other reporters, mostly Syrian, did the same. Even a group of Russian journalists – all in military attire – drifted off.

It was a short walk to Dr Rahaibani. From the door of his subterranean clinic – “Point 200”, it is called, in the weird geology of this partly-underground city – is a corridor leading downhill where he showed me his lowly hospital and the few beds where a small girl was crying as nurses treated a cut above her eye.

“I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred meters from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night – but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a “White Helmet”, shouted “Gas!”, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia – not gas poisoning.”

Oddly, after chatting to more than 20 people, I couldn’t find one who showed the slightest interest in Douma’s role in bringing about the Western air attacks. Two actually told me they didn’t know about the connection.

But it was a strange world I walked into. Two men, Hussam and Nazir Abu Aishe, said they were unaware how many people had been killed in Douma, although the latter admitted he had a cousin “executed by Jaish el-Islam [the Army of Islam] for allegedly being ‘close to the regime'”. They shrugged when I asked about the 43 people said to have died in the infamous Douma attack.

The White Helmets – the medical first responders already legendary in the West but with some interesting corners to their own story – played a familiar role during the battles. They are partly funded by the Foreign Office and most of the local offices were staffed by Douma men. I found their wrecked offices not far from Dr. Rahaibani’s clinic. A gas mask had been left outside a food container with one eye-piece pierced and a pile of dirty military camouflage uniforms lay inside one room. Planted, I asked myself? I doubt it. The place was heaped with capsules, broken medical equipment and files, bedding and mattresses.

Of course we must hear their side of the story, but it will not happen here: a woman told us that every member of the White Helmets in Douma abandoned their main headquarters and chose to take the government-organized and Russian-protected buses to the province of Idlib with the armed groups when the final truce was agreed.

There were food stalls open and a patrol of Russian military policemen – a now optional extra for every Syrian ceasefire – and no-one had even bothered to storm into the forbidding prison near Martyr’s Square where victims were supposedly beheaded in the basements. The town’s complement of Syrian interior ministry civilian police – who eerily wear military clothes – are watched over by the Russians who may or may not be watched by the civilians. Again, my earnest questions about gas were met with what seemed genuine perplexity.

How could it be that Douma refugees who had reached camps in Turkey were already describing a gas attack which no-one in Douma today seemed to recall? It did occur to me, once I was walking for more than a mile through these wretched prisoner-groined tunnels, that the citizens of Douma lived so isolated from each other for so long that “news” in our sense of the word simply had no meaning to them. Syria doesn’t cut it as Jeffersonian democracy – as I cynically like to tell my Arab colleagues – and it is indeed a ruthless dictatorship, but that couldn’t cow these people, happy to see foreigners among them, from reacting with a few words of truth. So what were they telling me?

They talked about the “Islamists” under whom they had lived. They talked about how the armed groups had stolen civilian homes to avoid the Syrian government and Russian bombing. The Jaish el-Islam had burned their offices before they left, but the massive buildings inside the security zones they created had almost all been sandwiched to the ground by air strikes. A Syrian colonel I came across behind one of these buildings asked if I wanted to see how deep the tunnels were. I stopped after well over a mile when he cryptically observed that “this tunnel might reach as far as Britain”. Ah yes, Ms May, I remembered, whose air strikes had been so intimately connected to this place of tunnels and dust. And gas?

Source: The Independent, Edited by website team

فيسك: ما تعرض له السكان في دوما يوم الهجوم الكيميائي المزعوم كان نقصا حادا في الأوكسجين

أكد الكاتب الصحفي البريطاني روبرت فيسك أن حملة الأكاذيب التي أثارتها عدد من الدول الغربية بشأن هجوم كيميائي مزعوم في مدينة دوما بالغوطة الشرقية لم تجد من يدعمها في المدينة مع تأكيد طبيب من سكان المدينة نفسها أن الضحايا المزعومين للهجوم كانوا يعانون من نقص حاد في الأوكسجين نتيجة عاصفة غبارية وليس التسمم بالغاز “الكيميائي”.

وقال فيسك في مقال نشره في صحيفة الاندبندنت البريطانية تحت عنوان “البحث عن الحقيقة بين أنقاض دوما”:إنه وخلال لقاء أجراه مع طبيب يدعى عاصم رحيباني من سكان دوما كشف الأخير أن الأشخاص الذين ظهروا كمرضى في أشرطة الفيديو التي صورت الهجوم المزعوم وتم الترويج من خلالها لإصابتهم بأعراض التسمم بغاز كيميائي كانوا في حقيقة الأمر يعانون “من نقص الأوكسجين نتيجة عاصفة غبارية”.

وينقل فيسك عن الطبيب رحيباني قوله في تلك الليلة: “لقد كنت مع عائلتي في المنزل على بعد 300 متر من المشفى لكن كل الأطباء يعلمون ما جرى.. في تلك الليلة كانت هناك اشتباكات وهبت رياح قوية مصحوبة بغيوم ضخمة من الغبار بدأت تتسلل إلى الأقبية والسراديب حيث يقطن الناس وبدأ الناس يصلون إلى المشفى وهم يعانون من نقص الأوكسجين وفجأة صرخ رجل في باب المشفى وهو من (الخوذ البيضاء).. غاز.. وحصل هلع بين الناس وبدأ الناس يرشون الماء على بعضهم البعض.. نعم لقد حصل تسجيل الفيديو هنا ولكن الناس كانوا يعانون من نقص في الأوكسجين وليس من التسمم (بالغاز) “.

وتابع فيسك إنه “ينبغي على القراء أن يدركوا أن رواية الطبيب ليست الوحيدة بهذا المضمون حيث أكد الكثير من الاشخاص الذين التقيتهم في دوما أنهم لا يثقون بروايات الغاز” التي روج لها الإرهابيون.

ولفت فيسك إلى أن ما يسمى “الخوذ البيضاء” التي تتلقى الدعم والتمويل من وزارة الخارجية البريطانية كان لها دور كبير في عمليات المجموعات الإرهابية لافتا إلى أنه اطلع على مكاتب هذه المجموعة في دوما ورأى داخلها اقنعة للغاز ولباسا عسكريا إضافة إلى كبسولات ومعدات طبية مكسورة وملفات.

بدوره انضم “بيرسون شارب” مراسل قناة “ون أميركا نيوز نيتوورك” الأميركية إلى فيسك في تفنيده لرواية الهجوم الكيميائي المزعوم في دوما مؤكدا أنه لم يعثر على أي آثار لمثل هذا الهجوم وقال: إن “السكان المحليين الذين التقاهم هناك لم يروا أو يسمعوا شيئا عن هذا الحادث”.
وأشار شارب إلى أن أحد الأطباء الذي وجد في مستشفى المدينة في يوم الهجوم المزعوم أخبره أن مجموعة من الأشخاص المجهولين اقتحمت المستشفى في السابع من نيسان الماضي زاعمة وقوع هجوم كيميائي وعمد هؤلاء إلى صب الماء على أشخاص أحضروهم إلى المستشفى مصورين كل شيء بواسطة آلة التصوير ثم غادروا المستشفى.

وكانت العديد من الوثائق التي عثر عليها الجيش العربي السوري في المناطق التي حررها من الإرهاب حيث تعمل جماعة “الخوذ البيضاء” كشفت ارتباطها العضوي بالتنظيمات الإرهابية ودعمها لها وخصوصا “جبهة النصرة” بالترويج لاستخدام الأسلحة الكيميائية ضد المدنيين وهذا ما حدث في الغوطة الشرقية بريف دمشق عدة مرات وفي مناطق بحلب لاتهام الجيش العربي السوري.

بينما أكد الكاتب الأميركي كارتا لوتشي أن جماعة “الخوذ البيضاء” ليست إلا “واحدة من المسرحيات الأميركية المضللة للرأي العام وهي منظمة مشبوهة”.

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THERE ARE SOME ‘PROBLEMS’ WITH GAS CYLINDERS VIDEOS USED BY WHITE HELMETS AS EVIDENCE OF DOUMA ATTACK

South Front

While horrible photos (link 18+) of people allegedly killed in the April 7 Douma attack rapidly became widely known after they had been released by the White Helments, there was something ignored by the media.

Besides the photos of the dead bodies, Douma “media activists” also released videos showing two compressed gas cylinders, which had allegedly been used by “the Assad regime” to conduct the chemical attack on Douma.

These videos raise some questions.

Lets look at the compressed gas cylinder #1 (revealed on April 8):

This was the first video showing the alleged compressed gas cylinder used in the attack. It appeared on April 8, a day after the first reports about the attack (April 7).

Asaad Hanna

@AsaadHannaa

Video for one of the missiles which fall down on city carrying a chemical gas, dozens were killed and hundreds still suffocating.

This cylinder was allegedly dropped from some helicopter of the Syrian Arab Air Force, made a hole in the roof and appeared in some appartment in the building.

There Are Some 'Problems' With Gas Cylinders Videos Used By White Helmets As Evidience Of Douma Attack

Click to see the full-size image

The question is why is the cylinder is undamaged after falling from hundreds meters above and crashing into the roof? Another issue is that it looks like the cylinder was able to made a hole in the roof but failed to damage the bed.

There Are Some 'Problems' With Gas Cylinders Videos Used By White Helmets As Evidience Of Douma Attack

Click to see the full-size image

By the way this cylinder is closed.

There Are Some 'Problems' With Gas Cylinders Videos Used By White Helmets As Evidience Of Douma Attack

Click to see the full-size image

Another video from the same location:

Lets look at the compressed gas cylinder #2 (revealed on April 10):

This compressed gas cylinder was allegedly filmed on April 9 a roof of the building hit by the attack. However, the video was released by the White Helments on April 10, a day after Russian servicemembers visited the parts of Douma where the alleged chemical attack took place. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, no traces of the chemical attack were found.

Let’s say this is an accident.

The White Helmets

@SyriaCivilDef

Important: video from 9 April, 7:02pm showing presence of chemical gas canister in Douma. Same location as video of casualties. Also same location that Russia visited reporting ‘no sign of chemical weapons’.

No doubts, the criticism faced by the “activists” after the first video was used to improve the second one. This time the cylinder appears to be a bit damaged.

So, the questions:

  1. Why the cylinder#1 is undamaged if it has been dropped by a helicopter? Why the cylinder#1 is closed?
  2. Why the bed under the cylinder#1 is undamaged?
  3. Why did the second video showing the cylinder#2 [which is damaged and even a bit burned] appear only on April 10, a day after the visit of the Russians to the area?

A person skeptical of “Assad chemical attack” reports by the White Helmets may say that the cylinder#1 videos were staged to confirm the alleged attack. However, too much mistakes (like a lack of damage) were made. So, the organization had to make another “propper” video with the cylinder#2 to confirm its claims.

Everyone is free to decide for himself.

Militants leaving Syria’s Douma under deal with government

SYRIAN WAR REPORT – APRIL 2, 2018: MILITANTS START THEIR WITHDRAWAL FROM KEY TOWN OF DOUMA

South Front

On March 31, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies established a full control over the southern part of the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta after units of Faylaq al-Rahman and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) had fully withdrawn from the area.

The Russian Center for Reconciliation of the opposing sides in Syria revealed that a total of 41,126 militants and their family members had left the settlements of Erbin, Jobar, Ein Tarma and Zamalka. Meanwhile, 153,140 civilians have been evacuated since the start of humanitarian pauses in the area.

The area of Douma, controlled by Jaish al-Islam, remains the only point of tensions in the area. On April 1, the Syrian state-run news agency SANA said that an evacuation of militants had been started in Douma. However, later on the same day, Political leader of Jaysh al-Islam Mohamad Alloush denied that his group had reached an evacuation agreement with the Damascus government. According to Alloush, the only reached agreement was aimed at extending the ceasefire in the area.

According to pro-government sources, militants evacuated from Douma were members of Faylaq al-Rahman, not Jaish al-Islam. These militants had retreated to Douma during the earlier SAA advance in the center of Eastern Ghouta.

On March 31, the SAA once again threatened Jaish al-Islam with a military operation if the group does not accept the reconciliation deal. Nonetheless, by April 2 morning, the operation has not been started.

On March 30, two servicemembers of the US-led coalition were killed in an explosion of improvised explosive device in Syria. On March 31, the coalition revealed their identities: Master Sergeant Jonathan Dunbar of the US military and Sergeant Matt Tonroe of the UK military.

According to Alan TV journalist Jenan Mosua, the incident took place near the Sheikh Akil graveyard in the southern part of the city of Manbij and two members of the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units were also wounded in the incident.

Local sources from Manbij also noted that the US-led coalition had increased a number of troops deployed in the area following the incident.
Pro-Kurdish sources blame the IED attack on Turkish-backed armed groups. According to this version, Turkey may use its proxies to increase “costs” of the US-led coalition military presence in Manbij. Turkish leadership have repeatedly claimed that Manbij may become a target of the Turkish military operation in northern Syria.

According to pro-opposition sources, on March 31, Russian warplanes conducted a series of airstrikes on militant positions in the areas of Ariha, al-Dana and Jisr al-Shughur in northwestern Hama. The Syrian pro-opposition news outlet Enab Baladi also reported that Russian warplanes had destroyed the bridges of al-Jaid, al-Sharia and Twinah.

Some pro-government activists immediately described the alleged Russian airstrikes as a sign of the upcoming anti-terrorist military operation in the area. However, this scenario is highly unlikely:

  • This area is a part of Idlib de-escalation zone;
  • The SAA is currently involved in a series of complicated operations in the Damascus countryside;

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SYRIAN WAR REPORT – MARCH 23, 2018: MILITANTS TO WITHDRAW FROM MORE AREAS IN EASTERN GHOUTA

South Front

On March 22, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) captured the villages of Baay, Basufan, Kafr Nabu and Burj Haydar south of the city of Afrin from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). According to unconfirmed reports, the TAF’s artillery even shelled positions some of the Syrian Arab Army north of the city of Aleppo.

Since the fall of Afrin on March 18, the TAF and the FSA have been slowly but steadily expanding their control south of the city. Some local sources indicate that Turkey considers an advance in order to take the town of Tell Rifaat, near which Syrian government forces had established a number of checkpoints.

Meanwhile, YPG members continue conducting hit-and-run attacks against Turkish forces in the area of Afrin formally controlled by the TAF and the FSA.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert announced on March 22 that U.S. forces are not going to leave Manbij and no agreement had been reached between Washington and Ankara on the issue. The US-Turkish relations over US support to the YPG and especially, the YPG presence in Manbij, remain complicated.

Meanwhile, the Turkish media speculates that Turkey is preparing to launch a military operation against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the area of Sinjar Mount in northern Iraq. The advance will allegedly be entitled Operation Tigris Shield and may take place after Iraqi elections set for May 12.

In the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, a first batch of Ahrar al-Sham militants left the area of Harasta on March 22. On the next day, the evacuation continued.

Meanwhile, reports appeared that the Syrian government and Faylaq al-Rahman have reached a ceasefire agreement, which is set to be implemented on March 23. If the agreement succeeds, the withdrawal of Faylaq al-Rahman members from Ain Tarma, Ebreen and nearby areas are expected by pro-government experts in the near future.

The ceasefire agreement followed reports that the SAA had established full control over Ain Tarma’s farms and started preparing to storm this key militant stronghold.

According to the Russian military, about 95,000 people have left the militant-held area of Eastern Ghouta since the implementation of the daily humanitarian pause on February 28.

The expected liberation of Eastern Ghouta will further impact the balance of powers in Syria and will open an opportunity for the SAA to launch a large-scale operation against ISIS in southern Damascus where the situation has recently deteriorated.

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East Ghouta: Obama’s Last Stand In Syria?

Syrian Ambassador Addresses UN Security Council

Posted on 

The above video is an address by Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari to the UN Security Council after the council–yesterday– unanimously adopted a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria. During the ambassador’s remarks Nikki Haley got up and walked out, apparently unwilling to listen to anything he had to say.

In his address, Ja’afari discusses Syrian casualties in Damascus due to shelling from terrorist-held East Ghouta. He lambasts the US and other countries for supporting the so-called “moderate rebels” who have killed Syrian civilians, and he stakes a claim to the right of Syria to resist US occupation:

“According to the article 51 of the Charter, my country has the right to defend itself with all legal tools. There is a military presence, a colonial presence, a US presence, in our country and we have the right to respond to that. She (Haley) threatened us and we’re threatening her from this rostrum because we have the right to defend ourselves according to article 51 of the Charter.”

He also makes a good point: that whenever ceasefires have been agreed upon in the past, the terrorist factions have used the ceasefires as an opportunity to regroup and re-arm. Perhaps they will do so this time as well, although apparently the groups occupying Ghouta don’t, at least for now–despite yesterday’s UN vote–seem to be laying down their weapons. The following is reported by RT:

Jihadists in control of East Ghouta are “deliberately exacerbating” the humanitarian crisis in the Damascus suburb, hindering all government attempts to help civilians, according to the Russian Center for Reconciliation in Syria.

“The humanitarian, social and economic situation in Eastern Ghouta is deliberately exacerbated by the leaders of the al-Islam, Failak Ar-Rahman and Jabhat al-Nusra illegal armed groups,” Maj. Gen. Yuri Yevtushenko said on Saturday. “All attempts by the government of the Syrian Arab Republic to provide assistance to civilians in the Eastern Ghouta region are blocked by militants.”

The Russian Center for Reconciliation in Syria specifically noted that Jeyish al-Islam militants continue to terrorize the local population and prevent civilians from leaving the militant-controlled areas by blocking a humanitarian corridor near Muhayam al-Waffedin.

Over the last 24 hours, the militants in control of the suburb of East Ghouta detonated 27 mines and fired two missiles into residential areas of Damascus. One of the rockets hit a house in Rukn ad-Din district of the Syrian capital. “There is significant destruction and casualties among civilians,” Yevtushenko said. “Over 24 hours, a total of four civilians were killed and 51 more were injured.”

The Russian military accused the terrorists of deliberately subverting the negotiation progress and attempting to provoke government forces to respond.

SYRIAN WAR REPORT – FEBRUARY 26, 2018: TIGER FORCES START GROUND OPERATION IN EASTERN GHOUTA

South Front

On February 25, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies started a ground phase of their operation against militants in the Eastern Ghouta region, near Damascus. Since the start of the operation, government forces had liberated the locations of Nashabiyah, Hazrama, Tal Farzat and Salehiya and repelled an attack by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) in the northern part of the pocket.

Militants destroyed at least one armored bulldozer and claimed that they had killed 25 pro-government fighters in the recent clashes. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaish al-Islam will be the main opponents of the SAA if it seeks to capture entire Eastern Ghouta.

On February 24, the UN Security Council passed a resolution seeking to establish a comprehensive ceasefire throughout Syria. However, the ceasefire excludes ISIS, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other terrorist groups. Despite this, the mainstream media has already started pushing an idea that the SAA’s operations against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Eastern Ghouta violate the resolution.

ISIS attacked positions of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in the western part of the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus. The terrorist group will likely make an attempt to use the violence in the Damascus countryside to expand own influence in the area.

Meanwhile, in northern Syria, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) captured over 8 locations expanding their control north and northwest of the city of Afrin.

According to pro-Turkish sources, the TAF and the FSA have recently neutralized over 50 members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). In turn, pro-Kurdish sources claimed that over 35 TAF soldiers and FSA members had been killed by the YPG.

A limited deployment of government forces in the Afrin area has not been able to stop the Turkish operation against the YPG. If Damascus and the YPG really want to limit the Turkish expansion in the area, they will have to reach a broad deal over Afrin.

On the other hand, Ankara describes the YPG as a terrorist group and claims that any side assisting it will become a target of the TAF.

TIGER FORCES DEVELOPING MOMENTUM IN EASTERN GHOUTA (MAP, VIDEO)

The Tiger Forces, the Republican Guard and the Syrian Arab Army are developing momentum against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda), Ahrar al-Sham and their allies.

The main clashes are taking place in the southeastern and northwestern parts of Eastern Ghotua. Government forces are pressuring militants in the areas of Harasta, Hawsh ad Dawahirah.

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