By Kit Klarenberg
A tight-knit cast of characters has sought to destabilize the Syrian government by convincing Syrians, Western citizens, foreign states, and international bodies that the CIA-backed Free Syrian Army is a legitimate, “moderate” alternative, while flooding news across the globe with opposition propaganda.
Its key actors have also played a central part in high-profile chemical weapon deceptions, participating in the attacks’ staging, generating media coverage, orchestrating official investigations and even legal actions, all with the clear goal of cultivating Western support for regime change.
Despite facing official investigation into corrupt practices and being exposed for serious credibility issues, these figures have been treated with adulation by a Western mainstream media that appears just as committed to destabilizing Syria as they have been.
One of the most prominent among this group of self-proclaimed experts is supposed chemical weapons specialist Hamish de Bretton-Gordon. Previously commanding Officer of the U.K. CBRN [Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear] Regiment and NATO’s Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion, his past deployments have included spells in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Cyprus, Kosovo, and Iraq.
Once upon a time, de Bretton Gordon’s Twitter profile identified him as a member of 77th Brigade, the British Army’s shadowy psychological warfare division, which maintains a vast militia of real, fake and automated social media accounts that it deploys to disseminate propaganda in support of U.K. Foreign Office objectives, and discredit government critics.
Chillingly, official Army doctrine states the brigade is “notably” key to the purported “grey zone between peace and war” that informs U.K. military thinking in the 21st century. The designation was removed from de Bretton-Gordon’s Twitter account after this journalist drew attention to it.
In British media, de Bretton-Gordon is portrayed as a gallant human rights hero who is responsible for “training local doctors how to treat gas attacks and risking his life on battlefields, to convincing world leaders to take threats seriously.”
A glowing Times of London profile features a photo of de Bretton-Gordon posing beside a hunting trophy and a well-stocked bar in his elegant country home, clad in a desert camo-colored smoking jacket. The article opens with the following passage:
“Beneath the smoke-hazed starlight of the desert night, a young tank captain waited for his moment of war. He was a romantic man and it was his first conflict.”
Behind the legendary aura spun out by U.K. media, questions linger about de Bretton-Gordon’s field work. He is often referred to as the founder or director of Doctors Under Fire, an NGO or humanitarian group. However, no operation of that name is registered as a commercial or charitable entity in the U.K., or seemingly anywhere else in the world — clearly, no mainstream reporter has ever checked. He has also been lauded for his collection of soil samples in Syria, conducted through another suspicious organization he founded in Aleppo called CBRN Taskforce.
The vital question of how and why de Bretton-Gordon came to be involved in such a hazardous, sensitive activity has been left unexplored. This is an extraordinary failing on the part of the media, given that the work would necessarily require him to operate in areas occupied by Salafi-jihadist insurgents. He would also have potentially collaborated with or at least been in extremely close quarters with these elements, which have every reason to falsely accuse the Syrian government of chemical weapons use.
Further, there are strong indications that de Bretton-Gordon’s activities were conducted in explicit support of regime change, and on behalf of at least one belligerent state participant in the Syrian conflict.
‘Signs of Heavy Editing’
In an April 2015 Guardian op-ed, de Bretton-Gordon disclosed that his sample-gathering activities began two years earlier. Contemporary media reports refer to U.K. foreign intelligence service MI6 conducting operations to covertly smuggle soil samples out of Syria for analysis at Porton Down at precisely this time, strongly suggesting his involvement in the scheme.
A 2016 article also characterizes him as a “former spy,” a unique designation that doesn’t appear in any online biographies of de Bretton-Gordon or other news pieces mentioning him.
One report on the MI6 program quoted an anonymous “senior Western source,” who suggested that an objective of these operations was to encourage U.S. intervention.
“MI6 played the leading role but the American military wants more evidence before it agrees [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad has crossed the line in the use of chemical weapons. The question is what is the West going to do now? If nobody reacts, there was not much point in conducting the tests,” the source said.
Accordingly, some of these samples were delivered directly to Washington. In April 2015, evidence de Bretton-Gordon collected from an alleged chlorine attack in Sarmin, Syria, was presented to the UN Security Council by Samantha Power, then-U.S. ambassador to the body and one of most notorious interventionists in government.
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In September 2016, de Bretton-Gordon addressed the U.K. Parliament’s now-defunct All-Party Friends of Syria Group. In his remarks, he boasted of how documentation relating to an alleged April 21, 2014, barrel bomb attack in the Syrian town of Talmenes that CBRN Taskforce supplied to an OPCW/UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) probe resulted in the pair announcing they possessed “conclusive evidence” that government forces were behind the strike.
The JIM report on the Talmenes incident did indeed make that charge. However, it also indicated that the material submitted by the CBRN Taskforce showed unambiguous signs of falsification. In all, a nameless witness connected to the organization provided testimony, 42 videos of supposed impact sites, and soil samples to the JIM. The results, the report noted, were published by the conservative Daily Telegraph in an article painting de Bretton Gordon as a valiant investigator.
While the JIM did not ultimately depend on the CBRN-supplied samples, the videos became a key source of evidence. However, clips related to the first site, “location No.1,” failed to pass muster.
Two videos depicted an individual measuring a three-meter-wide and one-meter-deep crater in a backyard, with no remnants of the bomb visible. The JIM’s examination concluded they didn’t show the aftermath of a barrel bomb strike, finding instead that the pit featured was “probably” caused by a small explosive (“TNT equivalent”) buried in the ground.
Another clip of the same crater, said to have been broadcast by “local” media, portrayed the damaged outer jacket of a barrel bomb lying next to the aforementioned crater, animal carcasses strewn nearby. Expert scrutiny of the clip reinforced the JIM’s ruling that no barrel bomb attack had occurred. Indeed, the bodies of the animals were said to be “clean and intact,” making it “highly unlikely” they were in close vicinity to whatever actually caused the crater when it exploded. Moreover, analysis of the video’s metadata found it was created one day before the alleged incident — and yet another clip depicting the same courtyard was disregarded due to “signs of heavy editing.”
As a result of these “inconsistencies,” location No. 1 was excluded entirely from the JIM’s investigation. Why all other CBRN Taskforce submissions were not automatically discounted remains unclear.
Further, how an individual or organization that supplied provably fraudulent material has been permitted to play any role whatsoever in multiple inquiries into alleged chemical weapon attacks in Syria by international bodies ever since remains a highly disquieting riddle.
Made by UK Foreign Office
The report’s reference to “local” — or opposition — media having broadcast one of the bogus videos supplied by de Bretton-Gordon’s task force is also conspicuous when considering that British intelligence may well have created the outlet, in addition to helping mock up the clips.
Internal U.K. Foreign Office files released by a self-proclaimed hacktivist collective Anonymous in September 2020 reveal that ARK, a shadowy “conflict transformation and stabilization consultancy” headed by probable MI6 operative Alistair Harris, trained and equipped hundreds of citizen journalists in Syria over many years.
“Activists” were tutored in “camera handling, lighting, sound, interviewing, filming a story,” post-production techniques including “video and sound editing and software, voice-over, scriptwriting,” and “graphics and 2D and 3D animation design and software.”
ARK’s students were even instructed in practical propaganda theory — namely “target audience identification, qualitative and quantitative techniques, media and media narrative analysis and monitoring,” “behavioral identification/understanding,” “campaign planning,” “behavior, behavioral change, and how communications can influence it [emphasis added],” and more.
Content these “stringers” created was disseminated via “TV, FM radio, social media [platforms] and print material [including] posters, magazines and comics” established by ARK, in order to “promote the moderate opposition” within and without the country.
The company stated that it “frequently directs and connects international journalists” — working for the BBC, CNN, The Guardian, The New York Times and Reuters, among others – “to appropriate opposition figures.” In turn, ARK was “regularly approached” by the opposition Syrian National Council for “media handling advice,” including in the wake of the highly suspicious August 2013 chemical strike in Ghouta.
ARK’s most well-known creation was the supposed rescue group known as the White Helmets. The contractor spearheaded an “internationally-focused communications campaign designed to raise global awareness” of the supposed first responders and “keep Syria in the news” for several years.
This was before management of the endeavor was handed over to Mayday Rescue, the brainchild of the late British mercenary James Le Mesurier, a former ARK employee who apparently committed suicide in 2019 amidst a corruption investigation by state donors into the White Helmets’ bookkeeping.
Le Mesurier’s third wife, Emma Winberg, was also heavily involved in Whitehall’s information warfare operations in Syria through a company called Innovative Communications and Strategy (Incostrat). She founded the outfit in 2014 alongside military intelligence veteran Paul Tilley, the former U.K. Ministry of Defence strategic communications director for the Middle East and North Africa, who, like Le Mesurier, had attended the elite Sandhurst Military Academy.
In the same vein as ARK, the company produced slick propaganda promoting extremist groups as credible alternatives to the Syrian government, while whitewashing the barbarous deeds that became their calling card in areas they occupied.
One such jihadist entity may have been the fundamentalist, Saudi-backed Jaysh Al-Islam (the Army of Islam), which worked closely with the White Helmets in the areas it occupied, including Douma at the time of the now-notorious April 2018 chemical weapons deception.
It is no coincidence that ARK, the White Helmets, Le Mesurier, Mayday Rescue and de Bretton-Gordon would each play a fundamental role in the propaganda operation that sold the Douma incident to the world – and the subsequent sabotage of the OPCW probe into what happened.
In March 2019, the OPCW issued a final report on Douma, which concluded there were “reasonable grounds” to believe a chemical weapons attack had occurred, and “the toxic chemical was likely molecular chlorine.” Leaked files have revealed that these findings were explicitly contrary to the evidence collected by investigators who actually visited the city, which pointed strongly to a false flag incident.
A consortium of U.K.-based scholars called the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda, and Media has meticulously documented how the investigation was “nobbled.” According to the Working Group, the OPCW dispatched two teams; one to Syria, one to Turkey, with the latter collecting samples from and interviewing witnesses supplied by the White Helmets, all of which was suggestive of a chemical weapon attack. The final report relied almost exclusively on this fudged evidence.
There were also strong indications that Len Phillips, a former OPCW inspection team leader who turned freelance in April 2018, and is reported to have met frequently with Le Mesurier, was integral to influencing the probe.
Before leaving the OPCW, Phillips oversaw four other investigations into alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria between 2015 and 2017, all heavily dependent on evidence provided by the White Helmets. The Working Group found at least three of the probes excluded or ignored unambiguous signs the events had been staged.
In April 2019, Phillips registered a company in the U.K., PHBG Consultants Ltd. Though listed as the sole director and shareholder, the company’s name implies others are involved. The company’s stated “nature of business” is “risk and damage evaluation” relating to “engineering related scientific and technical consulting activities.”
The OPCW’s final report on Douma refers to “consultations with engineering experts,” which is surely how the problem of its on-site investigators finding there was a “higher probability” that cylinders alleged to have been dropped from Syrian Air Force helicopters were “manually placed … rather than being delivered from aircraft” was resolved.
The final report also depended on external consultations with toxicology experts to reach its finding that a chemical weapon was used. However, those specialists were unable to reconcile the problem of White Helmets-disseminated photos and videos of dead bodies, including children, lying in piles in a housing complex, foaming from the mouth — clear signs of exposure to a nerve agent, when none was found either in Syria or Turkey.
A suppressed draft interim report on the incident contained a lengthy section outlining in detail why it was inconceivable that the victims could have been afflicted by chlorine, and how no other alternative chemical culprit could be identified. This contradiction was considered so noteworthy, in fact, that it was referenced repeatedly in the 116-page document’s opening summary, described as an “inconsistency” that “cannot be rationalised.”
The appraisal reflected the views of four chemical weapons specialists expressed to OPCW investigators in June 2018. The final report makes no reference to these findings, or the meeting, limply concluding it was “not currently possible” to “precisely link” the symptoms with a “specific chemical,, while slyly conflating the highly divergent properties and indicators of sarin and chlorine.
Yet mainstream media reports published in the immediate aftermath of the event and prior to the arrival of OPCW investigators in the city show chemical weapons specialists were at first unanimous in declaring the victims had been afflicted by a nerve agent.
‘They Could’ve Escaped’
On April 10, long-time chemical weapons researcher Alastair Hay, then-member of the OPCW’s Education and Outreach board, and recipient of the organization’s Hague Award in 2015, forcefully dismissed the notion that corpses featured in the White Helmets-supplied footage could have been afflicted by chlorine, as their symptoms were “much, much more consistent with nerve-agent-type exposure.”
“It’s just bodies piled up … There’s a young child with foam at the nose and a boy with foam on its [sic] mouth. Chlorine victims usually manage to get out to somewhere they can get treatment,” he said. “Nerve agent kills pretty instantly … People have pretty much died where they were when they inhaled the agent. They’ve just dropped dead.”
A consequent Washington Post article reinforced Hay’s analysis, reporting that “outside experts” had concluded “the speed with which the victims died suggested that a nerve agent was used,” as “chlorine usually takes longer to work.” That same day though, de Bretton-Gordon appeared in the Financial Times peddling a novel theory.
“The big question is whether it was chlorine or sarin. I am favoring a mix of the two,” he hypothesized. De Bretton-Gordon then argued that if Washington subsequently launched airstrikes on Damascus — which happened three days later — it would be “an indication of irrefutable evidence” of Syrian government culpability for the attack.
On April 16, he reiterated this view to The Daily Mail. The same article also quoted a White Helmet operative’s firm dismissal of chlorine as the agent responsible.
“Sarin you breathe and it kills you. There were many who died on the stairs. If it was chlorine, they could’ve escaped. But they died after just taking a few steps,” they said.
Chemically, a combination of chlorine and sarin makes no sense as a weapon, as chlorine compounds would simply decompose the nerve agent outright in the event they were successfully stored in the same container.
Of course, de Bretton-Gordon may have spoken out of pure ignorance. He has an extensive history of issuing headline-grabbing, unscientific claims, including warning of the potential threat of jihadists returning to the U.K. from Syria using components from household fridges to construct improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. There was also the time he claimed the Russian military could employ novichok hand grenades on battlefields.
Another interpretation may be that de Bretton-Gordon was attempting to explain away the looming, irresolvable disconnect between symptoms exhibited by victims of the alleged strike and the FFM’s actual chemical findings. Given the inevitable paradox created by that massive discrepancy, resolving this quandary was surely of supreme concern to all invested in the event’s staging.
Alternatively, there’s the question of whether de Bretton-Gordon himself had been concocting samples containing chlorine and sarin. The findings of an OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) probe into an alleged chemical attack in the Syrian city of Saraqib in February 2018 made clear someone was cooking up evidence in this manner.
The inquiry, which ruled the Syrian government had dropped “at least” one cylinder containing chlorine on the city, depended entirely on a May 2018 OPCW FFM investigation of the incident, which arrived at the same conclusion.
FFM staffers didn’t actually visit the site of the purported strike, and all samples reviewed were provided by the White Helmets. The IIT report claims that they contained both chlorine- and sarin-related chemicals.
Strikingly, the IIT recorded that it would be “difficult” to fill a cylinder with both chemicals, so it explored the question of whether “cross-contamination” may have occurred during the sampling process, “or at a later stage in the handling of the samples themselves.”
Its findings left open the possibility that “contamination occurred before sampling or after the samples were taken, but before they were secured by the OPCW in sealed packaging.” Still, “since the FFM [fact-finding mission] did not make findings related to the use of sarin in Saraqib…the IIT refrained from pursuing this aspect of the incident further.” [Emphasis added.]
By any objective measure, the IIT’s failure to explore that tantalizing lead was an absolutely staggering dereliction of its investigative duties, amounting to willful blindness in legal terms.
Other areas of the report similarly underline the inspectors’ determination to hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil. One of the cylinders reportedly involved in the strike was excluded from the IIT’s consideration, despite “consistent” witness accounts indicating both were dropped by a single Syrian Arab Army helicopter, due to a “lack of certainty” over whether it was moved to a location “further away” from the crater it supposedly created “with no clear explanation.”
Nonetheless, the IIT contended this glaring incongruity in no way implied the incident was staged, reasoning that if it had been orchestrated by opposition actors, it was “hard to comprehend” why the cylinder was placed and video-recorded so far away from its accompanying crater, “thus creating uncertainties as to its significance for this incident.”
In other words, if this was a false flag, those choreographing it would surely have done a better job. Inspectors’ reliance on “evidence” gathered by the White Helmets is all the more questionable given longstanding OPCW protocol stating that a chain of custody for all physical evidence is “100% critical.”
“The OPCW would never get involved in testing samples that our own inspectors don’t gather in the field, because we need to maintain chain of custody of samples from the field to the lab to ensure their integrity,” an OPCW spokesperson said in April 2013.
From Warfare to Lawfare
The clear role of British intelligence in forging material has greatly influenced global media coverage. As a result, it has driven public support for regime change across the West, corrupted official investigations by international bodies and helped trigger destructive military interventions.
The same bogus findings cooked up by the U.K.’s information warriors may be used in future kangaroo prosecutions of Syrian officials for war crimes, thus reinforcing the perception that the West’s long-running dirty war on Damascus was a righteous mission.
The shift in objective from warfare to lawfare was made clear by Emma Winberg in June 2018, at an event on the subject of “archiving atrocities” hosted by NATO’s unofficial think tank in Washington, The Atlantic Council.
“We’re in a phase of the conflict where we’re having to look ahead and plan for the next phase, where it’s less about advocacy to act on Syria, and instead how we best preserve what we do have, how we capture that in the most meaningful and effective way, that helps with future documentation and processes,” she said.
However, these efforts date back to the very beginning of the crisis. Leaked documents reveal that in 2011, the U.K. intelligence contractor, ARK, collaborated with a shadowy consultancy firm called Tsamota to “extract contemporaneous documentation from the conflict zone,” thus “[ensuring] that when the conflict ends, the raw material of a post-conflict war crimes process is ready for trial, in turn providing a key contribution to truth telling, reconciliation and the future of Syria.”
To this end, an endeavor created by Tsamota and called Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) has collected thousands of kilos of documentation from abandoned government buildings in opposition-occupied areas of the country. As documented by The Grayzone in 2019, these operations necessitated CIJA securing protection and assistance from numerous Islamist militias active in these areas, including the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra.
While the organization has received tens of millions in funding from the governments of Canada, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, the U.K. and U.S. for its efforts, few indictments have followed. A rare exception was the April 2020 Koblenz trial in Germany, in which two former Syrian security service officers who defected in 2012, were prosecuted for torture. One willingly provided their Western counterparts with sensitive information, while the other became a member of the opposition delegation.
A defendant has since been found guilty of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity, and received a somewhat paltry four-and-a-half years in prison. His conviction was heavily dependent on documents recording the meetings and directives of the “Central Crisis Management Cell,” established by the Syrian government in late March 2011 in response to the uprising.
Notably, the files record that lethal attacks on Syrian security forces began almost immediately after the allegedly peaceful protests began. However, soldiers were under clear orders from the inception to “counter with weapons” only those “who carry weapons against the state,” while guaranteeing “civilians are not harmed.”
“Ensure that no drop of blood is shed when confronting and dispersing peaceful demonstrations,” an August 2011 directive unequivocally stated.
The question of where the vast sums CIJA received ultimately ended up is a particularly urgent one given that the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) has formally accused it of fraud and “submission of false documents, irregular invoicing, and profiteering.”
OLAF made the allegation in relation to a project delivered by CIJA under the EU’s “Rule of Law” project in Syria, and recommended that authorities in the U.K., Netherlands and Belgium prosecute the group.
Seated on the board of CIJA is Toby Cadman, a lawyer who “[advises] clients how best to identify, approach and influence the key decision makers of Westminster, Washington DC, Brussels and further afield.” In 2016, he founded “international justice chambers” Guernica 37, which counts U.K, information warrior Emma Winberg among its staff.
That same year, Cadman authored an op-ed for The Huffington Post announcing that he had joined a “non-profit group that brings together doctors, military and humanitarian specialists and lawyers,” Medics Under Fire — the original name of de Bretton-Gordon’s fictional Doctors Under Fire.
Prosecutions in absentia for staged chemical weapons attacks could be in the offing in future.
In October 2020, The Grayzone’s Aaron Maté caught U.S. and U.K.-government funded propaganda platform Bellingcat publishing a bogus draft letter to an OPCW whistleblower that was never sent.
In the aftermath of the debacle, Chris York, a former Huffington Post journalist with a history of fanatically smearing the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda, and Media, attempted to defend the letter’s authenticity in private communications with this journalist.
In the process, he made an intriguing disclosure.
“There’s a whole bunch of stuff about Douma that isn’t public yet because it would put any future investigations and possible criminal trials in jeopardy,” York claimed.
He may have been bluffing, attempting to legitimize an obvious con job he himself had fallen for good and proper months earlier, and been on the verge of publishing. But there’s also the chance York knows something the rest of us do not.
Kit Klarenberg is an investigative journalist exploring the role of intelligence services in shaping politics and perceptions.
This article is from The Grayzone.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.
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