This is a revised version of the original post.

Comment: Bold text is the authors.

Tim Hayward
© Tim Hayward
Bellingcat has a difficult job. For those who don't know, it is "to set the record straight" when US-UK foreign policy is challenged on the truthfulness of its factual premises. The difficulty lies in trying to sustain a reputation for reliable and truthful analysis at the same time. For facts are recalcitrant. They can only ever be spun for so long until a misleading narrative, the effort of maintaining it spent, subsides into acquiescence with the truth.

 Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins

Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins
The founder of Bellingcat is Eliot Higgins. As well as leading the team at Bellingcat and being a Senior Fellow in research at Atlantic Council Higgins is Visiting Research Associate at King's College London, a leading UK university. This provides Bellingcat a particular source of credibility it could not otherwise claim to have.

It also makes Higgins an academic colleague of people like myself and Professor Piers Robinson of Sheffield University, who has done considerable research on how propaganda about war has come to permeate our media, including a recently published analysis of how we were misled about Iraq.

(We do not get to pick and choose all our colleagues, of course, nor will we agree with all of them, or necessarily rate their work, even though we will treat them courteously.[1])

What binds the academic community is a commitment to discovering and disseminating truths about the world through credible sources of reason and evidence. To contravene those standards is to bring one's profession and university into disrepute. Engaging in deliberate practices of disinformation risks doing that.

With this in mind, and with Professor Piers Robinson of Sheffield University I put a question to Higgins via Twitter. It was a simple question about whether the UK Government could actually rule out the possibility of opposition forces in Syria having access to the kinds of chemical found in the recent OPCW tests on samples said to come from Khan Sheikhoun. Higgins was brought to admit, thanks to some careful supplementary questioning by Professor Piers Robinson that he could not. He accepted on behalf of Bellingcat that if the UK Government suggested the opposition in Syria had no access to sarin, then that was merely an opinion.

Bellingcat's admission was duly noted by the journalist Peter Hitchens, the famously independent-minded and highly experienced journalist who had also been party to the Twitter conversation, having that same day published a piece in the Mail on Sunday (found half way down the page here) urging caution (as I had previously) about rushing to judgement concerning the Khan Sheikhoun incident. The next week after the Twitter exchange Hitchens was to write an even more powerful article. Its careful critical analysis of the OPCW report demonstrated the severe weaknesses of its evidentiary base, and he foregrounded the fact that the UK Government opinion was merely an opinion.

The government, of course, has opinions on many things that are not shared by all reasonable people. So we should not allow any rush to judgment about who was responsible for the incident on the basis of the UK statement relayed by Ambassador Adams. Aside from the many other reasons to be very cautious, there are good reasons to be critically alert on the specific matter of access to the chemicals analysed. There are abundant reports, analyses, testimonies and videos available from a variety of sources over the past five years that present at least circumstantial evidence, and potentially more than that, to suggest opposition access to the relevant chemicals. In fact, at times, there have been very grave concerns on the part of our governments' intelligence agencies about the potential threat from opposition terrorists bringing chemical weapons back to our own lands. In the note beneath the text of this article I include links to some of those sources.[2]

It is said that the first casualty of war is truth. This is a compelling reason for us to fight for truth to prevent war, as urgently and as long as we can.

Some people have fought for the truth at the cost of their lives. Such a person is Serena Shim.

If you have not heard of Serena Shim, that will not be surprising, given the priorities of our media, but I would recommend that you take at least a moment to find out something about the witness she was bearing to events in and around Syria. I wish here to honour her memory. Shortly before her untimely and unsatisfactorily explained death in 2014, she filed a report that was particularly germane to the question about the Syrian opposition and chemical weapons.

  1. In the original post I tried to be super polite to someone I am fundamentally critical of. In my choice of words I evidently over-compensated and conveyed a very misleading impression to some readers. Twitter went a bit berserk, even though both Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett intervened at a very early stage to urge some individuals to calm down. Higgins himself came along to have a laugh at a certain point, and the whole situation became ludicrous. I had not actually been under any illusions about Higgins or Bellingcat; but I evidently had been about some other people! Still, the vast majority of readers, even if they were a bit perplexed by my original tone, were either understanding or prepared to give the benefit of the doubt in light of everything else I have ever published. I thank you for this.
  2. This is just a small selection that I had readily to hand. There are very many more out there, and if readers mention others in the comments over the next week or so, I shall consolidate them into this list. Meanwhile, thanks go to all who have already sent links, including Qoppa
Syria Chemical Weapons Used... But Used by Whom?

Sarin gas materials sent to Isis from Turkey, claims MP Eren Erdem

UN accuses Syrian rebels of chemical weapons use

U.N. has testimony that Syrian rebels used sarin gas: investigator

Responses To The Final UN Report Into The Use Of Chemical Weapons In Syria - Part 2

Alleged Chemical Attack Khan Sheikhoun 4 April 2017

Serena Shim

Serena Shim (born USA 1985 – died Turkey 2014)