Fox News host Tucker Carlson claimed that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad “may have been falsely blamed” for the attack which led to American, British, and French bombings of suspected Syrian chemical weapons factories, and arguing that the deadly massacre “may never have happened in the first place.”
These claims contradict and misrepresent the available evidence regarding the attack, the conclusions of multiple governments, and they are based on a Syrian and Russian misinformation campaign seeking to discredit investigators and absolve Assad of responsibility for the atrocity.
In April 2018, Carlson cast doubt on a chemical attack that killed at least 40 people in a suburb of Damascus, Syria, deeming it a false flag attack. On the November 25 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Carlson renewed his claims that there was no evidence for the attack:
The attack on Douma has returned to the spotlight following the release by WikiLeaks of internal documents from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the organization charged by the United Nations with investigating the attack and recently mandated to identify the responsible parties. In March, the OPCW released a report concluding that the 2018 attack probably used chlorine gas released from cylinders recovered at the site, seemingly dropped from an aircraft. This conclusion supports the theory that the attack was orchestrated by Russian-backed Syrian government forces, who controlled the airspace over Douma.
Carlson framed the documents published by WikiLeaks, which a whistleblower released to dispute the levels of chlorine found and the alleged use of aircraft, as accusing “the organization of altering investigators’ original findings to make evidence of an attack look more conclusive than it actually was.” He said another whistleblower claimed that “on-the-ground evidence points against an attack happening at all.”
The OPCW stands by the conclusion of its report, and the leak comes amid some scuffling over an upcoming vote to expand OPCW’s responsibility in examining attacks and its budget. Russia has opposed granting the OPCW authority to determine who was responsible for the Douma attack and made clear it will attempt to block efforts to do so.
Despite the seemingly scandalous accusation in the leak, Carlson is misrepresenting the nature of the WikiLeaks documents and their significance. Investigative journalists at Bellingcat found that the leaked letter was in fact referring to an “interim report” issued in July of 2018, before the OPCW released its final conclusions. A side-by-side comparison shows that the concerns addressed in the letter “are present, or else are in modified form, in the final report.” Bellingcat concludes: “Although this letter appears to be at least superficially damaging to the OPCW, after reading the actual reports published by the OPCW it is clear that this letter is outdated and inapplicable to the final Douma report.”
But Carlson isn’t just misrepresenting and maligning the work done by investigators; he’s actively spreading conspiracy theories that the attack didn’t take place at all. Carlson invited Jonathan Steele, former foreign correspondent at The Guardian, to argue that there was no evidence of chlorine gas present where the attack took place. Steele, who has been vocal in his opinion that “if ending Syria’s war means accepting Assad and Russia have won, so be it,” argued:
JONATHAN STEELE: There were no higher levels of chlorinated organic chemicals in the areas where the alleged attack had happened where there is -- some suspicious cylinders had been found by opposition activists. And so, it didn't seem possible that there could have been a gas attack because the levels were just the same as in the natural environment.
Carlson and Steele are spreading misinformation that is a direct result of allegations of Russo-Syrian efforts to block the OPCW and journalists from accessing the site of the attack for weeks to manipulate potentially incriminating evidence. Chlorine gas decomposes rapidly, and there were concerns that barring investigators from the site would lead to critical evidence degrading or being removed.
Despite the delay in access, investigators from the OPCW found that “all the information gathered by the [fact-finding mission]—witnesses’ testimonies, environmental and biomedical samples analysis results, toxicological and ballistic analyses from experts, additional digital information from witnesses—provide reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place. This toxic chemical contained reactive chlorine.” Steele’s claim that chlorine levels “were the same as in the natural environment” is contradicted by the report’s findings of objects contaminated with “substances containing reactive chlorine” and its derivatives, “which are not naturally present in the environment.” The Associated Press has also reported that survivors of the attack said they were “overwhelmed by the smell of chlorine” and that activists said victims of the attack “were found with foam around their mouths, an indicator for suffocation. Medical workers said they treated symptoms including difficulty breathing and fainting.”
In spreading debunked claims about the 2018 Douma chemical attack, Carlson is deliberately misleading the public about the actions of a brutal dictatorship with a history of committing atrocities -- particularly chemical weapons attacks against its own people. Carlson is playing into a coordinated campaign by Russian and Syrian actors to cast doubt on the rigorous work of watchdog groups and aid workers and to absolve Assad of responsibility as evidence of war crimes and the threat of prosecution mounts against him.