The burned schoolboy screaming in agony on a hospital gurney, arms held away from his sides so that flayed flesh would not touch flayed flesh, was fake news. “Dad, Dad, Dad,” the boy shouted at hisfather, “stop the burning, I beg you stop the burning.”
Mohammed Hamid, aged 13, was set aflame during the Turkish bombardment of his home town of Sera Kaniye in north-eastern Syria. It mattered not that the extent of his injuries – frightful to behold on anyone; truly horrific to see on a child – were carefully documented in film and photographs not just by me but by other journalists present, as well as being recorded in the testimony of the medical staff attempting to treat him in the hospital in the nearby town of Tal Tamr that day.
It is irrelevant that the boy’s medical condition, including third and fourth degree burning to 45 per cent of his upper body, was later described to me in detail by Dr Nezar Taib, the director general of health in Dohuk governorate in northern Iraq. The child had been submitted into Taib’s care after he was evacuated from Syria to Iraq, prior to being flown to a specialist burns unit in France.
None of these realities matter in Turkey where, according to the national public broadcaster TRT, the burned Syrian Kurdish schoolboy was an actor, and his injuries were faked. “There is no redness in the eyes, no shortness of breath… someone in the background tells him to stop crying,” commented an English-speaking newsreader for the broadcaster’s international programme, TRT World. The voiceover, accompanying a picture of the child sedated on a stretcher, described how Hamid was actually part of a staged set-up to discredit Turkey.
The Daily Sabah, a newspaper serving as Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s mouthpiece, was quick to join the denunciation. “This is definitely FAKE NEWS,” tweeted Merve Sebnem Oruc, one of the paper’s leading columnists, in a ten-point takedown of the 18 October story I had written for the Times from the hospital in Tal Tamr where the agonised child was first taken for treatment.
Factual manipulation is familiar in Erdogan’s Turkey. But Mohammed Hamid’s case epitomises the misinformation, confusion and hypocrisy surrounding allegations that the Turkish military and/or its Syrian jihadi affiliates have been using white phosphorous against civilians during their campaign against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria.
Since the Turkish operation began on 9 October there have been numerous reports of white phosphorous injuries in areas bombarded by the Turks and their local allies. The pictures of Mohammed Hamid screaming in pain after the bombardment of Sera Kaniye have become those most commonly associated with the allegations.
Turkey, which has already been accused of committing war crimes in northern Syria by Amnesty International, immediately lambasted the white phosphorus claims. What is surprising, given the spike in burns casualties in the region, is that no Nato member state nor any international organisation has attempted to investigate the reports further.
White phosphorus is present in the armouries of almost every modern army including that of the UK, and is commonly used in military operations to produce smoke or provide illumination. It is not in itself classed as a chemical weapon, though its incendiary properties have such a horrifying effect on human flesh – burning through layers of tissue until the last traces of the chemical have fully combusted – that its use is regulated by the UN’s 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, also known as the Inhumane Weapons Convention. This prohibits the use of white phosphorus as an incendiary weapon against civilian populations.
White phosphorus munitions can be delivered by aircraft, but are more commonly fired by mortars and artillery. The methodology to confirm whether or not white phosphorus has been used ideally involves an analysis of munition fragments from the scene of explosion in combination with images of the detonation, witness testimony and a forensic examination of tissue samples from casualties.
Yet one month on from the start of the Turkish operation in Syria, neither Nato, the United Nations nor the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have attempted to learn whether or not the multiple reports of unusual burns casualties in northern Syria are due to the use of white phosphorus.
A month ago, as the first allegations emerged, the OPCW – the leading intergovernmental investigative body responsible for implementing the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention – announced it was “collecting information with regard to possible use of chemical weapons” in northern Syria. Yet at the start of November it ended the investigation on a point of definition. In a written statement, it said it was not investigating the recent burns cases in Syria as white phosphorus injuries were produced by thermal, rather than chemical, properties, and thus lay outside its remit. The Turkish media leapt on the announcement, wrongly advertising it as proof that white phosphorus had not been used illegally in Syria by Ankara’s troops or its local allies.
In the meantime no other organisation has stepped forward to investigate the burns victims. Time-sensitive tissue samples taken from casualties transferred from Kurdish areas of northern Syria to Iraq for treatment have been left to degrade in a fridge rather than be examined.
The UN added to the confusion around the white phosphorus allegations when its health agency, the World Health Organisation (WHO), announced on 22 October that it had received no reports of an increased incidence of burns casualties in northern Syria. The statement, made despite the absence of any UN staff in the affected areas, flew in the face of evidence gathered inside northern Syria by journalists and medical teams present on the ground.
At Hassakah hospital, just east of Tal Tamr, which receives the majority of casualties from battlefield areas, Dr Abbas Mansouran, an Iranian-born Swedish national who is directing treatment of the burns victims, reported that he had received 30 casualties injured in Turkish bombardments, “mostly civilians… with these severe and unusual burns”. He added: “The burn types I have witnessed here are very different to those I would expect to have been caused by anything other than a chemical incendiary weapons like white phosphorus.”
I filmed, photographed and interviewed five of the casualties he was treating when I met him in Hassakah in mid-October. All displayed patterned black “pitting” burns symptomatic of white phosphorous. Three of those I saw were fighters who had been serving alongside the coalition against Islamic State until the sudden US withdrawal. “I was working with British special forces,” said one of them, a 21-year-old Kurdish fighter named Ali Sher, as he leaned forward to show me his burn wounds. “They were totally professional, I regard them still as friends, and it was a pleasure to serve alongside them.”
Four days after Trump announced the US withdrawal on 6 October and having said a quick farewell to his British friends, Ali Sher’s position was hit at Sera Kaniye. He woke to find his right arm missing and his skin covered in pitted black burns. “I wish you could stop the animals who burned me from burning others, rather than just take my photo,” he told me, half joking.
There is no shortage of similarly burned casualties in the Kurdish-held areas. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of the UK’s chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear regiment, told me that over a single 24-hour period during the early stages of the Turkish operation he been shown more photographs of unusual burns in northern Syria – including injuries that looked “likely to have been caused by white phosphorous” – than at any recent stage in Syria’s war. This was hardly the “situation as normal” suggested by the WHO.
But does anyone care? The Syrian regime has never been effectively punished by the Security Council for its use of prohibited chemical weapons, and against this backdrop the use of white phosphorous, technically a conventional weapon, has become so normalised that it is used on a weekly basis by the regime to burn villages and towns. If Bashar al-Assad is allowed to get away with such wide-ranging abuse then it seems extremely unlikely that Nato member Turkey will be subjected to serious investigation.
In 2012 Barack Obama laid down a “red line” regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria: his reluctance to enforce this is widely regarded as leading to subsequent proliferation in chemical weapons. Echoing those criticisms, De Bretton-Gordon said the international community’s negligence over Syria had caused a toleration in the abuse of all weapon types, conventional and unconventional.
“The wider issue is that as the UN Security Council has not punished states that have used chemical and unconventional weapons they have now proliferated… This institutional blind-eye-turning has led us to this position where dreadful inhumane weapons can be used with impunity. We’ve allowed this to happen as we have done nothing about it.”
In the absence of any credible investigation, it now seems more than likely that Turkey’s “fake news” counterclaims, however feeble, may overpower the volume of credible detail behind the white phosphorus story. Already familiar with repeated betrayal, the US-led coalition’s erstwhile Kurdish allies will be abandoned yet again.
Never look for a happy ending to a Syrian story. Mohammed Hamid, the burned boy whose agony became central to the allegations of white phosphorus abuse, is under tight security in France. Recently, his uncle told me by phone that after initially rallying under French care his burns had become infected and his condition had since deteriorated.
“Mohammed is very seriously ill,” the uncle told me. “We are no longer sure he will survive.”
Anthony Loyd is a reporter for the Times