Apr 13, 2014

Seymour Hersh's New Report

If this is your first time here, I recommend starting from the conclusion page.

Seymour Hersh has recently published another piece on the August 21st attack (analysis of the previous one here). The article is a mix of information and speculation on many issues, which is hard to use as evidence for our purposes, but a close read does seem to point to three interesting information sources, which I'll try to examine here.

The Main Points


A June 20 DIA report assesses that the opposition is attempting to manufacture sarin.

Since Hersh provides direct quotes from the document and in this video claims to be reading from it directly, it does seem fairly reliable. It is also in line with many other indications that the Syrian opposition was attempting to develop sarin.

Since the report was published 3 weeks after Turkey's arrest of opposition operatives attempting to procure sarin precursors, and since most of the quotes from the DIA report provide information that could be deduced from these arrests alone, it seems like this is the primary source of this report. However, the following quote goes further:
Qassab and his associate Khalid Ousta worked with Halit Unalkaya, an employee of a Turkish firm called Zirve Export, who provided ‘price quotes for bulk quantities of sarin precursors’. Abd-al-Ghani’s plan was for two associates to ‘perfect a process for making sarin, then go to Syria to train others to begin large scale production at an unidentified lab in Syria’. The DIA paper said that one of his operatives had purchased a precursor on the ‘Baghdad chemical market’, which ‘has supported at least seven CW efforts since 2004’.
This looks very much like information that would be obtained in the interrogations following the arrests, indicating Turkey has shared this information with the US.


A sarin sample obtained by Russia and analyzed by British Intelligence was found not to match Syria's batches.

This claim is a bit weird, since it requires knowledge of the exact composition of all of Syria's sarin batches, which were secret at the time. Hersh's source (a former intelligence official) explains:
The DIA’s baseline consisted of knowing the composition of each batch of Soviet-manufactured chemical weapons. But we didn’t know which batches the Assad government currently had in its arsenal. Within days of the Damascus incident we asked a source in the Syrian government to give us a list of the batches the government currently had. This is why we could confirm the difference so quickly.
So apparently western intelligence has a source within Syria capable of providing such detailed information on Syria's chemical weapons program. This is possible, but seems a bit unlikely. A more likely explanation is that this sample showed the same traces reported by the UN, which indicate use of very low quality chemicals, and this information got distorted on its way to Hersh's source. Indeed, in a later interview Hersh states that the assessment provided to the President was: "the sarin that we found was not military grade".


Turkey orchestrated the August 21 attacks in an attempt to bring the US to respond.

Of course, this is a severe war crime that would carry life sentences for everyone involved, and Turkey, which was not directly involved in the war, is very unlikely to commit. It therefore requires very strong evidence to be accepted. This does not seem to be the case:
"Principal evidence came from the Turkish post-attack joy and back-slapping in numerous intercepts."
As we've seen in previous intercepted calls, this kind of evidence is not reliable: When such a major event happens, millions of people discuss it, speculate about it, circulate rumors, and attempt to appear more knowledgeable than they really are. It is very easy to misinterpret one of these calls as real evidence - especially from a second hand report.

Furthermore, if this theory was correct it would imply that Turkish intelligence don't know how to avoid being detected by their own police.


The Counter Claims


The article of course generated many responses. I'll review the main counter claims below:


Hersh ignores the evidence that the attack was carried out by Volcanoes - a Syrian government weapon (from Brown Moses)

This is mostly an attack on Hersh's earlier piece which quoted Ted Postol's estimate that the rockets were improvised. This was indeed a major mistake (as analyzed here), which Hersh chose not to repeat. Brown Moses provides two ways to settle this discrepancy with Hersh's false flag theory: Either the Volcanoes were looted, or they were replicated.

The latter is very unlikely, as it would be very complex and costly. The former, however, makes perfect sense, and is currently considered here to be the most likely scenario. BM counters by claiming:
"...the Syrian government has never claimed any of their chemical weapons have been captured by the Syrian opposition, even when required to do so by the OPCW".
Here BM conveniently ignores the strong evidence that the Volcano was never intended to be a chemical weapon. There were two Volcano impact sites documented prior to August 21, both of them clearly showing smoke emanating from the rockets, having no effect on the cameraman. This is typical to incendiary weapons (which coincidentally have warhead designs very similar to chemical warheads).

The various Volcano variants have been spotted numerous times during the civil war, making it one of the most popular heavy weapons used by the Syrian Army. Since practically every type of heavy weapon used by the Syrian Army was captured by the opposition, and since we have evidence of the opposition capturing the small Volcano variant, it is unreasonable to assume that the incendiary Volcanoes were the only weapon to have survived the raids.


The 2 km Volcano range does not exclude government positions (from Brown Moses)

This is an attack on Hersh's statements in follow-up interviews in which he claimed the short range indicates a launch location within opposition control.

Brown Moses provides his analysis of the areas under control of the Syrian government on August 21st, some of which being within 2 km of all impact sites. Here BM chooses to ignore the strong evidence that the launch sites are north to the impact sites (not north-west), in an area that is outside government control, even according to BM's analysis.

Furthermore, the areas marked by BM are based on videos showing government incursions into opposition territory. They are far from being under complete government control, with operations mostly carried out by tanks for short periods, while other videos show opposition fighters operating within this territory. This is an extremely uncomfortable location to launch a Volcano attack - an operation that involves two unarmored trucks and requiring several people to operate in the open.

The two theories to be considered here are therefore:
  1. The Syrian Army chose to launch a chemical Volcano attack on a residential neighborhood from within opposition territory, despite the low-quality Volcano never been used for this purpose, and despite having many long-range dedicated chemical rockets and shells.
  2. The opposition launched the attack using the only rocket they could possibly use - a repurposed looted incendiary rocket, and doing so from within opposition territory, as evidenced by the impact sites and the videos documenting the launch.
Pending new evidence, the latter is by far more likely.

BM also brings up the issue of the M14 rocket reported in Moadamiyah - something that wasn't mentioned in the August 21 discussions for a very long time, and for a good reason. This single M14 body shows no signs of ever being launched, and was recorded a few days earlier in a different location than the claimed impact site. The evidence for a chemical attack on Moadamiyah is highly questionable and should not be used in any productive discussion on the subject.


The amounts ordered by the opposition in Turkey were smaller than the amounts used in the attack (from Dan Kaszeta)

This is a very peculiar line of reasoning, that manages to turn one of the most interesting pieces of evidence for opposition culpability into a counter claim. The fact that we somehow got a glimpse into one of the few attempts in history to produce underground sarin is nothing short of amazing. It is ridiculous to assume that the only time the opposition tried to procure sarin, they were captured. A more likely explanation is that this is a wide-scale operation, and the arrests are just the tip of the iceberg - the unlucky few who got caught.


A sarin sample provided by the Russians cannot be trusted (here)

The idea that within days the Russians fabricated a low-quality sarin sample to deceive the British could not be dismissed, but it is of course much less likely than the straightforward explanation, which also happens to match the other evidence.



Attacking Straw Man Theories



One thing to remember in this discussion is that Hersh is not a researcher of the August 21st attack. He is a journalist with sources in the intelligence community who forward to him interesting information - some reliable, and some less so. Trying to 'win' the discussion by attacking his statements is nothing more than a straw man argument.

This quote is a good example (from Dan Kaszeta):
Somehow, this Sarin was produced, using a secret hexamine acid reduction process hitherto unknown to the world, and only mastered by Syria’s chemical weapons program. It was put into rockets that are exact copies of Syrian ones, down to the paint and bolts. The Sarin-filled rockets were smuggled via the “rat line” into Syria to Damascus, without a single one being caught. And quickly, I should add, due to the short shelf life of binary Sarin. Then they were supposed to be fired onto rebel areas from government positions without the Syrian regime knowing about it? It defies belief.
All of the above are straw man arguments:
  1. There is no evidence of a "secret hexamine process" in Syria (see here).
  2. No one claims the rockets were replicas.
  3. No one claimed sarin was smuggled from Turkey - only precursors.
  4. The rockets were not launched from government positions.
Those who object to the false flag theory, should attack the well researched hypothesis reached in this blog, which could be summarized as follows:
  1. Following the US's clear statement that they will only intervene in Syria following the use of chemical weapons, one of the extreme factions of the opposition chose to carry out a false flag chemical attack, which could potentially win the war and save thousands of lives.
  2. They produced sarin using basic chemicals procured in neighboring countries, and possibly utilizing one of the many labs and factories that they seized and are now under their full control.
  3. In one of their many raids of Army bases, they seized an incendiary Volcano launcher, which would prove to be an ideal weapon.
  4. The perfect opportunity came when Syrian forces were progressing into East Ghouta right when the UN team arrived in Damascus to investigate the Khan Al-Assal incident (which they later determined to be a sarin attack against Syrian soldiers and government-supporting civilians).
  5. The rockets were filled with the low-quality sarin, brought to an opposition-controlled field near the front-line and launched towards the residential neighborhood of Zamalka - a target with low military value, but one which would produce powerful images for the international media.
This is the hypothesis that explains the timing, the motive, the launch location, the sarin quality, the videos of the launch, and all the other evidence, and that is the hypothesis that should be attacked, rather than any other straw man theory.

Furthermore, even if someone were to provide evidence that refutes this theory (which is yet to happen), this would not suffice, as that someone would also need to write an alternative plausible hypothesis that is consistent with the evidence. And once again - despite dozens of requests for such a theory, no one was able to produce one!


Conclusion: Mr. Hersh provides interesting information from his sources, but it cannot be independently verified and is therefore not usable in our investigation. 
  1. The DIA document seems to be mostly based on the Turkey arrests, but does provide more inside information from the interrogations that followed.
  2. The Russian sarin sample sounds reliable and plausible, but does not add any information over the UN's analysis.
  3. The claims of Turkey's involvement are based on weak evidence, which is far below the evidentiary threshold required for such an outrageous claim.

Apr 5, 2014

Hexamine Again

If this is your first time here, I recommend starting from the conclusion page.

Dan Kaszeta has published another piece that claims hexamine proves the Syrian government is behind the August 21st attack. Most of these points were refuted here and here, but there are a few new claims which will be addressed here.
  1. For the first time, Dan attempts to address the issue of samples that contained hexamine but no sarin. As detailed in the previous posts here, this is one of the indications that hexamine could have come from many sources and is therefore not a "smoking gun".
    Dan dismisses it by saying: "this is a logical state of affairs as hexamine does not evaporate like Sarin does".
    This, however, fails to explain why none of the stable sarin degradation products (which were found elsewhere) are absent from these samples.
  2. Dan brings up sample 25 from the UN report, which shows hexamine in one of the rocket's bolts. He claims this proves hexamine findings were not a result of environmental contamination.
    This sample is originally described by the UN as "Metal bolt removed from rocket head combined with paint rust scratched from the surface surrounding the bolt", which provides a good clue to the source of hexamine in this sample: One of hexamine's numerous uses in chemistry is in paints.
  3. Dan claims "the UN firmly concluded that the 8/21 Sarin came from Syrian government stockpiles".
    The original quote: "The evidence available concerning the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on 21 August indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military".
    Besides the misquote - as discussed in detail here, this UN statement is probably not significant.
Dan concludes with the following logical equation:

Nobody’s used hexamine previously as a Sarin additive
+
There’s hexamine in the field samples
+
There’s 80 tons of hexamine in the declared inventory of the Assad Regime
+
The Syrian government’s admission to Sellstrom’s team
EQUALS
The Assad Regime Did the Wicked Deed

To sum up the weaknesses of this line of reasoning:

  1. There is no indication hexamine was used in production of sarin, rather than another agent, or for another use completely (e.g. safe neutralization of by-products).
  2. Syria has specifically declared Isopropylamine in its stockpiles, which is the standard amine used in binary sarin. Furthermore, the amount of Isopropylamine reported matched the amounts of other reported chemicals, making hexamine redundant.
  3. Hexamine is a very common agent in chemical processes, and there is nothing that associates the hexamine field samples with sarin. More specifically, we have hexamine samples that have no trace of sarin, and we have samples showing explosive traces (hexamine is also used in explosives).
  4. There are no traces of hexamine salts in the field samples, which is a strong indication that hexamine was not present in sarin. If hexamine was indeed intended to react with the HCl created in the sarin binary process, then where are the products of this reaction? (credit to Paveway).
  5. Even if we were to accept this far-fetched connection between the hexamine in the field and the hexamine in the stockpiles, and assuming Syria did make this amazing break-through in sarin production, there is still no way to know that this information was not leaked to the opposition (e.g. by one of the many defectors).


All in all, the fact that this weak circumstantial evidence is still claimed to be a "smoking gun", is mostly a testament to the weakness of the other evidence for a regime attack. And once again: So far no one was able to provide a regime-attack scenario that is consistent with the evidence!

Mar 18, 2014

Richard Lloyd's Trajectory Analysis

If this is your first time here, I recommend starting from the conclusion page.

Richard Lloyd of Tesla, who previously published a widely-reported estimate of 2 km for the UMLACA/Volcano's range, and confirmed the Syrian Army's report of a rebel CW store in Jobar, has recently published an analysis of the sarin rocket trajectories.

The analysis reaches very similar results to those published here and in other blogs, indicating a launch source to the north.

However, Richard points to an interesting finding: A Syrian Air Force Intelligence facility located on this trajectory, at a distance of 2.8 km from the farthest impact site. (Note: For some reason, the diagrams show the base to be exactly on the trajectory. However, the impact sites provide an accuracy of only around 20 degrees, which covers the entire field west of Irbin).

This is of course a very important finding, since so far there was no evidence of government activity near the launch site (despite numerous reports of such activities all over Damascus).

However, there are a few obstacles before this could be used as evidence:

  1. The base is beyond the UMLACA/Volcano range. The report does not provide any explanation why a range beyond 2 km is considered (which was previously defined as the "upper possible range"). In any case, our more detailed model puts the upper limit at 2.5 km.
  2. Air force Intelligence is an Internal Security and Counter-Intelligence service. It is not involved in military operations, rocket artillery or chemical warfare. More specifically, this facility seems to have civilian cars parked outside and no military equipment.
Nevertheless, some scenarios could benefit from this new finding: For example, if we are to assume that the government had specific interest in targeting the civilian neighborhood of Zamalka, it is definitely conceivable that they brought the launcher and support truck to the facility, drove them after midnight to the nearby field to launch the attack and then retreated back.

The problem with this scenario is that it doesn't provide any significant military advantage over the alternative of driving the trucks directly from the nearby highway into the field. It of course still doesn't explain the many other discrepancies with such a scenario.

During the writing of this post, Mr. Lloyd published another report, which makes two claims:

  1. The wide distribution of impact sites could not have come from random dispersion around a single target, implying multiple launchers.
    The estimate of this blog is that a single launcher was used, each time rotated to a different azimuth. It is unclear why this simpler explanation is ignored.
  2. The range of the chemical Volcano is longer due its smaller mass.
    This blog's model has already examined this and found the difference to be negligible, since the lower mass also results in lower resistance to drag force, which in this case has significant effect on range.

Conclusion: The Air Force Intelligence facility near the launch location could have provided some cover to a government operation, but since it is beyond the Volcano range, its contribution is negligible compared to the alternatives. Therefore, this finding, while interesting, does not have significant implication on culpability.

Mar 10, 2014

Ridiculed Jobar Lab actually was Sarin Related

If this is your first time here, I recommend starting from the conclusion page.

Richard Lloyd of Tesla, who previously published a widely-reported estimate of 2 km for the UMLACA/Volcano's range, has recently made another interesting discovery.

First, some background: Three days after the Ghouta attack, the Syrian news agency reported that Syrian soldiers who entered Jobar discovered an underground chemical weapons store, and that some of them suffered from "suffocation". This was quickly dismissed as a desperate attempt to divert attention, and the equipment was estimated to be related to explosives production or to protection from a chemical attack. This blog too did not find that report useful.

However, Mr. Lloyd managed to identify in a video of the location two items which perfectly match the sarin IEDs used against Syrian soldiers in Jobar, as reported in the final UN report. This attack was of special interest as it was the only one where the UN detected sarin in a soldier's blood sample (despite a one month delay in sampling).

See here the full report.

Update: An anonymous contributor below noted that the soldiers were attacked by the IEDs just 250m from the likely launch location of the August 21st attack. Besides further strengthening the connection between the two attacks, it provides another important indication: Since the Syrian army has reported being attacked while advancing into this area on August 24th, it is likely that the area (and rocket launch location) was under opposition control on August 21st.

Conclusion: The underground store discovered by the Syrian Army in Jobar was indeed a chemical weapons store.

Mar 7, 2014

Quote from Commission of Inquiry on Syria

If this is your first time here, I recommend starting from the conclusion page.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, has issued its 7th report which deals with many atrocities committed by all parties to the conflict, but also provided the following interesting quote (page 19):
The evidence available concerning the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on 21 August indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary to manipulate safely large amount of chemical agents.
The report also states that the chemical agents used in Ghouta were similar to the Khan Al-Assal attack, and concludes that "In no incident was the commission’s evidentiary threshold met with respect to the perpetrator".

This seems to indicate the commission had information that could prove valuable for our research here. Unfortunately, UN bodies have proven in the past to be a problematic source of information when dealing with the Ghouta attack, so some care should be practiced. Indeed, the first thing that stands out is that the commission does not provide any evidence to support its conclusion, or even provide an indication of what that evidence could be. This obviously renders this information unusable for our investigation.

Nevertheless, we can try to deduce what information the commission has by analyzing their statements.

A first clue is given in the first question in the press conference that followed the report, where the commission's chairman explains that since they did not visit Syria, their conclusion is based principally on the existing findings of Sellstrom's team, as well as "interviews with experts and functionaries".

A second clue is the comparison to the Khan Al-Assal attack, which is said to have "the same unique hallmarks as those used in Al-Ghouta". Since Sellstrom's team did not visit Khan Al-Assal and had no field samples, the only source for such a comparison would be Russia's 100-page report of the attack submitted to the UN, which included certified lab results of field samples. The full results were not published, but were reported to provide evidence that RDX was used as the bursting charge.

These clues bring us back to the well-known Hexamine issue - which serves as the current "smoking gun", ever since the "trajectory intersection" theory was refuted. Since RDX is based on Hexamine, it seems likely that the Russian labs reported Hexamine in their samples, which brought the commission to connect them to the Hexamine in the Ghouta attack (probably correctly), and both attacks to the Syrian stockpiles (probably incorrectly).

So since the commission refuses to provide any evidence, states that their conclusion is based on Sellstrom's data, and found similarities to Khan Al-Assal, there is little reason to believe they have more information besides the well-known Hexamine finding.

The other evidence mentioned is the amount of agent used, which is indeed one of the main challenges to the opposition-attack theory. However, detailed analysis indicates that while not an easy feat, producing such amounts is within the opposition's capabilities. The recent UN evidence showing the opposition deploying tens of kg of sarin, further strengthened this position.

As a side note, for those who are not familiar with the UN's multiple manipulations during the Ghouta investigation and choose to take this report at face value as indicative of a government attack, it should be pointed out that this would indicate that the only two cases where the government chose to use sarin at large scale are (a) an attack against Syrian soldiers in a government-controlled area, and (b) a massive attack on a purely civilian opposition neighborhood carried out upon arrival of a UN team invited to investigate the first attack. - An obviously perplexing choice of targets.


Finally, it is important once again to remember that the Ghouta attack is no longer a mystery where each little clue can change the picture (like it was in the early days). We now have very strong evidence implicating the opposition in the attack, and so far no one was able to propose a regime attack theory that is consistent with the evidence (see the end of this post to understand why this is so difficult). For our understanding to change, very strong contradicting evidence should be brought forward, or alternatively a plausible theory for a regime attack should be formulated. Vague statements or general-purpose chemicals claimed to be smoking guns, sadly, do not qualify.


Conclusion: The commission's quote seems to be based on the Hexamine findings and the amount of agent used, both of which have already been known and analyzed here before, and found to be of little value.

Feb 14, 2014

More on Hexamine

If this is your first time here, I recommend starting from the conclusion page.

In recent weeks new information has surfaced regarding the Hexamine findings,which require revisiting the issue.

First, to summarize the “Hexamine is the smoking gun” theory: This claim is based on Hexamine being reported by Syria as part of their chemical program, and Hexamine being found in all sarin-positive samples in Ghouta. Supposedly, this is a “smoking gun” connecting Syria’s stockpiles to the sarin used in Ghouta. The main objection raised so far to this theory is that Hexamine findings in the field could come from many sources, such as the rockets’ booster charge, and that Hexamine was never associated with sarin production – specifically, it is a well-known Mustard Gas stabilizer.

The new information:
  1. Ake Sellstrom was quoted as saying that Hexamine “is in their formula, it is their acid scavenger”.
  2. Dan Kaszeta has published on twitter a list of components found in US mustard gas containers, none of which contained Hexamine, decreasing the likelihood that Hexamine was used as a mustard gas stabilizer, and increasing the likelihood it was used for sarin.

Let’s examine these in detail.

Sellstrom’s Quote

There are three problems with this quote:
  1. Quotes by Mr. Sellstrom should be taken with a grain of salt, given the many manipulations detected in his first report. He has specifically made a misleading statement in the past claiming that sarin found in the field was of higher quality than Iraq’s, while omitting the fact that Iraq produced very low purity nerve agents.
  2. While the question did mention sarin, Sellstrom’s answer did not explicitly state Hexamine is used as an acid scavenger for sarin.
  3. In the December press conference (13:00) Sellstrom presented himself as having little understanding of this issue.

US Mustard Gas list

These lists originate from a study done on Mustard containers kept at Aberdeen, Maryland, and indeed do not list Hexamine.

However, Aberdeen has been developing chemical weapons since 1917, while Hexamine was discovered to be a Mustard Gas stabilizer only in 1945. It is therefore possible these batches were manufactured before Hexamine was used, and indeed, the chemical agents are described in the reports as partly solidified.

Whether or not this is the case, it should be noted that this is of little relevance to Syria. Syria started its program in the 1990s, at which time the use of Hexamine was already published in several patents, one of them explicitly states: “Hexamine [is] currently adopted as the official stabilizer for Levinstein mustard by the [United States] Chemical Warfare Service” (as detailed here, the patents also state this applies to distilled mustard / HD).

So whether or not the US has used Hexamine for this purpose, Syrian scientists had easy access to this information, and it is definitely likely they would make use of it.

Hexamine is Probably not a Mustard Stabilizer

Despite these two findings not being enough to discredit the theory that Hexamine was used to stabilize Mustard Gas, there is another problem with this theory: Syria has reported very large amounts of Hexamine (80 Tons). Since Hexamine is used as a Mustard stabilizer at 1% concentration, this would equate to 8000 Tons of Mustard Gas, while it seems like Syria reported only 400 Tons

I therefore no longer believe Mustard stabilization is the main purpose of Syria’s Hexamine.

So why is it there?

First, let’s examine Dan Kaszeta‘s theory that it is an additive to binary sarin intended to neutralize HF generated during the final stage. As discussed in the past, Isopropylamine is the well-documented additive for this purpose. It was the choice made in all known sarin programs, and there is likely a good reason they chose a chemical that is closely related to one of sarin’s immediate precursors (isopropanol).

There is no reason to think Syria made a different choice, especially when we know they declared 40 Tons of Isopropylamine. Furthermore, this amount matches the report of 120 Tons of Isopropanol, which is close to the ratio required for mixing OPA (the 28%:72% mix of Isopropylamine and Isopropanol that is used in binary sarin). 

If we are to accept Dan’s claim that Hexamine is more efficient than Isopropylamine (“can bind to as many as four HF molecules”), then 80 Tons should equate to a much larger amount of sarin than was reported.

We can therefore safely discredit this theory.

Hexamine Still far from a Smoking Gun

At this point, it is hard to say what the exact purpose was. Hexamine is used in many organic chemistry processes, and there is no way to know whether it was used for neutralizing by-products, for assisting in synthesis of precursors, or directly added to the final products. There is also no way to know whether its use was related to sarin, VX, or mustard, all of which produce acids in the process (e.g. Phosphorous acid for Mustard Gas).

Whatever it may be, it is definitely not a “smoking gun”. It can maybe be qualified as “weak circumstantial evidence”. 

Before it is remotely useful in determining culpability, all the following points must be proven:
  1. It was not intended for another purpose or for one of the other agents.
  2. It was used in a way that keeps significant amounts of it in the final product (i.e. detectable in the field samples).
  3. The Hexamine findings in the field originate from the sarin, and not from other sources such as the explosive booster charges. This is probably the weakest link in the chain, since the UN reported 3 Hexamine findings in sarin-negative areas, and several explosive-related findings in sarin-positive areas.
  4. The opposition doesn’t also use it in their sarin process. Especially difficult to prove since the opposition is assisted by many Army defectors. If the government found Hexamine to be useful, this could have easily leaked.
Clearly, there is still significant work ahead for anyone trying to use Hexamine as evidence for regime culpability.


The Big Picture

Since it’s been a long time since we examined the scenarios, and it is easy to get lost in the details, this seems like a good opportunity to remember the big picture: Despite many requests, no one was yet able to provide a regime-attack scenario that is consistent with all the evidence. The main issues that make such a scenario highly implausible are:
  1. Why was the attack carried out from a field near Irbin that is under opposition control, when the government possesses many long range chemical shells and rockets?
  2. Why was the sarin manufactured using basic chemicals?
  3. Why was a low-grade alcohol used in the process?
  4. Why was a low-quality rocket, originally designed as an incendiary weapon chosen?
  5. Why did they choose to attack a residential neighborhood behind the front lines for little military gain?
  6. Why didn’t Western intelligence sensors detect activity at Syria’s chemical sites prior to the attack?
  7. Why attack during the UN’s visit?
  8. Why invite the UN and then divert them from the Khan Al-Assal investigation, especially as we now know Khan Al-Assal  to be a sarin attack against Syrian soldiers and pro-government civilians? It would seem the government had a strong incentive to allow the UN to carry out this investigation and publish these findings.
  9. Is it pure coincidence that two more sarin attacks against Syrian soldiers occurred just a few days after the Ghouta attack, and in the same area?
  10. What are the Liwa Al-Islam launch videos? If they are fabricated, why make them so unusable for mass media, and why publish them long after the military threat was averted? Is the Liwa Al-Islam sarin video published before the Ghouta attack also a fabrication? For what purpose? 
(More details can be found on the conclusion page).

Claiming that these severe discrepancies are somehow outweighed by a finding of some multi-purpose chemical in the field and in Syria’s stockpiles, is highly speculative.

It is especially problematic when we know there is a solid opposition-attack hypothesis that is fully consistent with all the evidence, and the only objections raised against it so far are extremely weak, namely:
  1. We don’t have direct documentation of the opposition looting this specific version of the Volcano launcher.
    Weaknesses:
    • We do have documentation of the opposition using the smaller Volcano version.
    • The same claim is true for the government: There is no documentation of it using using this Volcano version (the incendiary/chemical).
    • This claim assumes the Liwa Al-Islam videos, which show the opposition using the chemical Volcano are fabricated.
  2. Despite ample evidence that the opposition is producing sarin, we don’t know the exact location of the opposition’s sarin production plant (sometimes ridiculed as “a giant secret plant”).
    Weaknesses:
    • As described here there is no need for a giant lab using today’s laboratory technologies.
    • The opposition is in control of vast areas of land. There is no reason to think we should be able to locate the plant.
    • We do have documentation of the opposition capturing a large chemical plant.


Conclusion: While it is possible that Syria used Hexamine in the sarin production process, and it is not impossible that the Hexamine findings in the field are related to sarin, this is only one of many plausible explanations, and therefore very far from being a “smoking gun”. Given the much stronger evidence indicative of an opposition attack, and the lack of any plausible regime-attack scenario, this evidence is of negligible value.

Jan 22, 2014

Analysis of the Second UN Report

If this is your first time here, I recommend starting from the conclusion page.

This post analyzes the UN's final report on the use of Chemical Weapons in Syria, published on December 12th, 2013.

The report, which covers seven separate attacks, spans 82 pages and contains a mix of evidence collected by the UN, evidence reported by the Syrian government, UN analysis and estimates, and procedural documentation. This post attempts to extract from it new findings, which may be relevant for inferring culpability for the August 21st attack.


Ghouta, August 21st


Given the multiple omissions and mistakes in the initial report of September 10th, the final report was widely anticipated to provide more information and clarifications. Particularly interesting issues were (a) whether the wrong trajectories reported would be corrected, (b) any conclusions that could be made from the many chemical by-products found in the scene, and (c) clarifications on the numerous discrepancies in the Moadamiyah site.

In that aspect the final report was a huge disappointment. The writers simply chose to sidestep the issues by stating that the September report “forms an integral part of this final report” and only provided some minor updates to the lab results. This leaves us with two possible explanations:
  1. The team had no new information to offer since the September report, despite the large amounts of raw data involved and its short time constraints.
  2. The team simply wished to avoid highlighting the many mistakes made in the first report, by pretending the objective of the final report was only to investigate new sites.


Khan Al Assal, March 19th


The fact that a chemical attack occurred was already known, but the report adds two interesting findings:
  1. Syrian soldiers were indeed attacked and the site was under Syrian government control at the time. These claims by the Syrian government were not widely accepted prior to the report.
  2. The agent was an organophosporous compound. This matches the Russian’s finding of sarin in soil samples, but was also not widely accepted, especially since some eyewitnesses reported a Chlorine smell.

It should be noted that the team did not visit the site to take samples due to security restrictions, so their conclusions were based on numerous interviews, which they felt were strong enough evidence (or as mentioned in the press conference: “the footprints in the society… were so obvious”).

The report does not offer any reliable evidence on the delivery method.

Judging by a map attached to the report, the lethal area seems to be 2 hectares (200x100m), which matches the death toll of 25 people. Based on US DoD models, this translates to 20 kg of sarin used.


Bahariyah, August 22nd


In this event, Syrian Army soldiers were attacked by improvised devices distributing a blue gas with a very bad odour. The symptoms reported by the soldiers are clearly indicative of some irritant and not a nerve agent, and their blood samples were negative for sarin (samples were taken by the hospital on the day of the attack, and by the UN a month later).


Jobar, August 24th


In this event, Syrian Army soldiers were attacked by an IED. The interesting findings:
  1. A sample taken by the UN team a month after the attack from one soldier tested positive for sarin exposure.
  2. All 4 samples taken on the day of the attack by the hospital were positive. This includes samples from 3 soldiers who tested negative by the UN. This is likely explained by the long time passed.
  3. The attack involved at least 4 IEDs of 4 liters each, which is 17.4 kg of sarin.

These findings are ground-breaking, as they show for the first time positive proof of a Syrian Army soldier being attacked by sarin. Combined with the evidence previously collected, it can now be ascertained with high certainty that the Syrian opposition possesses sarin.


Ashrafiya August 25th


In this event, Syrian Army soldiers were attacked by canisters launched by the opposition using catapults. One of them landed near a group of five soldiers and released a foul smelling smoke. They then experienced symptoms consistent with nerve-agent poisoning and were evacuated. The interesting findings:
  1. All 5 samples taken by the hospital on the day of the attack were positive for sarin.
  2. All 3 samples taken by the UN samples a month later were negative .
  3. One sample taken by the UN 5 days after the attack was negative.

Since we have both a government and a UN positive result in Jobar, and a match in the negative results provided by the government in Bahariyah, it is safe to trust the positive samples in this case and attribute the negative samples to the time passed.

However, the last finding raises an obvious question: Why was only one sample taken from the five injured soldiers? The astounding answer is hinted in the report:
"Biomedical sampling was performed on 30 August 2013 on selected patients… Due to technical problems during the sampling, only one blood sample was recovered”. 
The following points may help better understand this statement:
  1. The report goes to great lengths to describe the meticulous procedures used by the UN team to protect the integrity and authenticity of samples.
  2. The team did not report any procedural failures in the collection of samples from makeshift hospitals in the warzone, but only in this secure military hospital.
  3. The UN’s visit to the hospital was reported by the media, but for some reason was not mentioned in the September report - an omission which raised a few eyebrows at the time.
While previously there was some hope that the UN's multiple mistakes were somehow attributable to human error, this mess-up leaves us with the unavoidable distressing conclusion that someone within the UN team has been manipulating evidence. The blunt error in the Zamalka trajectory, the ridiculous analysis of the Moadamiyah “impact site”, and now the loss of blood samples cannot all be honest mistakes, especially when considering all three happen to contribute to the regime-attack theory.

This suspicion must be investigated to ensure this would never happen again. A first good step would be to pressure the UN to expose the full raw data (e.g. the raw GoPro recordings, and quantitative lab results).


Saraqeb 29 April


This case, along with a similar attack two weeks earlier, was extensively analyzed by Brown Moses here, here, and here.

According to the opposition sources quoted in the report a helicopter dropped an improvised weapon built from a cinder block with holes containing grenades whose safety pins were removed. When the block hits the ground and breaks, the levers detach and the grenades detonate. The sources claim the grenades contained tear gas and sarin.

Following the attack 13 victims were evacuated to Turkey, of which a 52 year old woman died, and the rest quickly recovered.

The new findings:
  1. Body parts taken from the woman in an autopsy tested positive for sarin exposure.
  2. A blood sample taken from the woman had low cholinesterase levels, which is consistent with nerve-agent poisoning, but also other conditions such as a heart attack.

To make this incident even more puzzling, here are a few more details to consider:
  1. Turkish doctors previously reported blood samples from all 13 patients tested negative for sarin, while France reported finding sarin in samples from this incident.
  2. According to this eyewitness report, other people were affected in the same location as the woman. However, the UN report states no one else exhibited severe symptoms.
  3. The grenades allegedly used in the attack are probably tear-gas or smoke grenades.
  4. The opposition has acknowledged using these grenades, stating they were seized from Syrian aremy depots.
  5. This was the only case (besides Ghouta) were the government accused the opposition of carrying a false-flag chemical attack (here and here).

So what happened in Saraqeb? The main scenarios to consider are:
  1. A government attack using an improvised device containing previously unheard-of sarin grenades. The amounts used were so low that it had lethal effects only when falling in close proximity to a 52 year-old woman, indicating the use of sarin had no military gain.
  2. The woman’s body was contaminated with sarin (or IMPA) in the Turkish morgue in an attempt to deceive the UN.
  3. The lab results were a false positive.
  4. A false-flag by the opposition, as claimed by the government.

None of these scenarios seem very plausible, leaving this incident a complete mystery. If anyone can make sense of it, please share your ideas.



Summary of Evidence


For the sake of clarity, here is the full evidence trail described above that links the opposition to the sarin attacks:

  1. In Jobar, a blood sample independently taken by the UN from a soldier tested positive for sarin.
  2. In Bahariyah, the only of the four opposition attacks that was not a sarin attack, the samples supplied by the hospital were also negative, indicating the government was not attempting to tamper with evidence.
  3. In Ashrafiya, the hospital provided 5 positive blood samples, which were confirmed to be from the attacked soldiers.
  4. In Khan Al Assal the UN team was convinced from interviews with the victims and medical personnel that an attack with an ogranophosphorus compound has occurred against soldiers and civilians. This adds to the sarin findings by the Russian investigation team.




Conclusions:
  1. The opposition attacked Syrian government soldiers and government-supporting civilians with sarin on three separate occasions.
  2. The opposition has access to at least tens of kg of sarin. This significantly increases the plausibility of them being able to obtain the hundreds of kg needed for the Ghouta attack – closing one of the main gaps in our current scenario.
  3. Elements within the UN team have likely manipulated evidence in attempt to incriminate the Syrian government.