After examining the evidence presented so far to support the regime attack theory, I will now examine evidence contradicting it.
The Mint Press StoryThis story, which received wide attention, contains excerpts from interviews with three rebel sources and claims the Ghouta poisoning was a result of an accidental explosion that released chemical agents brought from Saudi Arabia.
Even if we ignore the mini-scandal surrounding its publication, this report raises some serious doubts:
- The quotes seem to indicate aggressive cherry picking, with very short excerpts followed by extensive commentary.
- When read alone, the quotes only tell the story of unidentified munitions received from Saudi Arabia which were handled improperly and exploded.
- The first quote implying chemical weapons mentions the weapons as containing: "a huge gas bottle". This is not indicative of a chemical weapon. Gas containers are specifically known to be used as regular explosive charges.
- The second (and last) quote implying chemical weapons is “We didn’t know they were chemical weapons. We never imagined they were chemical weapons”. This is mentioned in a context that implies that the weapons were later revealed to be chemical, but when examined by itself there is no indication that this was indeed the original context.
- The only location information given is 'Ghouta', which includes areas very far from the chemical attack in Zamalka.
- Eyewitnesses consistently report multiple rockets hitting the area immediately before the poisoning, which does not match the single explosion story.
So until other evidence emerges it seems like this story does not provide any evidence contradicting a regime attack.
Liwa Al-Islam VideosThese videos published September 16th show militants shooting one shell from a Howitzer canon, and three UMLACA rockets. One UMLACA is clearly identifiable by its distinctive tail in one video, and it is launched from a truck-mounted launcher similar to that used in previous documented UMLACA launches. In another video the tails of the two other UMLACAs are hidden but when filmed from a distance just before launch they can be seen. Additionally, they are launched from the same vehicle as the first UMLACA, and are referred by the same name ('Ababil'). The UMLACA's distinctive oversized warhead is not seen in either video, since it is inside the launcher, which is the standard case seen in previous documented UMLACA launches (Credit: Petri Krohn and Anonymous for analyzing the videos)
The cameraman says they are Liwa Al-Islam fighters targeting Assad troops in Jobar and Qaboun. He gives the date of August 21st (the date of the attack) and calls the operation "Reeh Sarsar", a term used in another video in the context of rebel chemical threats. See significant screenshots here and here (credit: Anita Hunt and Petri Krohn).
Naturally, such an incriminating video is immediately suspected as Psychological Warfare, and indeed many issues regarding its reliability were pointed out. Let's examine them one by one:
- Dark images on a full moon night
Anaylsis: This is obviously a low quality camera, possibly a mobile phone. It would not be able to capture reflected moonlight.
- Overemphasis of incriminating evidence such as Liwa Al-Islam mentions, Liwa Al-Islam flags, the UMLACA and the date.
Analysis: This does indeed seem to be the case, although it could be a coincidence.
Update: This video uploaded August 21st shows a similar pattern including a description of the operation (attack of Assad's hometown), many Liwa Al-Islam mentions, and Liwa Al-Islam flags. They obviously like pushing the flag in the videos (as proof of responsibility? to convince sponsors?). At 1:05 they actually have someone stand with a flag in front of a launcher...
- No Liwa Al-Islam logo on the video, as on most of their published videos
Anaylsis: Irrelevant as this was reportedly downloaded from the cell phone of a dead militant.
- Liwa Al-Islam don't hang flags on their weaponry
Anaylsis: Generally true, although there seem to be exceptions, such as this video at time 2:12. As mentioned above, they seem to want to have their flags shown during operations, and this could have been the only way to do it in this setting.
- No sign of the BM-14 launcher linked to the chemical attack
Anaylsis: The M14 rocket is probably not related to any chemical attack. In any case this is not relevant as it could have been launched and not videoed, or launched by a different unit.
- Uploaded by new YouTube and LiveLeak accounts, as was done for the previous video mentioning "Reeh Sarsar"
Anaylsis: As with item 3, not relevant as this is not an official video.
As a side note, I do not attribute much weight to the mention of "Reeh Sarsar". It is a term from the Quran describing wind sent by god to punish infidels, and is therefore likely to be used in many contexts.
Liwa Al-Islam also published a denial, which added the following points:
- Only the regime has Howitzer artillery
- The Howitzer does not have chemical warheads
Anaylsis: Irrelevant, as the chemical weapon is the UMLACA
- Only the regime has chemical weapons
- Liwa Al-Islam had casualties in the attack
Anaylsis: Interesting if true.
- The flag has Liwa Al-Islam written in a strange way. Screenshot:
Anaylsis: This is very interesting. I indeed could not find this flag ever being used by Liwa Al-Islam, but this led me to a more interesting find. The flag in the videos is actually Jabhat Al-Nusra's flag with the words "Jabhat Al-Nusra" replaced with "Liwa Al-Islam". I currently can't find any good explanation for this.
Analysis: I initially thought this was indeed not the Liwa Al-Islam flag, but following a comment from CE below, I found several recent videos (also here and here) showing flags similar to the one in the video. None are identical to the one above, but the high variability indicates there is nothing "strange" about it specifically. I assume further research will eventually find an identical flag - feel free to help.
A few screenshots:
These flags (above) don't have a good screenshot.
They are better seen in the video at 3:55.
They are better seen in the video at 3:55.
- A journalist with connections with Kurdish groups could not find any confirmation of the story that these videos were found by Kurdish fighters.
Analysis: Definitely interesting, but hard to evaluate without knowing the journalist's connections. In any case, it is very possible that the story behind the finding of the video is incorrect. If it is not fabricated, then it was most likely forwarded between close acquaintances as a "you won't believe what I just got" story, and there is no knowing how it leaked.
- Everyone but the cameraman was wearing a gas mask.
Analysis: While not seen in the video, the audio does seem to indicate so. Indeed suspicious, but a reasonable scenario can be imagined: There's probably no real exposure risk as the rockets were sealed beforehand, and it's just standard procedure to wear masks for precaution. The cameraman took his mask off in order to narrate the video and keeps it close by. He might also be a commander showing off ("you wear your masks, but i'm not afraid").
- People were wearing gas masks, but also short sleeves that exposed their skin, which would readily absorb any sarin in the air.
Analysis: Sarin requires much higher concentrations to cause damage through contact with skin. Protection by gas masks alone is standard.
- Why would they do an operation under the cover of darkness, only to light up the launcher with a big spotlight that would make it stand out for miles around?
Analysis: Nothing in the video indicates this is done under cover of darkness. It just happens to be a night operation since the regime chose to attack at night. They could well be within rebel held territory, not attempting to hide. In any case, it is near impossible to hide while launching rockets..
- In the Storyful newsroom Brown Moses also pointed to the fact that the videos were published on the same day as the UN report.
Analysis: I don't think this is a strong enough coincidence to be considered. The fact that the videos were published long after the risk of military intervention subsided is a much stronger indication of their authenticity.
- The attacks in the videos target Qaboun and Jobar, while the chemical attack was in Zamalka. Specifically, one UMLACA launch is said to be targeting Qaboun, which was never considered part of the area affected by the chemical attack (even when it was mistakenly thought to cover most of East Ghouta).
- The attacks in the videos target regime forces, while the August 21st attacks seem like a deliberate attack on residential areas behind front lines.
So what are these videos? It's still hard to tell, but here are a few options to consider:
- A real video showing the chemical attack on Zamalka
Analysis: Unlikely. (a) The target locations are incorrect, (b) Why would people in the process of carrying a complex large-scale chemical warfare operation be bothered with shooting a Howitzer?
- A real video from the day of the attack, just not the one on Zamalka (and possibly not even chemical)
Analysis: Very possible. This seems like the only explanation that fits the evidence well (in the case of a non-chemical attack, the gas masks may be explained as protection from regime attacks). It also fits surprisingly well to the estimated launch source, with Qaboun and Jobar covered well by a 2.5 km range. Evidence of UMLACAs falling in Jobar and Qaboun would be of great help. Anyone?
- Fabrication by RegimeAnalysis: Possible, although it would make for a very weird fabrication job: (a) Why publish this when a diplomatic solution is being negotiated and not earlier when military intervention seemed imminent? (b) Why show the Howitzer which no one connected to a chemical attack before, yet not show an M14 launcher? (c) Why describe an attack on the wrong targets when the regime's official story was a rebel false flag? (d) Why use such low quality video making it unusable for mass media? (e) Why put so much emphasis on Liwa Al Islam being responsible, but not give clear indications that this is a chemical attack (e.g. mention sarin like in this video)?
- Fabrication by a competing rebel faction to implicate Liwa Al-Islam Analysis: Possible. While this fits the evidence well (low quality work, access to weaponry), the motivation is problematic: If the videos had succeeded in convincing the world, it would save the regime from an international attack. This seems to far outweigh the benefits of smearing another faction.
The ISTEAMS / Mother Agnes ReportThis report mostly analyzes videos from the event and attempts to show they were staged. As it doesn't seem anyone takes this claim seriously, I will not perform a full analysis of the report, and just give my general impression:
The writers go through great efforts to point out any detail in the videos that may somehow be interpreted as abnormal, despite many other reasonable explanations. All the evidence may easily be explained as the behavior of thousands of people in panic and pain.
It additionally claims that the victims of the attack were Latakia residents taken hostage by Al-Nusra. This claim can be easily refuted: Survivors of the attack don't claim to be from Latakia, and there is no way the attack was able to just kill the hostages while leaving so many others alive and with sarin symptoms.
The Quirico-Piccinin StoryHostages held in captivity by rebels reported hearing a skype call in which their captors said the chemical attack was a rebel provocation and death toll reports were exaggerated.
As with the US's 'senior official' call, and Germany's Hezballa-Iran call, it is difficult to assess the weight of this evidence without access to a recording or transcript. Specifically, speakers speculating about the source of the attack may easily be misunderstood as displaying actual knowledge.
From a probabilistic perspective: If the chemical attack was a provocation, you would expect it to be highly confidential and known to very few people. On the other hand, everyone in Syria and their mother would be discussing who is behind it, and rumors would travel all over the place. The probability that the hostages happened to hear an English skype call of the first kind and not just misinterpret the second kind is very low. When considering that the witnesses are not native English speakers and one of them specifically expressed such doubts, it is clear this evidence has no value.
Nevertheless, it is very interesting to note that senior opposition officers consider a false-flag as the likely explanation, and don't trust the death toll number.
Update: In the comments below several contributors have shown that Piccinin has strong English comprehension, and that in later interviews he described the conversation in a manner that suggests it was not misinterpreted.
However, since Quirico does not seem to agree, and we should be extra careful with evidence coming from a single source that may be interested in a certain outcome (e.g. the Al-Saket story), I will take the cautious route and keep this evidence out of the final analysis.
Jobar ChemicalsAccording to this report, upon entering Jobar a few days after the chemical attacks, the Syrian Army found materials and a laboratory for chemical weapons (Video1, Video2).
In a close examination of the videos the only relevant items I could see are the gas masks, atropine injectors and Caustic Soda (Lye) bags from Saudi Arabia. The first two could be explained as protection against external attacks and Lye has too many applications to be associated with anything specific. So unless anyone sees anything else interesting there, this does not seem to be of value.
Update: The final UN report provided a description of sarin IEDs used in the attack, which matched two items seen in the videos. This strongly indicates the location was indeed used for storing chemical weapons. Full details here.
My conclusions at this point:
- The Mint Press, ISTEAMS, Quirico-Piccinin and Jobar Chemicals reports are of no value.
- The Liwa Al-Islam videos cannot be easily dismissed as fabrication, and if so would be of immense value, but further analysis is still required.
Did I miss anything? Please share your evidence and analysis and help me improve my conclusions.