Dec 21, 2013

Review of UN Press Conference

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

Before examining the findings of the full UN report published recently, I thought it would be interesting to review the press conference that accompanied it, which provides some interesting information.

The most interesting findings:

16:00 - While probably not too relevant anymore, Sellstrom makes a very significant statement distancing himself from the "trajectory intersection" theory, saying "The flight paths do not seem to meet as may be indicated in the report", and adds that a range of 2km for the UMLACA is "a fair guess".

9:30 and 17:10 - In these two questions Sellstrom is asked about the sarin's quality, referencing his early statement that hinted at high-quality sarin (which was of course interpreted to imply regime culpability). He seems to avoid the first question (9:30) by addressing only the recent incidents where samples were taken from blood and not from soil. The second question (17:10) is more direct, prompting the interesting and evasive response: “I tried to make some comment on the quality of sarin and I compared it to my experience in Iraq”, which seems like an attempt to downplay the original statement and undo its effect.

41:00 - Probably the most interesting finding. Here the panel is asked whether the munitions reported by Syria to the OPCW were related to those used in Ghouta. The response:
"I could say 'No Comment', but I will give you an answer: Not really, there’s no information that sheds light on what happened in Ghouta”.
To understand the significance of this statement it should be explained that the information provided by Syria to the OPCW is confidential and cannot be shared. Sellstrom therefore cannot answer the question directly, but his response heavily hints that UMLACAs were not reported as a Syrian chemical weapon, which is in line with the analysis that it is a repurposed incendiary rocket. Of course, other explanations are also plausible, such as the government secretly destroying a stockpile of chemical UMLACAs to avoid it being associated with the attack.
Update: This report claims that UMLACAs were indeed not reported to the OPCW, but does not provide direct evidence.

Overall, it is hard to miss the difference in attitude during this press conference compared to the spirit of the interim report. While in September the message was along the lines of "We're not allowed to tell you , but we all know who did it", the team is now much more cautious, clearly stating that the evidence is insufficient to implicate either side (39:00), and there is no "information that will stand in court" (43:30).

Update: This WSJ article about the UN report contains two interesting statements from Sellstrom: 
But Mr. Sellstrom said he believed both sides in the conflict had the "opportunity" and the "capability" to carry out chemical weapons attacks. Mr. Sellstrom had just arrived in Damascus to negotiate a visit to Khan al-Assal when the Aug. 21 attack occurred. He said one of his earliest reactions to the attack was that the Syrian government had to be stupid to pull it off with U.N. inspectors in town.
Did I miss anything? Please share your evidence and analysis and help improve the conclusions.

Dec 15, 2013

Hexamine is not the Smoking Gun

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

In his recent analysis, Dan Kaszeta provides some interesting chemical analysis of the recent UN report, and also suggests Hexamine could be the smoking gun of the Ghouta attack, going so far as describing it as "very damning evidence of government culpability".

The reasoning could be summarized as follows:
  1. Hexamine was reported by the OPCW as part of the Syrian chemical program. This implies it had a purpose in the program, rather than being used for explosives manufacturing etc.
  2. Hexamine can be used to bind the HF generated during the sarin binary process.
  3. No one else is known to use Hexamine for this purpose.
  4. Hexamine was found in multiple samples taken by the UN in Ghouta (both Zamalka and Moadamiyah).
  5. It is unlikely the opposition will choose the same HF binding chemical as the government, implying government culpability.
I believe there is a much more plausible explanation for these findings:
  1. As Dan notes, the standard chemical for binding HF in the sarin binary process is isopropylamine. It was used by the US for this purpose, it was declared by the OPCW (in the same report), and it was ordered by Al-Nusra in Turkey. There is no reason to believe Syria decided to replace it with Hexamine.
  2. So why was it part of Syria's chemical program? This is easily explained when remembering Syria produced not only sarin, but also mustard gas. Hexamine is a well-known stabilizer for mustard gas, discovered in 1945 and adopted by the US Army's Chemical Warfare Service.
  3. Which now requires us to explain the Hexamine findings in the field. These are not surprising given the many uses and high accessibility of Hexamine. Specifically of interest are its uses in explosives (which were used to disperse the sarin) and as heating tablets for camping stoves, which are probably widely used in these neighborhoods under siege.
    This conclusion is further strengthened when considering that (a) Hexamine was reported in several samples that did not contain any indications of sarin, and (b) some samples contained other explosive-related chemicals such as TNT and trinitro triazine.


Dan Kaszeta has referred me to this US Army publication, which states on page II-38 that "a small amount of degradation occurs when stored in steel ton containers for over 50 years". It should be noted this refers to the pure form of mustard gas (HD), which is different than the Levinstein Mustard (H) mentioned in the patent above (70% purity). Dan claims H is an obsolete agent, and since "pure HD is quite stable on its own", Hexamine could not be a mustard gas stabilizer, as previously claimed.

This is an important correction which requires revisiting the analysis.

First, we should confirm that Syria indeed stores HD and not H. There is no direct evidence that this is the case, but given that Iraq's inferior program reached purity levels of 90-95%, it is fair to assume Syria does have HD.

Second, we need to confirm that HD does not require stabilizers. The above US Army publication seems to imply it doesn't, but this one states "The stability of Levinstein mustard which has been purified by various methods is also improved by the addition of 1 per cent hexamine" (p. 42), and this patent discusses methods of stabilizing HD, stating "mustard gas thus purified still corrodes steel containers and the corrosion rate is fairly rapid at temperatures in the range of 110F. to 150F". Additionally, when considering that "pure" HD is actually only 96% pure, it makes sense that while it should degrade slower it might still need some stabilization.

Trying to settle this discrepancy I looked into the sources of the first publication and found the most significant one to be this research, which I could not find in full. However, according to its summary it is based on samples taken from US stockpiles held for 50 years. Obviously, these stocks were intended for long-term storage, which according to the other sources contain stabilizers. 

So apparently, the low degradation findings refer to the actual final product (containing Hexamine), and not the hypothetical chemical. 

While investigating this issue, I also found this interesting quote (here): 
"Regardless of the exact reasons for the instability of Levinstein mustard, the problem is fully recognized and is extremely serious during time of war and national emergency when it becomes necessary to build up a very great strategic reserve of this chemical warfare agent in contemplation of the fact that chemical warfare may, at any time, be resorted to."
This brings up another option: That the Hexamine in Syria's stockpile was intended for emergency production of large amounts of H. Since HD's advantage over H is in storage and not in battlefield use, this is a very plausible scenario.

Finally, Dan's response still fails to explain why Hexamine was found in the sarin-negative samples.

As a more general claim: Hexamine seems to have multiple uses in chemical warfare and multiple reasons to be found in the field samples (see many more here). Correlating the two is impossible before meticulously striking off all the alternative causes.

Conclusion: The Hexamine findings in the impact sites are not indicative of Syrian government culpability as they are not reliably linked to the Hexamine from Syria's chemical stockpiles.

Did I miss anything? Please share your evidence and analysis and help improve the conclusions.

Dec 8, 2013

Review of Seymour Hersh's LRB Piece

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

The London Review of Books published today a long piece by Seymour Hersh analyzing the intelligence surrounding the August 21st attack. In this post I'll review the main points raised in the article.

Sensors around chemical weapons sites were not triggered prior to the attack
The article doesn't provide any firm evidence that supports this, but it does provide some circumstantial evidence (when they were triggered in December Obama issued a warning, while no such warning was issued in August), and it's reasonable to assume such an early warning system exists.
Since we already know the sarin was probably not from the government's stockpile, and that the rockets were not standard chemical rockets, this new observation makes perfect sense but does not change the picture significantly. In other words, even if this attack was somehow carried out by the regime, it used non-standard weaponry and should not have triggered the alarm.

The US evidence relating to personnel movements and military orders was cherry picked in hind sight.
This again makes perfect sense. There are probably millions of data points collected every day from Syria, which cannot be analyzed in real time. It's safe to assume that following the attack this data was analyzed in retrospect. The fact that despite this effort, the only evidence presented by the US was very weak and circumstantial, is a strong testimony to cherry-picking. Actually, the fact that nothing incriminating wasn't found in all these sources is strong probabilistic evidence that the regime was not involved. This is analyzed in detail here.

The 330 mm rocket (aka UMLACA) is an improvised munition, implying it is not related to the government.
Here Seymour is of course out of touch with the current research at Brown Moses and WhoGhouta, which clearly indicates that the rocket was developed for the Syrian Army, probably to fit its special needs in short-range urban warfare.
However, this in itself is a weak indication of government involvement, since most of the opposition's heavy weaponry has been looted from Army depots.

The rocket's range is less than 2 km, indicating the NY Times report claiming the attack came from an Army base 9 km away is incorrect.
This was already established here three months ago. However, he does say this range estimate was based on "a thorough study", so unless this refers to the WhoGhouta research, it gives yet more credibility to our range estimate.

US Intelligence estimates the opposition has the capability to acquire and use sarin.
This is in line with our analysis, and while no additional hard evidence is provided, his quotes from intelligence sources seem reliable.

Summary: While Hersh does not provide significant new evidence, his quotes from intelligence sources are in line with many of our findings, and his analysis provides much-needed counterweight to the many erroneous reports in the media.

Dec 2, 2013

Response to New Brown Moses Theory

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

In his latest blog post, Brown Moses has updated two key points in his analysis of the August 21st attack:

  1. Following the recent UMLACA video, and after consulting with warhead expert Richard Lloyd, he estimates the UMLACA range at 2.5 km, which is consistent with our findings.
    Although Brown Moses has never officially claimed a longer range, his original analysis assumed a range of 6-8 km to army sites (more details here). 
  2. He decided to replace his own trajectory analysis (pointing North) with those reported by the UN and Al Jazeera (West to North-West).

These updates are substantial in two aspects:

  1. So far the WhoGhouta blog was the only source to claim the 2.5 km range. Having a warhead expert and the leading blogger on Syria issue a similar estimate lends much-needed credibility to this number.
  2. This officially refutes the HRW "trajectory intersection" theory (also published in the NY Times), which was probably the main rationale for regime culpability in Western public opinion.

While those of us who know the details, have long ignored this theory, we should remember the mainstream understanding is still heavily based on this kind of discredited evidence. So whether or not Brown Moses' updates indicate opposition culpability (he argues they do not), it is important that HRW and the Times be aware of these developments, and be allowed to correct their reports. If anyone has relevant connections, feel free to use them and let us know their response. Ideally, this would be done by Brown Moses himself.
Just to clarify: Brown Moses has never supported this theory, and based his support of government culpability on his (much more reliable) analysis of the munitions used.

As to the analysis itself, I believe it suffers from two weak points:


Brown Moses decided to replace his own trajectory analysis with those reported by the UN and Al Jazeera, which are both highly unreliable:

  1. UN Trajectory - Normally, a UN report would always be the preferable source of information when available, but in this case their error is so obvious and easy to verify that it can't be used. Any theory relying on the UN azimuth must explain why this analysis of impact site 1 is wrong. Such strong evidence cannot be simply ignored.
  2. Al Jazeera trajectories - Unlike the UN, Al-Jazeera are not a reliable source for the Syrian conflict. They are owned by the government of Qatar and have shown strong pro-opposition bias. Since they don't provide any evidence on how the azimuths were calculated we cannot use their data.
    An example of their low standards is evident when they claim a 5-10 km range for the UMLACA - a number which they do not explain, we know to be wrong, and seems to have been arbitrarily chosen so it matches army positions.
We have three strong indications of a northern source for the Zamalka attack. There is currently no other reliable evidence to support a different trajectory.

Control of Qaboun

The impression from watching the Qaboun videos is clearly of an area that is not under firm government control. Movements in open areas are done by armored vehicles, with troops mostly operating under cover.

However, an UMLACA launch is a complex operation involving two trucks and multiple people operating in the open. In all UMLACA launches documented so far we see troops comfortably operating around the launcher unprotected. It just doesn't seem to be intended for front-line operation.

More analysis on the status of Qaboun on August 21st is ongoing and will be updated here.

Update: In the comments below Amund Hesbol analyzed news reports from Qaboun to build a map of the front line. It is still work in progress, but seems to indicate the positions suggest by Brown Moses are under rebel control.

Update 2: Charles Wood prepared a map of ranges from the launch location proposed by Brown Moses. It indicates that the farthest impact sites may be beyond UMLACA range. However, it should be noted that except for sites marked UN-1 and UN-2, these were reported to HRW by local activists and were not independently verified.

Update 3: Charles Wood went through numerous videos from this channel, and concluded the following.
"With absolute certainty all Government positions between Fares al Khouri in Jobar and 6th Tishreen South of Qabon were under sustained insurgent attack in the lead-up to August 21 and afterwards. By sustained attack, I include mortaring and sniping from positions overlooking the army base. e.g. sniping"

Last, the new theory doesn't explain why the government chose to use low quality sarin and a low-quality chemical weapon instead of the weapons they acquired and tested over the many years of their chemical program.

Conclusion: While Brown Moses' new theory addresses the UMLACA range problem, it raises other issues which make it an unlikely explanation of the August 21st attack.