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 army depots.
  5. This was the only case (besides Ghouta) where 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.

  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.


  1. So in fact we have just one case tested positive for sarin (who took the samples in the case samples taken just days after attack in the local hospital(s)? let me quess...) and obviously we have false-flag and contamination scenarios with syrian army attack, Insurgents play their game, but the Syrian government does'nt....

    1. Not at all. The evidence in the opposition attacks is strong and consistent. The UN sample is just something that's easy to understand and rely on, but it's not the only evidence. On the other hand, the Saraqeb attack is a mess of contradicting evidence and claims.

      If you can provide a plausible alternative scenario that explains the evidence in the three opposition attacks, I will gladly publish it.

  2. There's no doubt that the blood samples taken at the time of the Jobar and Ashrafiya attacks attack in Syria military hospitals and the blood samples taken one month later under UN supervision were from the same individuals as the DNA was matched.

    So why did only one of the seven blood samples taken a month later confirm the result obtained on the initial blood sample?

    1. The UN labs appear to have used only the test for sarin-BChE adduct (fluoride ion regeneration). The half-life of BChE is about 11 days, so an eight-fold fall in concentration is expected. For sampling after an interval, a test for IMPA-albumin adduct should have been used also. The half-life of albumin is about 20 days so this test should be able to detect sarin explosure at least six weeks after exposure. We wouldn't want to rely only on the IMPA-albumin adduct test as it's easily faked, but in these individuals we already have a positive sarin-BChE adduct test which is hard to fake without real sarin.

    2. The limits of detection of the assays used in each lab are not given. In lab 2 , 3 of 5 whole blood sample results from Ashrafiya are reported as "not available", "poor recovery of internal standard indicate high limit of detection for Sarin" - in other words they couldn't detect the adduct even in a specimen that had been spiked with it.

    It's clear that the UN team didn't exactly try hard to establish whether sarin exposure could be confirmed in the follow-up samples. It would be reasonable for the Syrian government to insist that the stored samples from these seven individuals are tested in other labs.

    Five patients exposed to the Ashrafiya attack were interviewed in Martyr Yusuf Al Azmah Military Hospital on 30 August: "Based on the interviews and its evaluation of the cases, the United Nations Mission selected the two most severe cases for sampling." Then later we're told that "Due to technical problems during the sampling, only one blood sample was recovered". Again they seem not to have been trying very hard, even though the medical records were clearly consistent with organophosphorus exposure. There should be a record somewhere of who decided that only two of five patients should have blood sampling

    1. Thank you pmr9. Very interesting analysis.

  3. We discussed the 29 April Saraqeb incident a few months ago on this page http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/Talk:Alleged_Chemical_Attack,_April_29,_2013, but couldn't make much sense of it. The UN report helps to bring together some of the threads

    This is the only episode on which we have a quantitative lab result, via Le Monde (http://www.lemonde.fr/proche-orient/article/2013/06/04/laurent-fabius-confirme-l-utilisation-de-gaz-sarin-en-syrie_3424140_3218.html) “The samples taken after the attack by a government helicopter in Saraqeb on 29 April are even more convincing. The metabolite of sarin has been identified in the urine of one victim, and regenerated sarin (that is to say in a pure state) in the blood of two other victims, in one case at raised concentration (9.5 ng/ml). ” The samples from Saraqeb were from five victims of whom one has died. They were taken by the care team of a hospital in the Idlib region and transmitted to French services on 4 May, before arriving at the laboratory on 9 May.
    Le Monde has some information about test results on the Saraqeb samples (http://www.lemonde.fr/proche-orient/article/2013/06/04/laurent-fabius-confirme-l-utilisation-de-gaz-sarin-en-syrie_3424140_3218.html)
    In return for helping to bring sample from an earlier incident in Jobar, they were given access to the lab at Bouchet. They reported that “The samples taken after the attack by a government helicopter in Saraqeb on 29 April are even more convincing. The metabolite of sarin has been identified in the urine of one victim, and regenerated sarin (that is to say in a pure state) in the blood of two other victims, in one case at raised concentration (9.5 ng/ml).” The samples from Saraqeb were from five victims of whom one has died. They were taken by the care team of a hospital in the Idlib region and transmitted to French services on 4 May, before arriving at the laboratory on 9 May."

    The level of 9.2 ng/ml in the fluoride ion regeneration test would almost certainly be lethal(80% saturation of the receptor, more than twice the maximum level recorded in any of the Japanese victims). Presumably this is Mariam al-Khatib, the 52-year old women who died in the ambulance. I had earlier found it hard to understand how with such a high dose of sarin she could have been stable enough to be transported by ambulance. The UN report tells us however that she was unconscious on arrival at the local hospital, had to be resuscitated with intubation and respiratory support, and never regained consciousness.

    From the UN report it's clear that the doctors' decision (possibly under duress) to transfer the casualties to Turkey by ambulance was not based on medical need. Mariam Al-Khatib was in critical condition and should not have been transferred at all . The others were not seriously ill.

    On 23 May Hannah Lucinda Smith reported for Asharq Al-Awsat an interview with Dr Mohammed Walid Tamer in Saraqeb, who represented himself as one of the medical staff treating the victims. He appeared certain that sarin had been used, though this was before any test results had been released.

    The most likely explanation for this incident was that the insurgents released a small quantity of sarin in order to get civilian victims to a Turkish hospital where blood and urine samples could be taken from them to be tested for sarin in French and UK government labs. This would allow these governments to assert (as they did) that they now had unequivocal evidence that the Syrian regime was using sarin and that the red line had been crossed.

  4. In my very best cherry picking mode...

    "it is misleading to use trajectories to try and find the focal point of the trajectory
    as they are only travelling a kilometre or something like that. "

    Ake Sellstrom


    1. Ake Sellstrom? Wasn't he the guy that published that amateurish inspection report with that connect-the-dots sample thing? The Nobel Prize-winning OPCW measured those trajectories to within a degree of precision and now Sellstrom says using those measurements is misleading?

      I wouldn't let a freshman get by with a D+ on that report even if his uncle was on the board of trustees. But then, Ol' Ake never did publish the report to impress the little people. It was to fit the inspection findings into the framework handed to him by his bosses. I have to admit it was a good fit. The result was just a big nothing sandwich with a side of imply.

    2. Interesting....

      "There were three
      hospitals, we visited two of them, and
      the figures that they presented of people
      who passed through them was just not
      possible. We saw the capability of those
      hospitals and it is impossible that they
      could have turned over the amount of
      people that they claim they did" ...

    3. @LK - I don't think anyone fully believes the Local Coordination Committee stories.

      The Syrian national sport seems to be lying and exaggeration.

      Also, as I posted earlier, I have serious doubts of any Sarin in Moadimiyah. The gas would have drifted over Mezzeh suburb and affected a lot of foreign diplomats. There are no such reports - indicating it very likely didn't happen.

    4. Charles, I would really like to post something on the moadamiyah wind thing. You can even send me just the explanations of how it's done, and i'll write it down.

  5. Wouldn´t it be interesting to bring all geolocated evidence concerning impact locations, hospitals, graveyards, morgues, Liwa videos on Charles´chemical dispersal map? (sources: your info, Petri´s, Br M...) Maybe some new insights will result out of it. A ´summary geolocation page´ would be nice...

    1. Sounds like a good idea, but would require more time than i can spare these days. If anyone else wants to do it I'll gladly publish.

  6. I cant wait untill you stop chasing rubber ducks and make map not of some dud Vulcanos (that are not designed or good for delivering CW) decoy impact sites and trajectories but map of gas poisoned areas and hotspots.

    I bet you will see that they are down some one main road and hotspots at the deadends on side roads from it...

    1. This is a collaborative effort. You don't have to wait for me to do anything. Feel free to upload what you have, and we'll discuss it together.

  7. I'm a little surprised that no one here has commented on the interview Ake Sekkstrom gave earlier this month about the Syrian chemical attacks. I have posted the URL below, and cut and pasted the part where he dismisses the idea that the rebels were possibly behind the Ghouta chemical attacks.



    GW: The case against the rebels using CW is generally poor, with a variety of unsubstantiated claims and circumstantial evidence. Often clinical signs and symptoms are missing. The one exception to this seems to be Khan Al Asal. What did you find that lifted it out of the rest?

    Ake Sellstrom: Regarding the first issue [opposition CWA attacks], I fully agree. If you try the theory that it was the opposition that did it, it is difficult to see how it was weaponised. Several times I asked the government: can you explain – if this was the opposition – how did they get hold of the chemical weapons? They have quite poor theories: they talk about smuggling through Turkey, labs in Iraq and I asked them, pointedly, what about your own stores, have your own stores being stripped of anything, have you dropped a bomb that has been claimed, bombs that
    can be recovered by the opposition? They denied that. To me it is strange. If they really want to blame the opposition they should have a good story as to how they got hold of the munitions, and they didn’t take the chance to deliver that story.

    When we come to Khan al Asal, there are two witness statements on how this happened: one is that it is rockets and the other is that it is friendly fire from a Syrian fighter jet. The interesting thing about those two stories is that the Syrian fighter pilot is missing. It is logical, if you do friendly fire as a pilot you would rather go missing than get caught, or this is your last flight and you are going to work for the opposition then you do something. It is difficult to interpret the witness statements, what do they mean? It is an interesting case as the government were the first ones to do a real investigation and they invited the Russians, and then us, to do an investigation. The only reason we are not allowed to go there is that because we ask to go to Homs and other places, and the Syrians say, ‘Stop it, stop it. We asked you to come to Khan Al Asal, we didn’t
    ask you to come to Homs, or any other place. You are welcome to Khan al Asal,
    you are not welcome to any other place. We don’t want an Iraq in Syria.’ So there was a background that makes you believe that maybe, just maybe, that the government was right.

    1. It was discussed in several comments, with no significant findings. These are unsubstantiated speculations by a person with a very problematic record.

  8. Good to see that the collaborative effort is ongoing, you guys have been great at picking this apart and highlight the many inconsistencies in the "official" narratives. Thanks. Hopefully the truth will prevail so that decisions can be made on objective data.

    It is sad to see the amount of polarization going on regarding this. The world is not black and white, it never was. Arguing that A is bad does not necessarily mean that B is good. What matters is that the responsible are held accountable and that any stands taken are rational.

    By the looks of it, a WhoMaidan might come in handy soon. There are truly enormous amounts of disinformation surrounding that at present, and the usual suspects are trumpeting it all far and wide.