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.
    • 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”).
    • 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.