Nov 2, 2015

Review of Turkish MPs Allegations

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

Recently two Turkish opposition MPs have claimed their government was avoiding investigating the attempted purchase of chemicals for production of sarin by Al-Nusra operatives. Their claims may be found here and here. Our previous discussion of this case can be found here

They provide no evidence for their claim that ex-minister of Justice, Bekir Bozdag ordered not to prosecute the case, but it is definitely not unlikely given Turkey’s support of the Syrian opposition and the lack of any official reason for closing the case.

They do however provide a transcript of an intercepted phone call from the case. This was so far only published in Turkish, so I ordered a translation, which is provided in the appendix below. The call itself does not provide any significant new information, except for the amounts of chemicals (50kg and 200kg), which were not mentioned before. This is yet another indication that the opposition was involved in sarin production in the scale necessary for the Ghouta attack.

Review of Dan Kaszeta’s analysis

Dan Kaszeta also analyzed these reports on bellingcat. Following is a review of his main claims:

The ‘recipe’ is wrong in several aspects

This claim is based on the assumption that the recipe was obtained from the suspects, which is probably due to Kaszeta’s use of an automatic translation of the article. As can be seen in the actual translation, the recipe was reverse engineered by the Turkish Police from the list of ingredients, and it is not surprising they got some of it wrong.
In fact, the list of ingredients (which is the only actual evidence we have) is an exact match to the trivial sarin production process one could generate by going to ‘sarin’ in Wikipedia, and clicking back through the preparation instructions. This is also nearly exactly the same process used by Aum Shinrikyo, which is publicly available (see appendix here).
So in fact, the list of ingredients is exactly what one would expect in underground sarin production. Especially interesting is the use of basic chemicals like white phosphorous (instead of procuring Dimethyl methylphosphonate directly for example), which is indicative of an organization trying to avoid detection by authorities, and also perfectly matches the impurities found by the UN (more here

Sarin production requires very expensive equipment

This claim was analyzed thoroughly here. The examples Dan gives are for facilities designed for 1) production of thousands of tons of agent, 2) at very high safety standards, and 3) for long-term storage (rather than immediate use). There is no reason to believe the opposition could not manufacture the hundreds of kg needed for the Ghouta attack at a reasonable budget.

Isopropanolamine is an unlikely amine for the last stage in sarin production

This is definitely correct. Isopropylamine is the well-known amine for this purpose. However, given that the other ingredients are a perfect match to the commonly found sarin process (which always uses Isopropylamine), this can be safely attributed to human error at some stage in the chain of reporting. In fact, I myself didn’t notice they declared Isopropanolamine and not Isopropylamine until Dan pointed it out.
Kaszeta also takes the opportunity to repeat the claim that Hexamine was used in the Ghouta sarin, despite the new evidence that Hexamine is not soluble in alcohols, making it ineffective for this purpose. More on Hexamine here.

The amount mentioned (50kg) is too small for the Ghouta attack, which required at least 1 ton

1. As shown here (under “Analysis of Amount of Sarin used“), Dan’s analysis of the amount of sarin used in Ghouta was based on a simple miscalculation. The actual amount is likely a few hundred kg.
2. It would be naive to assume that in the only case where the opposition tried to obtain sarin, they were caught.

Appendix – Translation of Cumhuriyet Article

Sarin Recipe Revealed by Prosecutor!

Eren Erdem, CHP Istanbul Deputy, who recently brought back to headlines the shipment of chemical weapons from Turkey to ISIS, now claims that ex-minister of justice, Bekir Bozdag, has ordered the prosecutor not to investigate ‘Islamic oriented organizations’, causing the MIT to relinquish the case. In the “closed” file, the prosecutor defines in detail the sarin recipe used by the suspects.

CHP Deputy (i.e. Member of Parliament on behalf of the opposition Republican People’s Party) from Istanbul, Eren Erdem, who recently brought back to headlines the shipment of chemical weapons from Turkey to ISIS, has now brought up new claims. He now claims that ex-minister of justice Bekir Bozdag has ordered the prosecutor not to investigate ‘Islamic oriented organizations’, causing MIT (i.e. National Intelligence Service) to relinquish the case. Mr. Erdem said: “MIT referred the case to the Police after legal intervention on the shipment of chemical weapons. Even though the Police stated that ‘they cannot handle such a serious investigation’, MIT still relinquished the case. This is how the shipment to the Jihadist group ISIS was condoned - The delivery was even eased for them.”

Sarin Recipe Revealed by Prosecutor!

Adana Public Prosecutor Mehmet Arikan disclosed the sarin recipe in details in the “closed” file. Arıkan asked Adana Police Criminal Laboratory to analyze the chemicals that were sent to the Jihadists. The prosecutor said that the suspects’ chemical materials are a match to sarin’s production process, and he supports his claim with the following sarin formulas and recipe, which he disclosed in the criminal charges:
  • Methanol (CH3OH) + White Phosphorus(P4) = DMMP (DiMethylMethylPhosphonate)
  • DMMP (DiMethylMethylPhosphonate) + Thionyl Chloride (SOCl2) = MethylPhosphonyldiChloride
  • MethylPhosphonyldiChloride + Potassium Fluoride (KF) = MethylPhosphonyldiFluoride
  • MethylPhosphonyldiFluoride + Isopropanol (C3H8O) = SARIN (C4H10FO2P) + HF
  • Isopropanolamine (C3H9NO) is added to reaction for deactivating HF (Hydrogen Fluoride)

Desired Mix

Sarin produced using these formulas, is referred to as the “desired mix” in recorded phone calls between Hytham Qassab, codename “Ebu Kasim”, who organized the chemicals’ shipment, and his connection in Turkey, Khalid Ousta, codename “Ebu Abdo”.

KHALED OUSTA: Inshallah (God willing), also let me know what exactly is required because the person is waiting for my call.
HYTHAM QASSAP: My words would not make a difference, but I need to receive at least 1 kilogram of number 7 and 8, sorry I mean number 6 and 7
K. O.: Got it, alright
H.Q.: Because the mix of them will create the desired one.
K. O.: 50 kilograms
H.Q.: Yes

Negotiations Regarding White Phosphorous

Qassab negotiates with his connection Ousta on the phone the price of “white phosphorus”, which is a main ingredient of the gas:
H.Q.: Yes Ebu Abdo
K. O.: Thanks brother, it is the first item on the list I sent you, and also the last one, which is WHITE PHOSPHORUS
H.Q.: Ok
K. O.: The last one is the 200 kilogram barrel
H.Q.: Ok...
K. O.: Yes 16.8 plus VAT, the first and the most expensive one, of which we sent you a sample. It has a different name on yours compared to mine, and that one is 13.8 plus VAT.
H.Q.: What’s its name, Ebu Abdo?
K. O.: Bauxite
H.Q.: Ok alright, good
K. O.: The white one is the one with the price of 13.8 plus VAT
H.Q.: Is it Euro or Dollar?
K. O.: It is Euro

Oct 10, 2015

60 Minutes' Review of the Ghouta Attack

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

A few days ago, CBS' 60 Minutes aired a review of the Ghouta attack. Following is my quick analysis:
  1. Despite the claim of new evidence, I could not identify any new videos. The new evidence must therefore be the eyewitness reports.
  2. The show seems to be relying on Western Intelligence reports to claim government culpability, saying the rocket attacks originated from government held territory. This claim by the US has since been completely refuted.
  3. The show claims the rockets were of a type used by the government. This is known to be correct, although it is irrelevant when determining culpability, due to the numerous rebel raids on army depots. Actually, these rockets were not part of the Syrian chemical weapons program, and were most likely repurposed incendiary rockets. Such a weapon is therefore a much better fit for a false flag attack than for a government attack.
  4. The eyewitness reports do not add any new information relevant to determining culpability. There is however one interesting report: The opposition activist from Moadamiyah describes hearing muffled rocket hits, and a strong burning sensation in his lungs. This strengthens our conclusion that no chemical attack occurred in Moadamiyah: Sarin is highly lethal, and by the time a victim can inhale enough sarin to feel lung irritation, he has long been unconscious or dead.
    If we are to believe the claims of muffled hits and lung irritations, a white phosphorous or non-lethal gas attack is far more likely. Both of which have been used often by the Syrian government (while there is no evidence of previous use of lethal chemical weapons).
  5. Despite the numerous mistakes, the show does deserve some credit for leaving significant room for doubt regarding culpability, and even ending the interview with Scott Cairns of the UN investigation team, with the following:
    60 Minutes: “Why would anyone launch the largest chemical weapons attack in decades, while [UN] chemical weapon experts are in town?”
    Cairns: “I ask myself this a lot... I don’t know... I don't think we'll ever truly know.”
    Not many shows on a US mainstream channel would dare to do so. Kudos.

Jan 4, 2015

New Satellite Imagery

In his latest post Eliot Higgins analyzes recent satellite images uploaded to Google Earth, taken just three days after the August 21st attacks.

The images show many tanks scattered throughout North Jobar, some of them within Volcano range of the impact sites. This leads Eliot to conclude that “government forces were well established in the area”, and therefore the Volcano’s short distance does not contradict the regime attack scenario.

As I will show below, this conclusion is incorrect. But first, it’s worth noting that this information is not new - We already know the army was operating in the area on the 24th from several sources:       
  • The UN final report describes a sarin attack on Syrian soldiers that took place in Jobar on the 24th. The report provides a location for the attack, which I added to Eliot’s map of the area below. So we know the SAA was operating even closer to the impact sites than the tanks shown.

  •  A TV report from the 24th describes an Army incursion in Jobar which uncovered an opposition chemical lab (a report that was later confirmed).
  • The ANNA TV reports which Eliot has already analyzed in detail.

As to Eliot’s conclusion: While we can place SAA operations on the 24th within range of the Zamalka impact sites, they cannot be associated with the chemical attack, for the following reasons:
  1. The impact sites clearly point to a northern launch source, while the SAA was operating north-west to the impact sites. In particular, it is very difficult to reconcile the findings in impact site 2 with an attack from Jobar.
  2. SAA positions on the 24th are significantly different than the SAA positions on the 21st. As detailed above, the SAA was leading a concentrated effort in Jobar during these days, and it is safe to assume the front line was significantly farther to the West when the chemical attack occurred.
  3. Even if we were to ignore the two limitations above, it would still mean that the SAA decided to bring their chemical Volcanos to the very edge of the frontline. A chemical Volcano launch is a complex operation involving two unarmored trucks, several people operating in the open, and a large amount of highly lethal sarin. From the ANNA videos and the multiple attacks on SAA forces in the area, it is clear that this was not a safe zone. Why on earth would they take such a risk, when they can launch longer range chemical weapons from the safety of SAA army bases all around Damascus?

Each of the three facts above strongly contradict an SAA Volcano attack from Jobar. Considered together, they make such an attack near impossible.

There is however something we can learn from the new imagery: While there are dozens of tanks in Jobar, I could not find a single tank anywhere near the launch site, or even anywhere east of the highway (the Southern Bypass) for that matter. Furthermore, as Eliot notes in his post, the only government position east of the highway (“Tohme Checkpoint”) was wiped off the ground within days. Since we do have videos and reports of the opposition operating in the area, as well as them attacking SAA forces from east of the highway, our conclusion that the launch site was under opposition control on August 21st is strengthened.

Conclusion: The new satellite imagery from August 24th, 2013 somewhat strengthens the claim that the sarin Volcano launch site was under opposition control.