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.

25 comments:

  1. Video of attack on Southern Bypass checkpoint at

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFGfC1DccM4

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  2. Not only are there no tanks east of the Southern Bypass, there are none of the tank tracks that are so obvious West of the Bypass.

    This illustrates two points.

    First, the Higgins map of 'SAA control' is provably wrong. Especially so in the areas North and East of the Southern Bypass. If they can't move tanks in and out of the area they have no control.

    Secondly If the SAA wanted to deploy soft-skinned vehicles with hundreds of kilograms of Sarin within direct observation and small-arms range of the enemy, they would deploy tanks and infantry as a screen deep into enemy territory to provide some form of protection. The evidence says they didn't do that.

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    1. Good point, although I couldn't see tank tracks in Jobar. Could you point some out?

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    2. I should point out there are tracks up to 150m around the Tohme checkpoint, but none elsewhere and certainly not at the depth required to provide small-arms protection for soft-skinned launchers

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    3. 33°32'07.71" N 36°20'50.37" E

      More or less 200m directly North of the underpass, curious 'cross' that looks like reversing tank tracks

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  3. Another comment on the bellingcat piece regarding the Tohme checkpoint shows how out of touch it is.

    He says:

    "This checkpoint was attacked on August 21st 2013 in response to the Sarin attacks, which followed an earlier attack in June, with both attacks resulting in buildings in the area being destroyed by VBIEDs. The updated satellite map imagery shows both buildings that were destroyed in the attacks."

    If you look at the image comparison he provides

    https://1-ps.googleusercontent.com/sxk/Evx-npRMdwoTkQOwajM-crCrRv/www.bellingcat.com/wp4553-flywheel.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/994x762xAug-21st-map-5.jpg.pagespeed.ic.cAAi2l1sqrqKJBOmGZgO.jpg

    You see that the alleged sites have been completely cleared of rubble while under attack by insurgent forces! The last attack being August 21 - i.e. 3 days before the imagery!

    This is implausible in the extreme.

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  4. Sasa, the newer map imagery could help you update the Liwa Al-Islam launch site that you placed on a not-too-clear map on the conclusion page.

    I've tried to place the estimated launch site as close to your representation as I could. Here's a link to the map with location in a triangle as in your image:

    http://goo.gl/ocUhUx

    Does the newer, clearer imagery let you place the presumed Liwa launch site with more precision?

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    1. I tried matching the videos to the new satellite images, but there's just too little to go by. I could see trees in the background, and some low vegetation on the ground, but that's it.

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    2. So in the end, even WSS got to see the light. Mina

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  5. Sasa

    Welcome back!

    I've been looking recently at the 19 March 2013 Khan-al-Assal attack, and have a few updates to the earlier discussions

    1. Lavrov and Churkin,
    not just the UN HRC Independent Commission of Enquiry, emphasized that the chemical profile of the sarin used in Ghouta matched that used in Khan-al-Assal.

    2. Churkin's briefing at the UN, and the later summary by the Russian
    foreign ministry, reported that the sarin contained diisopropylfluorophosphate (DIFP). I can't find any comments on possible chemical explanations for this. The Russian statement noted that DIFP had been developed as a possible CW agent by the UK in the Second World War, which is probably irrelevant. From comparing the synthetic pathways for DIFP and sarin, it looks plausible that DIFP would be produced if you tried to synthesize sarin starting from phosphorus trichloride, without purifying the reaction products. This matches your earlier conclusion that the hexafluorophosphate found in Ghouta pointed to a synthesis starting with phosphorus trichloride. Can anyone with chemistry expertise comment on this?

    3. The Syrian government made a declaration to OPCW of where it had bought supplies for its CW programme, which was passed to the UK government. The UK government stated in July 2014 that a review of its records had shown that UK companies had sold several hundred tonnes of trimethyl phosphite to Syria in 1986. So it's now clear that Syria's sarin production started with trimethyl phosphite (one step on from phosphorus trichloride).

    4. Churkin stated in July 2013 that the rocket they recovered matched the "Basha'ir 3" rockets produced by the Basha'ir al-Nasr group "since February". A video was uploaded on February 2013 showing the firing of what were described as Basha'ir 3 rockets and another video was uploaded in July 2013 showing the manufacture of Basha'ir 2 rockets in the groups workshop. It looks as if the Russians just matched the rocket remains in their possession to these videos.


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    1. Thanks pmr9! Good to hear from you.

      1. Interesting. I'll add that my understanding at the time was that the UN based their analysis on Russia's finding of Hexamine.

      2. Very interesting. Based on the process described on wikipedia for DIFP, you'd need to have serious impurities to get DIFP while attempting to create sarin, since the order of chemicals in the reaction is the exact opposite of sarin.

      3. Syria has declared 60 tons of Trimethyl Phosphite, and 30 tonnes of Phosphorus Trichloride, so I'm not sure we can make a clear cut decision here.

      4. Nice. I now see there are plenty of Bashair rocket videos on youtube. Pretty small compared to the Volcano.

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    2. point 2. As DIFP was not found in the Ghouta samples, this supports Churkov's assertion that "over a few months opposition chemists somewhat improved the quality of their product".

      point 3. Most sources agree that binary sarin, produced in the 1980s and 1990s, accounted for most of Syria's chemical arsenal: something like 1000 tonnes. This is consistent with the "hundreds of tonnes" of trimethyl phosphite that they bought from the UK in the 1908s and the further procurement from India in 1992 (before the US intervened to stop them). The most likely intended use of the 30 tonnes of phosphorus trichloride is for their later smaller scale production of VX. Apparently this is more difficult than making sarin.

      point 4. Can you or other resident rocket experts estimate the likely payload of the Bashair-3? I'd guess that it wouldn't be more than about 2-3 kg of sarin, unless it was modified with a Volcano-type tank that would severely reduce its range. However it's plausible that 2-3 kg of low-grade sarin would be enough to kill 20 people close to the impact site,

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    3. 3. good point on the phosphorus trichloride being for VX

      4. sounds right. although i must say i don't really trust the russian's identification of the rocket. they distributed lots of nonsense around this issue.

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  6. What a joke this blog is.

    From an earlier Baathist propaganda piece:

    ----
    http://whoghouta.blogspot.com/2013/10/sarin-and-syrian-opposition.html

    Direct Evidence Connecting the Opposition to Sarin

    Carla Del Ponte, a senior UN investigator who interviewed victims of previous attacks, shared her personal opinion that chemical attacks were initiated solely by the opposition. I usually ignore opinions brought without concrete evidence, but unlike other reports, this comes from a very reliable and relevant source. Given that the clarification the UN issued following her interview does not contradict her claims, this testimony may have some value.

    Update: In a later interview (minute 4:17), she reiterates her assessment, and explains this is what the initial evidence indicates, but recommends waiting for the final report. (Found by Jim Dobbin).

    In a chemical attack in Khan Al-Assal, whose victims were Syrian troops and regime-supporting civilians, a Russian investigation determined the use of sarin. While the report attempts to lay blame on the rebels, it does not share its evidence and is therefore difficult to evaluate. More here.

    On June 2nd Syria reported seizing 2 canisters of sarin. Additionally, on two occasions (Barzeh April 26th, Jobar August 24th) Syria reported a chemical attack on its troops, describing symptoms typical to sarin.
    ---

    This is really a fucked up left we have that circulates crap like this. I won't take long to sort this out:

    1. Carla Del Ponte is someone who makes Judith Miller look good as I have pointed out on numerous occasions. Cockburn and Jeff had her nailed pretty good:

    On March 15, Mandel sent another complaint to Justice Carla del Ponte, the new chief prosecutor for the tribunal, who replaced Justice Louise Arbour in October. Mandel’s sharply worded letter protests the tribunal’s refusal to investigate NATO’s actions, saying that del Ponte has turned “the investigation into more of a farce than a judicial proceeding.” Mandel’s letter makes a solid case that far from being an independent investigator, the tribunal has conducted itself “as if it were an organ of NATO and not the United Nations.”

    Alexander Cockburn and Jeff St. Clair, Counterpunch May 22, 2000

    For my full dissection of this disgusting hack: http://louisproyect.org/2013/08/31/carla-del-ponte-and-the-anti-imperialist-left-an-unprincipled-combination/

    I guess it's okay to hold up Del Ponte as an authority when it suits a Baathist propagandist's purpose. That of course is how they earn their pay.

    2. "In a chemical attack in Khan Al-Assal, whose victims were Syrian troops and regime-supporting civilians, a Russian investigation determined..." A Russian investigation determined? Whew, that's a relief, getting that kind of hard evidence.

    3. "On June 2nd Syria reported seizing 2 canisters of sarin. Additionally, on two occasions (Barzeh April 26th, Jobar August 24th) Syria reported a chemical attack on its troops, describing symptoms typical to sarin." Syria reported? What in fuck's name does this have to do with "hard evidence"?

    I swear to God. The way that the "anti-imperialist" left has disgraced itself around these questions makes me feel really depressed sometimes. It makes Vishinsky look like a pillar of honesty.

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    1. louisproyect - welcome and thanks for the detailed comment.

      Some background first: Whoghouta is an open collaborative effort to investigate the Ghouta attack. If you disagree with the conclusions, you can help us by simply providing the contradicting evidence you have, and it will be incorporated. There is no need to attack anyone.

      As to the three issues you raised:

      1. At the time, Del Ponte's interview was interesting, but since then her team has published their full report, making her original statement irrelevant.
      The information you provide about her history is interesting, and may have brought us to ignore her statements, had you submitted it at the time.

      2. Are you claiming the Russian government gave the UN fabricated lab results? That is of course possible, but not very likely. Do you have any evidence to support that claim, or alternatively, past examples of the Russian government submitting fabricated evidence to the UN?

      In any case, this is not really relevant, since the UN's later investigation of the Khan Al-Assal attack reached similar results: http://whoghouta.blogspot.com/2014/01/analysis-of-second-un-report.html

      3. As explained in the original post, you are correct: The Syrian reports can not be taken into account in the analysis.
      It is however interesting to note that in retrospect, the Syrian claim was indeed true. See here the new evidence: http://whoghouta.blogspot.com/2014/03/ridiculed-jobar-lab-actually-was-sarin.html

      4. Besides these items, there is plenty of evidence connecting the Syrian opposition to sarin. At this point there is little doubt they have access to sarin. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean they carried out the attack.

      5. The main reason we conclude the opposition is behind the attack, is that there is no plausible regime attack scenario - No one was able to write one, despite dozens of requests. If you think you can do it, we would be very grateful.
      You can see here a partial list of the challenges (scroll to the end):
      http://whoghouta.blogspot.com/2014/02/more-on-hexamine.html

      Good luck!

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    2. Louis,
      You would like us to believe that people who give credit to self-claimed "activists" who engage in this type of PR is not a disgrace?
      http://nypost.com/2015/02/16/syrian-activists-re-enact-isis-videos-with-children/

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  7. About the samples brought back by Le Monde journalists, there have been some new information brought to light by George Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, "Les Chemins de Damas"
    http://mondafrique.com/lire/decryptages/2015/01/29/gaz-sarin-en-syrie-les-reporters-du-journal-le-monde-ont-servi-de-mules

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    1. Interesting. Would you care to summarize it in English?

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    2. A reasonable translation is at https://twitter.com/ifriqiyah/status/574393728716181504

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    3. Whoops. Try this

      https://twitter.com/ifriqiyah/status/574396778709147648

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  8. I think the most interesting section of Malbrunot and Chesnot's book deals with the Khan-al-Assal chemical attack in March 2013 which they attribute to the Syrian opposition with the al-Nusra Front as the “number one suspect”. They state that “the UN investigated” this attack, and quote Moktar Lamani, the UN Special Representative in Syria at the time, as telling them:

    "A rebel group allowed chemical substances in through the border post of Azaz. An insurgent opened the products, which immediately provoked spasms. He died the next day. Informed of the incident, the al-Nusra Front immediately surrounded the village and demanded the return of the products in question, under pain of an all-out attack. The jihadists recovered the products. We contacted the leader of the group that possessed the substances at the beginning. He acknowledged that he had given them up to the al-Nusra Front".
    It's unlikely that Lamani didn't report his findings to the UN Secretary-General, and that that the Secretary-General wouldn't have passed this information to the US and UK governments. If so, the intelligence assessments issued by the US and UK governments after the Ghouta attack, stating that there was no evidence that the Syrian opposition possessed CW agents, were deliberately misleading. An article by Philip Giraldi in November 2013 http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/quitting-over-syria) described dissent among US intelligence analysts in the summer of 2013: “These concerns were reinforced by subsequent [to a National Intelligence Estimate completed in late 2012] UN reports suggesting that the rebels might have access to their own chemical weapons.” This may be a reference to Lamani's report of the Azaz incident.

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  9. http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/2/8/126053/World/Region/Syria-returnees-likely-behind-Indonesia-chlorine-b.aspx

    AFP , Wednesday 25 Mar 2015

    Indonesian militants believed to have returned from fighting with the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria are suspected of being behind an attempted chlorine bomb attack in a shopping mall last month, police said Wednesday.

    The homemade device -- made up of several bottles and a detonator -- was discovered in the mall south of Jakarta after it failed to go off properly. Police said it was the first such attack ever attempted in Indonesia.

    National Police Inspector General, Tito Karnavian, said the use of the chlorine resembled tactics employed by IS militants , who have taken over a vast swathe of territory in Syria and Iraq.

    "It really surprised us," said the former commander of the police's elite counter-terror unit.

    "This is a signature of ISIS," he added, referring to the jihadists by an alternative name. "It is connected to a group likely already returned from Syria."

    He said police were pursuing "very good leads" into the bomb attempt but would not reveal further details. Exposure to chlorine gas causes intense irritation to the eyes, skin and airways, and can be deadly.

    IS has been accused of using chlorine, notably in a January 23 car bomb attack on Kurdish forces in Iraq. The Syrian regime has also been accused of carrying out chlorine gas attacks.

    Indonesia, a hotbed of extremist violence in the past, has largely dismantled the Islamic militant networks responsible for a string of deadly attacks throughout the country in the early 2000s.

    But the rise of IS poses a new threat, with nearly 160 Indonesians confirmed by police as having left to join IS, and authorities worried about the potential for radicals to revive extremist groups on their return.

    Indonesian anti-terror police this week arrested five men who allegedly arranged for a group of mostly women and children to try and enter Syria to join IS.

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  10. A probability-based analysis by Rootclaim found that the unprofessional nature of the sarin gas indicate that the Syrian army was behind the attack (although their comprehensive analysis points greatest blame toward opposition forces).

    https://www.rootclaim.com/claims/was-the-sarin-professionally-produced-and-was-it-stocked-in-a-binary-manner-8285

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