This page was used to discuss possible scenarios and their fit to the evidence. A conclusion has since been reached and is available here.
After weeks of meticulous collection and evaluation of evidence, it is time to reach a conclusion as to what exactly happened on August 21st in Zamalka.
After weeks of meticulous collection and evaluation of evidence, it is time to reach a conclusion as to what exactly happened on August 21st in Zamalka.
This will be an ongoing process in which suggestions will be brought forward and examined in an open discussion. Suggested scenarios will be examined on two criteria:
- Fit to Evidence – The scenario should explain ALL the evidence well. In other words, a good scenario is one that is not contradicted by evidence.
- Scenario Plausibility – The scenario should be plausible by itself. This means that regardless of the evidence, it should describe events that are likely to happen in a situation such as the Syrian civil war.
To take two extreme examples:
- Claiming that aliens launched the chemical attack and then planted all the evidence to confuse us, provides a perfect explanation for all the evidence but is not in itself plausible, and therefore an unlikely scenario.
- Claiming that no chemical attack occurred on that day is a very plausible scenario (that’s what usually happens), but does not explain the evidence well, and is therefore also an unlikely scenario.
The following lists all the evidence that so far withstood scrutiny, and should therefore be addressed by proposed scenarios:
- Hundreds of videos, social media reports and eyewitness testimonies describe a mass poisoning event in Zamalka starting at August 21st 2:00 AM, with symptoms that are highly consistent with nerve agent poisoning: miosis, headaches, nausea, dizziness, foaming, convulsions, loss of consciousness, apnea and death.
- Many eyewitnesses describe multiple rockets or shells landing in Zamalka prior to the poisoning event. A few hours after the attack videos and images were uploaded showing several rocket remains in their impact sites.
- The rockets (codename “UMLACA”) show signs indicative they were used to deliver chemicals: small impact craters with little damage, relatively intact rocket bodies, and remains of a container that seem to explode on impact (e.g. Page 22 of the UN report describes container remains found on a roof while the rocket body penetrated to the floor below).
- Rockets of a similar design but with a conventional warhead were launched by the Syrian Army on multiple occasions.
- Rockets that seem identical in design to the ones used on August 21st landed in rebel-held territory in January, and showed signs indicative of a White Phosphorus payload. None of the UMLACA reports prior to August 21st are consistent with a sarin payload.
- The rockets found on August 21st were launched from
an area that is about 2.5 km north of Zamalka.
A scenario that assumes a different launch area must show how all UMLACA range calculations are incorrect and provide an alternative range calculation that exceeds 3.5 km. Alternatively it would have to show why the three impact sites analyzed here do not indicate a northern source.
- This area is not under regime control, with parts of it rebel-controlled and other parts contested
- The UN investigation team has found multiple indications that sarin was used in the attack.
- The sarin used in the attack was of low quality.
- Zamalka is the first alleged chemical attack targeting a residential rebel-held territory. In all previous cases victims were males of fighting age. It is also the first attack in rebel-held territory to result in a large number of deaths.
- On March 19th in Khan Al Assal, Syrian troops and regime-supporting civilians were poisoned, possibly by sarin or chlorine, killing 26 and injuring 86, making it the deadliest chemical attack prior to August 21st.
- On September 16th three videos were published anonymously which claim to show Liwa Al-Islam launching UMLACAs at regime forces in Qabun and Jobar, on the date of the chemical attack, while wearing gas masks.
- These videos contain information indicating that its claimedlocation is very similar to the real launch site.
- A scenario should choose whether to treat these videos as real (implying certain discrepancies), or as a fabrication (implying another set of discrepancies), or possibly provide some other explanation. See full discussion here.
- A scenario should choose whether or not to claim a chemical attack in Moadamiyah, again with each explanation implying a different set of discrepancies. See full discussion here.
Please comment if you think I missed any verified evidence of importance.
I will start off the discussion with a few suggested scenarios. After each scenario I will examine its fit to the evidence and its plausibility.
Within each scenario, each piece of evidence receives one of five scores:
- Match – The evidence is what one would expect to see under this scenario.
- Medium Match – The evidence is not what one would expect to see under this scenario, but still reasonable.
- Weak Match – The evidence is unlikely under this scenario, yet not impossible.
- No Match – The evidence directly contradicts the scenario. For the scenario to be considered, this evidence must be disproved.
- n/a – Not applicable in this scenario.
Scenario 1 – Regime Attack / The Mainstream Scenario
This is the scenario dominating most media reports, and promoted by western intelligence agencies.
According to this scenario, the regime has grown so frustrated with its inability to rid Damascus suburbs of rebels, that it decided to use chemical weapons to achieve a breakthrough. The regime was confident that there will be no international implications, since its previous smaller-scale chemical attacks had no repercussions.
The attack was launched from Syrian bases on Mt. Qasiun, using rockets fitted with sarin warheads – a chemical agent that the regime has been known to develop in large quantities for over 20 years under its advanced chemical warfare program.
The area of Zamalka was attacked by UMLACA rockets, while Moadamiyah was attacked with M14 rockets.
Later, in an attempt to relieve international pressure, the regime fabricated videos implicating Liwa Al Islam in the attack.
Fit to evidence:
- No Match. The source of the attack is nowhere near Mt. Qasiun.
- Weak Match. The Syrian chemical program is a strategic asset intended to counter Israel’s nuclear weapons, and is considered very advanced. It is unlikely that after 20 years of development they cannot manufacture high quality sarin.
- Weak Match. The scenario claims the regime expected no response to the August 21st attack, based on the responses to previous attacks. This is unlikely, given the dramatic differences between this attack and previous attacks.
- Weak Match. Victims in Khan Al Assal are Syrian troops and
Note: The mainstream scenario does not claim an accident or false flag in Khan Al Assal.
- Medium Match. The Liwa Al-Islam videos are a weak fabrication job, and were published when international pressure was already relieved.
- Medium Match. The Liwa Al Islam videos have several discrepancies when considered a fabrication.
- Medium Match. The Moadamiyah scene has numerousinconsistencies which make it unlikely to be a chemical attack site.
The first thing nearly everyone noted when this scenario was proposed was how suicidal it seems. This is best understood when examined on a timeline:
- In August 2012 movements of chemical weapons were detected by the west, triggering Obama's 'red line' speech, which clearly conditions foreign intervention on the deployment of chemical weapons. (a reasonable explanation for these movements was protection from opposition advances, and indeed later reports indicated that all weapons are currently in regime controlled areas).
- In December 2012 Obama goes further and issues a direct warning stating: "if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences".
- During this time, the regime constantly assures Russia that chemical weapons will never be used.
- Following the Khan Al-Assal attack in March 2013 which left 16 Syrian soldiers dead, the regime pressed for a UN investigation.
- When the UN investigation got delayed over disagreements on its mandate, the regime invited the Russian investigation team (who blamed the rebels).
- In August 2013 the UN team finally arrived in Syria, and upon its arrival the regime decides to launch an unprecedented mass-scale sarin attack on a residential area.
- The regime allows the UN to visit the attacked sites within two days of being requested to do so.
It is hard to read this as anything but an attempt by the regime to bring international military intervention to Syria. This seems even weirder when considering these points:
- Even if for some reason the regime has decided to kill hundreds of innocent civilians, it could have easily done so with conventional weapons.
- No explanation is given as to why, after months of fighting and the regime making steady gains, did its “frustration” suddenly become so unbearable that it had to launch a chemical attack.
Summary: This scenario is highly implausible, and is in strong contradiction to the evidence.
Many analysts felt uncomfortable with the mainstream scenario, and proposed some variations on it. some of these somewhat increase its plausibility and explain some of the evidence, but are still far from likely. A few examples:
- The attack was ordered by a rogue officer. This may explain the poor strategic choice, but imposes other difficulties such as gaining access to sarin, reaching the launch location in rebel-held territory and not explaining the Khan Al Assal attack. Furthermore, rogue operations on this scale are very rare to begin with.
- It was an intentional regime attack, but was not meant to be so deadly, using the wrong concentrations of sarin. As discussed here sarin is intended to kill. You use it when you want an attack to be as lethal as possible. If the intention is instead to terrorize there are much better weapons, such as napalm.
- It was an intentional regime attack on a military target, but missed its target. Looking at the map of the attack shows this is implausible. If the target was not the residential areas but the front line, it would mean the regime sent the attackers to infiltrate rebel territory only to attack the front lines from behind – an act that makes no military sense.
So the mainstream story and its variations don’t seem to make any sense, but is there another regime attack scenario that was not yet suggested and is more reasonable? Here’s the best I can think of, but if anyone can come up with a better one, please share.
Scenario 2 – Regime Attack / Double False-Flag Scenario
In this scenario, the regime decided to launch a chemical attack on rebel residential areas, but to avoid international response tried to make it look like a rebel false-flag attack (hence a double false-flag).
They decided to use the UMLACA, a proprietary design which is not documented and will be easier to attribute to the opposition, and filled it with sarin that was intentionally manufactured in a sloppy manner.
On the night of the attack an UMLACA team and launch vehicle infiltrated rebel-held territory to reach the launch site, launched over 10 sarin rockets, and returned safely to base.
After the plan failed miserably and the regime was blamed, they tried to divert the pressure by fabricating the Liwa Al Islam videos.
Moadamiyah – In this scenario the M14 could not be the chemical weapon, since it is easily associated with the Syrian arsenal, and in general attacking two locations far apart undermines the credibility of the operation. So in this scenario Moadamiyah was attacked only by conventional weapons, and the sarin findings there are a result of contamination and patient evacuation from Zamalka.
Khan Al Assal may have been a false-flag to gain international support or an accident during a previous double false-flag attempt.
Fit to evidence:
This scenario fits all evidence well.
- Probably the first double false-flag operation in history (anyone knows otherwise?)
- Seems like a very big risk to take. The western narrative was pro-opposition, and it seems over-optimistic to assume the west will believe this was a false-flag attack, rather than a regime attack.
- If the regime intended to convince the world this is a rebel false-flag, they should have prepared an extensive Psychological Warfare campaign, including high quality fabricated evidence. In practice, the evidence presented by the regime was so weak that it is very unlikely to be a fabrication. This includes two ambiguous phone calls, discovery of a rebel cache with some multi-purpose chemicals and gas masks, and undocumented claims of soldiers “suffocating” when entering Jobar.
- As long as three weeks after the attack, Assad still did not want to commit to a specific theory, stating “We’re not sure that anything happened”.
- It was only four weeks after the attack, when international pressure has already subsided, that significant evidence was published, namely the Liwa Al Islam videos. However, these too would make for a very poor fabrication job that was unusable for propaganda.
So at this point it doesn’t seem like there’s any plausible regime-attack scenario that fits the evidence.
But what about a rebel-attack scenario? Let’s examine one option.
Scenario 3 – Rebel Attack
According to this scenario, extreme fundamentalist factions in the Syrian opposition have been building chemical capabilities for some time (possibly related to groups carrying chemical attacks in Iraq). The motivation may have been to counter the Syrian Army’s military advantage, or for carrying out a false-flag operation that will meet the US’s red line requirement.
While they were relatively successful in producing sarin, they still did not have the technology to build an efficient delivery device.
In one of the many raids on Syrian Army bases, they captured one of the regime’s UMLACA launcher and rockets, including some with incendiary warheads. They realized these can be easily refilled with sarin, creating a very efficient chemical rocket.
Prior to August 21st, they made several chemical attacks on Syrian troops, including in Darayya, Khan Al Assal and Barzeh, and possibly many more which the Syrian Army chose not to report. It is also likely that many of these attacks did not cause casualties due to high preparedness among Syrian troops. Since we don’t have direct evidence on when the opposition gained access to the UMLACA, it is hard to estimate whether these attacks used the UMLACA or more primitive devices.
On the night between August 20th and 21st the regime launched a wide scale attack as part of its Rif Dimashq Offensive. In response, a Liwa Al Islam chemical unit positioned itself in a clearing west to Irbin and proceeded to attack government forces advancing in Qabun and Jobar, using the chemical UMLACAs. Part of this attack was recorded on video, and later shared among acquaintances until leaked.
At some point the unit decided to target Zamalka. Several sub-scenarios may explain this decision:
- Scenario 3.1 – Misreading the battle situation. In this scenario the group is not composed of locals, and were misinformed to think Zamalka is an abandoned area (like Jobar and Qabun). They detected (or thought they detected) Syrian Army advances into Zamalka and attacked them.
- Scenario 3.2 – A mistake in orientation. In this scenario the group believed it is targeting Qabun and Jobar, but they miscalculated their orientation by 90 degrees, attacking Zamalka instead. Important to note that the whole area has been disconnected from electricity, which would make it easier to make such a mistake.
- Scenario 3.3 – False-flag contingency plan. According to this scenario, the team was trained in advance to perform a false-flag operation on rebel residential areas. This was a contingency plan to be activated in case of a major deterioration in the battle.
- Scenario 3.4 – Rogue false-flag. According to this scenario, the group took an unauthorized decision to use their chemical capability to bring international intervention and change the course of the war. In this case the videos were intended as an alibi, to give the impression of a mistake.
In this scenario, Moadamiyah was attacked only by conventional weapons, and the sarin findings there are a result of contamination and patient evacuation from Zamalka.
Two side notes about false-flag attacks:
- The term false-flag is often associated with fringe theories, and rightfully so – false-flag attacks are a rarity. However, in the case of the Syrian civil war it is actually the expected behavior: Once the US made the explicit link between a regime chemical attack and military intervention, it would be unreasonable to assume that of the many extremist opposition groups operating in Syria, not even one would try to exploit it.
- Many believe a scenario involving an opposition attack “on their own people” is implausible. (a) In the context of a war where hundreds die each week, there will definitely be people who would find a sacrifice of this size justified in order to stop the killing. (b) Some of the fundamentalist groups are in direct war with the more secular FSA factions. They could have viewed the FSA-dominant Zamalka residents as legitimate targets. (c) These groups have a high percent of foreign fighters, who may not feel as attached to the local population.
Fit to evidence:
This scenario fits all evidence well.
Unlike the regime-attack scenarios this makes perfect sense in terms of motivation. However, it has two weak points:
- While theoretically possible, producing sarin on this scale is something that was not done before by a non-state actor.
- While the opposition seems to have gained access to practically every heavy weapon in the Syrian Army’s arsenal, there is no evidence yet of them seizing UMLACAs.
Update - Foreign Intervention Scenario
In the discussions below, several contributors suggested scenarios involving foreign intervention on the side of the opposition. This could be relevant in three aspects of the attack: (a) Sarin production, (b) delivery devices, and (c) execution.
The last two do not seem very likely:
- Execution – There is no doubt that a large part of the opposition is composed of foreign fighters, especially among the fundamentalist factions. However, these are usually individual volunteers or militants from similar organizations in other countries. While it is theoretically possible that foreign troops or covert agents are assisting the opposition on the ground, there is no evidence that this is the case. There is also not much reason to bring troops into Syria and risk war, when there are enough combatants in Syria that can be trained abroad.
- Delivery devices – Since there is strong evidence that the attack used UMLACAs, and that these were developed by the Syrian Army, there doesn’t seem to be a likely scenario where foreign countries provided the delivery devices.
This leaves us with the option of foreign support in sarin production.
Since there is not much evidence supporting or refuting foreign involvement in sarin production, we can only evaluate it on its a-priori plausibility. There are a few possible sub-scenarios to consider here:
- Help in acquiring chemicals necessary for sarin production – Chemicals that are further along in the sarin production process are more heavily regulated, and a seller receiving large orders of these should alert authorities (as Al-Nusra discovered in Turkey). If buyers know that authorities are willing to look the other way, they could order the more advanced chemicals at larger amounts. This would result in an easier production process, less failures, larger amounts and higher quality.
- Providing lab equipment – High quality lab equipment is essential for mass production of sarin. Obtaining such equipment would be easier for a country than for an underground group.
- Guidance and know-how – Countries may provide access to chemistry specialists and knowledge, which are not easily accessible to an underground organization.
- Actual production – Last, a country can produce sarin (or more likely, its immediate precursor Methylphosphonyl Difluoride) in its facilities and provide it ready made to the opposition.
Doing any of these would be a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and constitute a significant risk on the part of the supporting country. This should mean that more “obvious” support, such as sarin production or specific guidance is less likely. However, ignoring acquisition of suspicious chemicals and lab equipment is more easy to explain as unintentional, and may be done by government officials without receiving explicit approval (e.g. similar to the Iran-ContraAffair).
So which countries could be relevant here? The three immediate suspects are those most involved on the opposition’s side: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Turkey has arrested Al-Nusra operatives trying to produce sarin, which indicate it is probably not cooperating in such an effort, and Qatar seems to have stepped down its involvement. Saudi Arabia, however, does seem like a possibility, and especially its head of Intelligence, Bandar Bin Sultan, who is reported to be directly involved in toppling the Syrian regime and convincing the US that Syria used chemical weapons.
In terms of evidence relevant to foreign intervention, we only have the Syrian report of a chemical cache found in Jobar. This included bags of Lye manufactured in Saudi Arabia. Lye could be used to destroy sarin in case of spills, but is otherwise a multi-purpose chemical not related to sarin production.
It is important to note that while the whole foreign intervention scenario is mere speculation, it does have some value: The complexity of underground production of large quantities of sarin is currently estimated to be the weakest point in the plausibility of the rebel-attack scenario. The addition of the foreign assistance option provides another way for the opposition to acquire sarin, and therefore strengthens this scenario and increases its plausibility.
Summary: While there is not much evidence to either support or refute foreign assistance, it extends the range of options for sarin acquisition, thereby increasing the likelihood of a rebel-attack.
Conclusion: At this point the rebel attack theory seems far more likely than the regime attack theory. Please help by sharing your feedback and scenario proposals.