Sunday, 13 April 2014

Evidence Chlorine Gas Was Used In A Second, Failed, Chemical Attack On Kafr Zita

This is an update of an earlier post.

On April 11th, reports supported by video from the town of Kafr Zita, Hama, claimed to show the aftermath of a chemical attack on the town.  Reports claimed helicopters had dropped a "barrel bomb" containing a toxic gas on the town, with the below video claiming to show the attack as it happened


While there's been a number of small alleged chemical attacks reported in the months since the August 21st Sarin attack, this attack was unusual for a number of reasons.  First, earlier attacks have mostly (if not entirely) been on front-line positions with adult males being the victims, while in the Kafr Zita attack it appears children made up a significant number of victims.  Second, it's a rare occasion both the government and opposition claim an attack took place, with the government claiming Jabhat al-Nusra launched the attack.  As reports claim a helicopter dropped the bomb, it seems highly unlikely Jabhat al-Nusra would have been operating a helicopter, unless they have a previously unheard of air-force the Syrian air defence system failed to detect.

Syrian State TV felt confident enough to specify the type of agent used, "there is information that the terrorist Nusra Front released toxic chlorine... leading to the death of two people and causing more than 100 people to suffer from suffocation".

Now, videos and photographs from Kafr Zita provides evidence of a second, failed chemical attack, on the night of April 12th, with the following video showing a container supposedly used in the attack


Photographs show the markings on the container clearly




The markings, CL2, indicate the container has Chlorine gas inside it, with the name of the Chinese company Norinco also visible.  "Bar" is a reference to pressure, so it seems extremely likely this was a cylinder containing Chlorine gas.

Reports from the Kafr Zita media centre claims the cylinder was inside a DIY barrel bomb which failed to explode, shown in the below video.  This seems an incredibly badly designed way of deploying chlorine, but may be the only option available after the OPCW's work in Syria, and like the chlorine bombs used in Iraq appear to be better at spreading terror than chlorine.



In the videos and photographs this is specifically described as being dropped from a helicopter. Again, there's no evidence of Jabhat al-Nusra have a helicopter, and considering Kafr Zita has been the focus of Syrian military activity for the past weeks (including the first deployment of BM-30 launched cluster munitions) it seems unlikely the Syrian military would have missed a mystery helicopter flying overhead.  One also has to ask how Syrian State TV could state Chlorine was used without access to the site, a pro-opposition area.  One also has to wonder how much State TV's claims Jabhat al-Nusra was responsible is influenced by Seymour Hersh's recent claims Jabhat al-Nusra were responsible for the August 21st Sarin attack.

Thanks to @markito0171 and @7oriaWBas for highlighting the videos and photographs.

Update The Violations Documentation Center has now produced a detailed report on the attacks, which can be read here.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Fighting in Abu Kamal (Albukamal): Background and Analysis

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi and Cedric Labrousse.

Introduction

The eastern Deir az-Zor provincial town of Abu Kamal (more accurately in Arabic, ‘Albukamal’)- on the border with Iraq- recently came to headlines with reports of clashes between the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) and other rebels including Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), resulting in dozens killed. What is the story behind this incident?

Maps put out in mainstream media outlets (e.g. the BBC) have frequently color-coded Abu Kamal as an ISIS stronghold. As demonstrated previously, this characterization is highly inaccurate. One need not repeat at length what has already written, but to recap for convenience: the town itself is controlled by six different factions.

One of these- Kata’ib Junud al-Haq- is the local JN affiliate, and arguably the most influential in the town and wider area, having exclusive control of the Shari’a Committee. Briefly in late spring and summer last year, Kata’ib Junud al-Haq was part of ISIS, re-defecting to JN following Aymenn al-Zawahiri’s call for ISIS to be dissolved.

JN signposts in various parts of Abu Kamal, illustrating the group’s influence: “The da’wah media office in Abu Kamal: decoration of the streets with banners of Tawhid.” 
The other five are Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna, Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya , Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar, Kata’ib Allahu Akbar and Liwa Allahu Akbar. Of these groups, the first two are independent but closely aligned ideologically with JN, the third is an independent grouping that professes no real political program beyond bringing an end to the Assad regime, the fourth is an affiliate of the Authenticity and Development Front (ADF: an Islamist coalition professing influence from Saudi religious thought) and the fifth is aligned with the SMC. 

However, it would appear for a time that Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar professed some kind of affiliation with Ahrar ash-Sham, stating on 27th October:

“Up to now Ahrar ash-Sham remains the most organized Syrian Islamic faction and the least sinful, maintaining a good reputation among the sons of the Syrian people from the beginning of the revolution…with loyalty and purity till now in the shadow of chaos it has remained, excelling by far factions on the ground.”

Jointly, the six groupings have maintained a “security battalion” responsible for maintaining order in the town, and are represented on the local governing council. In September last year, JN clashed with Liwa Allahu Akbar, which was then led by one Saddam al-Jamal, accused by JN of being a criminal. Later, Saddam was apparently kidnapped by ISIS, which maintained an underground presence in the wider area, and broadcast a video of his apparent defection.

At the time, it seemed that Saddam’s supposed confession was made under duress and therefore not genuine and of little importance. After all, in the immediate aftermath of Saddam’s disappearance, nothing had changed on the ground, and he was not exactly missed by members of the other factions. Further, at least two of the town’s factions- namely, the local JN and Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya- had some sympathy for ISIS, with the local leaders aiding ISIS across the border in Iraq.

However, it turns out that regardless of the nature of Saddam’s initial testimony, subsequent rumors that he became ISIS’ local amir in the Abu Kamal area were correct. This development, together with the wider infighting across Syria between ISIS and other factions that broke out in January, proved important in the creation of tensions between ISIS and other groups in the area, culminating in the heavy fighting we have just seen. 

Events from January to March 2014

When the infighting first broke out, opinions in the Abu Kamal area were somewhat divided. In an interview, the local JN spokesman distanced his group from ISIS and blamed ISIS for the problems that had arisen in northern Syria, saying that the problem with ISIS is its ‘extremism’ and the existence of too many ‘ghuraba’ (‘foreigners’) in the group, in contrast to JN. On the other hand, Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar officially took an ‘anti-fitna’ stance on the infighting, releasing a statement at the end of January formally distancing itself from Ahrar ash-Sham, while not mentioning the group by name:

“We announce the following:

1. Our rejection of this fitna and Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar’s return to independence not affiliated with any side.

2. Our arms are directed against the evil Nusayri regime only and we will not direct our arms against any faction unless it attacks [us].

3. Our affirmation and support for the so-called ‘Ummah Initiative’ [Sheikh Muheisseni’s attempt to stop infighting] and any initiative aiming to stop the fighting and apply God’s law between those disputing among themselves.”

In the Abu Kamal countryside, where more factions exist beyond the six in the town, a certain group called “Jund ash-Sham” (not to be confused with the group formerly based at Krek des Chevaliers that was founded by Lebanese muhajireen) declared its support for ISIS.

For the first month or so after the wider infighting broke out, Abu Kamal remained free of clashes, even as ISIS was deploying suicide car bombs against rivals like Ahrar ash-Sham in nearby localities such as al-Mayadeen. However, on 8 February, some ISIS fighters crossed over the border from Iraq and launched an assault on the town, only to be driven out quickly in light clashes with JN that ended by the late afternoon on the same day (according to JN’s local spokesman whom I interviewed). JN issued a ‘repentance’ deadline on the same day for remaining ISIS members in the area, calling on them to surrender themselves and their weapons. On the following day, JN then issued a statement saying the deadline for ‘repentance’ was to be extended by another 24 hours 

Local JN statement on 9 February extending repentance deadline for 24 hours to ‘da3esh’ (derogatory acronym for ISIS).
Even so, ISIS under Saddam al-Jamal continued a clandestine campaign in the local area, culminating in the killing of four members of Kata’ib Allahu Akbar during an ambush, prompting a statement of condemnation on 18 March:

“The group was on its way to carry out a military mission as part of the missions of the ‘Battle of Bay’ah’, and on the path there was an ambush for them set by a gang from the so-called ‘Islamic State’- da3esh- under the leadership of the criminal ‘Saddam al-Rakhaytah’ [Saddam al-Jamal] so they surrounded the group of fighters and after their surrender, they were bound and then killed in cold blood with shots to the head and marks on their pure bodies.

This account came from an eyewitness with the Shari’a Committee in Abu Kamal. The criminal Saddam al-Rakhaytah spared him to send a message to the mujahideen in Deir az-Zor: that the da3esh gang will kill every mujahid who comes into their hands and so the ADF has undertaken to call out its mujahideen in Deir az-Zor and fund this criminal and those with him, for they are wanted by all brigades of the ADF in the expanses of Syrian lands so that they can face judgment and be punished with just retaliation for the crimes they have committed against the Syrian people.”

The four Kata’ib Allahu Akbar fighters killed by ISIS in March.
The local JN branch released a statement on the same day, condemning ISIS for the same ambush but also accusing Saddam al-Jamal and his followers of two other actions: first, “placing a car bomb to blow it up in the middle of the public square from the path of its followers (Ans al-Hadid and Yusuf al-Juburi from al-Baghuz)” and “placing IEDs among civilian families in the middle of Abu Kamal without regard for the safety of families and civilians from women and children (IED on the military checkpoint- IED on the house of Ya’ud Layith Sharaqat- IED on the house of Hamadi al-Alaiwi).” 

Tensions were further raised by the ongoing fighting between ISIS on one side and JN aligned with the Islamic Front and ADF on the other for control of the strategic southern Hasakah province locality of al-Markadah, which can serve a useful access point for ISIS into Deir az-Zor province. Despite repeated assaults from JN et al. on the locality, they have been unable to gain control of it from ISIS, and have had to send up reinforcements on multiple occasions from Deir az-Zor province, including Abu Kamal. 

”Now, now the fight has come”: JN’s renewed offensive on ISIS in eastern Syria at the end of March.
As it so happens, the intense fighting in al-Markadah has led to the killing of at least two JN fighters from Abu Kamal: Zayd al-Omar and Omar al-Shaman, whose corpses are shown here. This led to an emotional funeral eulogy from the Shari’a judge in Abu Kamal known by the name of Abu al-Layth (real name: Muhammad Majul al-Rawi, who, despite his surname suggesting ultimately Iraqi origins, was a native of Abu Kamal). 

In the eulogy, he denounces ISIS as the “gangs of Rafdan” (referencing Aamer al-Rafdan: ISIS’ amir in the Deir az-Zor province but to whom he ascribes control over Hasakah; also renowed for criminality like Saddam al-Jamal; his house was blown up in February by rebels) and “gang of Saddam al-Rakhaytah.” He then accuses ISIS of killing youths, entering Muslims’ homes by force, abducting women from their homes in the middle of night: “You know, oh people, what Saddam al-Rakhaytah’s gang has done.” He further denounces those who would suggest that the fight against ISIS is a case of “fitna,” which implies equal wrongdoing on both sides.

On the ISIS side, one problem for rebel factions in the Deir az-Zor area that has been developing is the fact that in addition to controlling most of Raqqa province, eastern Aleppo province, and Hasakah territory out of regime and Kurdish hands, ISIS also operates with impunity in much of the Homs province and western Deir az-Zor province desert areas, dubbed “Wilayat al-Badiya” in ISIS discourse. Here, as in the Anbar desert, ISIS has been freely running military camps, providing an apt front from which to attack rivals in Deir az-Zor province

Example of a photo of ISIS fighters in the Syrian deserts.
ISIS fighters praying at night in Wilayat al-Badiya.
The Fighting this Month

In the circumstances of a growing ISIS presence in the desert expanses, a clandestine local ISIS insurgency, and a renewed offensive on al-Markadah by ISIS’ rivals, a new ISIS offensive on eastern Deir az-Zor province comes as no surprise. The starting point was overnight ISIS movement on 9-10 April primarily focused on Abu Kamal. 

By how many routes ISIS moved on the town is a matter of dispute. Some accounts give an attack from two fronts: across the Iraq border (as happened last time in February) and from the southwest desert areas (i.e. ISIS’ Wilayat al-Badiya). While an attack on Abu Kamal using manpower from Iraq would be logical in trying to connect Anbar and Deir az-Zor provinces in ISIS’ hopes of building a continuum of territory over the borders (which they have already done so to an extent with Ninawa and Hasakah provinces), Jabhat al-Nusra’s local spokesman in an interview denied that ISIS came over from the Iraqi border, saying instead that they “departed from Raqqa and came from the Abu Kamal desert” (i.e. to the southwest).

Document recovered by rebels purporting to show the ISIS plan of attack on Abu Kamal.
The first ISIS contingents to arrive in Abu Kamal early on 10 April consisted of native Syrian members who moved in on the cultural center in the town, which has been used by Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya as a base. Apparently the ISIS fighters presented themselves on friendly terms to the rebels in the cultural center but then quickly turned their weapons on the rebels, overrunning the center. ISIS’ main forces then arrived in the town and overran multiple sites, including the Shari’a Committee’s building, the Baghuz bridge, the “industrial area,” and the grain silos.

ISIS graffiti- “Islamic State”- inside the JN Shari’a Committee building in Abu Kamal. Remnant of the assault on 10 April.
The other rebel contingents in the town quickly mobilized in response sparking intense clashes before midday. By mid to late afternoon local time, much of the areas taken by ISIS had been recaptured by JN and the other local factions, confining ISIS control to a local hospital- the A’isha hospital- the industrial area and the grain silos. The A’isha hospital soon fell into rebel hands, but Saddam al-Jamal and his associates, who were allegedly inside the hospital, escaped capture and joined the remaining ISIS contingents in the industrial area and grain silos. 

By nightfall, ISIS had been driven out from the town and was then expelled from the surrounding countryside into the desert areas at the hands of local battalions (e.g. Kata’ib Ahfad A’isha- whose leader Abu Ibrahim was killed in the fighting- and Katiba la Ghalib illa Allah), who, like the town’s local factions, drew on tribal support and had sent in some fighters to assist the rebels inside the urban area. The expulsion of ISIS by nightfall was celebrated with victory parades that can be observed here.

The fighting came at a heavy price. A complete list of those slain on the rebel side can be found here, but one of the most notable losses was Abu al-Layth for JN.

Corpse of Abu al-Layth.
Prayers in the Great Mosque in Abu Kamal for those killed in the fighting with ISIS.
The corpse of Abu Ibrahim, the leader of Kata’ib Ahfad A’isha slain in clashes with ISIS.
One of the corpses of the slain Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya fighters. A list of the dead for this battalion can be found here.
Saraqa Khalid al-‘Aran (Abu Lu’ay): a Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar fighter who was killed in the clashes with ISIS. A full list of the brigade’s dead- totaling 20 people- can be found here. The battalion hails them as martyrs killed fighting “the Nusayri dogs of da3esh.” Note that the instances of shared surnames appear to show the brigade, like other factions in the town, is based on local families.
Elsewhere in eastern Deir az-Zor province, the three main localities ISIS tried to enter on 10 April were Kabajeb, al-Quria and Taiana. In Taiana, ISIS were expelled during the afternoon by JN, and ISIS’ disappearance from the locality was confirmed on the following day in an interview with a contact from the area. 

JN flag in Taina amid celebration at the expulsion of ISIS from the town.
In al-Quria, the situation was more complicated as an apparent local agreement was reached between JN and ISIS that neither side should hold up its banner in the town. Here is a video of a reception given to a Tunisian fighter from ISIS, expressing his intentions to establish God’s law in the land. In another video, an ISIS fighter in al-Quria speaks of the “much ignorance” and shirk [polytheism] in the town. ISIS’ entry into the town was supposedly facilitated by a local battalion called Liwa al-Qa’qa’, which was accused by JN of being an affiliate of ISIS. However, Liwa al-Qa’qa’’s leadership denied these claims. The following day saw a demonstration in al-Quria against ISIS calling for the group’s expulsion from the town. Finally, in Kabajeb, ISIS’ assault was ultimately unsuccessful, with a number slaughtered by the Islamic Front and JN.

Conclusion

The fighting in Abu Kamal marks the first major ISIS offensive on rebel-held areas since the infighting broke out to have been repulsed. One factor undoubtedly significant here in the failure of the ISIS offensive (dubbed “the conquest of Abu Kamal” in ISIS social media) is the lack of local support for ISIS, particularly in light of ISIS’ leaders in the area being associated with criminality. The situation should perhaps be contrasted with eastern Aleppo, Raqqa and Hasakah provinces, where ISIS has been able to co-opt local tribal support. The phenomenon cannot be dismissed as mere ISIS propaganda.

Tribal convoy in rural eastern Aleppo province pledging allegiance to ISIS in late January.
Tribesmen in Raqqa province who have pledged allegiance to ISIS. Photo from early February.
ISIS’ lack of local support in the Abu Kamal area and nearby localities notwithstanding, the rebel side clearly sustained much heavier losses, and ISIS’ free rein in the Badiya areas in particular means that there is still a considerable chance of a renewed ISIS incursion or offensive in the near future. In short, we may well call these recent clashes a Pyrrhic victory for the rebels, and the ability to withstand another ISIS attack (backed by superior financial resources and weaponry) must be somewhat in doubt. 

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Knowledge Gap - Seymour's Hersh Of Cards

Since my earlier blog posts examining some of the issues with Seymour Hersh's piece, The Red Line and the Rat Line, Hersh has made further media appearances defending his piece.  At the same time, many more pieces have been published criticising Hersh's work.

In his recent interview in the Turkish press (update, now in English), Hersh gives more details on the claims he's making.  Hersh is asked about Volcano rockets, with my work being referenced.  Previously, Hersh has claimed the rockets used were "homemade" and not known to be used by the Syrian government. 



As I've clearly demonstrated, Volcano rockets have been in use by the Syrian military since late 2012, with both explosive and chemical versions being in use, and the chemical version turning up in previous alleged chemical attacks, including August 5th in Adra where three examples were filmed.   Videos and photographs from pro-government sources have clearly shown the government using the explosive type of Volcano rockets, which are virtually identical to the type connected to alleged chemical attacks.  It seems clear that despite their "homemade" appearance (in the view of Hersh), the rockets have been used by the Syrian government.  

This is not some small point in events of August 21st, but key evidence linking the rockets to the Syrian government, so Hersh's statement that the rockets are not used by the Syrian government seems incredibly ill-informed, and considering the amount of information easily available online it seems rather alarming that any journalists would fail to uncover that fact when writing a story on August 21st, especially one that blames a government for assisting with a false flag attack.  

When asked about Volcano rockets in his most recent interview, Hersh seems dismissive of their relevance.  Oddly, Hersh now seems to be aware of the work I've done linking the rockets to the government, and shifts his position; rather than the rockets not being used by the government, it now doesn't matter they are being used as the government because of claims about the range of the rockets by Richard Lloyd and Ted Postol, and also statements by Ake Sellstrom. He fails to address how the Syrian opposition acquired these munitions, and as I've pointed out earlier, the Syrian government has never claimed the munitions were captured or otherwise lost from the stockpiles.  The alternative is the Turkish government or Jabhat al-Nusra created perfect copies of them for their false flag attack.  

It seems this dismissiveness is down to his belief that the approximately 2km range described by Lloyd and Postol and referred to by Ake Sellstrom means any discussion about who has the rockets is irrelevant.  He appears to believe the front-lines were far more than 2km away, just like the White House claimed in their intelligence report criticised by Lloyd and Postol, and therefore not worth discussing. 

The problem for Hersh is, as Lloyd and Postol points out, the White House report lacked certain details that reflected the situation on the ground accurately.  The map provided by the White House does seems to show government position several kilometres way, and for Hersh that seems to be enough.  Except, it provable using open source information that the White House report didn't accurately reflect the situation on the ground.  

From June 2013 to August 20th 2013, ANNA News, embedded with the Syrian military, uploaded a series of reports to YouTube showing "Operation al-Qaboun". In total, nearly two dozen videos were uploaded, showing the Syrian government's forces slowly capturing a region between Qaboun and Jobar.  Videos from opposition sources show the other side of the fighting, in particular firing mortars at checkpoints on major roads in the area.  I've spent the past 8 months collecting and analysing videos related to that area, and I now have what I strongly believe to be an accurate representation of the area controlled by the Syrian government on August 21st


Videos do suggest there was some firing into these areas by opposition groups, but it appears sporadic at best, and not of significant intensity. 

But how does this relate to Hersh and his dismissal of the relevance of Volcano rockets?  The below map shows the impact locations I've found for 5 Volcano rockets used on August 21st using a combination of videos, photographs, and satellite imagery, with the 2km distance from each rocket marked in red


These only represent those five rockets I've been able to find precise positions for, and the below map shows the positions of rocket impact sites reported by the Zamalka Local Co-ordination Committee, some of which match the above locations


Despite Hersh's dismissal of the Volcano rockets importance, these images do show the impact locations were in range of government controlled areas on August 21st.  This is to assume the 2km maximum range is correct, and with the greatest respect to the work of Lloyd and Postol I do not believe their calculations have been peer reviewed.  However, based on video evidence showing rockets being launched and landing, which allows for basic calculations on how far the rockets travelled (one example here), it seems 2km is a realistic figure for the minimum range of the rockets used on August 21st.  

It seems by not researching Volcano rocket, nor the situation on the ground on August 21st, Hersh has wrongly dismissed the importance of the rockets.  As I've clearly demonstrated, Volcano rockets are used by the Syrian government, despite Hersh's statements to the contrary, and their 2km range is not an indication they can only have been launched from opposition territory.

It's also worth noting Hersh appears to completely ignore the M14 artillery rockets recovered in the west of Damascus that have also been linked to the August 21st attacks.  He makes no mention of these in his article, and only refers to "homemade" rockets, which the M14 certainly are not.  No explanation is given for their presence in the attack, nor that the attacks would have been launched from two different sites.  Again, it's seem Hersh has deemed this information irrelevant to his narrative.

A number of articles have been published in response to Hersh's piece, criticising various aspects of his report.  "Who Trusts Russian Spies on Syria?", "Seymour Hersh’s alternate reality", and "Turkey’s Syria Policy: Why Seymour Hersh Got it Wrong" all focus on different aspects of the story, and Dan Kaszeta's Hersh and the Red Herring looks closely at the chemistry and practicality of the claims made in Hersh's piece.  This includes Hersh's claim that Porton Down couldn't match batches of Sarin together from their reference stock and the type used on August 21st:
The article also either ignores or misunderstands other important technical details. Much is made of a sample of Sarin provided by Russian intelligence. Even under the best of circumstances, can we count on Russian intelligence services to have probity and objectivity, given Russia’s record of obfuscation on the issue of the Sarin attacks? After all, Russian state media has been ruthless in pursuing alternative narratives in this case. Hersh also makes much of matching samples of Sarin. By its very definition, all Sarin, binary or otherwise, is made by a batch process and not a continuous production process. Even with the best, highest grade of stockpile-quality US Sarin, there were differences between batches even though millions were spent to have a standardized product. Consistency was hard to achieve. Certainly, Iraq could not produce consistent batches. With binary Sarin, the differences can be particularly pronounced, as the product is typically made in much smaller quantities at a time. The Sarin from the first pouring from the mixing vessel can be much different than the last one. Given these differences, the ubiquitous presence of an additive, hexamine, is ever more pronounced. None of these important facts are mentioned in Mr. Hersh’s report. 
This section of the article is of particular interest as Tom Coghlan, Foreign Correspondent for The Times, contacted the MoD about these claims
Again, when asked about the work of Dan Kaszeta Hersh does little more than dismisses it, rather than realising it's key to the claims he's making.  Hersh also claims Jabhat al-Nusra has a Sarin production facility in Aleppo, clearly having no grasp of what that would actually entail (a large custom made facility to produce the quantity of Sarin used on August 21st), and his claims that Turkey were shipping precursor chemicals to the factory in Syria would require at least one end of the process to be manufacturing Methylphosphonyl difluoride, a key component of the Sarin used on August 21st, requiring large, custom built, facilities to manufacture the quantity needed for the August 21st Sarin attack, and huge amounts of closely controlled chemicals. Beyond the vaguest of explanations, Hersh provides no explanation to how any of this could have occurred, and it seems when it comes down to the finer details, that would cast doubt on the narrative he's constructed, he believes a hand wave is all he needs to dismiss it.

You can contact the author on Twitter @brown_moses or by email at brownmoses@gmail.com

Monday, 7 April 2014

What Does Seymour Hersh Knows About Volcano Rockets?

This morning, I wrote about Seymour Hersh's Volcano Problems, asking why Seymour Hersh left out key details on Volcano rockets from his recent piece for the London Review of Books, The Red Line and the Rat Line, about the August 21st Sarin attack.  Following my piece, Seymour Hersh appeared on Democracy Now, talking about the article, and finally spoke about the rockets used:


AMY GOODMAN : Sy, on Sunday, the EA WorldView website published a piece headlined "There is No Chemical Weapons Conspiracy-Dissecting Hersh's 'Exclusive' on Insurgents Once More." The author, Scott Lucas, questioned the claim that rebels could have been responsible for the chemical weapons attack last August, given the range and scale of the operation. He wrote, quote, "Reports on the day and subsequently Not indicated that 7-12 sites were Attacked with chemical agents at the same time. In other words, whoever was responsible for the attacks Launched multiple surface-to-surface rockets with chemical payloads against opposition-held towns in East Ghouta and one town in West Ghouta, near Damascus. [The chemical] ... FOLLOWED BY ... heavy Conventional attacks were attacks. " The author, Scott Lucas says, is that you fail to ask questions about wheth anyone, apart from the regime, would have the ability to carry out such an extensive operation. Sy?

Seymour Hersh : [inaudible]-we're past that first article on. We know now. Actually, The New York Times even ran a retraction, of sorts. You had a-it was like reading Pravda. But if you read the article carefully, The New York Times had run a series of articles after the event saying that the warheads in question that did the damage to the car but from a Syrian army base, something like nine kilometers, six miles, away. And at that time, there were a number of of analysts, a group from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], led by Ted Postol, who used to be a science advisor to the CNO, the chief of naval operations, Busy somebody with a great deal of background and no bias. He did a series of studies that Concluded that the warheads with his team probably did not go more than one or two, at most, kilometers-two kilometers, 1.2 miles. And we now know from the UN report-a man named Aker Sellström, who ran the UN investigation, he's Concluded the same thing: These are missiles that were fired were fired no more than a mile.

They were-one from the footage looks-just saw one, they were homemade. They did not fit any of the known nomenclature of the weapons. And do not think we do not have a very good picture of what the warheads in terms of Syrianska have. They have a series of warheads that can deliver chemical weapons, and we know the dimensions of all of them. And none of these weapons that fit. And so, you have a UN report. You have this independent report saying they were-went no more than one or two kilometers. And so, I do not know why we're talking about multiple-launch rockets. These are homemade weapons. And it seems very clear to most observers-as I say, even to the UN team that did the final report-the UN, because of whatever rules they have, was not able to say is that-who fired what. They could just say-they just could describe the weapons and never make a judgment. But I can tell you, I quote somebody from inside that investigation unit who was fired weapons were very clear that the Syrian army and were not homemade. This is asked and answered; these are the arguments that go on. This is-I assume it's a blog. I do not know-I do not know the the blog.

-----
So, point by point:
"These are missiles that were fired were fired no more than a mile" - Well, we don't know that, video of the Volcano rockets have shown them travelling at least 2km, (1.24 miles), and it's possible they have a longer range. It's much shorter than the previous estimates, as he correctly states, but videos from ANNA News, a Russian channel embedded with Syrian government forces show the frontline was around 2km away from the August 21st impact sites.

"[T]hey were homemade. They did not fit any of the known nomenclature of the weapons...They have a series of warheads that can deliver chemical weapons, and we know the dimensions of all of them. And none of these weapons that fit." - As I've repeatedly demonstrated, despite their appearance, there's clear evidence that the Syrian government has been using this family of munitions for over a year.  They don't fit any of the known nomenclature because they've been developed by the Syrian military and were virtually unknown before August 21st.

These are both issues I wrote about in my Foreign Policy article, Sy Hersh's Chemical Misfire, and questions that have been asked and answered repeatedly since.

So what's the answer to "What Does Seymour Hersh Knows About Volcano Rockets?" It seems barely anything at all, which is pretty shocking when so much information is available about them online, even in articles about Seymour Hersh's work on August 21st.  For someone making such huge accusations about the Turkish government's involvement in the August 21st Sarin attacks, you'd think he'd do at least a quick Google search the subject.

Hersh’ün Volkan Problemi

London Review of Books dün Seymour Hersh’ün 21 Ağustos’taki Sarin gazı saldırısıyla ilgili ikinci yazısını yayımladı. Aralık 2013’teki yazısında Hersh saldırılara iki açıdan bakmıştı: Beyaz Saray’ın Suriye’deki müdahaleye zemin hazırlamak için seçme istihbarat kullandığı ve delillerin saldırıda kullanılan silahların uyduruktan/doğaçlama olduğunu gösterdiğini ve bu yüzden saldırıdan muhtemelen muhaliflerin sorumlu olduğu. Bahsi geçen ilk iddia özellikle 21 Ağustos’tan beri elde edilen bilgiler ışığında araştırmaya değer olmakla beraber, ikinci iddia ise Suriye devletinin bu saldırıda kullanılan silahları 2012’nin sonlarından beri kullandığı yönündeki açık deliller sebebiyle son derece sıkıntılı. Bu konuyu “Sy Hersh’s Chemical Misfire” adlı yazımda detaylandırmıştım.

21 Ağustos hakkındaki en son yazısında Seymour Hersh Türk istihbarat servisinin 21 Ağustos’ta bir “false flag” –sahte bayrak saldırısını gerçekleştirme konusunda Suriyeli muhaliflere yardım ettiği dilini kullanıyor. Bunu özellikle bir “eski istihbaratçı” kaynağını kullanarak yapıyor. EA Worldview zaten Hersh’ün yazısındaki büyük kusurlara -özellikle ithamlarının çoğu için tek kaynak kullanması gibi-dikkat çeken harika bir cevap yazdı. Ben ise bu saldırıların belli ki Hersh’ün bilmediği veya görmezden gelmeyi seçtiği bir yönüne odaklanmak istiyorum.

Doğu Guta’da 21 Ağustos’taki saldırının ardından pratikte bilinmeyen silahların kalıntıları saldırının etkilediği birçok yerde kayda alındı.



Aylar süren araştırmalardan sonra bu füzeler hakkında önemli miktarda bilgi toplama imkânı oldu. 21 Ağustos, “Volkan” olarak bilinen bu füzelerin bir çatışmada ilk kez kullanıldığı tarih değildi. 5 Ağustos 2013’te aynı çeşit füzenin üç örneği Şam, Adra’da –iddiaya göre- gerçekleştirilen kimyasal saldırıda kaydedilmişti.

“Kimyasal füze” olarak tarif edilen bir başka örneği Haziran 2013’te Şam-Adra’da kaydedildi. Ayrıca aynı füzenin başka bir çeşidi Ocak 2013’te Şam, Daraya’da, bu kez “kimyasal füze” şeklinde tarif edilmeksizin kaydedildi.



Bütün bu olaylarda füzeler küçük somununa ve cıvatasına varıncaya kadar tam olarak aynı dizayna sahipti ve dört olayın üçünde kimyasal silah olarak tarif edilmişlerdi.

Volkan füzelerinin birden fazla çeşidinin olduğunu ve en geç 2012 sonlarından beri yaygın bir şekilde kullanılan patlayıcı çeşitlerinin de olduğunu saptamak da mümkün oldu. Hepsi aynı temel ilkeye dayalıydı; savaş başlığının çıkarılıp yerine daha büyük bir savaş başlığının takıldığı, böylelikle çok daha az menzile sahip ama tahrip gücü çok daha yüksek konvansiyonel füze.


Rejim yanlısı Youtube kanallarına ve Facebook sayfalarına, özellikle de Suriye Milli Savunma Kuvvetleri’nin resmi sayfalarına yüklenen videolar Volkan füzelerinin kullanılma anlarını gösteriyor ve rejim güçlerinin bunları bir yılı aşkın süredir kullandığını doğruluyor. Aşağıda üç temel tip patlayıcı Volkan füzeleri gösteriliyor.


Özellikle dikkati çeken ve yukarıdaki resimde gösterilen, iki namlulu fırlatıcıdan atılan 122 mm motor gövdeli Volkan. Güneybatı Şam’da rejim kontrolündeki Mezze askeri hava üssünde çekilen birden fazla video bu fırlatıcıların 2012 sonlarında kullanıldığını, sonraki fotoğraf ve videolarsa aynı tip Volkan füzelerinin ve bunların fırlatıcılarının rejim güçleri tarafından kullanıldığını gösteriyor. Suriye devletinin bu tip Volkan füzelerini bir yılı aşkın bir süredir kullanmakta olduğu inkâr edilemez görünüyor ve Volkan füzesinin bu çeşidini muhaliflerin ele geçirdiğine veya kullandığına dair hiçbir kanıt yok.

122 mm Volkan füzelerinin patlamamış kalıntıları da ortaya çıktı. Bu videoları kimyasal tipteki 122 mm Volkan füzesiyle karşılaştırmak mümkün. Patlayıcı ve kimyasal 122 mm Volkan füzeleri, füze kısımları üzerindeki yazılar dışında –kimyasal çeşidinde kırmızı rakamlar, patlayıcı çeşidinde siyah rakamlar var- görünen o ki birbirinin aynısı. Bu tip rakamlandırma farklı tarihlerdeki kimyasal ve patlayıcı füze çeşitlerinin üzerinde görülebiliyor ve kuvvetli bir şekilde rakamların renginin silahın işlevini – kimyasal veya patlayıcı- belirttiği intibasını uyandırıyor.


Savaş başlıklarıysa benzer boyutlara sahip ama farklılık gösteren yüklerinden dolayı açıkça farklı dizaynlara sahipler.  Örneğin her iki çeşit füzenin savaş başlığının tabanında delik var ama kimyasal çeşittekinin silahı doldurmak için kullanılan ayrı bir deliği daha var. (Alttaki resmin solunda)


Peki bunun Seymour Hersh’ün yazısıyla ne alakası var? Öyle görünüyor ki Hersh [Volkan füzelerinin kendi iddiasına önem teşkil ettiğini] düşünmüyor, yazılarının hiçbirinde bunların varlığından dahi söz etmiyor. Daha önce belirttiğim gibi, Suriye ordusu tarafından bunların kullanılması, Hersh’ün önceki yazısında bunların şekillerinin, Suriyeli muhalifler tarafından yapılmış, uyduruk silah oldukları intibasını uyandırdığı argümanını tamamen çürütüyor. Eğer Türk hükümeti Hersh’ün yazısında belirttiği üzere bir “sahte bayrak” saldırısına yardım ettiyse, o zaman bu silahların tamamen Suriye devletinin envanterine özgü olduğu gerçeği iki şeyi akla getirir:
  1.  Suriyeli muhalifler Sarin’siz bazı kimyasal Volkan füzelerini ele geçirmişlerdir, ve Sarin daha sonra muhaliflere Türkiye tarafından temin edilmiştir, veya,
  2. Kimyasal Volkan füzelerinin kusursuz kopyaları Suriyeli muhaliflerce veya Türk hükümetince üretilmiştir.

Birinci seçeneğe bakacak olursak, OPCW (Kimyasal Silahların Yasaklanması Örgütü) tarafından açıklamaları istendiğinde bile Suriye devleti kimyasal silahlarının herhangi birinin Suriyeli muhaliflerce ele geçirildiğini iddia etmedi. Hersh (veya kaynağının) bu silahlara hiç değinmemesi nedeniyle, bu silahların Hersh ve kaynağının anlattığı Türk “sahte bayrak” saldırısı iddiasının neresinde kendine yer bulduğunu bilmek zor.

Ayrıca unutulmamalı ki OPCW/BM timi bu füzelerden binary Sarin çeşidinin kullanıldığına işaret eden örnekler topladı. Yani Sarin savaş başlığına doldurulmadan önce karıştırılmış olmalıydı. Bu küvette yapabileceğiniz bir işlem değildir. İki prekursörün birleşimi sadece Sarin değil, güçlü bir asit de olmak üzere tehlikeli yan ürünler üretirdi, bu yüzden özel ekipmana ve güvenlik prosedürlerine ihtiyaç duyulurdu (daha fazla detay için). Ayrıca miktar meselesi de var; şimdiye kadar 21 Ağustos’ta kullanılmış 8 Volkan füzesinin fotoğraflarının topladım ve 12’nin üzerinde Volkan füzesinin kullanıldığına dair haberler var. Savaş başlıklarının 50-60 litre civarında kapasiteye sahip olacağı hesaplandı, bu da en az 400 ile 720 litre arasında bir Sarin karışımı demek.

Seymour Hersh 8 ile 12 adet arasında 2 metre uzunluğunda Volkan füzelerinin kusursuz kopyalarının,  yüzlerce litrelik Sarin prekursörlerinin ve bunların karıştırılması ve savaş başlıklarına dökülmesi için gerekli ekipmanların nasıl üretilip Türkiye’den Şam’a götürüldüğünü açıklayamıyor. Türk hükümetini Suriye’nin işgaline mazeret olsun diye yapılan korkunç bir kimyasal saldırının ortaklarından biri olmakla itham ederken, bu gibi detaylar bazı yorumcuların yapmaya yeltendiği gibi “Aman canım, uğraşırlarsa her şeyi yaparlar” denilerek geçiştirilecek şeyler değil. 21 Ağustos’ta kullanılan Volkan füzeleri özellikle Seymour Hersh’ün son ithamları bakımından kilit önemdeki delillerdir. Bu yüzden de bunların varlığına dahi değinmeyen Hersh, görünen o ki, ya inşa etmeye çalıştığı haber için son derece önemli olan bu kilit bilgilerden habersiz, ya da bunları göz ardı etmeyi seçiyor.


Türk hükümetine karşı yaptığı suçlamaların ciddiyetini göz önünde bulundurursak, böylesine bir özensizlik Hersh’ün itibarına sahip bir gazeteci için hayli sorumsuzca duruyor.

----

Ali Osman Aday'a teşekkürler.

Seymour Hersh's Volcano Problem

Update Seymour Hersh has now let the world know what he knows about Volcano Rockets, which I've detailed in my latest piece, What Does Seymour Hersh Knows About Volcano Rockets?

This article is now available in Turkish here.

Yesterday, the London Review of Books published a second piece by Seymour Hersh on the August 21st Sarin attack.  In an earlier piece published in December 2013, Hersh had approached the attacks from two angles, that the White House had used dodgy intelligence in the build up to intervention in Syria, and that the evidence suggested the munition used were improvised, and therefore it was likely the opposition was responsible.  While the first point is certainly worth exploring, especially in light of information gathered about the attacks since August 21st, the second point was extremely flawed, with there being clear evidence of the government using the type of munitions linked to August 21st going back to late 2012, which I detailed in my piece Sy Hersh's Chemical Misfire.

In his latest piece on August 21st, Seymour Hersh presents a narrative where the Turkish intelligence services aided the Syrian opposition in carrying out a false flag attack on August 21st, using one "former intelligence" source in particular.  EA Worldview has already put together an excellent response highlighting some of the major flaws in Hersh's piece, in particular the use of one source for most of his accusations, and I'd like to focus on one particular aspect of the attacks that Hersh appears to be ignorant of, or has chosen to ignore.

In the aftermath of the Sarin attack on Eastern Ghouta on August 21st, the remains of munitions that were practically unknown where recorded at several impact sites (shown below)


After months of research it has been possible to gather a significant amount of information about these rockets.  August 21st was not the first time these types of rockets, known as "Volcano" rockets, were used in the conflict.  On August 5th 2013, three examples of the same type of rocket were filmed at the scene of an alleged chemical attack in the town of Adra, Damascus


Another example, described as a "chemical rocket" was filmed in June 2013, again in Adra, Damascus, with the remains of another type of the same rocket filmed in January 2013, in Daraya, Damascus, this time without it being described as a chemical rocket.


In all incidents, the rockets have exactly the same design, down to the small nut and bolt, and in three of the four incidents they are described as being chemical weapons.

It's also been possible to establish there's multiple types of Volcano rockets, and that there are explosives types that have been used widely since at least late 2012.  They all follow the same basic principle, a conventional artillery rocket with the warhead removed and replaced with a much larger warhead, with a much reduced range, but much greater destructive capability.

Videos posted on pro-government YouTube channels and Facebook pages, in particular the official pages of the Syrian National Defence Force, shows Volcano rockets in action, and confirms government forces have been using them for over a year.  The three main types of explosive Volcano rockets are shown below


What's of particular interest is the 122mm motor based Volcano fired from the two barrelled launcher, shown in the above picture.  Multiple videos from the government controlled Mezzeh airbase, in southwest Damascus, show these launchers being used in late 2012, and later images and videos show the same type of Volcano rockets and their launchers being used by government forces.  It seems undeniable that the Syrian government has been using these types of Volcano rockets for over the year, and there's been no evidence of Syrian opposition forces capturing or using this type of Volcano rocket.

The unexploded remains of the explosive type of 122mm Volcano rockets have also been recovered, and it's possible to compare these videos with the images of the remains of the chemical type of 122mm Volcano rocket.  The rocket sections of the explosive and chemical 122mm Volcano rockets appears to be identical, apart from markings, which on the chemical type are red numbers, and on the explosive types of black numbers.  This type of numbering can be seen on chemical and explosive versions from examples from different dates, and seems to strongly suggest the colour of the number denotes the type of munition, explosive or chemical.

The warheads have similar dimensions, but are obviously different designs due to their differing payloads.  For example, both types have a port at the base of the warhead, but the chemical type has an additional port that appears to be used to fill the munition (shown on the left of the below image)


So, what does this have to do with Seymour Hersh's piece?  Well, it seems Hersh thinks nothing at all, as he fails to even acknowledge their existence in either of his pieces.  As I mentioned before, their use by the Syrian military totally destroys his argument in his earlier piece that their design suggests they are improvised munitions created by the Syrian opposition.  The fact the appear totally unique to the Syrian government's inventory would then suggest two things if the Turkish government had helped with a false flag attack on August 21st as per Hersh's narrative
  1. The Syrian opposition captured some chemical Volcano rockets, without Sarin, which was then provided to the opposition by Turkey, or
  2. Perfect replicas of chemical Volcano rockets used by the Syrian government were recreated by the Syrian opposition or Turkish government.
As for point one; the Syrian government has never claimed any of their chemical weapons have been captured by the Syrian opposition, even when required to do so by the OPCW.  As Hersh (nor, one assumes, his source) never refers to these munitions it's difficult to know how Hersh and his source thinks these munitions fits into the Turkish false flag narrative Hersh and his source has put together. 

It should also be kept in mind that the OPCW/UN team took samples from these rockets that points towards a binary type of Sarin being used, that would have been premixed before being poured into the warheads.  This is not something you can do in a bathtub, the combination of the two precursors would have produced not only Sarin, but dangerous by-products, including a powerful acid, and specialised equipment and safety procedures would have been required (more details on that here).  There's also a question of quantity; so far I've collected images of at least 8 Volcano rockets used on August 21st, and there are reports that over 12 Volcano rockets were used.  It's been calculated the warheads would have a capacity of 50-60 litres, making for at least 400 to 720 litres of the Sarin mixture.

Seymour Hersh fails to address how eight to twelve 2 meter long perfect copies of Volcano rockets were produced and transported from Turkey to Damascus, along with hundreds of litres of Sarin precursors, and the required equipment to mix it and pour it into the warheads.  When accusing the Turkish government of participating in a horrific chemical attack as the pretext to invading Syria, these sort of details aren't something that can just be hand-waved with "well, they could do anything if they put their mind to it", as some commentators have attempted.  The chemical Volcano rockets used on August 21st are a key piece of evidence, especially in the case of Seymour Hersh's latest accusations, so by not even acknowledging their existence, it seems Hersh is either ignorant of, or chooses to ignore, key information that is extremely significantly to the narrative he's trying to construct. 

Considering the seriousness of the charges he's making against the Turkish government, such an oversight seems highly irresponsible for a journalist of Hersh's reputation.


Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Why Nigel Farage Has It All Wrong: Smoking Guns, Hexamine, And Syrian Sarin

A guest post by chemical weapons specialist Dan Kaszeta.

This evening witnessed the odd spectacle  of Mr. Nigel Farage, MEP and head of the rightwing UK Independence Party, giving ventilation to discredited theories.  This is not the first time strange utterances have come from Mr. Farage, but this time he has parked himself squarely in the lane of my expertise. Sadly, he’s placed himself on the side of the brutal Assad dictatorship by repeating conspiracy theories that somehow Syrian rebels perpetrated the 21 August 2013 attacks on themselves.  This canard has been proved to be substantially wrong.   Others address it by means of  analysis  of the rockets used, but I rely on the technical aspects of the chemical weapon that was used.  I am using this particular opportunity to summarize the work myself and many others have done over the last months to get to the bottom of the 8/21 attacks.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a UN report  that confirms what I have known to be the case for some time.  There is evidence tying the Sarin chemical warfare agent used at Ghouta last year to the significant chemical warfare stockpile of the Syrian government.   I originally formulated my ideas in November of last year, and provisionally called them the ‘Hexamine Hypothesis’, a theory which now appears to be vindicated.  Indeed, I believe that the chemical hexamine is a unique link tying the Ghouta war crimes to the Syrian government.  This article explains the what, why, and how of the ‘Hexamine Hypothesis’.

Two general categories of Sarin

To the layman, Sarin is Sarin. But that’s simply not true.  I have spent a lot of time and effort studying the history of Sarin and the particularly obtuse history of industrial efforts to produce Sarin.  There are at least 20 production pathways to Sarin, each of at least 5 steps.   I do not exclude the theoretical possibility of additional pathways to Sarin being developed in a laboratory at some point in the future.  All of these methods rely on one of two reactions to produce Sarin in the final chemical reaction. For the purposes of this discussion, we can divide Sarin into two basic categories, based on the final chemical reaction.  

DF + Isopropanol reaction - The simplest methods react DF and Isopropanol.  Often, online sources, some of which are of dubious provenance, refer exclusively to these methods.  Most of the 20 or so Sarin production pathways use this reaction. This reaction combines DF (methylphosphonyl difluoride) with isopropyl alcohol.  1 mol DF + 1 mol Isopropanol react to create 1 mol Sarin + 1 mol HF (hydrogen fluoride).  By mass, this works out to 140 g of HF for each 1 kg of Sarin produced.  As you probably can understand, this residual HF is highly dangerous and destructive.  It is corrosive to most materials and seriously reduces the shelf-life of the Sarin.  Indeed, this reaction is really only suitable for binary-type weapons, and even then only if you do something about the residual HF acid. (More on this later.) The Japanese Aum Shin Rikyo cult, which used Sarin in 1994-1995 in terrorist attacks in Japan used one of the methods using this step.  If you are making Sarin to keep for a long period of time, production processes that use this reaction are not very useful as it is indeed hard to get rid of this HF.   Saddam Hussein's Iraq discovered this, because they used these methods, and the shelf life of their Sarin could be measured in weeks.  The US military used this method in the M687 binary Sarin artillery shell, and found that, without some method to counteract the HF, the binary Sarin weapon systems barely survived the six to ten seconds time of flight of an artillery shell.
“High quality Sarin” – Some critics have made points about whether or not the 8/21 Sarin was “high quality” or not.  It should be noted that this DF + Isopropanol reaction cannot make “pure” or “high grade Sarin” by definition.  This process produces a cocktail of Sarin and HF.  It produces a mix that is, at best, 50% Sarin by mol or 87% if you go by weight.
The DC+DF reaction (The "di-di" process.) - The US and the Soviet Union both realized that DF+Isopropyl worked, but created Sarin that was not very useful for long-term storage.  Both the US and the Soviet Union wanted to have weapons that could be kept in long-term storage until they were needed, not artillery shells and rockets that had only a few months shelf-life.  In this method, equal parts of DC (methylphosphonic dichloride) and DF are reacted with alcohol to produce Sarin and HCl.  From an economic and industrial viewpoint, these DC+DF methods are more complicated, because they require effectively two parallel production paths, one for DF and one for DC.  The important difference is the residual contaminant in the Sarin. In the di-di process, the residual is hydrogen chloride (HCl) not HF. While being corrosive and dangerous, is not as difficult to deal with the HCl as is the HF in the other methods. More importantly, it is much more possible on an industrial scale to refine this residual HCl out of the Sarin and get a high purity product.  Getting rid of this excess HCl is still not easy and both the US and the Soviet Union had to do a lot of research and spend much time and money to figure out how to do it.  These issues were eventually solved, but the effort to do so was measured in years and millions of dollars. It was a complex industrial process and is still considered a secret.  Indeed, the US had to re-refine its earlier stockpiles of Sarin in order to ensure a long shelf-life for its Sarin. 

Environmental and biomedical samples after 8/21

The joint UN/OPCW mission collected a number of biomedical and environmental samples.  If we delve into the details of both the interim and the final reports as well as various reports and statement made by the OPCW, there are interesting conclusions we can make if we carefully examine the fine details. These are as follows:
  • Sarin was used, not some other chemical.  We know this for the following reasons:
  • Sarin was actually detected in field samples
  • Both unique and generic Sarin decomposition products were detected in field samples
  • Sarin was re-generated out of protein adducts in human blood using a sophisticated method known as fluoride regeneration. 
  • The Sarin was binary, produced from a DF + alcohol method.  We know this for several reasons:
  • The OPCW’s own documents  refer to the Syrian government having binary methods for production of chemical warfare agents. A chemical known as MPFA (methylphosphonofluoridic acid) was found in many of the environmental samples.  This is a hydrolysis product of DF. DF degrades quickly into MPFA in the environment.  This is no smoking gun on its own, as MPFA is also a decomposition product of Sarin under alkaline conditions.  
  • No DF was found. But I would not expect this, as DF is far more volatile than Sarin, and would have either evaporated or degraded. 
  • A DC+DF method requires DC. There is no evidence of DC production, DC precursors, or DC decomposition products.  
  • The chemical hexamine, also known as hexamethylenetetramine, was present in large numbers of the field samples. It would appear that the munitions contained hexamine for some reason.  The significance of this finding was unknown to me at the time.  But with only one exception (a headscarf), hexamine was in every sample that had Sarin or Sarin decomposition products.  There were also many samples that had hexamine, but no Sarin, but this is a logical state of affairs as hexamine does not evaporate like Sarin does. 

The Syrian Regime’s Declared Inventory of Chemicals

An interesting revelation occurred 20 November 2013.  The OPCW issued a document called a “Request for Expression of Interest ” for the disposal of chemicals from Syria.  This document described the OPCW’s requirements to safely get rid of various chemicals from the Syrian government’s chemical weapons program.  The serious high-grade chemicals, such as chemical warfare agents themselves and immediate precursors aren’t listed.  So this document represents an effort to get rid of the various feedstock, additive, and waste chemicals that represent less of a proliferation hazard.  For example, the list contains 30 tons of phosphorous trichloride, which is an early feedstock chemical in many of the production methods for making Sarin.  The list also included 80 tons of hexamine.  This is really interesting.  There’s hexamine all over the battlefield and hexamine in the storage vaults of the Syrian government. 

Knowing how the Chemical Weapons Convention is written and understanding how the OPCW works, one can make several assumptions from this revelation. 
  • Assad’s government admitted to having 80 tons of hexamine. This kind of list would only be made based on declarations by the Syrian government.  The OPCW inspectors did not have the resources or wherewithal to crawl into every nook and cranny of Syria during an active war.  If 80 tons of hexamine are on this list, it is likely because this list was given to the OPCW by the Syrian government
  • The hexamine is for chemical weapons purposes: The OPCW operates within the terms of its mandate. Hexamine isn’t a substance on the various schedules of the CWC.  The OPCW has no remit to deal hexamine for its numerous commercial and industrial uses, including the manufacture of RDX, an explosive.  If it is on this list, it is because either the OPCW believes it has a use in chemical weapons industrial processes, the Syrians said that it was for such processes, or both. 
  • 80 tons ain’t cheap to get rid of: The OPCW is not going to spend money getting rid of 80 tons of a chemical unrelated to either its remit or the problem at hand.  
  • Hexamine would have been easy to deny: If the Assad regime wanted to deny the 8/21 attacks, they would have had ample opportunity to do so by not declaring the hexamine.  As it is not a scheduled chemical under the CWC it would have been quite easy for Syria to not declare it. 
The Hexamine Hypothesis

So, what is the hexamine doing on the list? And why is it all over the battlefield.  There are many commercial and industrial uses of hexamine , as a cooking and heating fuel, as the most common example.  It also has uses as an anti-corrosion aide.  However, it has very little history of use in the history of chemical warfare. Indeed, I researched the subject at some length and the only use I could find was its sporadic use as an anticorrosion additive in the seriously outdated Levinstein Mustard, an older form of Sulfur Mustard (commonly misnamed “Mustard Gas”).  There’s no use for hexamine in Mustard production processes after the 1920s, and it does not occur as a trace content in published specifications for either older or more recent US Mustard, nor does it have any use as a precursor.  

Hexamine’s anti-corrosion properties stem partly or even largely from its ability to bind with acid molecules.  This is where it gets interesting.  The US Army spent a lot of time trying to turn binary Sarin, made by the DF + Isopropanol method into a useful weapon system.  This process, described in detail above, results not in pure Sarin but in a cocktail of Sarin and Hydrogen Fluoride (HF).  When the US tried to make weapons, like the M687 155mm howitzer round, using the binary method, this surplus HF was like a wrecking ball inside the munition.  Most of the information from the M687 program is still not available, but it takes little imagination or technical knowledge to realize that HF, one of the most corrosive chemicals in existence, will have a serious deleterious effect on things like the case of the shell, the fuze, and the conventional explosive bursting charge.   The US military found that the chemical isopropylamine (also noted in the Syrian inventory, by the way) was an isopropanolamine as an additive  to reduce the HF content in Sarin produced by the DF + Isopropanol method.  The US M687 howitzer shell combined a cartridge of DF with a cartridge containing a mix of 72% isopropyl alcohol and 28% isopropylamine, a ratio published in the US Army’s Field Manual 3-9. 

While isopropylamine is the amine compound of record for use in Sarin, other amines are of use for acid scavenging, including hexamine.  I found a dissertation on the usefulness of hexamine specifically as an HF scavenger , noting the ability of one molecule of hexamine to bind up to four molecules of HF.  I consulted 5 chemists and an engineer, all of whom affirmed to me that hexamine’s utility of an acid scavenger.  Hexamine can be used in binary Sarin as an acid scavenger, either on its own or in conjunction with isopropylamine.  Because this is an “off-label” use of hexamine, and one never done before, if hexamine was in the Syrian government recipe (as implied by the inventory) AND in the field samples, it is strong evidence that the 8/21 Sarin came from government inventories and was made using a unique Syrian government process. 

Of particular interest is environmental sample 25, which was taken from the screwthread of a bolt on one of the rockets.  No amount of hexamine in the ambient environment for cooking purposes could explain the presence of hexamine on this component of the actual weapon system.  There's no physical or mechanical mechanism to explain why hexamine elsewhere in the environment would get onto a screw-thread.  Hexamine on the screw thread is consistent with hexamine dissolved in the expected cocktail of substances that result from a binary reaction.

The Hypothesis Confirmed 

After working hard to confirm my suspicions about hexamine as the acid reducer in Sarin, I originally broached this idea in an article in NOW Lebanon  in early December 2013.  Somini Sengupta at the New York Times interviewed me at length, and an appropriate question was put to the OPCW in congressional hearings on 13 December 2013 .  Ms. Sengupta put forward the hexamine hypothesis in the New York Times  on 18 December 2013. I knew I was onto something serious because of the furious onslaught of trolling, threats, and general cyberbullying I received as a result of voicing the hexamine hypothesis.   Ake Sellstrom, Swedish CBRNE expert and head of the UN/OPCW inspection mission, acknowledged the role of hexamine in the following extract from Sellstrom interview  from his interview with CBRNe World magazine:
CBRNe World - Why was hexamine on the list of chemical scheduled to be destroyed - it has many other battlefield uses as well as Sarin? Did you request to put it on the list or had the Syrian’s claimed that they were using it?
Sellstrom - It is in their formula, it is their acid scavenger.
I confirmed the veracity of this statement in an email exchange with Prof. Sellstrom, although he did not provide further elaboration. This is as close as I can ever hope to a confirmation of my hexamine hypothesis, and I believe that this was one of the reasons, if not the strongest reason, that the UN firmly concluded that the 8/21 Sarin came from Syrian government stockpiles. 

The lack of compelling alternative narratives helps to reinforce the conclusion.  Other attempts to come up with a logical explanation for hexamine are based on some combination of wishful thinking, stretches in credibility, and/or faulty chemistry. 

Conclusion:

I believe the regime committed the 8/21 Sarin attack.  The following formula is a useful summation of the evidence:

Nobody’s used hexamine previously as a Sarin additive

+

There’s hexamine in the field samples

+

There’s 80 tons of hexamine in the declared inventory of the Assad Regime

+

The Syrian government’s admission to Sellstrom’s team

EQUALS

The Assad Regime Did the Wicked Deed

About the author: Dan Kaszeta is the author of “CBRN and Hazmat Incidents at Major Public Events: Planning and Response” (Wiley, 2012) as well as a number of magazine articles and conference papers.  He has 23 years of experience in CBRN, having served as an officer in the US Army Chemical Corps, as CBRN advisor for the White House Military Office, and as a specialist in the US Secret Service. He now runs Strongpoint Security, a London-based CBRN and antiterrorism consultancy. Mr. Kaszeta also holds a part-time post as Senior Research Fellow with the International Institute of Nonproliferation Studies and is a contributor to Wikistrat.