Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Comments On The Use Of Chemical Weapons In Syria

I should start this post by saying that in the past I've found much of what's been posted on Global Research to be far to conspiratorial for my liking, and in many cases just plain nonsense (for example this piece), so when I say this piece is a good round up of reports of chemical weapon use in Syria, it's not something I say lightly.

As this post is a partly response to the article Was the Syria Chemical Weapons Probe “Torpedoed” by the West?, it's best to start giving that a read.  While I may not agree with some of the conclusion the article draws, particularly the last paragraph before the postscript, it's a good summary of many of the reports on chemical weapon use in Syria.  However, there's a few points I'd like to comment and expand on in relation to three attacks I've written about on this blog in the past.

Khan Al-Assal

The author takes a look at many of the claims surrounding this attack, and one thing I'd like to focus on the claims of the government written about by Alex Thomson of Channel 4 News
Syria believes the chemical involved was a relatively small amount of chlorine gas, namely CL17 which was dissolved into saline solution in a home-made rocket. Two separate military sources have confirmed to Channel 4 News that it was a rocket and not a shell.
Syrian sources say the missile was fired from an area close to Al-Bab which they say has been in the control of the Islamist group Al-Nusra Front for some time and that it hit a military checkpoint on the edge of Khan al-Assal to the west of Aleppo.
So note the following characteristics
- A "relatively small amount of chlorine gas" which was "dissolved into saline solution".
- A "home-made rocket"
- Fired from an area "close to Al-Bab" hitting "a military checkpoint on the edge of Khan al-Assal to the west of Aleppo", distance of around 47km.

It's also worth noting the causalities, with various reports put the number killed as around 25-30, with dozens injured, as well as reports of the smell of chlorine at the scene of the attack.

The reports of chlorine being used in the attack have led a number of people to draw a connection between that and the capture of a chlorine-gas manufacturing plant near Aleppo which is now reportedly under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra, and chlorine gas attacks by insurgents in Iraq from 2006 onwards.  

My problem with that claim is if you look at the types of attacks in Iraq and the number of causalities that theory seems to fall apart.  First consider that according to Alex Thomson's report the chlorine was dissolved into a saline solution carried by a homemade rocket.  In Iraq chlorine tanks (and in some cases tankers) were loaded onto vehicles packed with explosives with many of the causalities coming from the initial explosion rather than exposure to chlorine gas.  Very few of these attacks resulted in the same numbers of deaths and injuries as the Khan Al-Assal attack, so the question is whether or not it's reasonable that a single DIY rocket loaded with chlorine dissolved in saline could reasonably be expect to cause anywhere near the same amount of injuries as trucks laden with explosives and chlorine gas canisters.  

There's also the question of the rocket used.  The vast majority of DIY rockets I've seen in Syria look something like this:


These rockets have far too small a payload (around 13 pounds) and would have trouble reaching targets 4km away, let alone 47km.  There have been far rarer videos of a larger DIY rocket, shown below


In the video it's claimed the rocket can reach 60km away, but I would always take these sorts of claims coming from the opposition with a pinch of salt, especially when you consider the range of other similarly sized rockets, which are helpfully listed here.  You would have to believe this DIY rocket had a comparable range to larger professionally manufactured rockets for it to reach Khan Al-Assal from Al-Bab, as well as the rocket being able to deliver enough saline dissolved chlorine using an unknown dispersal method to cause the causalities reported.  I'd also have to ask how the government knew the chlorine has been dissolved in a saline solution.

Another thing to note is that if a DIY rocket was used, and it was carrying a warhead containing saline dissolved chlorine rather than explosives you'd expect there would be some sort of remains that could have been recovered from the scene of the attack, yet there's never been any images of that.  As far as I'm aware there's also been very few, if any, images from the scene of the attack, and considering how quickly Syrian State TV appears on the scene after many of these attacks it seems odd there's never been any footage produce from the scene in this instance (although I'd be happily proven wrong in that regard).

Now this isn't to say I'm 100% certain chlorine was or wasn't used, but just to highlight a number of key questions and problems if that's the final story from the government.  If the government had said this was a vehicle loaded with chlorine that was detonated in Khan Al-Assal then I'd have a much easier time believing their story, but I just don't think a DIY rocket with a saline dissolved chlorine warhead fired from 47km away is a reasonable explanation for the number of causalities seen.

Sheikh Maqsoud and Saraqeb

I've touched on this subject in a previous post, highlighting the links between the two attacks, but I'd like to look at it in more detail, and examine what has been said about both attacks.

The Sheikh Maqsoud attack in Aleppo on April 13th was detailed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights
Aleppo province: Two children aged 1 and 2 years old were martyred and a woman was killed by wounds. They were killed by 2 bombs dropped by a military helicopter on their house in the al-Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood, based on activists from the neighbourhood. The casualties' neighbours reported to the Syrian Observatory that they heard a helicopter at dawn and later heard two explosions, after heading to the house they found some of the residents unconscious and others killed. 16 were wounded by poisonous gases and were transported to the A'frin city, medical sources reported that those injured suffered hallucinations, severe vomiting, nose bleeding and eye burning, one of which lost eye sight. The Syrian Observatory calls upon the United Nations and the Red Cross to immediately send committees for treating the injuries and discovering the nature of the gases, that has been reportedly used in al-Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood.
Syria Deeply also provided more details of the attack
After completing his prayers around 1 a.m. on April 13, Yasser fell asleep with his wife, two young children, and sister, who all shared a bed in a modest home in Sheikh Maqsood, the Kurdish-majority frontline neighborhood in Aleppo.
“I heard something explode on the roof. I thought it was a shell and called my brother for help,” he said. His eldest son, one and a half years old, started mumbling and was soon hyperventilating.
The baby, only four months old, was also struggling. “I knew then that there were chemicals in the air and I told everyone to get out. I screamed for help and saw my neighbors come in,” Yasser said, recounting the horror he experienced while recuperating at a hospital in Afrin, a town north of Aleppo.
Patients exhibited hyper-salivation, increased secretions, eye pain, muscle spasms and seizures, and loss of consciousness, Dr. Hassan said. Volunteers who helped rescue Yasser’s family and medical staff who came in contact with the victims all exhibited the same symptoms.
Unusually items were recovered from the scene of the attack and photographed


The victims of the attack were also filmed


The second video was part of a report by the Times which left CBRNe World (a respected magazine providing "those tasked with defending against CBRN and IED threats with the essential practical, scientific and political information") unimpressed
The Times newspaper broke the story with grand words about their ‘investigation’ by Anthony Loyd. It takes a brave journalist to work in a warzone, but last time we checked Mr Loyd is neither a doctor or an expert on chemical attacks. Other than a building hit by a munition, he was mainly shown video footage of the medical aftermath- which he (and others) have decided is convincing because it has people frothing at the mouth. The other ‘key evidence’ is that Doctors have said they used atropine and it had an immediate effect.
So why are we so skeptical? Well let’s start with the foaming. Its incredibly bright white and even compared to the discoloured, flecked and bubbled nature one more usually associates with mouth foaming. Its also the first time I have seen the word ‘foaming’ used as a symptom. Salivation, drooling yes but not foaming. A cursory check of CDC, NLM, or indeed any of a range of good medical sources would have backed this up. Even comparison with the victims of Tokyo.
What can we infer from the ‘evidence’? Nothing. No bodies, no medical evidence, no pictures made public of the ‘canister’ and no explanation for such an unusual and frankly ineffectual use of chemical agent. As for responding to atropine quickly - anyone given atropine reacts quickly! Heart rates will slow, sweating reduce or stop, jitters and shaking will be calmed. Its effectiveness at this doesn’t mean the person was exposed to nerve agents. The description of the attack is unusual, both the level of physical damage (a torn plastic awning)  and the description of its functioning.
Could it be real - possibly. Could it be misdiagnosed and something other than sarin - possibly, could it be a fake - possibly. Has it advanced our understanding or confidence - not a single iota. 
Now let's look at the attack in Saraqeb on April 29th.  In this attack a number of videos were posted showing the victims of the attack, as well as the video that begins with what's claimed to be an item dropped from a helicopter falling through the skies


What's very interesting is the item shown in the following two videos, which is claimed to be the weapon used in the attack

As I detailed in my earlier post this is an exact match for one of the two items recovered from the scene of the earlier Sheikh Maqsoud attack, and having spent a lot of time investigating what these items are I believe they are almost certainly some sort of gas grenade.  I believe in the following photograph they've attempt to reassemble the top of the grenade with the fly-off lever, but have actually put the lever on back-to-front


It seems incredibly unlikely sarin gas, or any lethal chemical weapon, would be delivered from a helicopter inside a gas grenade.  That leaves two questions, what type of grenade is this, and what was inside it?  Despite asking multiple experts in various related fields, those two answers have elluded us, so if anyone is able to answer those questions it might bring some clarity to the issue of chemical weapon use in Syria.

I'd also like to say to anyone who plans to investigate this container that it's about getting a perfect match, not something that "looks a bit like it".  I've seen plenty of those, and that's the problem, it's the perfect match that's alluding us.

Related posts
Video Claims To Show A Chemical Bomb Dropped On Al-Bab
A Great Example Of How Not To Write About Chemical Weapons And Arms In Syria
Links Between Alleged Chemical Attacks In Saraqeb, Idlib, and Sheikh Maghsoud, Aleppo

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

10 comments:

  1. Oh, hey... thanks. (this is me, AL/CL). You raise valid-seeming questions about the death toll in Khan al-Assal, and other points. I really don't know how many pounds of what would be needed, or anything like that. And as I said elsewhere, interesting points about the weapons (which got more interesting just now).

    I do note there's no response to the main content on the investigation. That also seems pretty fair.

    Also, let me apologize to you and anyone who reads that article that I didn't get the (20%) shortened edit with typos fixed and the April 4 agreement worked in, turned in soon enough, so we're stuck with this version. Not too bad, but could've been better.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I remember a counter-point now to your rocket vs. truck bomb comparison re: death tolls.

    One of the problems with the chemical aspect in those Iraq blasts was the heat of the explosion cooked off most of the chlorine before it could hurt anyone (read that around). Thus, only an unlucky few (further from the blast?) died, and mainly it's just the truck bomb itself doing anything.

    So if there was hardly any blast, just a poof of chlorin/saline/HcL gas, it might be much more deadly. And then, no one has seen the impact zone yet - how indoors vs. outdoors, what kind of breeze, etc.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. I'm going to put together a questionnaire and send it to some experts I know, get them on record about these things.

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