Friday 13 December 2013

Responses To The Final UN Report Into The Use Of Chemical Weapons In Syria - Part 1

Yesterday, the final UN report into the use of chemical weapons in Syria was published online (here), detailing the investigation into several alleged uses of chemical weapons in Syria.  I've invited a number of chemical weapon specialists to give their thoughts on different aspects of the report, and today I'll be focusing on the Khan al-Assal attack, Saraqeb and Sheik Maqsood attacks.

Khan al-Assal

In July, Russia provided the UN with a 100-page report on their own investigation into the chemical attack in Khan al-Assal on March 19th 2013.  While the report was not published, key findings were detailed by the Russian Foreign Ministry when the report was submitted, and also reiterated in a statement by H.E. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations
It was established that on March 19 the rebels launched an unguided "Basha'ir-3" projectile towards Khan al-Assal controlled by the Government forces. As you know, 26 people were killed (16 of them were military personnel), 86 injured and intoxicated to different levels.
The results of the analysis clearly indicate that the ordnance used in Khan al-Assal was not industrially manufactured and was filled with sarin. The sarin technical specifications prove that it was not industrially manufactured either. The absence of chemical stabilizers in the samples of the detected toxic agents indicates their relatively recent production. The projectile involved is not a standard one for chemical use. Hexogen utilised as an opening charge is not used in standard ammunitions.
Therefore, there is every reason to believe that it was the armed opposition fighters who used chemical weapons in Khan al-Assal.
According to the information at our disposal, the production of "Basha'ir-3" unguided projectiles was started in February 2013 by the so-called "Basha'ir al-Nasr" brigade affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.
Not only did the Russian's claim it was a DIY rocket fired by the Syrian opposition, but even the specific type, "Basha'ir-3", and the group involved, the "Basha'ir al-Nasr" brigade.  One would assume that as this claim is being made in relation to the 100-page report presented to the UN, the teams investigating the Khan al-Assal attack would be fully aware of the details on those rockets, which are incredibly specific.  However, in the final report the picture is somewhat less clear
The United Nations Mission received contradicting information as to how chemical weapon agents were delivered in the Khan Al Asal incident. Witness statements collected by the UNHRC Commission of Inquiry, provided to the United Nations Mission, supported the position by the Syrian Arab Republic that a rocket was fired from the neighborhood. However, according to other witness statements to the UNHRC Commission of Inquiry, an overflying aircraft had dropped an aerial bomb filled with Sarin.
The United Nations Mission was not able to collect any primary information or any “untouched” artifacts relevant to the incident and necessary for an independent verification of the information gathered. 
It goes on to say
The United Nations Mission received from the Government of the Russian Federation its report of the results of the analysis of samples obtained from Khan Al Asal from 23 to 25 March 2013, which identified Sarin and Sarin degradation products on metal fragments and in soil samples taken at the site of the incident.
For me, the question I have now is why the big difference between the UN report and the Russian report about which munition was used?  It seems the type remains of the munition would be the best possible evidence of who was responsible, especially if the Russian's were able to figure out the exact type of munition, and which group uses them.  If Russia had that level of detail, why is the UN report unclear on whether or not it was even a rocket that was responsible?  It's also very interesting that the UN report also states
The team was open, however, to receiving any biomedical samples previously collected by the Syrian Government, which the United Nations Mission would authenticate through DNA tests.
No biomedical samples were handed over to the United Nations Mission by the Syrian Government.
So why did the Syrian Government fail to keep what would have been key evidence in the investigation?  Either way, it seems that the Russian's must have the best possible evidence of opposition responsibility, and with the UN report failing to concur with their results, it's time that the Russian government publishes at least that part of their findings to clear up the discrepancies between the reports.

Saraqeb and Sheikh Maqsoud

Saraqeb and Sheikh Maqsoud are two attacks I spent a number of months investigating.  What first caught my interest in the two attacks was the method of attack used.  Reports and images from both attacks suggested a similar method of attack, my initial thoughts on which I detailed in this April 2013 post.  The March 29th Saraqeb attack, which took place two weeks after the Sheikh Maqsoud, is described in the UN report
The source close to the opposition claimed that, on 29 March 2013, a helicopter was seen passing above the western part of Saraqueb flying from north to south and that the helicopter allegedly dropped items at three locations. The first point of impact was reportedly in the northern area of the town, the second in the middle of the courtyard of a family house, and the third was close to an opposition checkpoint on the roads to Idlib and Aleppo.
A trail of white smoke reportedly came down from the helicopter as improvised munitions were allegedly observed being dropped. 
This mostly agrees with the detailed report I put together on the Saraqeb attack on May 17th, but at that time I believed only two items were dropped from the helicopters.  It was also reported that the Sheikh Maqsoud attack involved the same method of attack, but there was a lot more that linked the two attacks.

The UN describes the munition used in the Saraqeb attack as follows
Based on the information gathered by the United Nations Mission from the source close to the opposition, the Saraqueb incident was atypical for an event involving alleged use of chemical weapons. The munitions allegedly used could hold only as little as 200 ml of a toxic chemical. Allegedly tear gas and chemical weapon munitions were used in parallel. The core of the device allegedly used was a cinder block (building material of cement) with round holes. These holes could, allegedly, serve to “secure” small hand grenades from exploding. As the cinder block hit the ground, the handles of the grenades would become activated and discharged. Some of the hand grenade–type munitions allegedly contained tear gas, whereas other grenades were filled with Sarin.
I've spoken to a number of chemical weapon specialists about this method deliver in the past (earlier interviews here, here, and here), and the general viewpoint has been this would be a really odd way of delivering Sarin.  There's video and photographic evidence from Saraqeb, with the BBC report on Saraqeb showing video footage of the munition falling through the sky, as described in the UN report

The shattered remains of one of the cinder blocks used

And photographs and videos of the grenades used

Compared to the Saraqeb report, there was very little information on the Sheikh Maqsoud attack, but what there was appears to link it to the Saraqeb attack.  Aside from reports of a helicopter dropping the munitions, we also had a series of photographs

In these photographs we see the remains of the same type of white grenade, surrounded by the same type of debris that appears to have come from a disintegrating cinder block.  It would seem that this evidence would link the two attacks, and point towards the use of Sarin in the Sheikh Masqoud attack.

The story of the white grenades didn't stop there.  In May, I was sent the following photograph from Jeffry Ruigendijk of a Jabhat al-Nusra fighter (hi-res here)

This begged the question of whether or not Jabhat al-Nusra has the same grenades, and what they actually were.  Journalist Alfred Hackensberger took up the challenge of finding out, and detailed his finding in my blog post The Hunt For Chemical Weapon Attack Linked Gas Grenades In Syria
At beginning, nobody recognized them and we thought we are at a dead end. But later, we found two rebels at front line position in Assafireh who immediately recognized them. They were sure of seeing them on rebels, but didn't remember if the were from Liwa Tawhid or al-Nusra. But anyway, they said this were smoke grenades, not chemical grenades. Later in Aleppo we found two more men who said same thing.
He went on to add
He said, that he saw these grenades (the original one from Saraqeb and Maqsoud) during his military service over one year ago in Daraa (before he defected). An elite force, supposedly from the 4th Division, was training with these grenades. His officer told him that the grenades were delivered by Iran and would contain, beside smoke, a certain nerve relaxant, to calm protesters down. The former soldier also said that these grenades were not used at that time.
So it seems that if these grenades were carrying Sarin in the Saraqeb attack, they don't appear to have been designed to do so.  For me, the Saraqeb and Sheikh Maqsoud attacks have always been a bit of a mystery. The delivery method has seemed, awkward, and almost self-endangering.  Why use a helicopter to deliver just 3 of the munitions, for such a tiny number of causalities, in areas where the attack has no obvious military value?  Could what we've seen in these attacks have been a test? There were certainly no other reports of these munitions being recovered in relation to chemical attacks, so it remains somewhat of a mystery.

More responses to the UN report can be found in part 2 and part 3 of this series.


  1. Funny report - nothing at all about Zamalka. Old lie remains lie, right? Sad.

  2. Moses, I tweeted to ask you, can I translate these series into Arabic and publish it on your blog? This`s quite significant informative articles.
    Appreciate your efforts.

    1. Sure, if the quality is up to scratch that's no problem.