Saturday 14 December 2013

Responses To The Final UN Report Into The Use Of Chemical Weapons In Syria - Part 2

In this second part of my ongoing series on the final UN report into the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, Former Commander UK CBRN Forces and COO SecureBio, looks at what the UN/OPCW did and didn't achieve, and details his thoughts on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

The UN/OPCW Final Report - Mandate and What they Did and Did Not achieve

The UN/OPCW mandate was very clear….’to identify if chemical weapons were used in Syria’.  This mandate referred to 5 sites of alleged use of CW in Aleppo, Damascus and Saraqeb.  It also included Khan al-Assal which the Russians offered information on, in a determined fashion, that the Opposition were to blame.  What the mandate did not critically do was direct the UN/OPCW to apportion blame.  This could have been possible, and has been possible since by various experts around the world, many of them cajoled, interpreted and assimilated by Brown Moses.  However, the team assembled under the very able Ake Sellstrom did not appear to posses the expertise able to make judgements of use, his team made up predominantly of scientists and inspectors, right for the task in hand, but taking those with military expertise, who could analyse what they saw on the ground and judge, with a high degree of certainty who was responsible, was lacking – a missed opportunity, which is now evident – to most.  This lack of capability in the military expertise area could also be manifesting itself in the planning for the movement of the CW stockpile to Latakia, which appears to be unravelling late in the day.

Those of us with experience of movement in war-zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, can see the challenges of moving a very large convoy through very complex and dangerous terrain.  The fact that some of the issues, such as security and availability of appropriate vehicles, are only just becoming apparent, suggests that those involved in the planning process lack the experience and capability to be able to identify these shortcoming at the beginning of the planning process, when it would have been clear.  A similar sized convoy moved a few years ago in Afghanistan from Kandahar to Kajacki Dam in Afghanistan.  This was a strategically important move, like this one, to take a hydroelectric turbine to the Kajacki dam to provide electricity to Helmand and Kandahar provinces.  The planning took around 6 months involved 10,000’s of troops and lots of military hardware to ensure success.  There appeared to be basically one route along Highway One and then up route 66 through Sangin and on to Kajacki, and passing through, or close to, a number of Taliban strongholds – hauntingly similar to the issue of moving CW to Latakia – the physical challenges of the move is where the similarities end.  In the end, the convoy surprisingly cut across the formidable desert, similar to Hannibal going over the Alps, caught the Taliban by surprise and the turbine was successfully delivered, on time, intact – which now looks unlikely for the CW move, especially on time – and the reality being that this delay, could/probably will affect Geneva 2 22 Jan 13, the first genuine hope for peace in this 3 year conflict.

Back to the UN/OPCW inspectors and report; remember they arrived in Damascus on 20 Aug 13, and the Ghouta attack was on 21 Aug 13.  Nobody could believe the Regime would use CW as the inspectors arrived in Town and hence began the conspiracy theories, and creating confusion and uncertainty on this most complex of battlefields.  The inspectors then had the opportunity to go to Ghouta a few days later to collect evidence.  Both the Regime and Opposition allowed this to happen, and led each to claim they had nothing to hide.  The inspectors collected a whole array of evidence, under very challenging conditions, which allowed them [UN/OPCW] to unequivocally state that Sarin, in quantities probably more than a couple of hundred litres was used at Ghouta.  They [UN/OPCW] also collected evidence of delivery methods and azimuth and trajectory of rocketry.  All this has since been analysed and analysed, by many including myself, and with my military expertise, I am unequivocal in my assertion that  responsibility for Ghouta attack is firmly in the hands of the Regime.  Three factors lead me to this, firstly, the detail and level of planning required for this type of attack is well beyond the Opposition, the amount of Sarin used is well beyond the Opposition to manufacture, and the loading and delivery methods are only held by the Regime.  Hence if I were on the ground with the UN/OPCW I would have been confident to attribute the attack to the Regime, even more so than I am from my armchair in my office at Porton Down, UK.

The UN/OPCW also looked at Khan al-Assal and Saraqeb and concluded that Sarin was used in both events.  I covered the Sarin attack with the BBC’s Ian Pannell and concluded without doubt, that the Regime was responsible, and we didn’t have any detailed chemical analysis kit with us.  But the CW was tipped out of a helicopter, without doubt, and the Opposition certainly did not posses helos and the Regime did.  It was apparent to me from the symptoms I saw and talking to those around that this was a Sarin attack.  The UN/OPCW had the same and better evidence, and could, mandate aside, also have attributed blame.  The Khan al-Assal attack is different to the others, as it could be concluded that the Opposition is responsible.  UN/OPCW conclude that Sarin was used mainly from evidence provided by the Russians and that the victims were Syrian soldiers.  It could be the Opposition - AQ certain claim to be in the CW market – they [Opposition] could have acquired small amounts of Sarin,  the Regime recently stated that they had lost some [Sarin] from Aleppo Airport and the Syrian Army soldiers were victims.  It could also have been the Regime, who are probably not beyond killing their own people to gain a tactical advantage.  It could have been fratricide, which is always possible, and likely; experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan bear this up, and the highly complex battlefield of the Syrian conflict make this also a possible explanation.

So what have the UN/OPCW done and not done? – they have unequivocally stated that CW was used after 3 months of detailed study, well done!  – I appeared on the BBC Today programme at 0830 on 21 Aug 13 – I was rung at 0815 and asked to comment on the attack and had just returned from my morning run around London, I had a quick look at the evidence (YouTube videos) and said to TODAY……….’ it looks like Sarin and it looks like the Regime handiwork, because of the amount of agent probably used and the level of planning required’…… and I have only reinforced my view since.  So, they [UN/OPCW] haven’t attributed blame which if directed they should and could do, may be supplemented with some military expertise.  It’s import because we know the Regime is responsible for Ghouta, and those responsible must face justice in time, and if the Opposition is responsible for Khan al-Assal then we all need to be on our guard; because if the Opposition have Sarin, so does AQ and ISIS and this would now be a global threat which we all need to be resilient against.

The Syrian Regime and its CW stockpile is currently hold the International Community to ransom and they [CW] must be moved out of Syria or neutralised as soon as possible to allow any chance of some sort of peace – the job of the UN/OPCW is far from over, but I expect they need some additional support, and I for one, hope, that HM Government steps up to the plate and offers to do some of the heavy lifting.


More responses to the UN report can be found in part 1 and part 3 of this series.


  1. Some good points:especially about the lack of military expertise. I would agree that only the Regime had the delivery method capable of delivery this much CW agent but I disagree that the UN could conclude with any confidence that the three rockets referred to in the report were the delivery vehicles. Consequently it was essential to have military expertise on the ground.

  2. I speaking as a ISIS sympthetizer can tell you that there is little to worry about when it comes to 'global threats' posed by ISIS. They have no intention to strike the west after their victory even though obvious casus belli on their side. The only country that should worry is France seeing as how they invaded Mali to fight AQ however CW would not be a preferable method seeing as how they had the capacity to use CW in the past yet never did.