Assume nothing; believe nobody; check everything. “I became a journalist partly so that I wouldn’t ever have to rely on the press for information”, goes the saying. I am not a journalist, but it’s clear to me that the press is not to be trusted any more than is necessary when it comes to Syria.
The bulk of the western world attributes two chemical weapons attacks in Syria, in Ghouta, Damascus in 2013 and again in 2017, to Bashar Al-Assad, and events have spiralled, as I’m sure everyone knows; but from the first detailed report I read into the event I realised just how unclear and contested the story was — how many holes there were. Looking back at 2013 I see now that those events were even more confusing, and nobody is quite sure who to blame. I see that most of the people I talk to simply pick a perpetrator, the one that conforms to their worldview already in this disputed little corner of the planet. I want to fix that. This is going to be a two-parter; I want to find out exactly what we know happened in both cases. Since the president of the United States just made a dramatic U-turn and escalated the situation further than ever based on data that is still disputed, I think it’s pretty important (I was also prodded on Twitter by @Vernaculis).
Before we begin, let’s go over exactly what is happening in Syria and why there is a conflict. All too often people let themselves be carried away by newspaper headlines without researching proper context, background or nuances. It only takes a couple of sensationalist articles before you’ve picked a side, and neutralising bias is much harder than avoiding it (I call this Israel Syndrome). This long article and this video, while imperfect, are good refreshers, and also passable educators for people who had no interest in the Syrian Civil War before.
In summary, the 2011 Arab Spring launched waves of protests against the Syrian government, which were stomped on hard by President Assad in March. In July they picked up their own arms and became rebels, and the country descended into full-scale civil war, with Assad refusing to step down. A variety of rebel factions of varying degrees of moderation and foreign support struggle against the government, one of which, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, is an alliance formed primarily by Al-Nusra, once an Al-Qaeda affiliate. The western world, for the most part, supports the moderate Syrian Democratic Forces alliance. In 2012 the Kurds seceded from Assad’s rule in the north with a view to forming their own state, and in 2014 a renegade jihadist group broke with Al-Nusra to form the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which everyone should be familiar with. I.S.I.S. fights both the Assad government and the rebels, including the more extremist ones.
To make things even more complicated external powers have become involved. They have been accused of fostering religious sectarianism, as the mostly Shia Islamic nations are pitched against the mostly Sunni ones (Assad is Shia in a Sunni-majority country — hence his secularism). Iran, Lebanon and Russia actively support the government forces, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States the rebels. All of the nations in the region have picked a side. The United States almost bombed the Syrian government after the 2013 chemical weapons attack, but held off, and eventually changed focus to I.S.I.S. when it rose the next year. The late policy of the Obama Administration was that Assad is bad and ought to go, but I.S.I.S. must be destroyed. They have armed and trained moderate groups, and since September 2014 have directly attacked Islamic State. The U.S. is worried about accidentally arming jihadists and other extremists — concerns not shared by Saudi Arabia, which has lent far greater support. Iran is thought to have poured billions into financial aid for Assad and deployed hundreds of combat troops, while Lebanon has sent thousands. Turkey supports the rebels, but takes issue with the Kurdish Popular Protection Units — members of the Syrian Democratic Forces — which it asserts are an extension of the outlawed Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party. It has bombed Kurds even as they fight I.S.I.S. Russia, finally, moved in September 2015 to bomb “terrorists”, but instead simply attacked rebels, including western-backed ones. Having helped prop up Assad, President Putin ordered the “main part” of his forces to withdraw six months later, though his aid was still instrumental in securing Aleppo in December 2016. Most recently, of course, under the Trump Administration the U.S. Navy has directly attacked a government airbase. At the time of writing it remains to be seen whether there will be further escalation.
Syria is an incredibly complicated civil war, and also a regional and increasingly global proxy war. Fitting into this confusing and developing situation, taking place in these violent and hostile conditions, we have two heavily disputed events: two chemical weapons attacks, using the deadly nerve agent sarin, both of which are attributed to Assad by the west (and the Vox video). We’ll tackle the first one here.
The attack took place in Al Ghouta, Damascus on August 21, and on August 30 the White House released its own assessment:
A preliminary U.S. government assessment determined that 1,429 people were killed in the chemical weapons attack, including at least 426 children, though this assessment will certainly evolve as we obtain more information.
We assess with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack against opposition elements in the Damascus suburbs on August 21. We assess that the scenario in which the opposition executed the attack on August 21 is highly unlikely.
It also asserts that “the Syrian regime has the types of munitions that we assess were used to carry out the attack on August 21, and has the ability to strike simultaneously in multiple locations”, as well as that “the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons over the last year primarily to gain the upper hand or break a stalemate in areas where it has struggled to seize and hold strategically valuable territory”. As for the strike itself:
Multiple streams of intelligence indicate that the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21. Satellite detections corroborate that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred – including Kafr Batna, Jawbar, ‘Ayn Tarma, Darayya, and Mu’addamiyah. This includes the detection of rocket launches from regime controlled territory early in the morning, approximately 90 minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media. The lack of flight activity or missile launches also leads us to conclude that the regime used rockets in the attack.
This is the version of events largely accepted by the West, compiled within a fortnight. But how does it stack up against what various investigations have revealed?
A good place to start is probably the U.N. Report from September 2013. Its objective was “to ascertain the facts related to the allegations of use of chemical weapons and to gather relevant data and undertake the necessary analyses for this purpose”. Interestingly, the UN investigators were already in Syria — in Damascus, in fact. They had arrived on the 18 August and were preparing to investigate previous allegations of chemical attacks in the government-controlled village of Khan Al Asal in March, and were redirected to look at Al Ghouta. As a matter of fact, seven separate allegations of chemical weapons attacks were investigated in the year of 2013, and the final report on the matter can be found here, for those interested.
This leaves us with two interesting questions: why would Assad gas his own village in March, and why would he launch a much, much larger attack in Damascus in August almost immediately after the investigators had arrived? None of this makes political sense. The two U.N. reports confirm the attacks happened, but make no mention of perpetrator. From the second cited:
The United Nations Mission collected credible information that corroborates the allegations that chemical weapons were used in Khan Al Asal on 19 March 2013 against soldiers and civilians. However, the release of chemical weapons at the alleged site could not be independently verified in the absence of primary information on delivery systems and of environmental and biomedical samples collected and analysed under the chain of custody.
And now the first:
On the basis of the evidence obtained during our investigation of the Ghouta incident, the conclusion is that, on 21 August 2013, chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic, also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale.
In particular, the environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent Sarin were used in Ein Tarma, Moadamiyah and Zamalka in the Ghouta area of Damascus.
Right. We know that these attacks happened. The use of surface-to-surface rockets seems to back up the White House story, and by extension points towards the Assad regime for blame; how could the rebels have got surface-to-surface rockets? But this still means we have to make the heroic assumption that Bashar Al-Assad was so stupid that he used a nerve agent in Damascus mere days after investigators had arrived — in Damascus — to look into a similar previous incident. He would have to be even more stupid to gas his own people in Khan Al Asal; but if that wasn’t him, doesn’t that mean that, however unlikely, the rebels could have been behind Al Ghouta as well? This, however, would require the rebels to murder their own people. Perhaps Assad simply thought he could get away with it, which, when you think about it, considering the United States did not in the end invade, he did.
Let’s look further into the rockets used. Human Rights Watch ran its own investigation, which agreed with the White House that the Assad government was responsible. The key piece of evidence they present is the assertion that the weapons system used was a “surface-to-surface rocket system of approximately 330mm in diameter — likely Syrian-produced — and a Soviet-era 140mm surface-to-surface rocket system to deliver a nerve agent”. They go on to say:
The evidence concerning the type of rockets and launchers used in these attacks strongly suggests that these are weapon systems known and documented to be only in the possession of, and used by, Syrian government armed forces. Human Rights Watch and arms experts monitoring the use of weaponry in Syria have not documented Syrian opposition forces to be in the possession of the 140mm and 330mm rockets used in the attack, or their associated launchers.
Crucially, or not — I am not a weapons expert — the investigators were not actually there. What they did was “review available video and photo footage from the scene of the attacks, including high-resolution images obtained directly from a source who photographed and measured the rocket components found in the Eastern Ghouta attack”.
Some more evidence comes in the form of this New York Times report, which builds the case that the rockets were fired from a government complex called Mount Qasioun, nine kilometres away. It is “Damascus’s most prominent military position. It is also a complex inseparably linked to the Assad family’s rule”.
They built their case with a variety of interviews, data in the U.N. report and maps made by The Times and Human Rights Watch which plot the rockets’ trajectories, showing that they intersect at Mount Qasioun.
Rebel forces have never penetrated the major military installations of Mount Qasioun. In tactical and technical terms, they would almost certainly have been unable to organize and fire sustained and complex barrages of rockets from that location undetected.
So far, it looks like the “Assad did it” narrative is holding up; however, discounting the logical confusion and the possibility that the rebels had chemical weapons, there is also a case against the White House.
A B.B.C. report reveals the highly disputed death toll — a far cry from the White House’s 1429. This would be quite OK if the figure was roughly accurate, but it is not. Activists initially put the toll at 300, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirms 502. Medicins Sans Frontieres claims to have treated over 3600 patients with “neurotoxic symptoms” at its hospitals. Of those, 355 had died. French intelligence puts the figure at a minimum of 281, and the Violations Documentation Centre lists 588 and names almost all. Only the rebels came up with 1300, close to the U.S. number.
Then in December came another New York Times article, which essentially refuted the previous one. Weapons experts Theodore A. Postol and Richard M. Lloyd analysed the rockets and concluded that they were propelled by Soviet-era “Grads”, which are a common ground-to-ground rocket system possessed by both the Syrian government and the rebels. If this is correct, they say, “then the maximum range of the munition would be no more than three kilometers, and likely less”. The published range is around 20 kilometres, but the Sarin would have necessitated a flat warhead — a “soup can” — that would have significantly increased drag. Such rockets would have a range of between 2.5 kilometres and 3.5, and the longer estimate is unlikely because the greater airspeeds would produce stresses that made it more likely to tumble or even break apart.
Importantly, it is still entirely possible for the regime to have fired these rockets. There are many possible launch sites within that range that were firmly under government control throughout 2013. On the other hand, any presumptions that the rockets were fired from the heart of government territory, totally indisputably, go straight out the window, as does the claim that the delivery system is beyond the rebels’ resources. It conflicts very much with the analysis of the New York Times and Human Rights Watch.
Do the rebels have access to Sarin? We don’t know, but it looks as though they might. One of my most useful sources in writing this post has been an article adaptation of a book by Reese Erlich. He talks in some detail about various other chemical weapons attack that same year, using his own interviews and research into the matter far beyond anything I could hope to corroborate. He opines that “it appears that al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels had the expertise and capability to carry out small-scale chemical attacks”. This seems to ring true, since the attacks over the year fell in both rebel- and government-held areas. He also has a refutation to the Human Rights Watch’s claim that the rebels could not have possibly mustered enough Sarin for an attack of this size:
Investigative reporter Gareth Porter offered another explanation. He argued that much less Sarin was used than commonly thought. The rebels could have diluted Sarin with water. So they would only have had to manufacture as little as fifteen gallons of Sarin. Some victims showed symptoms inconsistent with Sarin poisoning, possibly caused by tear gas or smoke grenades. Under Porter’s theory, extremist rebels didn’t have to transport dozens of gallons of Sarin from Turkey to Al Ghouta.
So what can we say in conclusion? We know there was a huge attack in Al Ghouta and that at least hundreds died, almost certainly exposed to the nerve agent Sarin. We have competing analyses of the launch system and location, one of which definitely implicates the government, one of which leaves open room for the rebels. We can say that it is plausible the rebels had access to Sarin, and that they deployed it on a small-scale before. We can say that Assad, though he had a reason to gas Al Ghouta to clear out large numbers of the opposition, would have to be either reckless or stupid to have done so while U.N. investigators were on site already looking into allegations of Sarin deployment in Khan Al Asal. The rebels, meanwhile, would have to have successfully implemented a highly ambitious plan to kill large numbers of their own people in an unprecedented attack to stir up foreign anger. It may simply be that Assad did not care about the investigators, and played bluff with the Obama Administration, I would argue successfully.
I’m not sure what to conclude. The White House plainly jumped the gun with its assessment, unless it is still harbouring significant information in secret. Some might call what they wrote lies. The preponderance of evidence in my view still lies with the Human Rights Watch and New York Times, though it appears, unless Assad is better at 4d chess than Trump is claimed to be, he was not the only one with chemical weapons in 2013. A leading member of the U.N. enquiry commission expressed doubt as early as May.
Having lain out the evidence, I say now that I believe the attack was carried out by Bashar Al-Assad, only because it seems most likely and least dependent on far-out whimsy. It is an easier assumption to make that Assad is reckless than that the rebels carried out a war crime widely thought beyond their capabilities even if they did have Sarin — against their own people in order to dupe western governments. The report by Lloyd and Postol is less credible than the one by the Human Rights Watch, in my opinion, and much of the rest of the “rebels did it” case is built on conjecture anyhow.
This is not what I believed when I began my investigation.