5072 words . . .
At 6:30 A.M. on 4 April, local time, the town of Khan Shaykhun in the Idlib province of the Syrian Arab Republic was allegedly attacked using chemical weapons. “It was like a winter fog”, said Mariam Abu Khalil, a fourteen-year-old resident, who saw the effects on the occupants of a car. “When they got out, they inhaled the gas and died”. The White Helmets reported that “the victims were panting, vomiting and foaming at the mouth”, and also that the four explosions were unusually weak. “They thought for the first time the missiles didn’t explode”. The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations, which funds hospitals in rebel-held areas, said that three of its own staff were “affected by the attack” while treating patients, as well as that the victims were experiencing:
- redness of the eyes
- foaming from the mouth
- face cyanosis
- severe dyspnoea
The first western journalist to reach the area was the Guardian‘s Kareem Shaheen two days later:
[Abdulhamid al-]Yousef had rushed to help the other victims of the attack. He came back instead to find that much of his family had perished, including siblings, nephews and nieces. His wife and children had rushed down to the bomb shelter in their basement, only for the toxic gas to seep into it, which killed them all.
That evening at the cemetery, he insisted on carrying his two infants in his arms to bury them himself. Almost in a trance Yousef repeated the children’s names, choking as he did so. “Aya and Ahmed, my souls. Yasser and Ahmed, my brothers who had my back. Ammoura and Hammoudi, Shaimaa, so many others,” he said.
The B.B.C. has presented many pictures:
Those are only some of the testimonies and images you can find online from the thousands of outlets, independent journalists, government agencies and commentators which have made this dusty little opposition settlement in war-torn Syria into arguably the most significant flashpoint in international relations since Iraq. I wrote my previous post, in which I gave a brief history of the Syrian Civil War before investigating Al-Ghouta in 2013, as a primer to help make sense of what happened here.
We do not have the benefit of years of research and reflection now, as we did then, but that has not stopped President Trump from launching a missile strike — the first time Assad’s forces have ever been directly targeted by the U.S. — Vladimir Putin from blocking a U.N. resolution condemning the attack, a denouncement of the U.S. by Russia and some significant changes in the electoral landscape of the west.
I guess Trump wasn't "Putin's puppet" after all, he was just another deep state/Neo-Con puppet.
I'm officially OFF the Trump train.
— Paul Joseph Watson (@PrisonPlanet) April 7, 2017
There are competing narratives and different interpretations; at the time of writing not even a month has elapsed (though time seemed to pass very slowly, at least for me), but already the amount of information out there is significant, and, significantly, significantly contradictory (*shrugs* — don’t judge my word choices). We’re going to try to piece together exactly what happened, as best we can know, and who, at this time, it is most sensible to blame.
Unlike in Al-Ghouta, we have a rough idea of casualties. The White Helmets say eighty-nine:
4th joint report between SCD & Idleb health directorate in regards to Khan Shaykhun chemical attack. 89 killed (33kids & 18wmn), 541 injured pic.twitter.com/uR5Hgp402T
— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) April 7, 2017
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had it at eighty-six two days previously, while François Delattre, French ambassador to the U.N., claimed 100. According to this article, local rescue workers and doctors had a toll of seventy-four with 600 injured. So not as wide-ranging as in Al-Ghouta, where there were estimates between 300 and 1429; we know that dozens of people died, but not hundreds. There’s differences, but I wouldn’t quite go as far as to say the death toll is “disputed”.
Unlike in Al-Ghouta, we are disadvantaged in that we do not have a U.N. investigation to refer to to cement the facts of the situation. A statement was released on 4 April where it was conceded that “the United Nations is not currently in a position to independently verify these reports”. Instead we have the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and its ongoing fact-finding mission in Syria. On the day of the attack they promptly announced they would begin investigating the use of chemical weapons in Idlib. Their findings began to come out on April 19:
The bio-medical samples collected from three victims during their autopsy were analysed at two OPCW designated laboratories. The results of the analysis indicate that the victims were exposed to Sarin or a Sarin-like substance. Bio-medical samples from seven individuals undergoing treatment at hospitals were also analysed in two other OPCW designated laboratories. Similarly, the results of these analyses indicate exposure to Sarin or a Sarin-like substance.
Director-General Üzümcü stated clearly: “The results of these analyses from four OPCW designated laboratories indicate exposure to Sarin or a Sarin-like substance. While further details of the laboratory analyses will follow, the analytical results already obtained are incontrovertible.”
We know, then, that a nerve agent was used, and that it was probably sarin. Bear in mind however that this is a relatively recent piece of information, and was not available when most of the sources here were put together.
As in Al-Ghouta, Assad is held responsible by the West. President Trump labelled it “reprehensible” and “heinous”. Rex Tillerson went further: “[Assad operates] with brutal, unabashed barbarism”, he said. “Anyone who uses chemical weapons to attack his own people shows a fundamental disregard for human decency and must be held accountable”. Trump then authorised a missile strike on a military base in Syria, thought to have housed the warplanes used. Britain, France and the U.S. submitted a U.N. draft resolution condemning “in the strongest possible terms” the attack, with the British ambassador asserting that “this is clearly a war crime”. Russia later blocked it, to characteristic lambasting from Boris Johnson. “Russia faces a choice”, he said. “It can continue acting as a lifeline for Assad’s murderous regime, or it could live up to its responsibilities as a global power, and use its influence over the regime to bring six long years of failed ceasefires and false dawns to an end”.
The White House’s evidence came in the form of a four-page intelligence report released on April 11:
The United States is confident that the Syrian regime conducted a chemical weapons attack, using the nerve agent sarin, against its own people in the town of Khan Shaykhun in southern Idlib Province of April 4, 2017. According to observers at the scene, the attack resulted in at least 50 and up to 100 fatalities (including many children), with hundreds of additional injuries.
We have confidence in our assessment because we have signals intelligence and geospatial intelligence, laboratory analysis of physiologicalsamples collected from multiple victims, as well as a significant body of credible open source reporting, that tells a clear and consistent story.
They go on to lay out their narrative:
A significant body of pro-opposition social media reports indicate that the attack began in Khan Shaykhun at 6:55 AM local time on April 4.
Our information indicates that the chemical agent was delivered by regime Su-22 fixed-wing aircraft that took off from regime-controlled Shayrat Airfield. These aircraft were in the vicinity of Khan Shaykhun approximately 20 minutes before reports of the chemical attack began and vacated the area shortly after the attack. Additionally, our information indicates personnel historically associated with Syria’s chemical weapons program were at Sharyat Airfield in late March making preparations for an upcoming attack in Northern Syria, and they were present at the airfield on the day of the attack.
Hours after the April 4 attack, there were hundreds of accounts of victims presenting symptoms consistent with sarin exposure, such as frothing at the nose and mouth, twitching, and pinpoint pupils. This constellation of symptoms is inconsistent with exposure to a respiratory irritant like chlorine — which the regime has also used in attacks — and is extremely unlikely to have resulted from a conventional attack because of the number of victims in the videos and the absence of other visible injuries. Open source accounts posted following the attack reported that first responders also had difficulty breathing, and that some lost consciousness after coming into contact with the victims — consistent with secondary exposure to nerve agent.
After describing a later attack on a hospital, they conclude:
We are certain that the opposition could not have fabricated all of the videos and other reporting of chemical attacks. Doing so would have required a highly organized campaign to deceive multiple media outlets and human rights organizations while evading detection. In addition, we have independently confirmed that some of the videos were shot at the approximate times and locations described in the footage.
Long-winded, but worth quoting at some length (I also couldn’t copy-and-paste it, so I had to tap all of that out). They presented data for the warplanes’ flight paths as well as satellite imagery for what they believed to be the impact crater:
The U.S. narrative is no more than that, but I will say it’s certainly more coherent than the stories of either the Syrian regime or Russia. State media published the statement Assad’s government made on April 4, and it amounts pretty much to a doubling-down. They “categorically deny” the allegations made against them, and the article reminds us that the media outlets pressing the attack are “partner in shedding the Syrian blood”. Apparently, regarding chemical weapons, the Syrian Army “has never used them, anytime, anywhere [this blogger disagrees], and will not do so in the future”.
The article at least has the good decency to attribute “the use of chemical and toxic substances and the disregard for the lives of innocent citizens” to “terrorist groups”, but the interview Assad gave later on April 13, frankly, I think is an unprecedented exercise of those “formidable powers of denial” Ronald Reagen gets credited with, to the point of simply telling reality it is wrong. Props to him for agreeing to an interview, I guess, but now that I’ve watched it my hopes for the Syrian Arab Republic are not high:
Not everything he said was unreasonable. He raised some good points about the strange timing and lack of motive he had, and the fact that, if the regime had chemical weapons, it should logically have used them earlier. What I find disconcerting is the blank refusal to accept an attack had even taken place, and there’s a couple of moments where I can tell he’s being disingenuous on purpose. (note: the two are not native English-speakers, and where appropriate I have tightened up their speech).
Interviewer: Mr. President, first I want to thank you very much for receiving me for an interview. Mr. President, did you give an order to strike Khan Shaykhun with chemical weapons last Tuesday?
Assad: Actually, no one has investigated what happened that day in Khan Shaykhun. As you know Khan Shaykhun is under the control of Al-Nusra Front, which is a branch of Al-Qaeda. So the only information the world has had, until this moment, has been made public by an Al-Qaeda branch. No one has any other information. We don’t know if the pictures or videos we’ve been seeing are true or fabricated. That’s why we asked for an investigation into what happened in Khan Shaykhun.
Right. Khan Shaykhun is completely locked down so the only hope we have of finding out what’s going on there is Al-Qaeda Facebook posts, is it? To start with, Al-Nusra split from Al Qaeda as far back as July 2016, and, if this letter from a citizen-journalist in Idlib is anything to go by, the changes since then have been clear, so when Assad calls it an Al-Qaeda branch he isn’t really doing anything more than lying. Secondly, we have the satellite images of the site released, showing the crater, as part of the U.S. intelligence report, unless he’s going to claim they’re false they’re false. Finally, if you scroll up to the top of this post you’ll remember western journalist Kareem Shaheen had managed to get to the site by April 6! Is he a member of Al-Qaeda?
Interviewer: So what happened that day?
Assad: As I said the only source is Al-Qaeda; we cannot take it seriously. But our impression is that the West, mainly the United States, is hand in glove with the terrorists. They fabricated the whole story in order to have a pretext for the attack. It wasn’t attacked because of what happened in Khan Shaykhun: it’s one event. Stage one was the play that we saw on social networks, on T.V.s — the propaganda. Stage two was the military attack . . . There was only a few days — two days, forty-eight hours — between the play and the attack, and no investigation, no concrete evidence about anything. It was only allegations, and propaganda, and then strike.
The O.P.C.W. has evidence an attack took place and sarin was used, remember, but even bearing in mind this interview was conducted before April 19 there is still such a thing as a reasonable assumption. What Assad is doing here is out-scepticing the most sceptical of sceptics and casting doubt on whether anything happened at all on April 4. We should probably hear his reasoning.
Assad: How can you verify video? You have a lot of fake videos now, and you have proof that those videos were faked, like the white helmets for example. They were Al-Qaeda — they were Al-Nusra Front — who shaved their beards, wore white hats and appeared as humanitarian heroes . . . We don’t know about those dead children. Were they killed in Khan Shaykhun? Were they dead at all?
Wew. I guess once again I refer you to Kareem Shaheen. Not to mention all of the eyewitness accounts, including the fourteen-year-old quoted a ways above, as well as Dr. AbdulHai Tennari, who said he treated dozens of patients. “If they got the hospital we can treat them. Two children who took a while before they were lifted out of the rubble died”. Mohammed Rasol told the B.B.C. he saw people chocking in the street when he arrived twenty minutes after hearing about the attack. All of these people would have to be “Al-Qaeda” “terrorists” for the attack to be entirely a false flag.
There’s also the small matter of all of the hospitals that reported treating injuries, backed up by the World Health Organization. The White House claims to have “independently confirmed that some of the videos were shot at the approximate times and locations described in the footage”. Obviously this doesn’t mean too much, as long as they keep their methodology secret, but it’s worth bearing mind. I understand not trusting the White Helmets, let alone random people in videos who say that they’re White Helmets, but come on!
Also, once again, Al-Nusra Front is not Al-Qaeda. I’m not even passing comment on whether they’re any better or worse.
He goes on to make some points which are relatively reasonable and worth considering, and some others I simply cannot be bothered to refute. I’ve been at this for almost twelve hours — don’t judge.
Interviewer: The Pentagon said there were chemical weapons in the airbase. You deny that?
Assad: They attacked that airbase, and they destroyed the depots, containing different materials, and there was no sarin gas at all. They said that we launched the sarin attack from that airbase. What happened to the sarin when they attacked the depot? Did we hear about any sarin? Our chief of staff was there a few hours later. How could he go there if there was sarin gas? . . . You have hundreds of soldiers and officers working there, and there was sarin, but they didn’t die.
That might be because sarin is incinerated when you blow it up — not ignited. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon of the British Armed Forces Joint Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Regiment (blarrghhghggh), interviewed by the B.B.C. as part of their general rundown of events in Khan Shaykhun, said that “axiomatically, if you blow up Sarin, you destroy it”. Nerve agents, also, tend to use binary technology. What this means is that the final stage of synthesis involves mixing two separate precursor chemicals very shortly before launching the attack, perhaps even when the warhead is in flight, though that kind of technology is thought beyond the Assad regime. The O.P.C.W. explains:
Most chemical ammunition can be described as unitary, which implies that it contains one active ready-to-use CW agent. Binary technology implies that the final stage in the synthesis of the nerve agent is moved from the factory into the warhead, which thus functions as a chemical reactor. Two initial substances which are stored in separate containers are mixed and allowed to react and form the nerve agent when the ammunition (bomb, projectile, grenade, etc.) is on its way towards the target.
In 1991 Iraq declared a mixing method to begin the reaction before launch. Another paragraph from Dan Kaszeta, the managing director of Strongpoint Security Limited:
Even assuming that large quantities of both Sarin precursors [isopropyl alcohol and methylphosphonyl difluoride] were located in the same part of the same warehouse (a practice that seems odd), an air-strike is not going to cause the production of large quantities of Sarin. Dropping a bomb on the binary components does not actually provide the correct mechanism for making the nerve agent. It is an infantile argument. One of the precursors is isopropyl alcohol. It would go up in a ball of flame. A very large one.
Honestly, I’m starting to doubt Assad used sarin simply because he does not understand it. It was deployed in Khan Shaykhum, and it could have been stored at Shayrat Airfield; this is incontrovertible. He goes on to shut down any possibility a rogue element within his army could have ordered the attack and insists he and the Russians were not properly warned of the U.S. strike.
Now, the Russian story. Russia released its statement on 4 April, claiming that from “11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (local time) the Syrian aviation made a strike on a large terrorist ammunition depot”, which contained workshops producing chemical weapons:
Terrorists had been transporting chemical munitions from this largest arsenal to the territory of Iraq. Both international organizations and the authorities of the country had repeatedly proved their usage by terrorists.
These chemical munitions had been also used by militants in Aleppo, their using was registered in the end of the previous year by the Russian specialists.
The poisoning symptoms of the victims in Khan Sheikhun shown on videos in social networks are the same as they were in autumn of the previous year in Aleppo.
The implication here, of course, is that the sarin was ignited by a Syrian regime airstrike on a depot containing sarin. Several problems persist, the first of which Assad himself refers to (to his credit) on multiple occasions in the interview: timing. The attack took place at “11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (local time)”, and yet reports of sarin exposure were coming in throughout the morning, with the strike thought to have taken place at around 6:30. Moreover, once again, sarin is destroyed upon ignition; you can’t have your cake (Shayrat Airfield) and eat it (Khan Shaykhum depot). The article Dan Kaszeta wrote was actually intended as a refutation of the Russia narrative, and he goes on to assert the rebels do not have the capacity to deploy sarin:
Finally, we are back to the issue of industrial capacity. It takes about 9 kg of difficult to obtain precursor materials to generate the necessary steps to produce Sarin. The ratio is similar with other nerve agents. Having a quantity of any of the nerve agents relies on a sophisticated supply chain of exotic precursors and an industrial base. Are we to seriously believe that one of the rebel factions has expended the vast sums of money and developed this industrial base, somehow not noticed to date and not molested by attack? It seems an unlikely chain of events.
His view was corroborated later on by French intelligence. In 2013 they had gained possession of an unexploded grenade dropped from a helicopter, which they analysed to find “it contained a solid and liquid mix of approximately 100ml of sarin at an estimated purity of 60%. Hexamine, DF and a secondary product, DIMP, were also identified”. Reasoning that since it was dropped by helicopter it could only have belonged to regime forces, the French were suspicious when they found the same chemical compounds at Khan Shaykhum:
The presence of the same chemical compounds in the environmental samples collected during the attacks on Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April2017 and on Saraqib on 29 April 2013 has therefore been formally confirmed by France. The sarin present in the munitions used on 4 April was produced using the same manufacturing process as that used during the sarin attack perpetrated by the Syrian regime in Saraqib. Moreover, the presence of hexamine indicates that this manufacturing process is that developed by the Scientific Studies and Research Centre for the Syrian regime.
That the rebels had the capacity to carry out the attack is not thought credible:
While it has been confirmed that mustard gas attacks have been carried out by Daesh in Syria since 2015, France assesses that the theory of an attack by the armed groups using a neurotoxic agent on 4 April is not credible. France has no information confirming the possession of sarin by these groups.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) was born from the merger of several radical factions with the Al-Qaeda movement Jabhat Fatah al-Sham after the fall of Aleppo. Pragmatic coordination between HTS and other armed groups present in the Hama sector was observed in late March. To the knowledge of the French services, none of these groups has the capability to employ a neurotoxic agent, or the air capacities required.
The theory of an attack perpetrated by Daesh is not plausible either, as Daesh is not present in the sector of Hama. Moreover, the French intelligence services have not observed that Daesh has sarin or air capacities.
Neither do the French services assess that the theory of a staged attack or manipulation by the opposition is credible, particularly because of the massive influx in a very limited time towards hospitals in Syria and Turkey, and the simultaneous, massive uploading of videos showing symptoms of the use of neurotoxic agents.
Pretty much the entire second half of the U.S. report is dedicated to refuting the Russia narrative, in fact, raising, amongst other things, the point that it was not a depot that appeared to have been struck but the middle of the road, going by satellite imagery, and that the damage to nearby structures was not consistent with a high-explosive payload. Returning to Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, he called Russia’s argument “pretty fanciful”; Kaszeta went as far as to label it “infantile”.
So far then, the “Assad did it” narrative seems to be holding up. Things definitely look like they’re clearer cut than in Al-Ghouta, even though we have fewer actual reports and more partisan government releases.
Once again, however, someone clever began poking holes in the established narrative — someone clever who readers may recognise, in fact. Does anyone remember Theodore A. Postol? He made it into my previous post, jabbing at the findings in Al-Ghouta by offering a competing analysis of the rockets used. Postol is professor emeritus of science, technology and national security policy at M.I.T. — a weapons expert. He has won awards for debunking claims about missile defense systems and has been a scientific adviser to the U.S. chief of naval operations. He read the White House report when it came out, and wrote a “quick turnaround assessment” that evening. To it he later added an addendum and then a scathing analysis of video evidence in which he concludes the White House report “contains false and misleading claims that could not possibly have been accepted in any professional review by impartial intelligence experts” and was “fabricated without input from the professional intelligence community”.
Postol’s main problem in his first writeup is the lack of evidence in the U.S. report that the attack was carried out from the air, and thus that the Syrian government was responsible. He runs through his analysis, before summarising:
No competent analyst would assume that the crater cited as the source of the sarin attack was unambiguously an indication that the munition came from an aircraft. No competent analyst would assume that the photograph of the carcass of the sarin canister was in fact a sarin canister. Any competent analyst would have had questions about whether the debris in the crater was staged or real. No competent analyst would miss the fact that the alleged sarin canister was forcefully crushed from above, rather than exploded by a munition within it. All of these highly amateurish mistakes indicate that this White House report, like the earlier Obama White House Report, was not properly vetted by the intelligence community as claimed.
He speaks of the “politicization of intelligence”, and of his belief that the Obama Administration’s Al-Ghouta report was also not properly vetted by intelligence analysts. In his April 13 addendum, he gives evidence that the impact site — the crater — was tampered with:
At the very least, Postol claims the White House’s assumption the site was not tampered with is very unwise. For the second picture, he notes that the men’s protection is not adequate, and that “if there were any sarin present at this location when this photograph was taken everybody in the photograph would have received a lethal or debilitating dose of sarin”. He suggests they were either dangerously ignorant of proper measures or already cognisant that the site was not contaminated. He condemns the writers of the report in even stronger terms than before:
It is hard for me to believe that anybody competent could have been involved in producing the WHR report and the implications of such an obviously predetermined result strongly suggests that this report was not motivated by a serious analysis of any kind.
This finding is disturbing. It indicates that the WHR was probably a report purely aimed at justifying actions that were not supported by any legitimate intelligence.
By the time of the final writeup on April 14, he sounds thoroughly fed up:
It now appears that the president ordered this cruise missile attack without any valid intelligence to support it.
In order to cover up the lack of intelligence to supporting the president’s action, the National Security Council produced a fraudulent intelligence report on April 11 four days later. The individual responsible for this report was Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, the National Security Advisor. The McMaster report is completely undermined by a significant body of video evidence taken after the alleged sarin attack and before the US cruise missile attack that unambiguously shows the claims in the WHR could not possibly be true. This cannot be explained as a simple error.
He directly challenges the White House on its claim to have independently checked various videos (importantly, he does not dispute their claim to have verified time and location):
The evidence presented herein is from two selected videos which are part of a larger cache of videos that are available on YouTube. These videos were uploaded to YouTube in the time period between April 5, 2017 and April 7, 2017. Analysis of the videos shows that all of the scenes taken at the site where the WHR claims was the location of a sarin release indicate significant tampering with the site. Since these videos were available roughly one week before the White House report was issued on April 11, this indicates that the office of the WHR made no attempt to utilize the professional intelligence community to obtain accurate data in support of the findings in the report.
The video evidence shows workers at the site roughly 30 hours after the alleged attack that were wearing clothing with the logo “Idlib Health Directorate.” These individuals were photographed putting dead birds from a birdcage into plastic bags. The implication of these actions was that the birds had died after being placed in the alleged sarin crater. However, the video also shows the same workers inside and around the same crater with no protection of any kind against sarin poisoning.
So there we have it. One of the world’s foremost academics on this subject is, in an increasingly exasperated fashion, attacking a White House report that looks more and more like it was political as opposed to factual in purpose, to retroactively justify Mr. Trump’s bombing of Shayrat Airbase. Astute readers will have noticed some of the evidence presented in this post is undermined by Postol’s analysis. There is no telling whether the rest of the White House’s claims — that it tracked Syrian warplanes and that it independently verified the time and location of some of the videos — are stretches of the truth or even outright lies.
We also have no motive for Assad to order this attack, in that there was nothing of value worth striking in Khan Shaykhun, he knew the reaction he would provoke, and there were, as he mentions in the interview, more opportune times and places to deploy chemical weapons if he had the means and the will to.
The claims of various agencies that the rebels do not have the capacity to use sarin do not appear to match up with documentation. in my first post I utilised an article adaptation of a book by Reese Erlich, containing a variety of examples of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, including the following:
Then, in late May, Turkish newspapers reported that suspected members of al-Nusra were arrested carrying two kilograms of Sarin with plans to attack the US Air Force base at Adana, Turkey. By the time the case came to trial, however, the Turkish government did not prosecute the men for possessing Sarin. There’s no public record on why prosecutors didn’t pursue the chemical-weapons issue.
Honestly, I don’t think Western forces are aware of the capabilities of the rebels in Syria any more than they were the communists in Vietnam. This time I honestly do not know what to conclude. If it is true that Syrian warplanes were tracked moving to and then from the town, as the White House claims, we’ll have very compelling evidence. That, however, cannot be taken as given. When I investigated Al-Ghouta, I ultimately came down against Postol on the side of the Human Rights Watch, if not the U.S. government; here, however, I just don’t know.
The answer to the title, it seems, is quite a lot, but in the end not much.