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Attempts to Blame the Syrian Opposition for the August 21st Sarin Attacks Continue One Year On

August 20, 2014

By Eliot Higgins

Over the last year numerous attempts have been made to place the blame for the August 21st Sarin attacks in Damascus on opposition groups, in an attempt to deflect criticism away from the Syrian government. These attempts have come from various sources, but thanks to open source information it’s been possible to debunk these claims as they’ve been made. One early example, repeated by the Russian government, was the videos were uploaded the day before the attack, proving the attacks were propaganda. A simple investigation revealed this was in fact due to videos uploaded to YouTube have a displayed upload date from the US based servers, with the actual upload date being part of the YouTube metadata. This was one of many now discredited attempts to blame the opposition for the attacks.

Volcano rocket

What has become clear over the past year, as various theories have fallen to the wayside, is the use of “Volcano rockets” to deliver the Sarin on August 21st, and the composition of the Sarin, have become key points in discerning who was responsible for the attack. Volcano rockets are unusual as they have a unique design not seen outside of Syria, coming in both explosive and chemical versions, and in different sizes. Videos posted by forces loyal to the Syrian government have shown them using the explosive rockets, and the chemical type were linked to previous attacks on opposition forces going back to late 2012.

Work by Dan Kaszeta, a chemical weapons specialist, has linked hexamine detected in samples taken from and around Volcano rockets used on August 21st to hexamine declared in the Syrian government’s chemical weapon programme inventory to the OPCW. Dan Kaszeta believes hexamine would have been used as an additive, an “acid scavenger”, to the two chemicals mixed together to produce Sarin to neutralise the destructive effects of acid produced as a by-product of that reaction.

This theory seemed to have been supported by a question answered by Dr Åke Sellström, head of the UN Inspection Team to Syria, during an interview with CBRNe World magazine

Winfield – Why was hexamine on the list of chemical scheduled to be destroyed – it has many other battlefield uses as well as Sarin? Did you request to put it on the list or had the Syrian’s claimed that they were using it?

Sellstrom – It is in their formula, it is their acid scavenger.

The question was left out of the final published interview due to space considerations according to the editor of CBRNe World, but the interviewer, Gwyn Winfield, has confirmed the exact wording of the question and answer, and that the interview was recorded.

Any theory blaming the opposition for the attack would need to explain the use of Volcano rockets, a munition firmly linked to the Syrian government. In the CBRNe World interview Dr Åke Sellström explains the Syrian governments own claims about the attacks

Several times I asked the government: can you explain – if this was the opposition – how did they get hold of the chemical weapons? They have quite poor theories: they talk about smuggling through Turkey, labs in Iraq and I asked them, pointedly, what about your own stores, have your own stores being stripped of anything, have you dropped a bomb that has been claimed, bombs that can be recovered by the opposition? They denied that.

To me it is strange. If they really want to blame the opposition they should have a good story as to how they got hold of the munitions, and they didn’t take the chance to deliver that story.

Keep in mind the Syrian government is claiming their stores were not stripped and no bomb that they used has been reclaimed by the opposition, so based on that it would seem the only way for one of their Volcano rockets to end up in Eastern Ghouta is if they fired it.

The lack of a coherent theory from the Syrian government hasn’t stopped others from trying to piece together their own. The most recent and notable efforts came from Pultizer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh, who published a pair of articles in the London Review of Books, Whose Sarin? and The Red Line and the Rat Line. In his most recent piece he constructs a narrative where Turkey provided Jabhat al-Nusra with chemicals to make Sarin, which was then used by Jabhat al-Nusra in a false flag attack in an attempt to draw the US into the conflict.

In an article by myself and Dan Kaszeta for the Guardian, It’s clear that Turkey was not involved in the chemical attack on Syria, we detailed the reasons Seymour Hersh had got it wrong, focusing on the Volcano rockets used in the attacks and the complexities of manufacturing Sarin. Seymour Hersh had previously stated “It’s not hard to make Sarin. You could mix it in the backyard. Two chemicals melded together”, which in one sense is true, Sarin is produced by mixing two precursors, except without the proper equipment you’re going to get yourself and your neighbours killed pretty quickly. When asked about the points raised by myself and Dan Kaszeta in an interview for Diken Hersh’s response was to resort to ad hominem arguments, failing to address the points we raised, or doing so in such a way that revealed his own ignorance of the facts gathered so far. Diken interviewed both myself and Dan Kaszeta asking for our response to Hersh’s reaction, and as yet Hersh has been unable to answer the points we raised in our article in the Guardian or our subsequent interviews.

One point Hersh does raise is the range of the Volcano rockets, claiming that the short range would mean they couldn’t be launched from government held territory. He mentions the work of Richard Lloyd and Ted Postol, who have come up with an approximate range of 2-2.5km, but based on open source information from both sides in the conflict it’s been possible to identify government positions around August 21st, which shows 2-2.5km would still put the impact sites within range of those government held areas.

Seemingly impressed by Seymour Hersh’s work, Russia Today recently stated before an interview with Ted Postol that he now believed the opposition were responsible for the Sarin attacks.  More recently, Ted Postol published a document claiming to debunk claims made by Dan Kaszeta over the use of hexamine as part of the Sarin manufacturing process. As part of this document he includes private communications between himself and Dan Kaszeta (published without Dan Kaszeta’s permission), copying in “syr sis”, an email address that belongs to Maram Susli, aka Mimi al-Lamah, or more commonly known as her Twitter handle @PartisanGirl and her SyrianGirl Youtube channel.

Maram is a popular figure on the conspiracy circuit, appearing on various broadcasts by individuals including the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and the former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke (described as “perhaps America’s most well-known racist and anti-Semite” by the ADL), among other outlets.

Maram has expressed the view that the Syrian government was not responsible for the August 21st Sarin attacks, and claimed she had helped Ted Postol with his report, so it begs the question why an MIT professor had to go all the way to an Australian chemistry student known for her outspoken views on the August 21st attacks and involvement with conspiracy theorists for help with his report, rather than asking at MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering?

It has also been noted by Steve Johnson, visiting fellow at Cranfield University that in the email exchanges between Dan Kaszeta and Ted Postol published in the document “Postol’s demands of Dan encourage him to proliferate a method of chemical weapon production. Were he to do so it could technically breach US and UK law on export control”. It appears Postol is unaware of this, and takes Dan Kaszeta’s unwillingness to provide details about certain processes as evidence of some sort of purposeful deception on the part of Dan Kaszeta, rather than Dan Kaszeta staying within the boundaries of the law.

This seems especially important when Ted Postol begins sharing emails with Maram Susli without Dan Kaszeta’s permission, and when Dan Kaszeta asks they stop copying Maram into the conversation due to potential legal issues Postol yet again copies Maram into the email chain, and states

She has provided us with technical information that we have needed to advance our analyses, alerted us to technical issues in chemistry that we were not aware of, and has responsibly contributed very useful information to the various technical matters we were investigating.

Much of the Postol document focuses on two areas, statements made by Dr Åke Sellström, head of the UN Inspection Team to Syria, and the solubility of hexamine in isopropyl alcohol (a Sarin precursor). Much of this is already addressed in Dan Kaszeta’s earlier piece, The Chemical Fingerprint of Assad’s War Crimes. In this article Dan Kaszeta explains the solubility of hexamine in isopropyl alcohol is only an issue when used in a “mix in flight” rocket, and “not any impediment to a process in a production facility”.  He adds

With assistance of others, I have worked out at least one process that would produce Sarin using this method, but it would be dangerous, unethical, and possibly illegal to publish such a process. Hexamine is not previously noted in the open literature for use in Sarin production, although it should be stated that the large majority of knowledge of the manufacture of chemical warfare agents is not freely available and much of this information is classified.

It is broadly agreed by anyone who has been researching the August 21st attacks, myself and Dan Kaszeta included, that the rockets used were not “mix in flight”, and that the Sarin would have been mixed before being put inside the warhead, so it’s unclear why Professor Postol spends so much time debunking a claim no-one is making. Dr Åke Sellström’s reticence to confirm Dan Kaszeta’s theories is likely due to his work with the OPCW in Syria, whose mandate prevented it from assigning responsibility for the attacks to either side, and it seems unlikely Dr Sellström would choose to do so in an unsolicited email. Gwyn Winfield, the interviewer who spoke to Dr Sellström about the hexamine claims has also confirmed Ted Postol has not contacted him about those claims.

But, as with all theories, without being able to explain the use of Volcano rockets in the attacks it leaves the same hole so many other theories have failed to fill. It should also be considered that a few hours later M14 140mm artillery rockets were used to attack Western Ghouta with Sarin, and based on their impact sites it seems impossible they could have been launched from the same location as the Volcano rockets. The attack on Western Ghouta is frequently ignored by people putting together these theories, for example Seymour Hersh doesn’t mention it in any of this work, claiming the rockets used in the attacks were “homemade”, clearly not the case with the M14 rockets. It seems that the Western Ghouta attack just doesn’t fit well with any of these theories, so it’s easier just to pretend it didn’t happen.

So one year on, where does that leave us? Despite the best attempts of many people, from the Russian government to a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, from conspiracy theorists to an MIT professor, it seems clear all attempts to blame the opposition for the August 21st attacks fall apart once you look at the most basic information established about the attacks.

Eliot Higgins

Eliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat and the Brown Moses Blog. Eliot focuses on the weapons used in the conflict in Syria, and open source investigation tools and techniques.

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25 Comments

  1. Stuart W.

    It seems to me — and I cannot be the only one — that Seymour Hersh used a cursory review of facts and his reputation to develop and propagate unfounded theories on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. It happens that Hersh’s stance, the rebels are likely responsible, supports his generally critical view of American foreign policy — involvement. Using unnamed sources is code for BS. The investigation done on this blog is much more transparent, and thus genuine.

    One last thing, I noticed that Hersh maintains the Navy Seal assault on Bin Laden’s compound which resulted in his death is a false. I know well that it is not, and why they never released pictures of his corpse. Now that’s how you do ad hominem.

    Reply
  2. Mack

    Does not hold water. The fact that the question “how did they get hold of chemical weapons” left unanswered is hardly a surprise. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been arming the “opposition” since the start of the war, so any ingredient could be easily procured, a number of SAA soldiers including some generals defected etc. How did yesterday 6000 militants entered Syria from Turkey? Why do Turkish soldiers take selfies at the Bab Al Hawa border crossing with ISIS? And a question that nobody has really answered is why would Assad do this. So he can kill a dozen terrorists and inflict a huge scale military intervention unto himself so he could in turn be ousted in the matter of days, months? You think that this makes sense? But who would do this knowing what it would provoke? Yes, the “opposition”, the same visionary opposition that cuts off heads, crucifies people etc.

    Reply
    • bellingcatadmin

      As usual, this response ignores the Volcano rockets, preferring to focus on generic “chemicals weapons” acquired from who knows where. A fairly typical and tired response to established facts.

      Reply
      • A guest

        Iraq also acted as if they indeed have WMDs. And there have been similar situations in Arab countries. To understand something like that you have to understand the Arab mentality. They cant make mistakes. They just dont. Its a weakness to them to show mistakes. So there is no way you can take some random statement from an Arab country, that they did not make a mistake, which would instantly give them even more fire from the west, because it would mean they can not control their extremely dangerous WMDs, as a fact. I mean if you did that in the Iraq war, we wouldnt have needed the USA lies about WMDs.
        Think about it.

        Reply
    • Sam

      Why, Mr.-know-it-all, don’t you tell us how it happened instead of asking BS questions that has no relations to the facts stated in this articles ?

      Reply
  3. darrin

    I know this author from his other name at the gaurdian brownmoses.It appears he eants people to believe his evidence and claims are and everyone else or thosr that challengr him are wrong.its so easy to see the gaping holes in his narrative but as long as he has an audience people will fall for it.

    Reply
    • bellingcatadmin

      Just saying there’s “gaping holes in his narrative” and not saying what they are doesn’t really leave much room for discussion, does it?

      Reply
  4. Michael Casey

    As usual Higgins ignores the expertise, knowledge and information offered to him from award winning MIT Physicist Professor Postol and warhead expert Richard Lloyd on the verification of the volcanoes, two people he originally worked with and then turned on and actually ridiculed once they started raising questions of verification with him.

    His comment on Sellstrom’s ‘reticence’ is pure conjecture. Winfield is at fault for not asking Sellstrom what process was the hexamine was a scavenger for. Kaszeta turned left field and inferred it was a scavenger for Sarin and took a long as yet scientifically explained route down a dead end street.

    Its remarkable how Higgins tries to white wash Postol’s publication by suggesting Postol was making arguments that were not offered. This is not the case and anyone who reads it will quickly see.

    Its simple. Postol asked for scientific references to support Kaszeta’s Hexmine claim.
    Kaszeta could not respond with one. NOT ONE.

    Reply
    • bellingcatadmin

      Again, what specific points are you arguing against? You bring up the work of Postol and Lloyd like a magical talisman against all disagreement, but what specific points of disagreement are you talking about? And regarding Kaszeta’s heaxmine claims, as I’ve pointed out it would have been potentially illegal for Kaszeta to share those methods.

      Reply
      • Michael Casey

        Are you seriously suggesting that the public should just accept Kaszeta’s pronouncement that Hexamine is the proof but he cant reveal how because it would be illegal? Seriously?

        I dont think I need to say anymore.

        Reply
    • Jacob S Blaustein

      “It has also been noted by Steve Johnson, visiting fellow at Cranfield University that in the email exchanges between Dan Kaszeta and Ted Postol published in the document “Postol’s demands of Dan encourage him to proliferate a method of chemical weapon production. Were he to do so it could technically breach US and UK law on export control”. It appears Postol is unaware of this, and takes Dan Kaszeta’s unwillingness to provide details about certain processes as evidence of some sort of purposeful deception on the part of Dan Kaszeta, rather than Dan Kaszeta staying within the boundaries of the law.

      This seems especially important when Ted Postol begins sharing emails with Maram Susli without Dan Kaszeta’s permission, and when Dan Kaszeta asks they stop copying Maram into the conversation due to potential legal issues Postol yet again copies Maram into the email chain, and states”
      And off course the Award winning professor repeats clams already debunked.

      Reply
  5. darrin

    Well lets take a few examples

    Video footage at hospital conviently filming as people came in , did they know this was going to happen ?.

    Doctors and nurses rushing about without any form of chemical protection ?.

    Actual number of people killed and why UK/US figures differed from what was reported on the ground.?

    UK/US so called evidence and not releasing it for scrutiny expecting people to believe what they were telling us.?

    Just a few examples of missing gaps in this authors claim who only concern was looking at weapon involved rather than other events around it.

    Reply
    • bellingcatadmin

      Video footage at hospital conviently filming as people came in , did they know this was going to happen? – Can you provide any footage to show the cameramen were there before the victims arrived?

      Doctors and nurses rushing about without any form of chemical protection? – There were reports of nurses and doctors feeling the effects of secondary exposure, a quick example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZfElPNw5N4#t=124

      Actual number of people killed and why UK/US figures differed from what was reported on the ground? UK/US so called evidence and not releasing it for scrutiny expecting people to believe what they were telling us? – I’m unclear why you think this is relevant to the arguments made in the above post.

      Reply
  6. darrin

    I will also add the thousands of soldiers /officers who defected at stsrtt of this uprising its not beyond the realms to suggest there wasnt any knowledge in use of CW in rebel ranks to use these weapons despite denial by west to the contary.

    Reply
  7. John Boy

    why would the Syrian regime be using crude home made rockets when they would have had purpose made rockets for delivering chemical munitions?

    Reply
  8. John Boy

    also for what conceivable purpose would the Assad regime have launched a random, militarily useless chemical attack when they had not used such weapons before during the conflict and had just invited the UN into the country?

    It doesn’t compute,. it never did.

    Reply
  9. Terence Marwahl

    Sellstrom’s argument the Syrian Govt should have a good story to deliver if they want to convince people of rebel culpability is actually not very sound.

    If the Syrian Govt were taken by surprise they understandably would NOT have a well researched story.
    If the Syrian Govt were guilty, it is reasonable to assume they would produce a well researched story. How can you prove they would NOT have a well researched story?

    Therefore this response from Sellstrom on a Syrian Govt alibi doesn’t mean anything as it is presupposing Syrian Govt guilt which is still not established.

    Reply
    • bellingcatadmin

      They would at least know their Volcano rockets had been stolen from them, and they’ve repeatedly denied having any of their chemicals weapons stolen. Again, as I make clear in the article, it comes back to the rockets used.

      Reply
      • John Boy

        why is it that a google search for so called ‘Volcano rockets’ mainly seems to lead back to the Brown Moses blog?

        Reply
  10. Chris1

    Amazing how posting about the Syrian chemical attacks brings out both the commenters and the DDoS attacks. I’d be curious to know where the IPs from both come back to.

    Reply

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