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Revisiting Syria’s 2013 Sarin Attack on Saraqeb, Idlib

April 27, 2017

By Eliot Higgins

Translations: Русский

In May 2013 Bellingcat’s predecessor, the Brown Moses Blog, published an analysis of the April 29th 2013 chemical attack on the town of Saraqeb, Idlib. In light of information recently published by the French government about the attack this post revisits the earlier analysis with updated information.

Summary of events in Saraqeb

The following summary of events is mainly based on open source information, reports by Ian Pannell, who visited Saraqeb in mid-May 2013, and information released by the French government on April 26th 2017.

Shortly after midday April 29th the town of Saraqeb was attacked from government position, reportedly 8km away.  A unknown number of projectiles hit the town, possibly artillery rounds or rockets.

A helicopter was spotted high above the town, with three objects dropped from the helicopter as it travelled across the town.  The objects left a smoke trail as they fell through the sky.

The objects landed in the garden of Mariam Khatib, a dirt track, and outside the town by the side of a road.  Mariam Khatib’s family was affected by the gas when they went to investigate the objects, as well as opposition fighters who went to assist them.

The objects themselves appear to have been different designs of grenades placed inside a cinder-block and/or box.

Witnesses claim that shortly after the objects landed casualties began to arrive at Saraqeb hospital.

Doctors told the BBC eight people were admitted, some of whom had been driven to the hospital by car. The 2017 French report states 20 people were injured, and one killed.

The victims were later taken to the hospital in Reyhanli, Turkey, where one victim, Mariam Khatib, died.  Reports claims that between 11 and 13 victims were taken to the Reyhanli hosptial, with no further details given. Samples from the scene were reportedly taken to Britain, France, Turkey and America for testing.Reports in May 2013 would state Turkish doctors found no presence of sarin gas in the victims blood samples, but a later December 2013 UN report would state the autopsy of the only fatality of the Saraqeb attack “clearly indicated signatures of a previous Sarin exposure”. The presence of sarin in biomedical samples was also confirmed in the 2017 French report.

The 2017 French report would also include analysis of one of the grenades that didn’t explode, including a chemical analysis of the contents of the grenade which included “a solid and liquid mix of approximately 100ml of sarin at an estimated purity of 60%. Hexamine, DF and a secondary product, DIMP.”

Devices used in the attack

Eyewitnesses told the BBC at least two devices were dropped from a helicopter, producing trails of smoke, with video of one of the devices appearing to show it was burning as it fell (1:18)

The 2017 French report describes this as follows:

That mid-afternoon, a helicopter arriving from the north-east flew over the city of Saraqib at high altitude. Three unidentified objects, emitting white smoke, were dropped on neighbourhoods to the west of the city, on a north-south trajectory.

The report also includes a map showing the impact sites and path of the helicopter:

One device landed on the outskirts of Saraqeb, with “eyewitnesses describing a box-like container with a hollow concrete casing inside”, likely a cinder-block:

In the video civilians seem unconcerned about coming very close to the impact site, but according to the 2017 French report an unexploded device was recovered from this impact site, suggesting the munition did not release any chemical agent.

The smell at the scene of the attack is described to the BBC as being very strong:

“It was a horrible, suffocating smell. You couldn’t breathe at all. Your body would become really tired.”

In this video it’s stated “These are smelly, and a lot of them were used.”.

Witnesses claimed inside each package dropped from the helicopter there were two canisters, with one of the recovered canister shown in two videos. Firstly this video (0-30s)

Then this example of the same canister, inside a large jar:

The canister is also featured in this photograph:

You’ll note 4 holes with black marks around them on the body of the canister, which may relates to the burning seen in the video of one of the canisters being dropped.

This canisters match devices recovered from a scene of a earlier attack in Sheikh Maghsoud on April 13th 2014 (details here), which shared a number of other similarities with the Saraqeb attack.  Photographs from the scene of the attack shows greyish-white powder covering the area, possibly the remains of a cinder-block, for example:

Mohammed Aly Sergie reported some details of the Sheikh Maghsoud attack provided by witnesses:

“Phosphorous type chemical” would suggest either smoke or burning, as seen in the Saraqeb attack.  There’s also reports of the device being dropped from a helicopter, with a small number of casualties.

This photograph from the Sheikh Maghsoud attack shows the upper body of two of the canisters from the Sheikh Maghsoud:

Both have had what’s known as a “fly-off lever” reattached to them.  A fly-off lever is what you see on a hand grenade, and it is released when a ring pull is removed, which then allows the lever to rotate over the top of the device due to a spring load, releasing a securing pin that renders the device live (more details here).  The fly-off lever may or may not detach, and in this example it appears they have, as they’ve been put back on the upper body of the canister backwards.  This indicates the canisters are in fact some form of grenade.

Another interesting point is that while the upper body on the left is a match to what we’ve seen in Saraqeb the upper body on the right appears to be a different design.

There’s one more piece of evidence that points to these items being some kind of grenade.  This photograph, taken by Jeffry Ruigendijk, shows a Jabhat al-Nusra fighter carrying one of the weapons in question:

A close up of the grenade shows the finer details:

This matches what has been seen in Saraqeb and Sheikh Maghsoud almost perfectly, the only details that are different is that the fly-off lever appears to be black (although that might just be the reflection of his attire), and the presence of the ring pull.

The 2017 French report also provides images of the remains of grenades recovered from the scene. The first image is of a grenade recovered from the second impact site, the courtyard of a home where multiple victims were affected:

The image in the French report is low resolution, but it clearly does not match the white grenade shown above. A third grenade was recovered at the third impact point, close to a main road on the southwest side of the town, where no victims were reported:

This grenade does not appear to match the other two types of grenades. It it also noteworthy witnesses had referred to two canisters in each package dropped from the helicopter in the BBC report on the attack, but the French report only talks about two grenades from two different sites, and does not refer to the white grenade shown above. In the Sheikh Maghsoud attack the remains of two grenades were recovered, seemingly from one impact site, suggesting that in that attack the two grenades were dropped together, as described by witnesses in the BBC report.

In the 2017 French report the third, unexploded, grenade was tested, and shown to contain sarin:

The chemical analyses carried out showed that 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. Modelling, on the basis of the crater’s characteristics, confirmed with a very high level of confidence that it was dropped from the air.

Victims of the attack

There appears to be some confusion over the number of victims, with the BBC being told by doctors there were 8 victims; two women, one child, and five men, but with later reports that the victims were taken to in Reyhanli, Turkey, claiming up to 13 people were treated:

Medics tested the blood samples — which were taken from some 13 victims of an attack that included white powder in the northern village of Saraqeb on April 29 — at the Reyhanli hospital on the same day, but did not find anything unusual, they said.

The 2017 French report describes “one person was killed and about 20 injured”.

Three videos from Saraqeb showing the victims, shown below, were posted online, as well as video footage from the BBC

Using this video footage it was possible to identify separate victims that were treated in Saraqeb:

Female victim 1

Unknown female.  Possibly the wife of Mohammed Khatib, see female victim 2 for more details.

Female victim 2

Mariam Khatib, mother of nine children, three of which were also casualties of the attack.  According to the BBC report one of the devices dropped from the helicopter landed in her garden

“A canister was released from a helicopter and Mariam Khatib came running to the courtyard and called her son, Mohammed and told him there was a canister with white smoke coming out of it” says Mariam’s nephew, Maed Barish.
“She immediately became unconscious and fell down, as did Mohammed and his wife. Fighters came to help the family but they were also affected by the smoke.”

The BBC reports Mariam Khatib was the worst affected, with videos showing her unconscious, with dilated pupils, with doctors claiming she had signs of chemical exposure.  It appears she is in the background of this clip, with the man in the foreground claiming the following

I was not present then, but the FSA members came here and said that those chemicals were dropped on the southwestern side of the town. The injuries varies from bad to minor. The symptoms include constriction of the pupil, forth around the mouth, complete loss of consciousness as result of (inhaling) the smoke. The smoke was smelly, and the guy who rushed to help the victims lost consciousness when he got to the site.

The BBC also reports Mariam Khatib was taken to a hospital on the border with Turkey

Four patients were taken to a hospital near the border.
Dr Jumaa Samadi, who treated them, says they were all given decontamination showers and atropine to treat their symptoms before being sent to a hospital in Turkey. By the time they arrived, Mariam Khatib was dead.
“The symptoms she displayed – unconsciousness, vomiting, pinpoint pupils – they all correspond to poison gas exposure,” he says.
“They often match organophosphate poisoning. It has many derivatives, one of which is Sarin gas.”

later December 2013 UN report would state the autopsy of Mariam Khatib “clearly indicated signatures of a previous Sarin exposure.”

Mariam Khatib is the only recorded fatality of this attack.

Female victim 3

Mariam Khatib’s daughter, according to the BBC report.  In the footage in the BBC report she appears to have a distended tongue, but in the footage from Youtube it appears that may not be the case, although the angle makes it difficult to be sure.

Male victim 1

This uniformed victim is retching, and spitting out liquid.  Possibly one of the opposition members who went to help the Khatib family.

Male victim 2

Unknown identity, no obvious symptoms.  The doctor with him in the video explains the symptoms he’s seen, symptoms such as froth around the mouth, convulsions and constriction of the pupil, which he says suggests sarin use.

Male victim 3

Possibly Mohammad Khatib, Mariam Khatib’s son.  In one video he’s shown with froth coming from his mouth, and in apparent discomfort, and in two other videos (1, 2), shown with a drip, receiving oxygen.  If this is Mohammad Khatib he’s interviewed by the BBC 2:24 into their report:

Today Mohammed lives in a tent outside of town. He says he is too afraid to return to the house, too distraught by what happened there.
Speaking for the first time he says he still feels weak and exhausted.
“It was a horrible, suffocating smell. You couldn’t breathe at all. Your body would become really tired.”
“You’d lose all senses. You’d feel like you were dead. You couldn’t even see. I couldn’t see anything for three or four days.”

Male victim 4

Unknown victim, appears to not have severe symptoms in the video he’s featured in.

Male victim 5

An unknown uniformed male in distress, possibly another of the opposition fighters who went to help the Khatib family.  Clearly in great discomfort and retching, at 11s he is uttering the shahadda, and as 43s he’s raising his index finger.  The shahadda is often recited when someone expects to die, often with an index finger raised.

Male victim 6

Mariam Khatib’s younger son, featured in the BBC report at 2:07, with the BBC report stating they “apparently suffered respiratory and visual problems, and appear to have constricted pupils.”.

Conclusion

4 years on from the attack on Saraqeb it is now clear that this attack was the deployment of sarin as a chemical weapon by Syrian government forces against a civilian population that pre-dates the August 21st 2013 sarin attack by 4 months. While many questions have now been answered about the attack, one question remains. Why did Syrian forces use sarin in such a bizarre way, with helicopters throwing grenades filled with sarin onto a town in what appears to be boxes holding cinder-blocks? While we can state for certain the 2013 attack on Saraqeb was a sarin attack, we are yet to understand exactly why the attack took place in the manner it did.

 

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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41 Comments

  1. Ukukraman

    Yet another example of atrocity proof that the Russians turn a blind eye to unless of course they are directly involved in it…..as is usual in them taking part in war crimes in other parts of the world and flat faced denying it

    Reply
    • Woody

      Why the video does not show the fall of projectile to the end? It looks like bursting in flames – how does Sarin survive the heat here?
      In 2021 you will after lapse of four years write everywhere that in Khan Sheikhoun there was no denial of sarin attack? Is this how you contribute to facts finding?

      Reply
    • Mad Dog

      And this is a fairy tale because? I imagine you think all of this was staged, including the helicopter because we all know that young Doctor Assad does not commit such atrocities….right?

      Reply
  2. grouper42

    This piece of ordnance kind of reminds me of the BLU-39/B canister/sub-bomblet. The BLU-39/B canister/sub-bomblet was filled with CS (note: they were also tested with BZ filler). Some of the Ranges at Eglin AFB are littered with these canisters (at least they were 30 years ago).

    – BLU-39/B Canister; http://www.designation-systems.net/usmilav/asetds/images/blu-39.jpg
    – BLU-39/CS (CBU-19 and CBU-30) use in Operation Tailwind; http://www.rjsmith.com/air-force-report.html

    This CS filled canister/sub-bomblet was responsible for this report. Excerpt; The U.S. was extremely sensitive to charges of chemical warfare which surfaced from time to time. The most sensational of these was made nearly thirty years later by CNN, claiming that in 1970 serin nerve gas had been used against enemy troops during Operation TAILWIND in Laos. These charges were found to be completely false, although it was agreed that some sort of non-lethal area denial munitions, mostly likely CS, had been used. CNN retracted the story and reprimanded or fired veteran war correspondent Peter Arnett and others.
    http://www.cnn.com/US/9807/21/pentagon.tailwind.report/

    A few other US Chemical/Bio/Anti-Crop/Entomological bomblets that may be of interest (you can find basic info on this stuff with a quick Google search). M134 GB Bomblet, M139 GB Bomblet, M143 Bio Bomblet, Flettner Rotor Biological Bomblet, E120 Bio Bomblet, E61 Anthrax bomblet, E14 Anti-Crop Bomblet, E23 Entomological Bomblet,

    Reply
  3. Steve

    These grenades are not something you’d use to deliver a deadly chemical weapon like sarin, VX, or any other kind of lethal agent. It seems these grenades are key to understanding the events in Saraqeb and Sheikh Maghsoud, and it seems extremely likely that the use of these grenades indicates that lethal chemical agents were not used in these attacks.

    Reply
    • Mr White

      Yes, it’s beyond ridiculous to believe that a helicopter went around dropping tiny grenades in the middle of nowhere for no apparent military reason.

      Just a stupid story cooked up by the jihadists. These are just smoke/CS grenades they set off themselves.

      Reply
      • aurelien clave

        The regime use thoses tiny grenades so people like you will believe it’s a rebel false flag.

        Reply
    • DDTea

      “These grenades are not something you’d use to deliver a deadly chemical weapon like sarin, VX, or any other kind of lethal agent”

      Why not?

      Hand grenades are a well-precedented method of deploying chemical weapons. Some of the first chemical attacks during World War 1 involved chemical grenades. CS/Tear gas grenades are used for riot control as well.

      Reply
        • Mark

          Nice try, but two things. First, the next sentence says it’s possible a nerve agent was used. More importantly, the change in opinion is explained by the fact that the Turkish hospital did not find Sarin and that’s all Eliot had at that point. The final UN report stated the hospital did not have the necessary equipment to test for nerve agents but it recorded very low cholinesterase activity. Then, biomedical samples taken from the deceased woman at an autopsy when the UN Mission was present tested positive for Sarin. The bottom line is yes, these grenades are strange to use for Sarin, but the evidence over-rules suppositions.

          Reply
          • Mr White

            Results from a body in no way tell us that these grenades were responsible for said results.

      • Mr White

        There’s no historical record of anyone ever using hand grenades filled with poision gas.

        It would be pretty impractical and dangerous to the user.

        Reply
          • Boris

            At one time or another, these countries had chemical grenades;

            France, Germany, Russia, USA, UK, Dutch, Japan and Austria Hungry!

            So saying there’s no historical record, shows you have no idea what you are talking!!

            Try getting an education.

        • DDTea

          Is that a joke? The French used hand grenades filled with ethyl bromoacetate even before the infamous chlorine attack by German forces during the battle of Ypres. This is according to “The War Gasses: Chemistry & Analysis,” 1929, by Mario Sartori of the Italian Chemical Warfare Service. This e-book is available online for free.

          Reply
      • Woody

        DDTea, I admire your optimism in trying to explain any event so that Assad had committed a CW attack. These granades have nothing to do with video with a falling projectile of some kind – nor do I understand what has the video to do with CW in the first place.
        But yes, why bother reasoning anything, lets just suck all info from Fox news.

        Reply
  4. Steve

    You’ve misrepresented the UN report.

    For all patients except the one fatality, they reported that the examining doctor in Turkey “did not observe symptoms to suggest an exposure to toxic chemicals” and that blood samples were taken from all patients. It only reported that cholinesterase activity in the one deceased patient was very low. No such statement was made about the 12 other patients. The report did not say that the Turkish hospital was unable to test for nerve agents, only that there were some tests that the UN could do but it could not. For example, it could obviously test for cholinesterase activity and, had such levels been low in the other patients, it would presumably have reported it.

    Given sarin toxicity, it’s hard to understand why 12 victims showed no signs of sarin, only the one woman.

    Reply
    • Mark

      Where does it say the 12 showed no signs of sarin?

      Page 13: “One severely intoxicated patient, a female with underlying medical conditions, had later died, whereas the less severely intoxicated patients had all recovered.”

      “In those conditions, chemicals like Sarin would disperse quite rapidly, especially considering the small volumes allegedly used”

      Page 37: “Six additional patients arrived at Shifa Hospital from the neighborhood of location B. They were conscious, but agitated and with small pupils. Two additional patients of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) arrived from location C. All of these patients recovered relatively quickly after treatment with a small amount of atropine. One of the paramedics showed symptoms of secondary intoxication.”

      And the report mentions the French claimed other biomedical samples tested positive for Sarin.

      Btw, does anybody proof these reports? The Saraqueb incident says March 29 in several places and August 21 in the weather section heading.

      Reply
    • Mark

      Sorry, missed it on page 20. This is in Turkey, my notes are at Syrian hospitals, so more immediate to the attack. Note that 7 of the 12 were relatives, not even alleged patients. The doctor was an anesthesiologist. So the 5 might not have been exposed themselves “worried well” or they could have recovered and shown no outward signs of intoxication at that time.

      Reply
  5. Bernie

    This is just beyond stupid. The world has never seen such a thing a a sarin hand grenade. A grenade filled with odorless sarin with a “horrible, suffocating smell”. The total number of casualties was one women. She died because the Assad regime flew a helicopter a dropped a thing in her garden looking like a can of coke. There is no conceivable military strategic gain. The only imaginable serious consequence that could come out of such an attack is that you motivate the whole world to declare war with the current Syrian government. Compare this with the US-Iraqi-coalition’s bombing a building in Mosul on March 17 that resulted in 278 civilians died. I’m not saying that the US intended to kill that many civilians but in that case at least it was a REAL attack with a pretty OBVIOUS purpose of gaining a strategical upper hand in the battle for Mosul. Dropping a gas grenade from a helicopter in some family’s garden to kill one civilian makes ZERO sense. There’s only one possible side who’s got anything to gain from it – Al Qaeda an the jihadis.

    Reply
  6. Simon Gunson

    The hand grenades from your article are actually Brazilian made CS grenades (ie Tear Gas) manufactured by Condor, supplied to Turkish police.

    The Syrian Government do not use this brand so maybe you should ask the rebels how they managed to get Sarin filled CS grenades from Turkey?

    Reply
      • Bubslug

        The white plastic grenade looks closest to the Condor GL-310 “ballerina” random motion CS grenade, but not identical. The “ballerina” has a slightly rounded bottom vs squared edges, no “ports” in the body, and of course lettering showing maker model etc.

        It’s pretty clear from news video the Turkish police use the “ballerina”, but it’s not clear that these are the same as the Saraqeb devices, although all the photos seem to indicate the devices at Sheik Masoud and Saraqeb use repurposed CS grenade parts.

        Reply
  7. Ayatollah Ghilmeini

    If you are looking of a side to back in the Syrian War, there are none. Assad is a butcher and many of the people seeking his overthrow are no better.

    It stuns me that reasonable thinking people cannot bring themselves to hate rebels and the regime. This war is an obscenity even for the obscenity that is war. I have never seen Eliott or Bellingcat, or Brown Moses for that matter ever say, “hey Syrian Rebels are great swinging paragons of morality due our undying support.”

    You don’t have to like Trump to appreciate that the cruise missile strike was a certain rough justice against a regime that regularly bombs hospitals and uses barrel bombs on civilian targets. As for the rebels, anyone who has see current rebel war crimes would conclude them as indistinct from their mid century predecessors.

    Can we not agree to hate them both?

    Reply
    • Mr White

      No. The rebels, not Assad, are responsible for this war. Assad is defending Syria, it’s his job.

      Reply
    • stranger

      So… what do you propose to stop the war? Because Trump did that missile strike as if to stop Assad attacking civilians, but his administration and earlier starting from Obama provides the “rebels” with modern weapon and resources, many mass media wash the head-choppers white, particularly Bellingcat works hard to present those head-choppers propaganda as real news and as if a reliable source of information from Syria, just supporting the continuation of this brutal war indefinitely, all at the same time.

      Reply
    • Woody

      What a lovely idea of operation. Since we the goodies here in countries we call democracies come up with idea that those screwed, lets just bomb the bastards for they must have done something wrong?
      Not that many years ago we heard about Abu ghraib, we heard about CIA transporting inmates via European airports on specific flights. Was that alright with you? So you obviosly agree that we should give some “rough justice” as by terrorizing US? You should seek help.

      Reply
  8. Bubslug

    Inconclusive is the most rational conclusion based on what is presented here.

    That said it makes no sense the SAA would experiment with low grade sarin when at that time they had high grade material in far more effective delivery systems than plastic “grenades” allegedly wrapped in concrete blocks.

    Maybe they were trying to create a false false flag, but then why drop blocks from helicopters since right of the bat it looks like they are the only ones who could have done it.

    I place next to zero value on “witnesses said”. In this bitter fight to the death between the Salafists and Alawites there are no reliable witnesses.

    Stay focused on the hard facts and be suspicious of missing components to the story like why does the video of the streamer stop before it hits the ground? Why did they clean up the remains of the concrete block in the courtyard hit? Where are remains or photos of the missing three grenades? What was the design dispersal method for the sarin grenades?

    It’s not impossible the rebels have got a captured helicopter running but unlikely they could fly it without being detected on someone’s radar. If it is a false flag it is more likely they launched these amateurish devices using one of their catapult devices. Or just blew them up on the ground with a conventional grenade.

    For me the real question is: if this and Ghouta and Khan Shaykhun are false flag events, who is giving the rebels sarin precursors?

    Reply
  9. frank

    I wonder who pushed Obama into declaring a ‘red line’. This looks like both an invitation for false flags, and a way of committing presidential approval in advance of a planned Syrian invasion.

    Reply

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