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Open Source Survey of Alleged Chemical Attacks in Douma on 7th April 2018

April 11, 2018

By Bellingcat Investigation Team

Translations: Русский, العربية

On April 7th 2018 reports began emerging of alleged chemical attacks on the city of Douma, in the rebel held pocket of Eastern Ghouta, Syria. Reports indicated that a significant number of people, including children, had been killed by these attacks. This report will assess and verify the open source information regarding these attacks, and draw conclusions from the available evidence.

All times are local.

Summary

  1. A large compressed gas cylinder of a type used in previous aerial chlorine attacks was filmed on top of the building where a large number of fatalities were documented.
  2. The number of dead bodies that can be established through open source data is 34+.
  3. Aircraft spotters reported two Mi-8 Hip helicopters heading southwest from Dumayr Airbase, in the direction of Douma, 30 minutes before the chemical attack in Douma, and two Hip helicopters were observed above Douma shortly before the attack.
  4. The Syrian Government has previously been identified as using Mi-8 Hip helicopters to drop chlorine cylinders on opposition held areas.

Reports of a Chemical Attack

Reports from the documentation group the Syrian Network for Human Rights indicated that there were at least two separate attacks involving chemical agents on the 7th April: one at 4pm near Sa’da bakery in Omar ben al Khattab St, which injured 15 people, and a second attack at around 1930 near al-Shuhada Square in Nu’man that killed 55 people and injured 860.

The Violations Documentation Center also reported two chemical attacks took place on April 7th 2018. As with the Syrian Network for Human Rights reports, the first attack was reported at 4pm near Sa’da bakery, with the VDC reporting claims from witnesses that chlorine was used. The VDC also reported the second attack at 1930 near al-Shuhada Square, and reported witness statements on the symptoms:

Dr. Jamal Rafie (pseudonym), told the VDC that the symptoms that he saw on patients “do not resemble chlorine attack symptoms. Chlorine alone cannot induce such symptoms because while it does cause suffocation, it does not affect the nerves. There were symptoms indicative of organic phosphorus compounds in the sarin gas category. But the smell of chlorine was also present in the place.”

Dr. Mohammed Kuttoub from the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) told the VDC that his colleagues in Eastern Ghouta saw symptoms on people that include: “pinpoint pupils, slow heartbeat, slow breathing, heavy foaming from the mouth and nose, and the burning of the cornea in some cases.”

The VDC also published the following graphic showing the locations of the attacks:

VDC map of attacks in Douma on April 7th 2018 (source)

Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, reported that a chemical attack at 1945 on the 7th April killed more than 43 people and injured over 500. They reported the dead victims displayed signs of cyanosis (a bluish discolouration of the skin), excessive oral foaming and corneal burns. Six living casualties were reported to have pinpoint pupils and convulsions. The report concluded the casualties had been exposed to “toxic chemicals; most likely an organophosphate element”.

Footage and Images

Footage and images posted on social media after the 1930 attack appear to depict a significant number of casualties, with many dead bodies located in a single building. Many of these bodies displayed symptoms consistent with the claims made in the Syrian Civil Defence statement and the VDC report.

Video 1, which is extremely graphic, was posted at 0020 on 8th April titled “#2018-4-7 Al Assad is shelling Duma with Chemicals. Horrifying massacre against civilians in Duma”. It depicts a large number of dead bodies spread across several rooms in what appears to be the ground (first) floor of a residential building.

Video 2, which is extremely graphic, was posted at 0346 on 8th April titled “2018-4-7 Witness the foaming from the mouth of the injured due to the exposure of civilians to sarin gas”. It documents more dead bodies spread across the second floor and stairwell of the same building as Video 1, as well as what appears to be a hole in the roof of the third floor.

Certain distinctive commonalities can be seen between Video 1 and Video 2, indicating they are filmed in the same building.

A bicycle with a white pannier – Top: Video 1, bottom: Video 2

A old woman with a single sock pulled down, sprawled near the entrance to the building – Top: Video 1, bottom: Video 2

A doorway and the body of a child wearing a distinctive red and white striped top. Faces obscured – Left: Video 2, right: Video 1

Multiple other videos and images posted on social media appear to show the same building and the same casualties.

In total, at least 34 unique bodies appear across the two videos: 23 on the ground floor, 10 on the second floor and one on the landing of the stairs between the second and third floors.

Geolocation

Video 3, which is extremely graphic, was posted at 1748 on 8th April by the SMART new agency, an opposition media network. It shows bodies being removed from the same building that Videos 1 & 2 were filmed in, and taken out into the street during daytime.

The same doorway seen in Video 1 & 2 can also be seen in Video 3. Faces obscured. – Left: Video 3, Right: Video 1

A window cage next to the doorway can be seen in both Video 1 and Video 3 – Left: Video 1, right: Video 3

A doorway with the same design can also be seen in both Video 1 and Video 3 – Left: Video 1, Right: Video 3

Video 4, filmed by a local activist and posted on Youtube by Aljazeera at 2044 on 9th April, depicts what seems to be Russian military personnel visiting and entering this building. This event appears to be corroborated by a statement from the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) which claimed “representatives of the Russian Reconciliation Centre have explored areas of Douma… Results of inspection refuted all reports of chemical weapons use in the city” (archived)

The same doorway the Russian personnel enter can be seen in both Video 3 and Video 4 – Top: Video 4, Bottom: Video 3

By analysing Video 4 and Video 5, which both depict Russian personnel entering the same block, we can geolocate this building to 33.573878, 36.404793. This location is immediately South West of al-Shuhada Square, which matches with the reports from the Syrian Network for Human Rights and VDC.

Geolocation of video 4 and video 5

Video 6, posted by Syrian Civil Defence at 2106 on 10th April, claims to show a “chemical gas canister… Same location as video of casualties”.

Taken from the top of a building, it shows a hole in the roof with a yellow compressed gas cylinder. The cameraman then swings the camera around, allowing the position to be geolocated, identifying it as the roof of the building at 33.573878, 36.404793.

A still from video 6 (bottom) compared to satellite imagery of the location, demonstrating the viewpoint is from the roof of the building at 33.573878, 36.404793

A distinctive building can also be identified in both Video 6 and Video 5

We can therefore conclude that Videos 1-6 were all filmed in the same area. All videos featured the same building which contained the large group of bodies depicted in Videos 1-2. Video 6 shows that this same building appears to have been hit by a compressed gas cylinder which broke through the roof.

Examination of munition

Following the attack, the remains of two yellow compressed gas cylinders were filmed and photographed. As described above, one gas cylinder was filmed on the roof of the building where a large number of fatalities were documented. A second gas cylinder was also filmed at a yet unidentified location:

The external modifications on the above cylinder are particularly interesting as they are consistent with modifications seen on other gas cylinders used in other reported aerial chlorine attacks. Very similar modifications can been seen in the following video from August 2017 in Khan al-Assal:

Yellow gas cylinders of the same type, with and without external structures, have been documented at the site of alleged aerial chlorine attacks since 2014, and were used on multiple occasions during the siege of Aleppo:

Human Rights Watch graphic showing yellow gas cylinders used in multiple attacks in Aleppo in late 2016 (source)

The most recent attack where yellow gas cylinders were documented following a reported aerial chlorine gas attack was the February 4th 2018 Saraqib attack, where two cylinders were photographed after being recovered from the attack site:

The two gas cylinders used in the Saraqib attack. Source SN4HR

The OPCW has also investigated some of the attacks where yellow gas cylinders were used in aerial chlorine attacks, confirming they were dropped from helicopters. Aircraft observers that are part of the Sentry Syria network observed two Hip helicopters heading southwest from Dumayr Airbase, northeast of Damascus, in the direction of Douma, 30 minutes before the chemical attack in Douma, and two Hip helicopters were observed above Douma shortly before the attack. Hip transport helicopters have also been linked to previous aerial chlorine attacks.

With allegations of Sarin use, it is important to note that these yellow gas cylinders are not associated with the use of Sarin, and as Sarin is a liquid a compressed gas cylinder seems an unlikely method of delivery for Sarin. Possible explanations for the allegations of Sarin use may be a result of the severity of the symptoms presented, of an undocumented munition being used, or another chemical agent being used that presents symptoms that could be confused with Sarin use.

Conclusion

Based on the available evidence, it is highly likely the 34+ victims killed in the 1930 attack on the apartment building near al-Shuhada Square were killed as a result of a gas cylinder filled with what is most likely chlorine gas being dropped from a Hip helicopter originating from Dumayr Airbase.

Bellingcat’s research for this publication was supported by PAX for Peace.

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187 Comments

  1. Rene

    What Bellingcat missed here is, to make a connection from Video 1-5 to Video 6 and the TIME / DATE. Therefore, the chemical attack, if happend, could have been taken place LONG before the given Date (7th April).
    That means, a lot of new options are now into the pool.

    Reply
    • Tessita

      Whatever damage appears on the containers doesn’t seem to be the issue. In the pictures the ceiling looks like it has some sort of chemical burn as well as the bed which seems to have had some sort of chemical reaction going on beneath the covers. If you were to have a high percentage of chlorine dispersed at a given moment, organic materials would show burns. In this case, if someone were to analyze the materials it would be helpful as obviously other things can cause stains. In this case it looks more like burns which indicates something sprayed around inside. As to who did it, there are lots of players and the chemical analysis of the soaked materials would reveal far more. I would favor that some independent countries having no axe to grind regarding Syria be sent some large samples to analyze as blood levels decline but a more accurate picture might be determined from plaster, bedspreads, mattresses and so on.

      Reply
      • nicholas

        What is it with these yellow canisters in these videos – the don’t look like they’ve come from the air and when exploded in any way looks like small detonation from outside – decidedly not a barrel bomb. But then |i’m not an “intelligence analyst”

        Reply
        • nicholas

          “improvised barrel bombs documented by Human Rights Watch are typically constructed from large oil drums, various types of metal cylinders, and water tanks filled with explosives and scrap metal to enhance fragmentation, which are then dropped from a helicopter. The heat from the explosion of the barrel bomb would destroy much of the chlorine and any remaining gas would be dispersed in the air by the explosion so the concentration of chlorine would quickly drop to non-lethal levels.”
          https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/05/13/syria-strong-evidence-government-used-chemicals-weapon

          Given what this says about the toxicity of such bombs don’t really see why anyone would want to drop them anyway

          Reply
          • Eliot Higgins

            Since 2014 the way in which chlorine has been used in aerial attacks has changed. In 2014 they were putting cylinders in barrel bomb casings with explosives, but now they don’t do that.

  2. nicholas

    Oh so how is it done now ?

    The two canisters in photo above from Saraquib feb4 2018 look like they had small explosion within whilst standing on ground with no sign of any impact from hitting ground

    And all of the Intelligence reports I’ve seen re supposed evidence from Douma rely on testimony of barrel bombs being dropped

    Reply
    • nicholas

      As I understand it these yellow canisters are standard industrial chlorine containers which leaves me wondering why the Syrian army is supposed to be using them if they supposedly have weapons factories for something more military grade.

      Show up nice in a video though

      “In August rebel forces took Sabbagh’s factory by force, as part of a sweep that also netted them an electricity station and a military airport about 30 km from Aleppo. Sabbagh, who has since fled Aleppo for Beirut, says his factory is now occupied by Jabhat al-Nusra, a militant group with strong ties to al-Qaeda that has been designated a terrorist group by the U.S. He knows this because his site manager has struck a deal with the rebels — they supply 200 L of fuel a day to keep the generator running so that the valves of his $25 million factory don’t freeze up. The factory isn’t operational anymore, but this way at least, says Sabbagh, it might be one day in the future. In the meantime, he has no idea what has happened, if anything, to the 400 or so steel barrels of chlorine gas he had stored in the compound. The yellow tanks, which hold one ton of gas each, are used for purifying municipal water supplies. “No one can know for certain, but if it turns out chlorine gas was used in the attack, then the first possibility is that it was mine. There is no other factory in Syria that can make this gas, and now it is under opposition control,” he says.
      To Faris al-Shehabi, head of the Aleppo Chamber of Industry and a strong government supporter, it was obvious from Day One that the rebels had their eyes on the gas. “Why else would they capture a factory in the middle of nowhere? For the sniper positions?” he asks sarcastically while meeting TIME in Beirut, where he is traveling for business. “We warned back then that chemical components were in the hands of terrorists, but no one listened.”

      http://world.time.com/2013/04/01/syrias-civil-war-the-mystery-behind-a-deadly-chemical-attack/?iid=tsmodule

      Reply
  3. rkat

    The whole story is strange.
    – no shoes
    – nobody left building ( bomb without rupture would give a lot of time to act )
    – no rupture on gas cylinder / what about vent? ( how does the gas come out )
    – primitive stabilization wings still atached to gas cylinder when it just made hole into ceiling?
    – too many people in one room on their back ( wierd positions )
    – ususally people die in such position what they were doing. Running out, crawling out, finding air, with last breath they cannot stand, they try from the last breath to reach whatever. Lying on back is strange, they had time and strengh to do that?
    – why somewhere is dust and somewhere not.
    – dust should come from initial impact, but then there are e.g. girl lying on dusted flor without any dust lying next to man with dust, next is again man covered with blanket without dust? Where they find blanket without dust. They had time to do that? It is strange.

    It is absolutelly terrifying, but I am not sure evidence here has valid conclusion.

    This site did not even try to look from other side. The only valid conclusion from this would be: It happened on confirmed locations and that’s it.
    Videos are validating only location. Not when it happend and what happend.
    Conclusion which is based on one point of view is not conclusion, but propaganda.

    Reply
  4. Mr.Bushkin

    The chlorine gas cylinders are too undamaged to have been dropped from any significan heightt and also do not show any indication of chlorine decomression, but by the way: heise.cloudimg.io/width/700/q75.png-lossy-75.webp-lossy-75.foil1/_www-heise-de_/tp/imgs/89/2/4/0/9/2/2/6/419602b81c7f39d0.jpeg

    Reply
  5. Hefaistos

    “This site did not even try to look from other side. The only valid conclusion from this would be: It happened on confirmed locations and that’s it.
    Videos are validating only location. Not when it happend and what happend.
    Conclusion which is based on one point of view is not conclusion, but propaganda.”

    rkat, that’s what Bellingcat is known for.

    Reply
  6. Lisa

    I think your geolocation of the gas cylinder from white helmets video is off by 1 building. Note in the white helmets video the exposed steel beams of the exterior wall front of the building (with the minaret in the shot). You can see these steel beams to the left, next-door, to the “bodies” building at 0:44 in Video 4. In video 5 you can clearly see these are 2 different buildings. Also, there is doctor’s statements from the Fisk article, I think, that there was a very bad dust storm and windy that day. Since the WH gas cylinder is exposed, wouldn’t all that wind have just diluted and dissipated the chlorine gas before much of it even got into the building (next door). The other problem I don’t see mentioned here is the fact that from the video evidence it is apparent that bodies were moved and foam applied and then re-filmed. This is obvious tampering of evidence and suspicious. Also, where are the bodies and have autopsies been performed.

    Reply
  7. STAN NADEL

    The OPCW investigators were prevented by Russian troops from investigating even though the Russian government said it supports the investigation–I guess the clean-up crews needed more time.

    Reply
    • Francesca

      Here’s the OPCW progress report
      You’re wrong
      Get off your arse and check the relevant sources rather than the propaganda

      l
      Fifty-Ninth Meeting EC-M-59/DG.2
      18 April 2018 18 April 2018
      Original: ENGLISH
      UPDATE BY THE DIRECTOR-GENERAL ON THE DEPLOYMENT OF THE
      OPCW FACT-FINDING MISSION TO DOUMA, SYRIAN ARAB REPUBLIC,
      TO THE EXECUTIVE COUNCIL AT ITS FIFTY-NINTH MEETING

      Mr Chairperson,
      On Monday, I advised the Council on the work being undertaken by the Fact-Finding
      Mission (FFM) team that has been deployed to Damascus to establish the facts on the
      allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma on 7 April. I should like to take this
      opportunity to update the Council on this mission.
      On 16 April, we received confirmation from the National Authority of the Syrian Arab
      Republic that, under agreements reached to allow the evacuation of the population in Ghouta,
      the Syrian military were unable to enter Douma. The security for the sites where the FFM
      plans to deploy was under the control of the Russian Military Police. The United Nations
      Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) has made the necessary arrangements with the
      Syrian authorities to escort the team to a certain point and then for the escort to be taken over
      by the Russian Military Police. However, the UNDSS preferred to first conduct a
      reconnaissance visit to the sites, which took place yesterday. FFM team members did not
      participate in this visit.
      On arrival at Site 1, a large crowd gathered and the advice provided by the UNDSS was that
      the reconnaissance team should withdraw. At Site 2, the team came under small arms fire and
      an explosive was detonated. The reconnaissance team returned to Damascus.
      The UNDSS will continue to work with the Syrian National Authority, the local Councils in
      Douma, and the Russian Military Police to review the security situation. At present, we do
      not know when the FFM team can be deployed to Douma. Of course, I shall only consider
      such deployment following approval by the UNDSS, and provided that our team can have
      unhindered access to the sites.
      This incident again highlights the highly volatile environment in which the FFM is having to
      work and the security risks our staff are facing. I should like to take this opportunity to
      express my gratitude to States Parties for their continued support for the FFM, as they
      reiterated during the Council meeting on Monday. This is particularly important for our staff
      taking part in such challenging missions.
      – – – o – – –

      Reply
  8. nicholas

    Just reviewing these images again – looks to me that cylinder in the white helmets video for 9 April (The one in the hole in the floor – not lying on the bed) has a convenient metal bar under its front supporting it in the bomb hole and neither that bar or the tank look to have damage consistent with the supposed impact . Any thought as to whether this could in fact be the same cylinder as in video 1 without its fins (and what are they supposed to achieve aerodynamically?) – prepared for the video with some kind of torching to create the scorching? And what exactly is the scorching supposed to indicate anyway – doesn’t like anything from supposed impact or explosion ?

    Reply

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