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What the OPCW-FFM Report on the Saraqib Chlorine Attack Tells Us About the Douma Chemical Attack

May 16, 2018

By Eliot Higgins

Translations: Русский

Today’s OPCW-FFM report on the February 4 2018 chemical attack in Saraqib, Idlib, reveals not only information about the Saraqib attack, but also the broader use of chemical weapons in Syria, and additional evidence to support the theory Syrian government forces were behind the April 7 2018 chemical attack in Douma, Damascus.

Consistent with Bellingcat’s earlier investigation into the Saraqib chemical attack, the OPCW-FFM report establishes it was likely chlorine was used in Saraqib, meeting the terms of reference for the OPCW-FFM, which is to establish the likelihood of chemical agent use in Syria, not who was responsible for the attack. As with Bellingcat’s earlier report, the OPCW-FFM report includes witness statements claiming a helicopter had flown over Saraqib, followed by the dropping of two munitions, later identified as being chlorine gas cylinders. The impact site of both munitions, according to the OPCW-FFM report, is consistent with the earlier reporting of Bellingcat, on the east side of Saraqib:

Map showing the impact site from the OPCW-FFM report on Saraqib

While the open source evidence surrounding the attack is consistent with the OPCW-FFM investigation, which instead relied on witness statements and evidence gathered from the scene of the attack, the details of the evidence collected by the OPCW-FFM offers not only a high likelihood of the presence of Sarin or Sarin-like chemical agents at the Saraqib attack site, but allows us to increase our knowledge of the use of chemical weapon by the Syrian government, as well as providing some clues that gives us insight into other chemical attacks in Syria, including the April 7th 2018 chemical attack in Douma.

The OPCW-FFM includes photographs of the remains of the munitions used, chlorine gas cylinders, one with an external structure attached. External structures have been seen on the remains of numerous chlorine bombs used across Syria, including the chlorine bombs used in the April 7th 2018 attack in Douma.

The OCPW-FFM report describes these structures as follows:

One of the cylinders also had an additional structure attached to its side. The attachment comprised metal rings, tubes and flat sheets of metal were visible but significantly deformed and covered with rust.

One particular detail from the munition examined in Saraqib is particularly significant:

Images of the chlorine cylinder from the OPCW-FFM report on Saraqib

This shows a metal tube, with a short metal tube attached to it, which itself is attached to the metal frame surrounding the gas cylinder. This design is identical to the axle and wheel assemblies photographed at the two impact sites of the Douma attack:

Wheels and axle filmed at the Douma balcony site (source)

On one set of wheels in filmed and photographed in Douma, one wheel has become detached, showing the same sort of attaching end as visible in the Saraqib images:

An axle in the debris at the Douma balcony cylinder site (left source, right source)

The presence of these identical features are a clear indication that the gas cylinder used in Saraqib has the same modifications present as the gas cylinders used in the Douma chemical attack months later, and nearly 300km away. As with the Saraqib attack, aircraft spotters reported helicopters heading to Douma, then above Douma, shortly before the attack took place. These are just two of multiple aerial chlorine attacks where modified chlorine cylinders with the same modifications have been documented, and lends even more weight to the argument that the Douma chemical attack was executed by pro-government forces.

While photographs and videos have allowed us to document the use of these munitions over a number of years, what hasn’t been as well documented is the chemistry of these attacks. The latest OPCW-FFM report contains chemical analysis of samples gathered by both the White Helmets and the OPCW-FFM, with consistent results across both sets of samples.

The OPCW-FFM concludes that there was “the presence of two cylinders, which were determined by the FFM as previously containing chlorine;” that there was “environmental analyses, demonstrating the unusual presence of chlorine in the local environment;” and there were “a number of patients who presented for treatment at medical facilities shortly after the incident, and showed signs and symptoms of irritation of tissue, which were consistent with exposure to chlorine and other toxic chemicals.”

But the OPCW-FFM also adds the following in its conclusion:

The FFM also noted the presence of chemicals that can neither be explained as occurring naturally in the environment nor as being related to chlorine. Furthermore, some of the medical signs and symptoms reported were different to those that would be expected from exposure to pure chlorine. There was insufficient information and evidence to enable the FFM to draw any further conclusions on these chemicals at this stage.

Medical symptoms documented after the attack are included in the OPCW-FFM report:

All these symptoms are consistent with chlorine gas exposure apart from constricted pupils. That symptom is typically connected to exposure to organophosphates, including Sarin and Sarin-like agents. By itself the symptoms are odd for a chlorine attack, but the environmental samples provide more relevant information.  Samples tested by the OPCW-FFM include Diisopropyl methylphosphonate (DIMP), Isopropyl methylphosphonate (IPMPA aka IMPA), and Methylphosphonic acid (MPA), which are not byproducts of chlorine gas, but have been detected in all Sarin attacks in Syria where chemical analysis was performed by the OPCW, including the August 21st 2013 Damascus attacks, the March 30th 2017 Al Lataminah attack, and the April 4th 2017 Khan Sheikhoun attack. The French National Assessment following the Khan Sheikhoun attack also include analysis of the munition used in the April 29 2013 Sarin attack in Saraqib that detected DIMP in the presence of Sarin.

This combination of symptoms and environmental chemical analysis strongly suggests Sarin or a Sarin-like substance was used in the February 2018 chemical attack in Saraqib. This is particularly interesting when it is alleged in the Douma chemical attack, where the same type of modified chlorine cylinders were used, that not only was chlorine used, but reports from multiple groups, including the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), UOSSM, and White Helmets allege an organophosphate (which would include Sarin) or nerve agent was used in the attack, and the US government has also stated they believe both chlorine and a nerve agent, likely Sarin, was used in Douma.

That leaves the unanswered question as to how the nerve agent would have been used in the attack. Experts Bellingcat has contacted agree adding Sarin to a pressurised gas cylinder filled with chlorine would be extremely dangerous, meaning it would be more likely that an external container attached to the munition could have been attached, but as yet no physical evidence exists to support this hypothesis.

If the OPCW-FFM investigation in Douma does confirm the presence of DIMP, IPMPA/IMPA, and MPA it would add weight to the allegation that Douma was not only a chlorine attack, but also a Sarin attack, raising the question of how many other chlorine attacks that have taken place over the last 4 years which also included the use of Sarin. Only a tiny minority of these attacks have been investigated, so there may have been dozens of chlorine-Sarin attacks that were ignored because they appeared just to be yet another in a long line of chlorine attacks. Now it will be too late to ever establish if that was the case, but Douma may still offer some clues to whether chlorine-Sarin attacks are the Syrian government’s dirty chemical weapon secret.

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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21 Comments

  1. Waky Wake

    @Eliot Higgins and greater bellingcat.
    ~~~As I’m sure you are aware, your report only speaks to the presence of chemical agents in crudely modified containment and/or delivery canisters, more reminiscent of IEDs produced by the opposition/rebels/jihadists/terrorists in Syria, not the Syrian government forces. After considering all the verifiable evidence available to the international public, I can’t say with any degree of certainty which warring party in Syria has purposefully exploded chemical agents, but it has been undeniably confirmed that certain opposition/rebel/jihadi/terrorist factions have been and still are producing and utilizing projectile and stationary munitions, made from gas canisters of varying types and sizes. And what is visible in your pics above and in the ‘White Helmet’ produced pics of the so-called “Douma attack”, are extremely similar to numerous images published by multiple sources, including some from western journalists, of what was and still is being used by certain opposition/rebel/jihadi/terrorist factions.
    ~~~What, did you think we weren’t going to remember the images of modified gas canister projectiles used by factions in eastern Aleppo city, against civilians and government forces alike in western Aleppo city and elsewhere? Come on you guys!!!

    Reply
    • Mark

      If I were a Syrian Air Force ordnance officer in charge of supplying chemical warfare devices to be used against my own people in a war crime, I’d sure as hell want plausible deniability. Do you honesty think Assad would use an easily-identifiable Soviet-era design when they’re dropping these things from a helicopter? An outwardly-crude device like this is quick and easy to build, just as effective (if not more so) in these conditions, and it is very hard to prove where the device originated, even ignoring the fact that Syrian government forces are the only ones operating helicopters in-theatre. They’ve obviously learned some cute maskirovka techniques from those Russian advisors…

      Reply
      • Waky Wake

        @Mark:-|] QY1}”Do you honesty think Assad would use an easily-identifiable Soviet-era design” QY2}”when they’re dropping these things from a helicopter?” QY3}”it is very hard to prove where the device originated” QY4}”Syrian government forces are the only ones operating helicopters in-theatre.”

        Well Mark, I would have to believe there was a possible advantage to Assad/SAA employing chem-warfare in Douma [which I don’t], for QY1 to even be considered. As for QY2, who besides the veiled ‘white helmets’ one minute and opposition/rebel/jihadi/terrorist fighters the next, have given testimony that the alleged chem-munitions were dropped from said helicopters? You did notice that I mentioned “projectile and stationary munitions, made from gas canisters”, didn’t you? If there truly were chem-munitions exploded, the use of either projectile or stationary would have sufficed, for helicopter-drop blame by white helmets. QY3, ‘EXACTLY’, if there really were chem-munitions used. And as for QY4, see my response for QY2….

        Reply
        • Benzopal

          Never mind. Bellingcat is a paid propaganda operative. That is so obvious. A paid shill. A spineless sellout just using the ole propaganda technique of repeating government BS for neocon/Israel service sake.

          Reply
      • Terry

        “Do you honesty think Assad would use an easily-identifiable Soviet-era design…?”. Almost as silly as the Russians driving into the Ukraine and shooting down MH17 with a missile that has their fingerprints all over it.

        Reply
  2. Karl

    So, no organphosphates, no nerve agents, no militants killed. Much more people killed by bombing cities. Support democracy by killing half a million voters, sending half the population of Syria out of their country, and have a large part of the population as human shield for foreign terrorists. I am so sick that my country has supported the terrorists and the countries that sent them to destroy Syria. I am ashamed my country is an accessory to this mass murder proxy/mercenary/religious war.

    Reply
    • PJefferson Araldi

      Now that Russians say they defeated the “terrorists” we would expect that the 10 mio. Syrian refugees/ desplaced Syrians would go back to their homes. This is not hapenning simply bc they fled, are still fleeing from the real terrorists, i.g. Assad and Putin!

      Reply
        • PJefferson Araldi

          Thank you Dave! Your source of information, Telesurtv, is 100% “credible”!
          Telesurtv happens to be the mouthpiece of the most criminal, backward regimes on earth. Telesurtv is headquartered in Caracas and financed primarily by the Marxist regimes of Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia, all close allies of Russia, Iran, Assad, Hezbollah etc.. It’s a true alliance of evil!
          Despite being the oil richest country on earth, hungry Venezuelans are fleeing Maduro’s terror regime heading to Brazil, Columbia etc..
          Who do you think you’re fooling Dave with your Marxist-Islamist-Putinist propaganda?

          Reply
  3. Loverat

    If you read the report it’s obvious it says little. The problem with this and last year’s one is there is no chain of custody for the evidence. Interesting that the White Helmets are permitted to operate in Al Qaeda areas but the OPCW is not.

    Seriously would you rely on evidence given to you by Al Qaeda? That’s basically what it amounts to.

    My own analysis of the reports and other incidents is that on the balance of probabilities most if not all of these incidents are staged in some way.

    Reply
  4. Loverat

    I wonder what other people think about this.

    In my job I study a lot of expert reports to reach a conclusion. I guess a bit like a judge but less formal.

    If I was presented with the OPCW report and with my knowledge of Syria I don’t think any reasonable person could reach the same conclusion.

    It reminds me a little of looking at motor engineer reports. An expert engineer (employed by the motor insurer) sets out facts – but reaches the completely wrong outcome – obvious to anyone of reasonable intelligence. Most likely because he’s not independent and writing the report for the insurer.

    Can anyone here convince me with a coherant argument that this and other attacks were carried out by the Syrian Government.

    Reply
    • Waky Wake

      @Loverat, who asks:} “Can anyone here convince me with a coherent argument that this and other attacks were carried out by the Syrian Government?”

      Answer;-> No! No one here, or anywhere else can Loverat. Because a contention cannot be proven, without verifiable, evidential facts. Eliot Higgins and the greater bellingcat have long since lost all credibility, if they ever had any. And if the OPCW doesn’t do their job honestly and unbiased this time around, they will lose what’s left of their international credibility as well.

      Reply
    • Waky Wake

      @Loverat, who asks:} “Can anyone here convince me with a coherent argument that this and other attacks were carried out by the Syrian Government?”

      Answer;-> No! No one here, or anywhere else can Loverat. Because a contention cannot be proven, without verifiable, evidential facts. And if the OPCW doesn’t do their job honestly and unbiased this time around, they will lose what’s left of their international credibility.

      Reply
  5. Loverat

    Thank you Waky Wake.

    Yes I was checking if I’ve missed some fundemental evidence here.

    Today I received a brain dead response from my MP around the White Helmets. He supports them and says they are victim of a Russian/Syrian disinformation campaign. More garbage from the brother of the Foreign Secretary.

    I’m seriously wondering if the people writing these articles hold honest beliefs and are simply stupid – or they are deliberately lying. Difficult to believe that the author of this article is either hence my question. But the analysis above simply does not stand up to serious scrutiny.

    Reply
    • Waky Wake

      @Loverat:-\
      I’m as thoroughly befuddled by the apparent lack of competence and/or integrity of our western governing elites as you, my fellow realist. But it seems clear, that for dubious, scandalous, possibly barbaric and maybe even sinister reasons, our ‘deep state’ owned governing bodies are awash in a cesspool of degeneration. I have no love for Assad, Putin, or any other leader of foreign nations, but I also have no reason to hate them either. It’s the goings-on of my own foreign affairs and executive ‘leadership’ that has me worried. These folks attest that they speak and act on behalf of me and my compatriots, but I see no evidence of that. Whatever they’re up to, it is NOT for my best interest, nor that of any other common citizen in this nation.

      Reply
  6. Clay Thompson

    The report’s final conclusion excludes the use of Sarin. Soil tests and munition fragments show zero signs of Sarin. Some victims after the attack described symptoms that we’re beyond the scope of chlorine. The report notes that 3 of the 12 victims we’re first responders and they we’re unable to speak to hospital personnel that attended to the injured.

    You close your editorial here with some dubious claims. Great imagination.

    Reply
  7. Neverevermind

    are my conclusions of this highly “interlaced” sentence article

    they took probes (div. sarine sub-components, chlorine)
    found chlorine far under attack-relations
    other sarine results not shown in this article
    made no new photos but used already made photos
    symptoms presented of eleven???….11!! people

    sign

    Reply
  8. Dave

    In a court trial, is the verdict decided simply by asking the accuser whether the defence is guilty or not, or by asking the defence whether they’re innocent or not? Then why did the OPCW base its report on samples from the White Helmets – the group that is alleged to have fabricated the claim of an attack to frame the Syrian government?

    There’s a reason why media isn’t crowing over the OPCW report, and that is because the OPCW it’s pretty farcical.

    Reply

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