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The OPCW Fact Finding Mission Confirms More Sarin and Chlorine Use in Syria

June 13, 2018

By Eliot Higgins

Translations: Русский

On June 13th 2018 the OPCW Fact Finding Mission (FFM) confirmed the use of Sarin and Chlorine in Al-Lataminah on March 24th 2017 and March 25th 2017 in a new report. This would make the 3rd confirmed use of Sarin as a chemical weapon by the OPCW FFM in a 10 day period between March 24th and April 4th 2017, with the March 24th Sarin attack followed by another Sarin attack in Al-Lataminah on March 30th, and then the April 4th Khan Sheikhoun Sarin attack.

The new OPCW FFM report is consistent with Bellingcat’s earlier investigation into the March 25th 2017 chlorine attack in Al-Lataminah, which took place at Al-Lataminah hospital, an underground facility that was struck by a chlorine cylinder. As with earlier open source reporting on the attack, the OPCW FFM spoke to witnesses who described cylinders being dropped from a helicopter, consistent with other reports of aerial chlorine attacks in Syria. Earlier reporting on the attack put the number of victims around 35, and the OPCW FFM lists details of 33 victims, all of which were male, and included medical staff. The OPCW FFM report also states 3 victims died, consistent with earlier open source reporting, including Dr Ali Darwish, who stayed in the hospital to close up a patient he was operating on, and received a lethal dose of chlorine gas as a result:

In the samples taken from the hospital site the OPCW FFM also found chemicals related to the use of Sarin:

“The FFM further notes the presence of chemicals that may be related to sarin. In the absence of information to the contrary, the FFM does not attribute the presence of these chemicals to this alleged incident, but instead determines their presence as being related to the very likely use of sarin the day before, and the decontamination of patients at this location.”

It is, however, worth noting that samples from the OPCW FFM investigation into a suspected aerial chlorine attack in Saraqib in February 2018 contained chemicals related to Sarin, along with biomedical symptoms consistent with the use of Sarin, but those same symptoms were not documented following the Al-Lataminah attack.

Unlike the March 25th 2017 chlorine attack, the Sarin attack on March 24th in Al-Lataminah went unnoticed, so the OPCW FFM report is the first information we have about that attack. The OPCW FFM describes the attack as follows:

“A witness reported being awoken on 24 March 2017 at approximately 05:45 by the sound of a plane launching at least two munitions in the southern outskirts of Ltamenah. The first munition made impact in the agricultural lands south of the city, producing a mild detonation and generating no smoke (first impact point). The second munition made impact 10 minutes later, about 100 meters south of the first impact point producing a strong detonation and smoke. Another separate witness indicated that the first munition contained a chemical that was not chlorine, and that the secondmone was of a more conventional nature (second impact point).”

The impact sites are also included in the following map published as part of the OPCW FFM report:

This location is particularly interesting as it is just to the west of an opposition tunnel system previously identified through open sources after the Russian Ministry of Defence posted videos of airstrikes on the location in 2015. In each of the three videos, the Russian MoD falsely claimed that ISIS was being bombed when ISIS was not in the area at the time, and in one case, wrongly claimed the location was in Raqqa:

This site is just north of the site hit during the March 30th 2017 Sarin attack 6 days later, and also documented in the OPCW FFM’s earlier report on the March 30th attack. It appears likely that the March 30th Sarin attack was another attempt to attack the tunnel complex targeted on March 24th, as no other obvious targets are in the area:

Samples provided to the OPCW FFM were examined, and Sarin, along with other related samples were detected in multiple samples:

Unusually, the OPCW FFM highlights the similarities between the samples taken from the March 24th attack, and samples taken from the March 30th attack in Al-Lataminah and April 4th Sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun:

As the OPCW FFM would no doubt be aware, in the OPCW-UN JIM report on the Khan Sheikhoun Sarin attack, the OPCW-UN JIM described marker chemicals that linked the Sarin used to the Syrian government:

“The samples from Khan Shaykhun contain the three types of marker chemicals described above: PF6 [HFP], isopropyl phosphates and isopropyl phosphorofluoridates. Their presence is a strong indicator that the sarin disseminated in Khan Shaykhun was produced from DF from the Syrian Arab Republic stockpile.”

These same chemicals are found in samples from the March 24th and March 30th Sarin attacks. In addition, hexamine is yet again present in the samples from the March 24th Sarin attack, which is also described by the OPCW-UN JIM as part of the Syrian government’s Sarin manufacturing process:

“The analysis results of OPCW designated laboratories confirm the presence of sarin and some of its known degradation products (see OPCW document S/1521/2017, as well as United Nations documents S/2017/567 and S/2017/440). Moreover, the results confirm that sarin was produced by the binary route, in which DF is combined with isopropanol (iPrOH) in the presence of hexamine.”

It seems clear the OPCW FFM is trying to draw a connection between the Sarin used in all three attacks, Sarin they would know has been linked to the Syrian government, even if they don’t state it explicitly. It should be kept in mind the OPCW FFM is not tasked with assigning blame for chemical attacks in Syria, so they would not be expected to explicitly state such a connection, so this appears to be as close as the OPCW FFM can come to blaming the Syrian government for those three attacks.

Eliot Higgins

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21 Comments

  1. Neverevermind

    ” can come to blaming” …..i could come to conluding you arent neutral ….. but surprisingly i invented a new conjunctive, so maybee i read whole article sometimes …or i wait for concluded douma report ….in some time

    Reply
  2. Sean Lamb

    ““The samples from Khan Shaykhun contain the three types of marker chemicals described above: PF6 [HFP], isopropyl phosphates and isopropyl phosphorofluoridates. Their presence is a strong indicator that the sarin disseminated in Khan Shaykhun was produced from DF from the Syrian Arab Republic stockpile.””

    Would this be the same DF the Syrian Arab Republic handed over to a US Navy vessel for destruction?

    “Only on 23 June 2014, were the remaining declared chemicals shipped out of Syria for destruction. The destruction of the most dangerous chemicals was performed at sea aboard the Cape Ray, a vessel of the United States Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force, crewed with U.S. Navy and civilian merchant mariners.”

    Reply
    • Tom Wonacott

      “……..Would this be the same DF the Syrian Arab Republic handed over to a US Navy vessel for destruction?…….”

      It’s fairly easy to invent conspiracy theories. 911 was an inside job. There never was a Holocaust. Robert Parry (ConsortiumNews) used a single source to invent the origin of the sarin at Khan Shiekhoun:

      “……..The source said some evidence indicated that a drone from a Saudi-Israeli special-operations base inside Jordan delivered the sarin and that the staging of the attack was completed on the ground by jihadist forces. Initial reports of the attack appeared on social media shortly after dawn on April 4……..”

      Of course, the US gave the sarin to Israel (from the ship!). There needs to be some evidence that the US has been supplying sarin for the “false flag operations”. Do you have any?? And then you have to reconcile after all the trouble the US goes through to supply the sarin to the rebels (presumably for a US military response) why the US military responses have been so trivial. In reality, it’s probably a lost cause for you anyway.

      Reply
      • Sean Lamb

        Well since the Syrian Arab Army has firmly and consistently denied using chemical weapons and given they gain no military advantage from using them, it does seem worthwhile to investigate if the scientific findings the OPCW generate could have been produced by alternative pathways.

        After all the thesis that Bellingcat is pushing is also a conspiracy theory: that Syria and Russia conspire to use chemical weapons repeatedly and pointlessly and then lie in unison about it.

        After all, sarin used in Syria only began to match Syrian government stocks AFTER they handed them over. Before that, apparently, they didn’t

        London Review of Books April 2014

        “Obama’s change of mind had its origins at Porton Down, the defence laboratory in Wiltshire. British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal.”

        If the London Review of Books printed something Porton Down did not agree with, they would certainly find a way of expressing their disagreement – directly or indirectly

        Reply
      • Sean Lamb

        On reading the Khan Shaykhun report, I am not sure the “fingerprints” really mean much.

        On PF6 is says:
        ” Laboratory experiments showed that PF6 is formed when hydrogen fluoride (HF) is used as a fluorinating agent in the production of DF”

        There are really only two options for producing DF – HF or NaF – so it is not a particularly useful fingerprint.

        The other two “fingerprints”

        “The environmental samples from
        Khan Shaykhun had two additional types of marker chemicals: isopropyl phosphates and isopropyl phosphorofluoridates. Laboratory tests show that such marker chemicals are formed if DF from the Syrian Arab Republic stockpile containing POCl3 is used to make binary sarin. ”

        Again, POCl3 is – as understand it – the standard route for manufacturing sarin. The report doesn’t allow us to conclude that isopropyl phosphates and isopropyl phosphofluoridates is at all unusual to be formed from DF. How surprising is it for these two compounds to form when you mix isopropanol and DF? For something to be considered a “fingerprint” it has have some element of specificity. Stripped of the jargon we can conclude two things:

        1. The starting material for this sarin was POCl3 – ie the orthodox, published sysnthesis route.

        2. It was fluoridated using HF and not NaF. Again a usual synthesis pathway.

        Reply
        • DDTea

          The interesting point is that such quantities of process impurities remain in the final Sarin to be detected so consistently at the scene of multiple attacks. This reveals a lack of intermediate purification steps, which probably aligns with additional knowledge the OPCW has about the chemical engineering/process chemistry aspects of the Syrian sarin process.

          The hexamine says a lot as well.

          The use of HF is very revealing. On the scale required for a chemical attack, it requires specialized equipment and protocols: this ain’t kitchen chemistry. There’s no credible explanation other than that the SAA was behind this.

          Reply
  3. Sean Lamb

    This is another error:

    “In addition, hexamine is yet again present in the samples from the March 24th Sarin attack, which is also described by the OPCW-UN JIM as part of the Syrian government’s Sarin manufacturing process:”

    The OPCW has never (or at least should never have) described hexamine as part of the Syrian sarin manufacturing process because the Syrian government has never manufactured sarin for the OPCW. No one manufactures sarin, you only manufacture the precursors and then combine the precursors seconds prior to use.

    The Syrian government did – at the OPCW request – declare considerable stocks of hexamine, but it also declared considerable stocks of other more conventional amine containing compounds that are in the literature as performing the hydrogen fluoride scavenging function.

    Of course, the Syrian government had a legitimate reason for having stocks of hexamine – it is a key ingredient in the production of explosives, as well as more peaceful uses. It would have been surprising indeed if Syria had contained no stocks of hexamine whatsoever. And it is a long standing practice in NATO hybrid warfare to try and cripple target countries with so-called dual-use materials.

    The classic case was stopping the import of aluminium tubes that were going to used to make rockets for the Iraqi army on the pretended grounds they were used in uranium enrichment centrifuges.

    Reply
      • Sean Lamb

        Still doesn’t say that is the Syrian government’s manufacturing process. It simply says the environmental samples found at Khan Shaykhun showed hexamine.

        There has never been any sarin containing hexamine found in the Syrian Government’s stockpiles.

        Reply
      • Concerned Citizen

        No state has ever been proven to have used hexamine in the Sarin production process.

        Far better acid absorbers than hexamine would be used.

        Reply
        • DDTea

          How do you account for hexamine being found at the site of every sarin attack, including in captured sarin munitions (hand grenade dropped on Saraqeb)?

          Hexamine is not a deficient acid absorber in any way. Can you define what “better” means?

          Reply
          • Concerned Citizen

            First prove to me the Syrian government had anything to do with any of these supposed ‘attacks’.

    • DDTea

      You are wrong.

      Hexamine is not a CWC-scheduled chemical. The SAR would have no reason to declare it to the OPCW unless it were related to its chemical warfare program.

      Reply
      • Concerned Citizen

        So you’re saying the Syrian government was not required to declare any hexamine, but out of the goodness of their hearts did so, thus implicating themselves in chemical attacks?

        I can’t possibly believe such nonsense. They must have been asked to declare it by the OPCW.

        Reply
  4. Concerned Citizen

    Not going to bother reading the article, just one question:

    Did the OPCW visit the sites and take samples, maintaining control of chain of custody all the way to the lab, or didn’t they?

    Reply
    • Mad Dog

      “Syrian Arab Army has firmly and consistently denied using chemical weapons and given they gain no military advantage from using them” is proof that they did not use CW? Yeah, we can really trust the Syrian Arab Army in all things. Gotta love the logic.

      Reply
      • Sean Lamb

        I am not saying the Syrian Arab Army invariably tell the truth, just that it is impossible to dispute they have a better track record of honesty than proven serial liars like the British and US Governments.

        We just never see Jihadists being affected by sarin gas attacks: it is always underground hospitals, massive attacks on civilian areas the night OPCW inspection team arrives in Damascus, gas cylinders jammed into the holes of a civilian apartment building roof.

        At some point any rational person has to conclude: wait a minute it isn’t the Syrian Government that is behind these atrocities, is is our Governments.

        Reply
        • Mad Dog

          Just gotta love this one liner! they have a better track record of honesty than proven serial liars like the British and US Governments…..pretty funny since the Syrian Gov have never been a valid leader of the Syrian people (and all that such a fact entails). At some point, any rational person has to conclude: wait a minute, it isn’t the Syrian people who are behind these atrocities, it is the illegitimate Syrian Government that is behind these atrocities (and sean lamb is just a Syrian gov. shill).

          Reply
  5. Just Passing Through

    If soil samples were only collected and delivered to the OPCW February 2018, why do they find sarin and not just sarin degradation products? Articles seem to differ in how long it can be detected in soil and some need expert interpretation for those of us who aren’t chemists – e.g. Dan Kaszeta last year linked to a study where “nearly all Sarin in soil is gone after a day” https://twitter.com/DanKaszeta/status/906148189992046592

    The sample collection for the 30th was filmed by the press at the time in 2017, was the sample collection for the 24th not filmed too?

    Reply
  6. JPT

    Is there any record of this attack on the 24th March anywhere before this OPCW report? Multiple groups worked on reports about the events of the 30th of March including Bellingcat, no-one mentioned the 24th at all?

    Witnesses for the 30th even said it was the first chemical attack by a plane, previous attacks were helicopters https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huhn-4Zbe1c&feature=youtu.be&t=227

    Did nobody mention the crater of bubbling sarin next to their town?

    Reply
    • Eliot Higgins

      When we looked at the March 25th and March 30th attacks there was talk they had been attacked on other occasions around that same period, but their wasn’t enough detail at the time to draw specific conclusions. We’ll revisit the footage and see if it makes any more sense with this new information.

      Reply

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