the home of online investigations

The Chemical Munitions Used By the Syrian Government 2012-2018

June 14, 2018

By Eliot Higgins

The conflict in Syria has seen the widespread use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces since the end of 2012, with a surprising, and often very unusual, range of chemical munitions used. This article examines the chemical munitions documented through open sources, primarily used to deploy Sarin and chlorine gas.

Volcano Rockets

Known Period of Use – December 2012 to August 2013

The most notorious chemical attack of the Syrian conflict was the August 21st 2013 Sarin attacks in Damascus. Two types of rockets were used to deliver the Sarin used in the attacks, M14 artillery rockets, described below, and Volcano Rockets, a type of rocket unique to Syrian government forces.

Following the August 21st 2013 attacks, local groups filmed and photographed multiple examples of the remains of Volcano Rockets used in the attacks:

Sarin and Sarin byproducts were found in samples examined by the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, confirming the muntions contained Sarin. This same munition was also used in previous chemical attacks, including a chemical attack reported in Adra, Damascus, on August 5th 2013:

The remains of the same munition were also documented in a number of other incidents, the earliest known example being published in December 2012:

While the munition in the above video is clearly the same design, there’s no details about the incident beyond videos and photographs published of the munition. Because of the unusual design of the rockets, it was alleged by some that these rockets were created by opposition groups as part of a false flag attack to draw foreign governments into the conflict. This hypothesis can be easily rejected, as the explosive version of the rockets are shown in use by pro-government forces in multiple videos posted online by Syrian government forces and pro-Syrian media:

A close examination of images of chemical Volcano rockets and explosive Volcano rockets show that they are virtually identical, with the only significant difference being the design of the warhead, depending on the payload. Details like the type of welding used, position, size, and arrangement of bolts, and the presence of what appears to be a fuzing-related port on the rear of the warhead are shared by both types of the munition. There is also no evidence that either type of these munitions was captured by Syrian opposition forces, and the Syrian government has told the OPCW and UN that they have not lost control of any of their chemical weapons.

Following the August 21st 2013 there were no more incidents of the chemical version of the Volcano Rocket being used in chemical attacks, although multiple videos have been published pro-government media and armed groups showing the use of the explosive version of this rocket, including a larger version of the same design:

140mm M14 Artillery Rockets

Known Period of Use – August 21st 2013

The second type of rocket used in the August 21st 2013 Sarin attacks was the 140mm M14 Artillery Rocket. Unlike the Volcano Rocket, the M14 is a well documented munition original manufactured by the Soviet Union, and coming in a number of variations, including a type fitted with a Sarin warhead:

A Human Rights Watch investigation confirmed the Syrian government had M14 Artillery Rockets in their stockpiles, and the August 21st 2013 attack was the only documented instance of M14 Artillery Rockets being used in the Syrian conflict, either for conventional attacks or chemical attacks.

Helicopter Dropped Sarin Packages

Known Period of Use – April 2013

The most unusual chemical munitions used by the Syrian government were documented in two attacks in April 2013. It was reported that on April 13th 2013 in Sheikh Maghsoud, Aleppo, and Saraqib on April 29th 2013 helicopters dropped packages containing grenades containing chemical agents. The objects themselves appear to have been different designs of grenades placed inside a cinder-block and/or a box. The remains of this construct were filmed at one of the Saraqib impact sites:

Similar white debris was filmed after the Sheikh Maghsoud attack:

Remains of a white grenade were recorded at both incidents, as shown below:

Left – Saraqib; Right – Sheikh Maghsoud

In addition, remains of other grenade-like munitions were documented at the sites of the attacks, and a French government report published in 2017 revealed that French intelligence had acquired one of the munitions used in the Saraqib attack that hadn’t detonated:

The French report stated “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.”

The use of Sarin was further confirmed in a December 2013 UN report which detailed findings of an autopsy of one of the victims, that “clearly indicated signatures of a previous Sarin exposure.”

Syrian Chemical Aerial Bombs

Known Period of Use – March to April 2017

Following Sarin attacks in Al-Lataminah on March 30th 2017 and Khan Sheikhoun on April 4th 2017 debris was documented that indicates a specific type of Syrian chemical aerial bomb was used in the attacks. Remains of a filling cap, identified as being “uniquely consistent with Syrian chemical aerial bombs” by the OPCW-UN JIM in their report on the April 4th 2017 Khan Sheikhoun attack, were documented in both the Al-Lataminah attack and Khan Sheikhoun attack:

Left – The cap from Al-Lataminah; Right – The cap from Khan Sheikhoun

Additional debris documented at the site of the Al-Lataminah Sarin attack allowed for the type of Syrian chemical aerial bomb to be identified, thanks to efforts by the Russian government to claim the OPCW-UN JIM’s report on the Khan Sheikhoun attack was wrong. During a lengthy press conference on November 2nd 2017, the Russian Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Defence and the Ministry for Industry and Trade presented its response to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – UN Joint Mission (OPCW-UN JIM) report on the Khan Sheikhoun Sarin attack. The presentation included a series of slides, which included diagrams of two types of chemical bombs, designated the MYM6000 and M4000. The slides from the presentation, with a clearer version of the bomb diagrams, were published online:

The debris matched various features visible in the diagram of the M4000 bomb, including the width and configuration of the tail fins:

This design is consistent with the description of Syrian chemical aerial bombs in the Mediapart article “How Assad regime built chemical arsenal with aid of Germany and other countries“:

“It also meant that engineers from the SSRC also had to design bombs that were specific for sarin, and which were quite different to ordinary munitions. “On the outside, they resemble conventional bombs of 250 and 500 kilos of TNT,” explained one of them. “But inside they were totally different, divided into two compartments. The first, at the front, carried the DF. The second, at the rear, [contained] the isopropyl and hexamine. This mixture is stirred together by a stirring rod that can be activated by sort of crank at the rear of the bomb. When the two compartments are filled up, a technician winds the crank which advances the stirring rod to the point it breaks the wall of mica. The sarin synthesis reaction is set off inside the bomb, placed under a cold shower and maintained within a very precise temperature range which is controlled by a laser thermometer,” continued the former SSRC source. “After which, all that’s left is to introduce, in the allocated hold at the point of the bomb, the explosive charge and detonator – altimetric, chronometric or other – and to place the bomb under the wing of the plane. The load must be very precisely measured. If it is too big, the heat given off can cause the decomposition of the product, or the formation of a cloud of gas too far from the ground, which would render it ineffective. In principle, a 250-kilo bomb contains 133 litres of sarin, a few kilos of TNT and a ballast to preserve the aerodynamic characteristics of the weapon. A 500-kilo bomb contains 266 litres of sarin. The ideal altitude for the explosion of the bomb is about 60 metres.””

Chlorine Rockets

Known Period of Use – January 2017 to February 2018

Two types of munitions have been documented in relation to the dozens of chlorine attacks that have taken place during the conflict in Syria. In January 2017, the remains of a surface to surface rocket were documented following a reported chlorine attack in Al-Marj, Damascus:

The rocket is based on a re-purposed Iranian 107mm rocket, with the warhead removed and replaced by a pressurised gas cylinder, and tail fins added to the base of the rocket motor. The same design of munition was documented in later Chlorine Rocket attacks, including a series of attacks that took place in Douma, Damascus in January and February 2018, where multiple examples of the same rocket were documented:

Remnants of rockets used in the February 1 2018 attack. Photo credit: Coordination of Douma

Explosive variants of the same type of munition used by pro-government forces in Damascus, with identical rocket motor and tail fin configurations, were posted to the Syrian Reporter Facebook group:

The use of this type of chlorine rocket seems restricted to the Damascus area, with no documented sightings anywhere else in Syria.

Chlorine Aerial Bombs

Known Period of Use – Ongoing since April 2014

Chlorine Aerial Bombs are the most widely used chemical munition used in the conflict in Syria, documented at dozens of incidents since April 2014. Over time, the configuration of these munitions has evolved as the design has become more refined by Syrian government forces. The initial uses of these munitions were documented in several attacks that took place in April 2014 in the Idlib and Hama regions, a number of which were confirmed by the OPCW-UN JIM as being the responsibility of the Syrian government. In these earlier attacks, chlorine cylinder were placed inside barrel bomb casings, which at that point in the conflict used a consistent design. There were a number of configurations for this set up, for example in the example below we can see detcord has been wrapped around the neck of the cylinder, likely to cause a rupture on impact:

A later evolution of this design was documented in an OPCW-FFM report examining claims of chemical weapon use in Spring 2015, detailed in JP Zanders’ The Trench:

“The configuration consists of 9 gas cylinders (green) presumably filled with poisonous chemicals. The report suggests that they may have been filled with a chlorine or chloride containing compound. The flasks with potassium permanganate (pink) would then have been used to oxidise the chlorine containing compound, resulting in Cl2. The potassium permanganate may be responsible for the purple–red colour occasionally seen in pictures and video footage of impact sites.”

A diagram of the configuration is shown below:

A year later this design appears to have been abandoned, with multiple instances of chlorine gas cylinders documented in the aftermath of chlorine attacks without the barrel bomb casings previously associated with the attacks. Human Rights Watch documented a number of examples used in the siege of Aleppo in late 2016:

Images of chlorine cylinders used in alleged chlorine attacks in Aleppo (source)

The Masaken Hanano November 16th 2016 and Karm al-Jazmati November 23rd 2016 attacks both have metal structures visible on the exterior of the cylinders, with the Karm al-Jazmati providing the most complete example:

Handout photo provided to Reuters on February 13, 2017, by Human Rights Watch claiming to show remnant of yellow gas cylinder found in Masaken Hanano, Aleppo, Syria after a chlorine attack on November 18, 2016. Courtesy of Human Rights Watch/Handout via REUTERS

A near identical structure was seen in relation to the chlorine cylinders used in the April 7th 2018 Douma, Damascus, chemical attack:

The evolution of the design of chlorine aerial bombs is not dissimilar to the development of barrel bombs, where during their initial use there was a great deal of variation in design until a standard design was settled on. With these developments in their design, aerial chlorine bombs have become the preferred chemical weapon of the Syrian military. The recent OPCW FFM report on the February 4th 2018 Saraqib chlorine attack, which confirmed the same type of aerial chlorine bombs were used, also showed that chemical tests of samples from the attack site and munitions indicated there were signs of Sarin byproducts, strongly indicating Sarin was also used along side chlorine. As of yet, the delivery method for that Sarin has yet to be identified.

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

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.

Join the Bellingcat Mailing List:

Enter your email address to receive a weekly digest of Bellingcat posts, links to open source research articles, and more.

20 Comments

  1. Rob Heusdens

    The ironical issue concerning the Syrian war is that it is a gas conflict, a conflict in which there are mutual interest in that region for building a pipeline from the world largest gas deposits in the Persian/Arabian gulf shared by Iran and Qatar.
    Without understanding that, you can not understand the Syrian war, as most things we hear about it, are based on propaganda. A description of this war as is the common western narative about Syria, like it is some ‘internal/civil conflict’ in Syria, is just a false report, since it denies the dimension of the conflict as a geo-political battle field between various foreign countries who try to dominate that area. The Syrian war also stands apart from the civil unrest and protest movement that happened in 2011 during the ‘Arab spring’ as that was a civilian uprising for political reforms (seperating the state from the Al Ba’ath party, free elections, free press, withdrawal of martial law) which were implemented at least partially not long after these protests, and is not part of the violent conflict, which started around the same time. The false reporting is that it were the Syrian armed forces that started the violence by shooting at unarmed protestors, and not mentioning that armed violence already occured prior to the use of violence by the Syrian security forces, which occured by snipers from within the protest movement or from roofs of buildings. Not mentioned in many western media reports is that some time later, when armed gangs already spread over the country and were occupying some territories, the Syrian population mass demonstrated in support of their government, and in support of using the army to protect the civilian population from the armed groups. All these ‘opposition’ groups have major financial backing from foreign countries, and consists for a large part of foreign fighters, working for a terrorist organisation, afialiated with Al Qaeda/Al Nusra, etc.
    All claims and so-called research into various aspects of this war, like this report focussing in on alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian arab army, should be seen as part of the propaganda war. These reports are sold to the western public, in order to keep the support for armed groups, while at the same time denying to mention even the most basic facts about this war. The perspective of the average Syrian population (which celebrate the victories of the Syrian army, as it liberates them from the terrorist control which harmed the people) is simply not mentioned at all in almost all western media reports about Syria.. We are supposed to witness the Syrian war from the perspective of the terrorist groups (and their supporters), and we are supposed to support a policy that keeps the funding for terrorist groups alive.
    The most incredible stories got sold to the western public, like for instance the Al Ghouta chemical attack of august 2013. Some background on that incident. This attack happened near Damascus some days after a UN investigation team arrived in Damascus, which had come to Syria on request of the Syrian government for investigating an earlier chemical attack in Al Khasan (near Aleppo/Idlib) in march 2013, in which incident 13 Syrian soldiers died due to a chemical attack. So, the UN team finally arrives, and then 2 days later, it would have been the Syrian army have committed a chemical attack in Al Ghouta? The claim doesn’t make any sense, as this attack most likely was staged by the ‘opposition’ forces to draw away the attention away of the previous chemical attack (commited also by opposition forces supposedly, as why would the Syrian army attack their own soldiers?), which was never investigated as the team went right away researching the new chemical attack, and the inspection team didn’t find evidence the Syrian army committed the Al Ghouta attack.
    Neither is it very likely that other alleged chemical attacks, happening in a situation in which the Syrian army was making progress, and just days prior to some important international negotiations, the Syrian army would be using chemical weapons, knowing that this would certainly lead to military counter measures.
    The opposition forces have access to chemical weapons of various types as the Syrian army have found their chemical weapons stocks in many occasions. It is beyond doubt that those chemical weapons were used by ‘opposition’ forces in several attacks (in areas under their control) but blamed on the Syrian army.
    So there are some reasons to be sceptical about claims the Syrian army used chemical weapons, since most likely, they are part of the disinformation campaign and propaganda war.
    That said, there is no doubt (as in any war is the case) the Syrian population is a victim of this war on a massive scale, and the Syrian army does not have clean hand either.

    Reply
    • Sean

      Bellingcat is firmly planted in the Assad-Badboy Narrative and will disregard anything that doesn’t fit into it. If that is due to ideological reasons or if they have turned into a blatant propaganda-outfit is anyones guess.

      Reply
    • Sacred

      Nonsense Rob Heusdens. There are already piplelines criss crossing the region, and the shortest and fastest pipeline is not through Syria, but through Iraq and Turkey. And the cheapest method of transporting natural gas is by shipping LNG, and Qatar has the world’s largest facility to do that. It is not a major investment to receive shipment of LNG and load up storage tanks to feed the gas grid in Europe or Asia. So don’t make such rubbish up.

      Reply
      • Concerned Citizen

        LNG gas is not a cheap method of transporting natural gas.

        It’s very expensive due to the specialised ships and terminals needed. LNG gas is twice the price of pipeline gas.

        Reply
    • Mad Dog

      Of course it is not the Syrian Army or Regime that is at fault. No, it is two teenagers caught spraying graffiti against the Regime. After hours of torture, they let it be know that they were just puppets of some Western conspiracy to dethrone King Assad. Yep, once the Syrian Army found that out, they just shot into any crowd they could find. Yep, that wonderful Syrian Regime, so loved by the people that they re-elect it over and over with 98% majorities, is truly the legitimate representative of the people, one reason so may have decided to fight back or get out of the country. Hey, better those 5-year old Jihadis are out of the country…right?

      Reply
  2. MikeI

    Syrian conflict will suddenly disappear when the electric conversion of automobiles reaches 1% per year.

    Reply
    • Sacred

      There is NO oil in Syria. And US is self-sufficient in oil and is actually exporting oil. There is no benefit in terms of oil production or consumption by having a Syrian conflict. This is mainly a liberation movement within Syria followed by geopolitics, regional rivalries, and Russian nationalism where the Putin elite wishes to remain in power in Russia by making this a superpower issue.

      Reply
  3. Sean Lamb

    Who would thought from looking at that miscellaneous collection of scrap metal that Syria was thought to have the capability to undertake a massive attack on Israeli cities? Where are the bombs with 200-300 liter sarin capacity? Probably Assad decided not use them – too big a risk, he might accidentally killed some actual fighters.

    Anyway, here is a video of ISIS constructing DIY rockets in Mosul

    https://twitter.com/worldonalert/status/864879512609280001?lang=en

    Reply
    • Rob Heusdens

      The Libyan stockpiles of chemical weapons were plundered, many of those weapons ended up in the hands of the ‘rebels’ in Syria. Some topic Bellingcat seems to have no interest in in examining.

      Reply
      • Nathaniel

        Libyan stockpiles of chemical weapons ending up in Syria under rebel hands? Unlikely, they don’t have the capability to carry out such an operation. Too dirt poor to do so by themselves anyway.

        Reply
  4. Jeroen

    So if it is not the Syrian Arab Air Force, who then were or are operating those reported and/or filmed Su-22 fighterbombers and Mi-8 or Mi-17 helikopters over Syrian cities and the countryside in Syrian controlled airspace at those dates and times that CW/chlorine bombs, barrel bombs or containers were air-dropped?
    In 2013 Iran had delivered 10 former Iraqi Su-22’s to strenghten the SAAF.

    Reply
  5. Eran

    One comment…
    About the actual chlorine bombs.
    “in the example below we can see detcord has been wrapped around the neck of the cylinder, likely to cause a rupture on impact”
    This canister cannot hold chlorine.
    It contain high explosive.
    You can see in the video that there is no valve
    So there is nothing pressurized inside the cylinder.

    There are so many better example to demonstrate….
    And so many various devices…

    Reply

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)