Previous chemical attacks
While it is a common belief that the Syrian government has been proven to be behind several catastrophic chemical attacks in Syria, the deadliest by far being the August 21 2013 attack in Eastern Ghouta, the February 12 2014 report by the UN Human Rights Council states the following: "In no incident was the commission’s evidentiary threshold met with regard to the perpetrator."
This came after OPWC investigators had been allowed to go to the attack site and do their investigations thoroughly. Such a statement strongly counters statements by Western officials, who only hours after the attack pinned blame on the Syrian government, and started planning for punitive military strikes on Syria. Those plans were eventually scrapped as the UK parliament, weary of having been mislead before the Iraq War, voted down a government motion to authorize the strike.
The OPWC investigators had also investigated a previous chemical attack, in Khan Al-Assal, on March 19 of the same year. They found that "the chemical agents used in that attack bore the same unique hallmarks as those used in Al-Ghouta". This has been used by some as an indicator that the Syrian government were behind both incidents. It does however, point in the opposite direction. Although not able to draw any firm conclusions, Swiss UN investigator Carla del Ponte stated in May 2013 that "there were "strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof", that rebels, rather than government forces, were behind the Khan Al-Assal attack. "I was a little bit stupefied by the first indications we got... they were about the use of nerve gas by the opposition," she said.
Revelations of sarin smuggling from Turkey
The strongest evidence linking the 2013 chemical attacks to al-Qaida/ISIS rebels (the chemical attacks of 2013 took place before the breakup between the al-Qaida affiliated Nusra Front, which had a strong presence in Eastern Ghouta, and ISIL which dominated territories further east in Syria, in October of 2013) does not come from UN/OPWC investigations, but from leaks by Turkish journalist and parliamentarian Eren Erdem. Erdem, who has since been jailed, and is now on hunger strike in a Turkish prison, presented damning evidence, widely ignored by mainstream media in the West, but referred by a few, among others, the Belfast Telegraph:
Erdem showed parliament copy of the criminal case (number 2013/120) that was opened by the General Prosecutor's Office in the city of Adana in southern Turkey.
He said evidence from that this case shows various Turkish nationals were dealing directly with Isis and other terrorist groups in Syria, supplying them with sarin gas.“The phone recordings in the indictment showed all the details from how the shipment was going to be made to how it was prepared, from the content of the labs to the source of the materials. Which trucks were going to be used, all dates etc. From A to Z, everything was discussed and recorded. Despite all of this evidence, the suspects were released.
“And the shipment happened,” Erdem added.
Joint Investigative Mechanism report on Khan Shaykhoun
As no conclusions have been reached by international investigators into previous chemical attacks in Syria, the basis for stating that the Syrian government has indeed committed chemical attacks, rests solely on one report, that of the OPWC-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism into what happened in the Idlib Town of Khan Shaykhoun on April 4, 2017.
The report of the three member panel, lead by Guatemalan career diplomat Eduard Molet, does conclude in the following manner: "the Leadership Panel is confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017. The findings of the Leadership Panel regarding the evidence in this case are based on the information set forth in detail in annex II." This panel's conclusion cannot however be seen as evidence in itself. We have to look more detailed at the evidence presented in the report.
No site inspection and destruction of evidence
The first noticable fact mentioned, which contrast event sites where there could be found no conclusive evidence for Syrian government use of chemical weapons, is that the investigators in this case "did not visit the scenes of the incidents at Umm Hawsh [where ISIS was the assumed culprit] and Khan Shaykhun". It also states that the value of any visit in the future would be of little value as "the crater from which the sarin emanated had been disturbed after the incident and subsequently filled with concrete. Accordingly, the integrity of the scene had been compromised." The report explains the failure to go to the site with the "high security risk of a site visit to Khan Shaykhun, which is currently in a situation of armed conflict and under the control of a listed terrorist organization (Nusrah Front)", but does not reflect on any potential reasons why the site had been destroyed by the group that controls and continues to control Khan Shaykhoun.
Evidence of sarin exposure
Based on medical samples provided from victims, the the panel finds sufficient evidence that the people in the Idlib town did indeed suffer a chemical attack, most likely involving sarin gas. In my view, the sum of evidence does point to people being exposed to sarin, even with some noticeable discrepancies:
"Scenes recorded just after the incident at the medical site to the east of Khan Shaykhun, where rescue and decontamination activities filmed shortly after 0700 hours showed rescue personnel indiscriminately hosing down patients with water for extended periods of time. That video footage also showed a number of patients not being attended to, as well as paramedical interventions that did not seem to make medical sense, such as performing cardiac compression on a patient who was lying face down. Film footage showing rescue workers doing procedures that were not only inconsistent with sarin gas poisoning, but directly counterproductive, if saving lives was the purpose. [...]
The Mechanism observed from open sources that the treatment administered to victims from Khan Shaykhun had frequently involved oxygen and cortisone therapy. Such treatment is not recommended for sarin poisoning, but is recommended mainly for lung damage, as would be caused by either chlorine or vacuum bombs.
An inconsistency was identified in one of the Fact-Finding Mission’s biomedical results from samples lacking a chain of custody. In sample No. 13, 1 the blood sample tested negative for sarin or a sarin-like substance, while the urine sample tested positive for the sarin degradation product isopropyl methylphosphonate. There is currently no explanation for the inconsistency. Medical experts consulted by the Mechanism indicated that the combination of the negative result in the blood and the positive result in the urine was impossible. That inconsistency was considered to be most likely the result of cross-contamination in the sampling process."
Evidence for staging scenario
If we accept the premise that sarin was indeed used in Khan Shaykhoun on April 4 2017, the question remains how the poisonous gas was dispersed. Was it, as is the assumption in the conclusion, the effect of a bomb dropped from a high altitude airplane, or did it originate from a ground explosion, as part of a staged operation to put blame on the Syrian government. The report investigates both options, and what is striking, is that counter to the conclusion, there is plenty of evidence in the report pointing towards the latter explanation:
"The Mechanism also sought to collect information about possible activities related to the dissemination of sarin from an improvised explosive device on the ground in accordance with the second scenario. While the Mechanism found no information relating to the preparation of an explosion through such means, it noted S/2017/904 17-18978 25/33 a witness statement that was consistent with that scenario. In an interview with the Mechanism, the witness reported waking up at approximately 0700 hours on 4 April 2017 to the sound of explosions. The witness stated that no aircraft had been flying over Khan Shaykhun at the time and that aircraft had begun to launch attacks only at around 1100 hours. [..]
Certain irregularities were observed in elements of the information analysed. For example, several hospitals appeared to have begun admitting casualties of the attack between 0640 and 0645 hours. The Mechanism received the medical records of 247 patients from Khan Shaykhun who had been admitted to various health-care facilities, including survivors and a number of victims who eventually died from exposure to a chemical agent. The admission times noted in the records range from 0600 to 1600 hours. Analysis of the records revealed that in 57 cases, patients had been admitted to five hospitals before the incident (at 0600, 0620 and 0640 hours). In 10 of those cases, patients appear to have been admitted to a hospital 125 km away from Khan Shaykhun at 0700 hours, while another 42 patients appear to have been admitted to a hospital 30 km away at 0700 hours. The Mechanism did not investigate those discrepancies and cannot determine whether they are linked to any possible staging scenario."
Inconsistent crater analysis
While witness accounts and medical records point more in the direction of a staged attack by the al-Qaida militants controlling the town, the one point of evidence that leads the panel towards accepting the claim that the sarin dispersal was the result of an air-dropped bomb from Syrian warplanes, is the shape of the crater assumed to be the dispersal site.The report does however refer to a report provided by the Syrian government pointing in the opposite direction:
"In the report, the Government concluded that the shape and characteristics of the crater and the lack of physical evidence did not indicate that it had been the result of an air strike. It was noted that the shape, depth and contents of the crater were not consistent with the effects of an aerial bomb, but rather indicated that it had been the result of a ground explosion produced using a device weighing no more than 10 kg. In support S/2017/904 17-18978 27/33 of its position, the Government referred to the incompleteness of the debris of the alleged explosion and the absence of any residues of the bomb or rocket, including a rocket motor, tail or fins. It was also stated that three pieces from an unknown source had been deliberately placed, including the remnants of an alleged shell. The Government stated that that confirmed that the scene had been fabricated to suggest that the crater had resulted from the explosion of an aerial bomb. It was also noted in the report that the crater and its surroundings had contained traces of live agent (sarin) and its degradation products, which had been found 10 days after the alleged attack, indicating that the explosion had not led to the dispersion of the full contents of the sarin container, and that the explosion had not been well calculated."
The report also obtained analysis of the crater from "three independent, internationally recognized institutes with specialization in the areas of forensics, defence and security as well as by two individual independent experts in energetic materials." While it is not stated which institutes in what countries this refers to, I believe it is safe to assume that this refers to an institutes in Western countries. It is therefore very significant that one of these institutes also provide indirect support for the Syrian view by noting that "the site appeared to have been disturbed after impact." While also mentioning "indications that the ground had been hit by a substantially heavy object that had travelled at high velocity" the defense research institute makes no firm conclusion that this is what has transpired. On the contrary, it is explicitly statet that the institute "could not rule out the idea that the crater had been caused by other means".
Another institute comes out with a more firm conclusion in support of the airial theory. The argument provided by this institute against the theory of a ground-launched munition, is that "no remnants peculiar to a rocket had been evident in the crater or found in its vicinity". This is remarkable more in the sense that nobody has argued that the al-Qaida-linked rebels, if they were indeed behind the sarin dispersal, had used a rocket launched from the ground to disperse the poison gas, but rather a limited ground based explosion of a sarin container, which, according to the Syrian view, "had not been well calculated." It is therefore very difficult to see how the statement from this other institute actually contradicts the Syrian analysis which bases itself on the same set of facts, noticing "the absence of any residues of the bomb or rocket, including a rocket motor, tail or fins".
The report noticeably makes no mention of what the third referred institute concluded, but refers instead heavily to one of the unnamed "individual independent experts", while also not mentioning the other. The one referred expert "found that the appearance of the crater indicated that the pavement had been hit by a relatively large object at high velocity, without a large amount of explosives being involved", consistent with the airial theory. This expert also "concluded that it was very unlikely that the crater had been caused by a ground-launched weapon, an explosive charge or a liquid-filled warhead emplaced on the ground, or excavation and the emplacement of the objects found therein." It is noticeable that this expert makes no mention of the signs that "the site appeared to have been disturbed after impact.", which is not only noted by the Syrian report, but also in the report of one of the two referred defense institutes.
Despite this, in drawing their conclusion, the panel lead by the Guatemalan diplomat, chooses to base their conclusion firmly on the side of the one expert that gives strong support to the theory that the crater must have been made by airial impact, disregarding both the Syrian account and indications by one of the independent defense institutes referred to, which mentions indications of site tampering: The Mechanism notes that, on the basis of the foregoing, the characteristics of the crater are more likely to have been caused by an aerial bomb with a small explosive charge, and that it probably contained liquid.
This conclusion comes dispite visual evidence of airial bombardment of the dispersal site, while there is indeed such evidence to suggest Syrian planes were dropping bombs on other parts of the town at the time. The report notes that "At the request of the Mechanism, the Syrian Arab Republic provided the exact coordinates of six locations targeted by the Syrian Arab Air Force aircraft operating from Sha‘irat airbase on 4 April 2017. The coordinates were found to be similar to the description of the targets identified in the relevant logbook. While those entries include flight times that correspond to the likely timing of the sarin event at Khan Shaykhun, they refer to aerial attacks targeting unidentified non-State armed groups in the town of Tall Hawash and west of Kafr Zayta. As noted above, while the Mechanism could confirm that one of these locations had sustained damage, it could not confirm that the damage had occurred on 4 April.
As noted in paragraphs 19, 23 and 28 above, the Mechanism obtained information detailing the presence of a Su-22 within 5 km of Khan Shaykhun, as well as information provided by a Su-22 pilot interviewed by the Mechanism indicating that he had been within 7 to 9 km of Khan Shaykhun at the relevant time. The Mechanism consulted with a weapons expert to ascertain the confluence of distance and altitude from which it might be possible to hit Khan Shaykhun with an aerial bomb. The expert concluded that, depending on a number of variables such as altitude, speed and the flight path taken, it would be possible for such an aerial bomb to be dropped on the town from the aforementioned distances.
In order to identify other points of impact possibly associated with the release of sarin, the Mechanism commissioned the forensic analysis of video footage taken between 0642 and 0652 hours on 4 April that showed four plumes across Khan Shaykhun, three of which had been located approximately 320 m south-west of the crater and the fourth approximately 1.3 km south-south-west of the crater, one of which had been shorter and whiter than the others. None of the locations from which the plumes had emanated could be associated with the location of the crater."
No motive investigated
Earlier a declassified CIA report into the attack tried to prove that the government forces had likely motive to use chemical weapons against the rebels in Idlib at the time, as they "assess that Damascus launched this chemical attack in response to an opposition offensive in northern Hama province that threatened key infrastructure."
The findings of the Joint Investigative Mechanism effectively contradicts this motive, pointing instead to the documented fact that "On 24 March 2017, Ahrar al-Sham and its allied groups reportedly launched a separate offensive in north-western Hama Governorate. Open-source information suggests that at around the same time, Syrian government forces started to gain momentum, although with some temporary setbacks, in repelling these attacks. [...] By 3 April 2017, Syrian government forces had made rapid advances, reportedly regaining control over most of the areas lost after 21 March 2017, and had moved deeper into some of the areas that had been controlled by non-State armed groups prior to 21 March.
At the time of the chemical attack, we then see that instead of the Syrian government facing an onslaught "that threatened key infrastructure", it was instead the rebels who were in an entrenched position, in desperate need of something to happen to change the dynamic of the war. While de facto debunking the motive earlier provided by the CIA, the report makes no mention of this fact, nor does it make any other attempt at providing any credible motive for either the government or the rebels to have initiated the chemical attack at the time and place where it happened.
All in all, the investigations of the panel are clearly lacking in many respects. They do note themselves that it would have been very valuable to be able to access the site of the attack, specifically the crater, yet base the conclusion solely on analysis of the crater made by one technical expert, disregarding both the Syrian government explanation and indications pointed out in one of the reports by one of the independent, in all likelyhood Western, defense institutes that "the site appeared to have been disturbed after impact". The panel report mentions discrepancies in medical logs that is consistent with a staging scenario, but explicitly states that they did not investigate that further. And finally, while debunking what was earlier provided as the likely motive for the government to use sarin in that situation, the report does not provide any analysis of any type of motive any of the possible purportrators could have had.
All in all, the report conclusion looks more like a whitewash of what had already taken place, a US attack on Syrian military infrastructure, based on the assumption that Syria was behind the attack, than real evidence that the Syrian government was indeed behind the attack.