Jan 22, 2014

Analysis of the Second UN Report

If this is your first time here, I recommend starting from the conclusion page.

This post analyzes the UN's final report on the use of Chemical Weapons in Syria, published on December 12th, 2013.

The report, which covers seven separate attacks, spans 82 pages and contains a mix of evidence collected by the UN, evidence reported by the Syrian government, UN analysis and estimates, and procedural documentation. This post attempts to extract from it new findings, which may be relevant for inferring culpability for the August 21st attack.

Ghouta, August 21st

Given the multiple omissions and mistakes in the initial report of September 10th, the final report was widely anticipated to provide more information and clarifications. Particularly interesting issues were (a) whether the wrong trajectories reported would be corrected, (b) any conclusions that could be made from the many chemical by-products found in the scene, and (c) clarifications on the numerous discrepancies in the Moadamiyah site.

In that aspect the final report was a huge disappointment. The writers simply chose to sidestep the issues by stating that the September report “forms an integral part of this final report” and only provided some minor updates to the lab results. This leaves us with two possible explanations:
  1. The team had no new information to offer since the September report, despite the large amounts of raw data involved and its short time constraints.
  2. The team simply wished to avoid highlighting the many mistakes made in the first report, by pretending the objective of the final report was only to investigate new sites.

Khan Al Assal, March 19th

The fact that a chemical attack occurred was already known, but the report adds two interesting findings:
  1. Syrian soldiers were indeed attacked and the site was under Syrian government control at the time. These claims by the Syrian government were not widely accepted prior to the report.
  2. The agent was an organophosporous compound. This matches the Russian’s finding of sarin in soil samples, but was also not widely accepted, especially since some eyewitnesses reported a Chlorine smell.

It should be noted that the team did not visit the site to take samples due to security restrictions, so their conclusions were based on numerous interviews, which they felt were strong enough evidence (or as mentioned in the press conference: “the footprints in the society… were so obvious”).

The report does not offer any reliable evidence on the delivery method.

Judging by a map attached to the report, the lethal area seems to be 2 hectares (200x100m), which matches the death toll of 25 people. Based on US DoD models, this translates to 20 kg of sarin used.

Bahariyah, August 22nd

In this event, Syrian Army soldiers were attacked by improvised devices distributing a blue gas with a very bad odour. The symptoms reported by the soldiers are clearly indicative of some irritant and not a nerve agent, and their blood samples were negative for sarin (samples were taken by the hospital on the day of the attack, and by the UN a month later).

Jobar, August 24th

In this event, Syrian Army soldiers were attacked by an IED. The interesting findings:
  1. A sample taken by the UN team a month after the attack from one soldier tested positive for sarin exposure.
  2. All 4 samples taken on the day of the attack by the hospital were positive. This includes samples from 3 soldiers who tested negative by the UN. This is likely explained by the long time passed.
  3. The attack involved at least 4 IEDs of 4 liters each, which is 17.4 kg of sarin.

These findings are ground-breaking, as they show for the first time positive proof of a Syrian Army soldier being attacked by sarin. Combined with the evidence previously collected, it can now be ascertained with high certainty that the Syrian opposition possesses sarin.

Ashrafiya August 25th

In this event, Syrian Army soldiers were attacked by canisters launched by the opposition using catapults. One of them landed near a group of five soldiers and released a foul smelling smoke. They then experienced symptoms consistent with nerve-agent poisoning and were evacuated. The interesting findings:
  1. All 5 samples taken by the hospital on the day of the attack were positive for sarin.
  2. All 3 samples taken by the UN samples a month later were negative .
  3. One sample taken by the UN 5 days after the attack was negative.

Since we have both a government and a UN positive result in Jobar, and a match in the negative results provided by the government in Bahariyah, it is safe to trust the positive samples in this case and attribute the negative samples to the time passed.

However, the last finding raises an obvious question: Why was only one sample taken from the five injured soldiers? The astounding answer is hinted in the report:
"Biomedical sampling was performed on 30 August 2013 on selected patients… Due to technical problems during the sampling, only one blood sample was recovered”. 
The following points may help better understand this statement:
  1. The report goes to great lengths to describe the meticulous procedures used by the UN team to protect the integrity and authenticity of samples.
  2. The team did not report any procedural failures in the collection of samples from makeshift hospitals in the warzone, but only in this secure military hospital.
  3. The UN’s visit to the hospital was reported by the media, but for some reason was not mentioned in the September report - an omission which raised a few eyebrows at the time.
While previously there was some hope that the UN's multiple mistakes were somehow attributable to human error, this mess-up leaves us with the unavoidable distressing conclusion that someone within the UN team has been manipulating evidence. The blunt error in the Zamalka trajectory, the ridiculous analysis of the Moadamiyah “impact site”, and now the loss of blood samples cannot all be honest mistakes, especially when considering all three happen to contribute to the regime-attack theory.

This suspicion must be investigated to ensure this would never happen again. A first good step would be to pressure the UN to expose the full raw data (e.g. the raw GoPro recordings, and quantitative lab results).

Saraqeb 29 April

This case, along with a similar attack two weeks earlier, was extensively analyzed by Brown Moses here, here, and here.

According to the opposition sources quoted in the report a helicopter dropped an improvised weapon built from a cinder block with holes containing grenades whose safety pins were removed. When the block hits the ground and breaks, the levers detach and the grenades detonate. The sources claim the grenades contained tear gas and sarin.

Following the attack 13 victims were evacuated to Turkey, of which a 52 year old woman died, and the rest quickly recovered.

The new findings:
  1. Body parts taken from the woman in an autopsy tested positive for sarin exposure.
  2. A blood sample taken from the woman had low cholinesterase levels, which is consistent with nerve-agent poisoning, but also other conditions such as a heart attack.

To make this incident even more puzzling, here are a few more details to consider:
  1. Turkish doctors previously reported blood samples from all 13 patients tested negative for sarin, while France reported finding sarin in samples from this incident.
  2. According to this eyewitness report, other people were affected in the same location as the woman. However, the UN report states no one else exhibited severe symptoms.
  3. The grenades allegedly used in the attack are probably tear-gas or smoke grenades.
  4. The opposition has acknowledged using these grenades, stating they were seized from Syrian army depots.
  5. This was the only case (besides Ghouta) where the government accused the opposition of carrying a false-flag chemical attack (here and here).

So what happened in Saraqeb? The main scenarios to consider are:
  1. A government attack using an improvised device containing previously unheard-of sarin grenades. The amounts used were so low that it had lethal effects only when falling in close proximity to a 52 year-old woman, indicating the use of sarin had no military gain.
  2. The woman’s body was contaminated with sarin (or IMPA) in the Turkish morgue in an attempt to deceive the UN.
  3. The lab results were a false positive.
  4. A false-flag by the opposition, as claimed by the government.

None of these scenarios seem very plausible, leaving this incident a complete mystery. If anyone can make sense of it, please share your ideas.

Summary of Evidence

For the sake of clarity, here is the full evidence trail described above that links the opposition to the sarin attacks:

  1. In Jobar, a blood sample independently taken by the UN from a soldier tested positive for sarin.
  2. In Bahariyah, the only of the four opposition attacks that was not a sarin attack, the samples supplied by the hospital were also negative, indicating the government was not attempting to tamper with evidence.
  3. In Ashrafiya, the hospital provided 5 positive blood samples, which were confirmed to be from the attacked soldiers.
  4. In Khan Al Assal the UN team was convinced from interviews with the victims and medical personnel that an attack with an ogranophosphorus compound has occurred against soldiers and civilians. This adds to the sarin findings by the Russian investigation team.

  1. The opposition attacked Syrian government soldiers and government-supporting civilians with sarin on three separate occasions.
  2. The opposition has access to at least tens of kg of sarin. This significantly increases the plausibility of them being able to obtain the hundreds of kg needed for the Ghouta attack – closing one of the main gaps in our current scenario.
  3. Elements within the UN team have likely manipulated evidence in attempt to incriminate the Syrian government.