Apr 21, 2015

60 Minutes' Review of the Ghouta Attack

A few days ago, CBS' 60 Minutes aired a review of the Ghouta attack. Following is my quick analysis:
  1. Despite the claim of new evidence, I could not identify any new videos. The new evidence must therefore be the eyewitness reports.
  2. The show seems to be relying on Western Intelligence reports to claim government culpability, saying the rocket attacks originated from government held territory. This claim by the US has since been completely refuted.
  3. The show claims the rockets were of a type used by the government. This is known to be correct, although it is irrelevant when determining culpability, due to the numerous rebel raids on army depots. Actually, these rockets were not part of the Syrian chemical weapons program, and were most likely repurposed incendiary rockets. Such a weapon is therefore a much better fit for a false flag attack than for a government attack.
  4. The eyewitness reports do not add any new information relevant to determining culpability. There is however one interesting report: The opposition activist from Moadamiyah describes hearing muffled rocket hits, and a strong burning sensation in his lungs. This strengthens our conclusion that no chemical attack occurred in Moadamiyah: Sarin is highly lethal, and by the time a victim can inhale enough sarin to feel lung irritation, he has long been unconscious or dead.
    If we are to believe the claims of muffled hits and lung irritations, a white phosphorous or non-lethal gas attack is far more likely. Both of which have been used often by the Syrian government (while there is no evidence of previous use of lethal chemical weapons).
  5. Despite the numerous mistakes, the show does deserve some credit for leaving significant room for doubt regarding culpability, and even ending the interview with Scott Cairns of the UN investigation team, with the following:
    60 Minutes: “Why would anyone launch the largest chemical weapons attack in decades, while [UN] chemical weapon experts are in town?”
    Cairns: “I ask myself this a lot... I don’t know... I don't think we'll ever truly know.”
    Not many shows on a US mainstream channel would dare to do so. Kudos.

Jan 4, 2015

New Satellite Imagery

In his latest post Eliot Higgins analyzes recent satellite images uploaded to Google Earth, taken just three days after the August 21st attacks.

The images show many tanks scattered throughout North Jobar, some of them within Volcano range of the impact sites. This leads Eliot to conclude that “government forces were well established in the area”, and therefore the Volcano’s short distance does not contradict the regime attack scenario.

As I will show below, this conclusion is incorrect. But first, it’s worth noting that this information is not new - We already know the army was operating in the area on the 24th from several sources:       
  • The UN final report describes a sarin attack on Syrian soldiers that took place in Jobar on the 24th. The report provides a location for the attack, which I added to Eliot’s map of the area below. So we know the SAA was operating even closer to the impact sites than the tanks shown.

  •  A TV report from the 24th describes an Army incursion in Jobar which uncovered an opposition chemical lab (a report that was later confirmed).
  • The ANNA TV reports which Eliot has already analyzed in detail.

As to Eliot’s conclusion: While we can place SAA operations on the 24th within range of the Zamalka impact sites, they cannot be associated with the chemical attack, for the following reasons:
  1. The impact sites clearly point to a northern launch source, while the SAA was operating north-west to the impact sites. In particular, it is very difficult to reconcile the findings in impact site 2 with an attack from Jobar.
  2. SAA positions on the 24th are significantly different than the SAA positions on the 21st. As detailed above, the SAA was leading a concentrated effort in Jobar during these days, and it is safe to assume the front line was significantly farther to the West when the chemical attack occurred.
  3. Even if we were to ignore the two limitations above, it would still mean that the SAA decided to bring their chemical Volcanos to the very edge of the frontline. A chemical Volcano launch is a complex operation involving two unarmored trucks, several people operating in the open, and a large amount of highly lethal sarin. From the ANNA videos and the multiple attacks on SAA forces in the area, it is clear that this was not a safe zone. Why on earth would they take such a risk, when they can launch longer range chemical weapons from the safety of SAA army bases all around Damascus?

Each of the three facts above strongly contradict an SAA Volcano attack from Jobar. Considered together, they make such an attack near impossible.

There is however something we can learn from the new imagery: While there are dozens of tanks in Jobar, I could not find a single tank anywhere near the launch site, or even anywhere east of the highway (the Southern Bypass) for that matter. Furthermore, as Eliot notes in his post, the only government position east of the highway (“Tohme Checkpoint”) was wiped off the ground within days. Since we do have videos and reports of the opposition operating in the area, as well as them attacking SAA forces from east of the highway, our conclusion that the launch site was under opposition control on August 21st is strengthened.

Conclusion: The new satellite imagery from August 24th, 2013 somewhat strengthens the claim that the sarin Volcano launch site was under opposition control.

Apr 13, 2014

Seymour Hersh's New Report

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

Seymour Hersh has recently published another piece on the August 21st attack (analysis of the previous one here). The article is a mix of information and speculation on many issues, which is hard to use as evidence for our purposes, but a close read does seem to point to three interesting information sources, which I'll try to examine here.

The Main Points

A June 20 DIA report assesses that the opposition is attempting to manufacture sarin.

Since Hersh provides direct quotes from the document and in this video claims to be reading from it directly, it does seem fairly reliable. It is also in line with many other indications that the Syrian opposition was attempting to develop sarin.

Since the report was published 3 weeks after Turkey's arrest of opposition operatives attempting to procure sarin precursors, and since most of the quotes from the DIA report provide information that could be deduced from these arrests alone, it seems like this is the primary source of this report. However, the following quote goes further:
Qassab and his associate Khalid Ousta worked with Halit Unalkaya, an employee of a Turkish firm called Zirve Export, who provided ‘price quotes for bulk quantities of sarin precursors’. Abd-al-Ghani’s plan was for two associates to ‘perfect a process for making sarin, then go to Syria to train others to begin large scale production at an unidentified lab in Syria’. The DIA paper said that one of his operatives had purchased a precursor on the ‘Baghdad chemical market’, which ‘has supported at least seven CW efforts since 2004’.
This looks very much like information that would be obtained in the interrogations following the arrests, indicating Turkey has shared this information with the US.

A sarin sample obtained by Russia and analyzed by British Intelligence was found not to match Syria's batches.

This claim is a bit weird, since it requires knowledge of the exact composition of all of Syria's sarin batches, which were secret at the time. Hersh's source (a former intelligence official) explains:
The DIA’s baseline consisted of knowing the composition of each batch of Soviet-manufactured chemical weapons. But we didn’t know which batches the Assad government currently had in its arsenal. Within days of the Damascus incident we asked a source in the Syrian government to give us a list of the batches the government currently had. This is why we could confirm the difference so quickly.
So apparently western intelligence has a source within Syria capable of providing such detailed information on Syria's chemical weapons program. This is possible, but seems a bit unlikely. A more likely explanation is that this sample showed the same traces reported by the UN, which indicate use of very low quality chemicals, and this information got distorted on its way to Hersh's source. Indeed, in a later interview Hersh states that the assessment provided to the President was: "the sarin that we found was not military grade".

Turkey orchestrated the August 21 attacks in an attempt to bring the US to respond.

Of course, this is a severe war crime that would carry life sentences for everyone involved, and Turkey, which was not directly involved in the war, is very unlikely to commit. It therefore requires very strong evidence to be accepted. This does not seem to be the case:
"Principal evidence came from the Turkish post-attack joy and back-slapping in numerous intercepts."
As we've seen in previous intercepted calls, this kind of evidence is not reliable: When such a major event happens, millions of people discuss it, speculate about it, circulate rumors, and attempt to appear more knowledgeable than they really are. It is very easy to misinterpret one of these calls as real evidence - especially from a second hand report.

Furthermore, if this theory was correct it would imply that Turkish intelligence don't know how to avoid being detected by their own police.

The Counter Claims

The article of course generated many responses. I'll review the main counter claims below:

Hersh ignores the evidence that the attack was carried out by Volcanoes - a Syrian government weapon (from Brown Moses)

This is mostly an attack on Hersh's earlier piece which quoted Ted Postol's estimate that the rockets were improvised. This was indeed a major mistake (as analyzed here), which Hersh chose not to repeat. Brown Moses provides two ways to settle this discrepancy with Hersh's false flag theory: Either the Volcanoes were looted, or they were replicated.

The latter is very unlikely, as it would be very complex and costly. The former, however, makes perfect sense, and is currently considered here to be the most likely scenario. BM counters by claiming:
"...the Syrian government has never claimed any of their chemical weapons have been captured by the Syrian opposition, even when required to do so by the OPCW".
Here BM conveniently ignores the strong evidence that the Volcano was never intended to be a chemical weapon. There were two Volcano impact sites documented prior to August 21, both of them clearly showing smoke emanating from the rockets, having no effect on the cameraman. This is typical to incendiary weapons (which coincidentally have warhead designs very similar to chemical warheads).

The various Volcano variants have been spotted numerous times during the civil war, making it one of the most popular heavy weapons used by the Syrian Army. Since practically every type of heavy weapon used by the Syrian Army was captured by the opposition, and since we have evidence of the opposition capturing the small Volcano variant, it is unreasonable to assume that the incendiary Volcanoes were the only weapon to have survived the raids.

The 2 km Volcano range does not exclude government positions (from Brown Moses)

This is an attack on Hersh's statements in follow-up interviews in which he claimed the short range indicates a launch location within opposition control.

Brown Moses provides his analysis of the areas under control of the Syrian government on August 21st, some of which being within 2 km of all impact sites. Here BM chooses to ignore the strong evidence that the launch sites are north to the impact sites (not north-west), in an area that is outside government control, even according to BM's analysis.

Furthermore, the areas marked by BM are based on videos showing government incursions into opposition territory. They are far from being under complete government control, with operations mostly carried out by tanks for short periods, while other videos show opposition fighters operating within this territory. This is an extremely uncomfortable location to launch a Volcano attack - an operation that involves two unarmored trucks and requiring several people to operate in the open.

The two theories to be considered here are therefore:
  1. The Syrian Army chose to launch a chemical Volcano attack on a residential neighborhood from within opposition territory, despite the low-quality Volcano never been used for this purpose, and despite having many long-range dedicated chemical rockets and shells.
  2. The opposition launched the attack using the only rocket they could possibly use - a repurposed looted incendiary rocket, and doing so from within opposition territory, as evidenced by the impact sites and the videos documenting the launch.
Pending new evidence, the latter is by far more likely.

BM also brings up the issue of the M14 rocket reported in Moadamiyah - something that wasn't mentioned in the August 21 discussions for a very long time, and for a good reason. This single M14 body shows no signs of ever being launched, and was recorded a few days earlier in a different location than the claimed impact site. The evidence for a chemical attack on Moadamiyah is highly questionable and should not be used in any productive discussion on the subject.

The amounts ordered by the opposition in Turkey were smaller than the amounts used in the attack (from Dan Kaszeta)

This is a very peculiar line of reasoning, that manages to turn one of the most interesting pieces of evidence for opposition culpability into a counter claim. The fact that we somehow got a glimpse into one of the few attempts in history to produce underground sarin is nothing short of amazing. It is ridiculous to assume that the only time the opposition tried to procure sarin, they were captured. A more likely explanation is that this is a wide-scale operation, and the arrests are just the tip of the iceberg - the unlucky few who got caught.

A sarin sample provided by the Russians cannot be trusted (here)

The idea that within days the Russians fabricated a low-quality sarin sample to deceive the British could not be dismissed, but it is of course much less likely than the straightforward explanation, which also happens to match the other evidence.

Attacking Straw Man Theories

One thing to remember in this discussion is that Hersh is not a researcher of the August 21st attack. He is a journalist with sources in the intelligence community who forward to him interesting information - some reliable, and some less so. Trying to 'win' the discussion by attacking his statements is nothing more than a straw man argument.

This quote is a good example (from Dan Kaszeta):
Somehow, this Sarin was produced, using a secret hexamine acid reduction process hitherto unknown to the world, and only mastered by Syria’s chemical weapons program. It was put into rockets that are exact copies of Syrian ones, down to the paint and bolts. The Sarin-filled rockets were smuggled via the “rat line” into Syria to Damascus, without a single one being caught. And quickly, I should add, due to the short shelf life of binary Sarin. Then they were supposed to be fired onto rebel areas from government positions without the Syrian regime knowing about it? It defies belief.
All of the above are straw man arguments:
  1. There is no evidence of a "secret hexamine process" in Syria (see here).
  2. No one claims the rockets were replicas.
  3. No one claimed sarin was smuggled from Turkey - only precursors.
  4. The rockets were not launched from government positions.
Those who object to the false flag theory, should attack the well researched hypothesis reached in this blog, which could be summarized as follows:
  1. Following the US's clear statement that they will only intervene in Syria following the use of chemical weapons, one of the extreme factions of the opposition chose to carry out a false flag chemical attack, which could potentially win the war and save thousands of lives.
  2. They produced sarin using basic chemicals procured in neighboring countries, and possibly utilizing one of the many labs and factories that they seized and are now under their full control.
  3. In one of their many raids of Army bases, they seized an incendiary Volcano launcher, which would prove to be an ideal weapon.
  4. The perfect opportunity came when Syrian forces were progressing into East Ghouta right when the UN team arrived in Damascus to investigate the Khan Al-Assal incident (which they later determined to be a sarin attack against Syrian soldiers and government-supporting civilians).
  5. The rockets were filled with the low-quality sarin, brought to an opposition-controlled field near the front-line and launched towards the residential neighborhood of Zamalka - a target with low military value, but one which would produce powerful images for the international media.
This is the hypothesis that explains the timing, the motive, the launch location, the sarin quality, the videos of the launch, and all the other evidence, and that is the hypothesis that should be attacked, rather than any other straw man theory.

Furthermore, even if someone were to provide evidence that refutes this theory (which is yet to happen), this would not suffice, as that someone would also need to write an alternative plausible hypothesis that is consistent with the evidence. And once again - despite dozens of requests for such a theory, no one was able to produce one!

Conclusion: Mr. Hersh provides interesting information from his sources, but it cannot be independently verified and is therefore not usable in our investigation. 
  1. The DIA document seems to be mostly based on the Turkey arrests, but does provide more inside information from the interrogations that followed.
  2. The Russian sarin sample sounds reliable and plausible, but does not add any information over the UN's analysis.
  3. The claims of Turkey's involvement are based on weak evidence, which is far below the evidentiary threshold required for such an outrageous claim.

Apr 5, 2014

Hexamine Again

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

Dan Kaszeta has published another piece that claims hexamine proves the Syrian government is behind the August 21st attack. Most of these points were refuted here and here, but there are a few new claims which will be addressed here.
  1. For the first time, Dan attempts to address the issue of samples that contained hexamine but no sarin. As detailed in the previous posts here, this is one of the indications that hexamine could have come from many sources and is therefore not a "smoking gun".
    Dan dismisses it by saying: "this is a logical state of affairs as hexamine does not evaporate like Sarin does".
    This, however, fails to explain why none of the stable sarin degradation products (which were found elsewhere) are absent from these samples.
  2. Dan brings up sample 25 from the UN report, which shows hexamine in one of the rocket's bolts. He claims this proves hexamine findings were not a result of environmental contamination.
    This sample is originally described by the UN as "Metal bolt removed from rocket head combined with paint rust scratched from the surface surrounding the bolt", which provides a good clue to the source of hexamine in this sample: One of hexamine's numerous uses in chemistry is in paints.
  3. Dan claims "the UN firmly concluded that the 8/21 Sarin came from Syrian government stockpiles".
    The original quote: "The evidence available concerning the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on 21 August indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military".
    Besides the misquote - as discussed in detail here, this UN statement is probably not significant.
Dan concludes with the following logical equation:

Nobody’s used hexamine previously as a Sarin additive
There’s hexamine in the field samples
There’s 80 tons of hexamine in the declared inventory of the Assad Regime
The Syrian government’s admission to Sellstrom’s team
The Assad Regime Did the Wicked Deed

To sum up the weaknesses of this line of reasoning:

  1. There is no indication hexamine was used in production of sarin, rather than another agent, or for another use completely (e.g. safe neutralization of by-products).
  2. Syria has specifically declared Isopropylamine in its stockpiles, which is the standard amine used in binary sarin. Furthermore, the amount of Isopropylamine reported matched the amounts of other reported chemicals, making hexamine redundant.
  3. Hexamine is a very common agent in chemical processes, and there is nothing that associates the hexamine field samples with sarin. More specifically, we have hexamine samples that have no trace of sarin, and we have samples showing explosive traces (hexamine is also used in explosives).
  4. There are no traces of hexamine salts in the field samples, which is a strong indication that hexamine was not present in sarin. If hexamine was indeed intended to react with the HCl created in the sarin binary process, then where are the products of this reaction? (credit to Paveway).
  5. Even if we were to accept this far-fetched connection between the hexamine in the field and the hexamine in the stockpiles, and assuming Syria did make this amazing break-through in sarin production, there is still no way to know that this information was not leaked to the opposition (e.g. by one of the many defectors).

All in all, the fact that this weak circumstantial evidence is still claimed to be a "smoking gun", is mostly a testament to the weakness of the other evidence for a regime attack. And once again: So far no one was able to provide a regime-attack scenario that is consistent with the evidence!

Mar 18, 2014

Richard Lloyd's Trajectory Analysis

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

Richard Lloyd of Tesla, who previously published a widely-reported estimate of 2 km for the UMLACA/Volcano's range, and confirmed the Syrian Army's report of a rebel CW store in Jobar, has recently published an analysis of the sarin rocket trajectories.

The analysis reaches very similar results to those published here and in other blogs, indicating a launch source to the north.

However, Richard points to an interesting finding: A Syrian Air Force Intelligence facility located on this trajectory, at a distance of 2.8 km from the farthest impact site. (Note: For some reason, the diagrams show the base to be exactly on the trajectory. However, the impact sites provide an accuracy of only around 20 degrees, which covers the entire field west of Irbin).

This is of course a very important finding, since so far there was no evidence of government activity near the launch site (despite numerous reports of such activities all over Damascus).

However, there are a few obstacles before this could be used as evidence:

  1. The base is beyond the UMLACA/Volcano range. The report does not provide any explanation why a range beyond 2 km is considered (which was previously defined as the "upper possible range"). In any case, our more detailed model puts the upper limit at 2.5 km.
  2. Air force Intelligence is an Internal Security and Counter-Intelligence service. It is not involved in military operations, rocket artillery or chemical warfare. More specifically, this facility seems to have civilian cars parked outside and no military equipment.
Nevertheless, some scenarios could benefit from this new finding: For example, if we are to assume that the government had specific interest in targeting the civilian neighborhood of Zamalka, it is definitely conceivable that they brought the launcher and support truck to the facility, drove them after midnight to the nearby field to launch the attack and then retreated back.

The problem with this scenario is that it doesn't provide any significant military advantage over the alternative of driving the trucks directly from the nearby highway into the field. It of course still doesn't explain the many other discrepancies with such a scenario.

During the writing of this post, Mr. Lloyd published another report, which makes two claims:

  1. The wide distribution of impact sites could not have come from random dispersion around a single target, implying multiple launchers.
    The estimate of this blog is that a single launcher was used, each time rotated to a different azimuth. It is unclear why this simpler explanation is ignored.
  2. The range of the chemical Volcano is longer due its smaller mass.
    This blog's model has already examined this and found the difference to be negligible, since the lower mass also results in lower resistance to drag force, which in this case has significant effect on range.

Conclusion: The Air Force Intelligence facility near the launch location could have provided some cover to a government operation, but since it is beyond the Volcano range, its contribution is negligible compared to the alternatives. Therefore, this finding, while interesting, does not have significant implication on culpability.

Mar 10, 2014

Ridiculed Jobar Lab actually was Sarin Related

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

Richard Lloyd of Tesla, who previously published a widely-reported estimate of 2 km for the UMLACA/Volcano's range, has recently made another interesting discovery.

First, some background: Three days after the Ghouta attack, the Syrian news agency reported that Syrian soldiers who entered Jobar discovered an underground chemical weapons store, and that some of them suffered from "suffocation". This was quickly dismissed as a desperate attempt to divert attention, and the equipment was estimated to be related to explosives production or to protection from a chemical attack. This blog too did not find that report useful.

However, Mr. Lloyd managed to identify in a video of the location two items which perfectly match the sarin IEDs used against Syrian soldiers in Jobar, as reported in the final UN report. This attack was of special interest as it was the only one where the UN detected sarin in a soldier's blood sample (despite a one month delay in sampling).

See here the full report.

Update: An anonymous contributor below noted that the soldiers were attacked by the IEDs just 250m from the likely launch location of the August 21st attack. Besides further strengthening the connection between the two attacks, it provides another important indication: Since the Syrian army has reported being attacked while advancing into this area on August 24th, it is likely that the area (and rocket launch location) was under opposition control on August 21st.

Update: The UN reported that two cylinders seized in August by the Syrian Army tested positive for sarin. It is reasonable to assume this report relates to the IEDs found in Jobar.

Conclusion: The underground store discovered by the Syrian Army in Jobar was indeed a chemical weapons store.

Mar 7, 2014

Quote from Commission of Inquiry on Syria

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

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, has issued its 7th report which deals with many atrocities committed by all parties to the conflict, but also provided the following interesting quote (page 19):
The evidence available concerning the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on 21 August indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary to manipulate safely large amount of chemical agents.
The report also states that the chemical agents used in Ghouta were similar to the Khan Al-Assal attack, and concludes that "In no incident was the commission’s evidentiary threshold met with respect to the perpetrator".

This seems to indicate the commission had information that could prove valuable for our research here. Unfortunately, UN bodies have proven in the past to be a problematic source of information when dealing with the Ghouta attack, so some care should be practiced. Indeed, the first thing that stands out is that the commission does not provide any evidence to support its conclusion, or even provide an indication of what that evidence could be. This obviously renders this information unusable for our investigation.

Nevertheless, we can try to deduce what information the commission has by analyzing their statements.

A first clue is given in the first question in the press conference that followed the report, where the commission's chairman explains that since they did not visit Syria, their conclusion is based principally on the existing findings of Sellstrom's team, as well as "interviews with experts and functionaries".

A second clue is the comparison to the Khan Al-Assal attack, which is said to have "the same unique hallmarks as those used in Al-Ghouta". Since Sellstrom's team did not visit Khan Al-Assal and had no field samples, the only source for such a comparison would be Russia's 100-page report of the attack submitted to the UN, which included certified lab results of field samples. The full results were not published, but were reported to provide evidence that RDX was used as the bursting charge.

These clues bring us back to the well-known Hexamine issue - which serves as the current "smoking gun", ever since the "trajectory intersection" theory was refuted. Since RDX is based on Hexamine, it seems likely that the Russian labs reported Hexamine in their samples, which brought the commission to connect them to the Hexamine in the Ghouta attack (probably correctly), and both attacks to the Syrian stockpiles (probably incorrectly).

So since the commission refuses to provide any evidence, states that their conclusion is based on Sellstrom's data, and found similarities to Khan Al-Assal, there is little reason to believe they have more information besides the well-known Hexamine finding.

The other evidence mentioned is the amount of agent used, which is indeed one of the main challenges to the opposition-attack theory. However, detailed analysis indicates that while not an easy feat, producing such amounts is within the opposition's capabilities. The recent UN evidence showing the opposition deploying tens of kg of sarin, further strengthened this position.

As a side note, for those who are not familiar with the UN's multiple manipulations during the Ghouta investigation and choose to take this report at face value as indicative of a government attack, it should be pointed out that this would indicate that the only two cases where the government chose to use sarin at large scale are (a) an attack against Syrian soldiers in a government-controlled area, and (b) a massive attack on a purely civilian opposition neighborhood carried out upon arrival of a UN team invited to investigate the first attack. - An obviously perplexing choice of targets.

Finally, it is important once again to remember that the Ghouta attack is no longer a mystery where each little clue can change the picture (like it was in the early days). We now have very strong evidence implicating the opposition in the attack, and so far no one was able to propose a regime attack theory that is consistent with the evidence (see the end of this post to understand why this is so difficult). For our understanding to change, very strong contradicting evidence should be brought forward, or alternatively a plausible theory for a regime attack should be formulated. Vague statements or general-purpose chemicals claimed to be smoking guns, sadly, do not qualify.

Conclusion: The commission's quote seems to be based on the Hexamine findings and the amount of agent used, both of which have already been known and analyzed here before, and found to be of little value.