Sep 29, 2013

Location of Liwa Al Islam Videos

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

Following the enhancement of the Liwa Al-Islam videos, I analyzed them to create a map of possible locations, based on the following:
  1. An open field
  2. Within UMLACA range of Jobar. The blue circles are 3 km and 4 km from Jobar center. 
  3. Within UMLACA range of Qabun. The green circles are 3 km and 4 km from Qabun center. 
The 4 km circles (which are beyond UMLACA range) were used since the attacks are not necessarily near the town's center.

Note: These are the locations matching the claims made in the video. It may have been shot elsewhere.

The orange areas match all three criteria, with the areas within the two inner circles representing higher likelihood. The western area is less likely since it is the border between regime-controlled area and contested-area and would mean a rocket attack coming from behind the Syrian Army.

The red area is the estimated launch source that was 
independently calculated from rocket impact sites.

Conclusion: Assuming this is no coincidence, it seems that the videos were shot at the location of the real source of the attack, or were fabricated by people who know it.

Sep 28, 2013

Liwa Al Islam Videos - Improved Quality

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

Anita Hunt has kindly prepared enhanced versions of the Liwa Al Islam videos (which were analyzed here and geolocated here). They show much more detail and could assist us in finding more clues as to the nature and reliability of these videos. Please share your findings.

Some interesting screenshots here.

Thank you Anita!

Man saying in a Syrian Accent: Wednesday 21st of August 2013, operation "Reeh Sarsar" (this term was used in the Quran to describe the wind that was sent as a curse to the people of A'ad, who disobeyed god and refused to follow his messenger, and defied God's teachings) by "Liwa'a Al Islam" targeting the Assadi's regime forces in Al-Qabun. Allahu Akbar! (God is the greatest).
[Footsteps, behind the man there are black banners (flags) with the words "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah". Below that the words "Liwa Al-Islam" in a smaller font]
[The rocket is launched with "Allahu Akbar". On their foreheads there  are black bands with the words "No God But Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah" is written in white color]. 

Man saying in a Syrian Accent with a mix of original Arabic: Assad's Shabiha (a pro-regime militia) in the Qabun district, Wednesday 21st August 2013 with an Ababil rocket (Ababil is a word from the Quran describing the birds that attacked the invaders of God's holy mosque in Makkah by rocks, and turned them into perforated dead bodies).
[He is asking people to Say "Allahu Akbar" by saying "Takbeer", and people are responding by "Allahu Akbar"].
[When the rocket is launched, he asks with excitement "Takbeer!", and people are responding with "Allahu Akbar!"].

Man saying in a Syrian accent with a mix of original Arabic: Assad dogs in Jobar area with two Ababil rockets on Wednesday 21st of August 2013. Allahu Akbar! (God is the greatest) 
[Then he's asking other people to say Allahu Akbar by saying "Takbeer"!]
Man: Come on, let's go back Abu Muhammad. Go back.
[A rocket is launched with a man calling "Takbeer" again, and people responding with "Allahu Akbar"].
[Then another rocket is launched with the same scenario].


Prior to October 7th, the videos in this page were based on lower quality originals. Here are the old links in case anyone needs them: 

Thanks to Petri Krohn and Amund Hesbol for finding the higher quality originals.

What Happened in Moadamiyah?

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

So far we've been very successful in collecting and analyzing evidence from the Zamalka attack, with every conclusion backed by multiple independent sources. But the Moadamiyah attack still remained with its highly inconsistent evidence. It's easy to dismiss it as just another one of the many slip-ups in the UN report and forget about it, but that's not how things are done here... So I went through all the Moadamiyah videos, reports, and UN findings and tried to settle all the discrepancies.

First, a summary of the problems with the Moadamiyah chemical attack report:
  1. No UMLACAs were found there, compared to multiple findings in Zamalka. This is especially weird as Moadamiyah is within UMLACA range of Mazzeh airport, a site from which we have multiple sightings of UMLACA launches.
  2. The only munition suspected to be associated with a chemical attack is an M14 rocket body. Its warhead was not found, even though chemical warheads should survive impact, and the UN reported that locals were bringing them various munitions.
    Update: some have claimed a strong boosting charge can destroy the warhead. In that case, serious damage should have been evident on the rocket body.
  3. While images and videos of UMLACA impact sites were uploaded by activists within hours of the attack, the first (and only) M14 video was uploaded only after four days. Furthermore, it was recorded at an arbitrary location and not in its impact crater.
  4. The M14 rocket body shows no signs of damage from impact with the ground, while all UMLACAs are bent or broken. Especially interesting since its terminal velocity is supposed to be higher due to its aerodynamic design and better fuel-to-weight ratio.
  5. No other M14 rocket bodies or warheads were reported. This is especially interesting since the UN reported another impact site it believes originated from the same launcher.
  6. The M14 has an optional 2.2 kg sarin warhead. To cause the amount of deaths reported in Moadamiyah would require between 13 and 66 M14 rockets (see full calculation by pmr9 in comments below). 
  7. The M14 is an obsolete weapon, with the markings on this one indicating it was manufactured in 1967.
  8. There are no videos or images of the Syrian Army (or anyone else in Syria) using an M14 or its launcher (if anyone has it, please share).
  9. The UN team wore gas masks near Zamalka impact sites, but not in the Moadamiyah impact site - probably since their mobile chemical detectors beeped only in Zamalka.
  10. While the UN report found sarin in 90% of samples taken around UMLACA impact sites in Zamalka, none of the samples in the vicinity of the rocket were positive for sarin, despite being taken 2-3 days before the UMLACA samples. A few of them tested positive for sarin breakdown products (DIMP, IPMPA, and MPA): 2 out of 15 tests in one lab, and 5 out of 15 in the second lab.
  11. Still, 14 out of 15 blood samples taken from victims in Moadamiyah tested positive for sarin exposure, a higher rate than in Zamalka.
  12. While in Zamalka we have videos showing the disarray in the streets, all Moadamiyah videos are taken in the hospital.
  13. The UN report provides 8 indirect quotes from victims who report being infected in Zamalka (one on Page 16, seven on 36-38), but none for Moadamiyah.
  14. While hundreds of eyewitness accounts can be found for Zamalka (see here, here, here and many more), I could only find two for Moadamiyah: One that is constantly interrupted by a local doctor and is cut off when the witness starts mentioning an "explosion", and another taken over skype by HRW (page 4) which describes no odors at the scene (highly inconsistent with Zamalka), and claims a shirt dunked in water protected him at ground zero (impossible).
  15. Reports in social media from Moadamiyah were inconsistent, alternating between descriptions of chemical and conventional shelling. 13 hours after the attack seven casualties from chemicals were claimed, and only later did this change to 56.
  16. When the UN team approached Moadamiyah, they were targeted by sniper fire. No such interruptions were reported in Zamalka.
  17. Unlike Zamalka, Moadamiyah was downwind from central Damascus during the attack, making it an unlikely target for a government chemical attack.
  18. Zamalka and Moadamiyah are on opposite sides of Damascus, which would make an attack on both targets fairly complex, and thus less likely to be carried out by the opposition.

So what happened here?

First, the positive samples from victims can be explained as Zamalka victims rushed to Moadamiyah hospitals. Since thousands of people were affected in Zamalka, the small local hospitals were quickly overrun and victims were distributed to any available opposition hospital. And indeed, when each hospital reported its casualties it created the initial impression that the attack spanned a wide area. 

So any visit to an opposition hospital near Damascus would have yielded positive samples. The only reason the investigators happened to visit Moadamiyah is because they only visited impact sites, and were informed of the intact M14 rocket body found there.

Shouldn't the UN team have picked up on this? Not necessarily:

  1. Their Moadamiyah visit lasted for only two hours.
  2. It was done in unfavorable conditions.
  3. Their charter was to find whether a chemical weapon was used, not how. So they probably put less emphasis on this issue.
  4. For some reason, the UN report chooses to ignore facts that weaken the regime attack theory.

Next, let's examine the M14 and its alleged impact site:
  1. As mentioned, the M14 is obsolete and would make for a very weird choice when UMLACAs with a sarin capacity 25 times larger are available.
  2. This video shows the rocket body one day before the UN arrival, in an obviously different location than when it was examined by the UN. The investigators still went on to analyze a "small crater/impact point" found near the rocket and treated it as if it was related. The discussions with the local activist in this video and this video from the same time give some idea as to the reliability of evidence collected from this scene. And indeed, the investigators did report that "Fragments and other possible evidence have clearly been handled/moved prior to the arrival of the investigation team".
    Update: It seems like the "small crater" that was reported to be found near the rocket is one of the two dents in the floor seen in this video. Describing this as a rocket impact crater is highly speculative, and the fact the the team used it to calculate trajectories is concerning.
  3. Even if we were to assume this rocket did hit this location, the UN report states: "[We] determined that it initially impacted the corner of the second floor of an adjacent apartment building to the east, with either the warhead functioning or shearing off from the body at that point and the motor section having sufficient kinetic energy to continue along its path to its terminal impact location"This provides an excellent alternative explanation for the rocket body being intact (other than it having a chemical warhead): its conventional explosive warhead did not detonate or detonated at a distance.
Still, we need to explain why some of the samples tested positive for sarin-breakdown products. When examining these in detail (pages 24-25 and 27-29 together) an interesting pattern emerges:
  1. The only sample positive in both labs is a soil sample from the impact point in the outside terrace (page 18).
  2. Additional four samples found positive only in Lab 2 are from two metal fragments taken from the same terrace.
  3. An additional sample found positive only in Lab 1 is from a scarf of a victim said to have died of poisoning. 
  4. The rest of the samples, which were negative in both labs, are from inside the apartment (see video) taken from the floor, a bed sheet, a slipper, a pillow, and a mattress. Some of these samples tested positive for Hexamethylentetramine, a chemical related to RDX (a type of explosive). It should be noted that the alleged poisoning occurred inside this apartment.
So the only positive tests were the 5 taken in the terrace and the one from the scarf, while the only negative tests were the 9 taken inside the apartment. However, we already know that the terrace was previously visited by activists (those who took the M14 video), or as the UN puts it "The sites have been well traveled by other individuals both before and during the investigation". This means that if one of these activists has traveled to Zamalka (e.g. to assist the victims or investigate impact sites) before visiting this scene, the soles of his shoes would immediately contaminate the area (or may even have done so intentionally). More specifically, he would contaminate the floor (and not the bed) and would do so with sarin breakdown products and not with sarin (which disintegrates quickly when exposed).

The scarf sample is unique in that it is not described as a sample taken personally by the investigators (and is not shown in the video), which may indicate it was given to them by locals. Until more information is provided on how it was collected, it's hard to assess the source of its contamination.

This all seems to suggest the following scenario: Moadamiyah suffered a conventional attack (like much of Ghouta), and treated patients from Zamalka (like all Ghouta hospitals). Reports related to these incidents created the confusion that the area is attacked by chemical weapons (as initially happened in all towns treating Zamalka victims). When they later saw the international impact, some local activists decided to stick to the story.
This scenario is definitely plausible, and it perfectly matches all the evidence. In comparison, the scenario of a chemical attack in Moadamiyah implies many unrealistic assumptions.

Conclusion: It's still uncertain what exactly happened in Moadamiyah. However, the evidence for a chemical attack is weak and inconsistent, while the evidence for a conventional attack that was misrepresented to be chemical is much stronger. 

Sep 27, 2013

Reliability of Using Munitions to Determine Culpability

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

After determining that the only reliable evidence associating the regime with the chemical attack is the munition analysis by Brown Moses, I will now examine the reliability of using this evidence to determine culpability.

In most conflicts there are significant differences in the munitions used by each side. This may be a result of different budgets, different international allies, different defense needs etc. Therefore, munition remains found at impact sites are a reliable indication of the source of that attack.

This however does not apply well to the Syrian civil war, since a significant part of the opposition arsenal is obtained from raids on Army bases and ammunition depots. This is especially true in the case of heavy weaponry, which is harder to acquire and smuggle from abroad.

Numerous examples of such raids and the loot may be found online, but here are a few examples:

  1. November 2012 - Capture of Base 46, including artillery and rocket launchers.
  2. December 2012 - Capture of SA-8 missile
  3. January 2012 - Capture of airbase, including a rocket launcher, a shell with Cyrillic writing, a tank, an APC and a helicopter.
  4. August 2013 - Capture of an anti-tank ammunition depot
  5. August 2013 - Capture of airbase, including tanks and helicopters.
There are also endless videos documenting the use of captured heavy weaponry by opposition forces. I find this one showing a Liwa Al-Islam tank column especially nice. This report from Brown Moses shows a Syrian Army rocket launcher somewhat similar to the UMLACA (improvised rocket, oversized warhead, civilian truck) being used by Al-Nusra (Update: we now know this rocket and the UMLACA to be closely related, both named "Volcano").

Conclusion: Determining culpability by using munition analysis alone is irrelevant in the Syrian civil war.

Did I miss anything? Please share your evidence and analysis and help me improve my conclusions.

Side note: Interesting to see the heavy use of flags on captured weaponry, which goes back to the discussion of flags in the Liwa Al-Islam videos.

Sep 26, 2013

Evidence Contradicting a Regime Attack

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

After examining the evidence presented so far to support the regime attack theory, I will now examine evidence contradicting it.

The Mint Press Story

This story, which received wide attention, contains excerpts from interviews with three rebel sources and claims the Ghouta poisoning was a result of an accidental explosion that released chemical agents brought from Saudi Arabia.

Even if we ignore the mini-scandal surrounding its publication, this report raises some serious doubts:

  1. The quotes seem to indicate aggressive cherry picking, with very short excerpts followed by extensive commentary.
  2. When read alone, the quotes only tell the story of unidentified munitions received from Saudi Arabia which were handled improperly and exploded.
  3. The first quote implying chemical weapons mentions the weapons as containing: "a huge gas bottle". This is not indicative of a chemical weapon. Gas containers are specifically known to be used as regular explosive charges.
  4. The second (and last) quote implying chemical weapons is “We didn’t know they were chemical weapons. We never imagined they were chemical weapons”. This is mentioned in a context that implies that the weapons were later revealed to be chemical, but when examined by itself there is no indication that this was indeed the original context.
  5. The only location information given is 'Ghouta', which includes areas very far from the chemical attack in Zamalka.
  6. Eyewitnesses consistently report multiple rockets hitting the area immediately before the poisoning, which does not match the single explosion story.
A likely explanation is that some explosives accident occurred some time before the chemical attack, possibly not even near Zamalka, and the reporter heavily edited interviews relating to the incident to seem indicative of a chemical weapons accident.

So until other evidence emerges it seems like this story does not provide any evidence contradicting a regime attack.

Liwa Al-Islam Videos

These videos published September 16th show militants shooting one shell from a Howitzer canon, and three UMLACA rockets. One UMLACA is clearly identifiable by its distinctive tail in one video, and it is launched from a truck-mounted launcher similar to that used in previous documented UMLACA launches. In another video the tails of the two other UMLACAs are hidden but when filmed from a distance just before launch they can be seen. Additionally, they are launched from the same vehicle as the first UMLACA, and are referred by the same name ('Ababil'). The UMLACA's distinctive oversized warhead is not seen in either video, since it is inside the launcher, which is the standard case seen in previous documented UMLACA launches (Credit: Petri Krohn and Anonymous for analyzing the videos)

The cameraman says they are Liwa Al-Islam fighters targeting Assad troops in Jobar and Qaboun. He gives the date of August 21st (the date of the attack) and calls the operation "Reeh Sarsar", a term used in another video in the context of rebel chemical threats. See significant screenshots here and here (credit: Anita Hunt and Petri Krohn).

Naturally, such an incriminating video is immediately suspected as Psychological Warfare, and indeed many issues regarding its reliability were pointed out. Let's examine them one by one:

  1. Dark images on a full moon night
    Anaylsis: This is obviously a low quality camera, possibly a mobile phone. It would not be able to capture reflected moonlight.
  2. Overemphasis of incriminating evidence such as Liwa Al-Islam mentions, Liwa Al-Islam flags, the UMLACA and the date.
    Analysis: This does indeed seem to be the case, although it could be a coincidence.
    Update: This video uploaded August 21st shows a similar pattern including a description of the operation (attack of Assad's hometown), many 
    Liwa Al-Islam mentions, and Liwa Al-Islam flags. They obviously like pushing the flag in the videos (as proof of responsibility? to convince sponsors?). At 1:05 they actually have someone stand with a flag in front of a launcher... 
  3. No Liwa Al-Islam logo on the video, as on most of their published videos
    Irrelevant as this was reportedly downloaded from the cell phone of a dead militant.
  4. Liwa Al-Islam don't hang flags on their weaponry
    Generally true, although there seem to be exceptions, such as this video at time 2:12. As mentioned above, they seem to want to have their flags shown during operations, and this could have been the only way to do it in this setting.
  5. No sign of the BM-14 launcher linked to the chemical attack
    The M14 rocket is probably not related to any chemical attack. In any case this is not relevant as it could have been launched and not videoed, or launched by a different unit.
  6. Uploaded by new YouTube and LiveLeak accounts, as was done for the previous video mentioning "Reeh Sarsar"
    As with item 3, not relevant as this is not an official video.
    As a side note, I do not attribute much weight to the mention of "Reeh Sarsar". It is a term from the Quran describing wind sent by god to punish infidels, and is therefore likely to be used in many contexts.
Liwa Al-Islam also published a denial, which added the following points:
  1. Only the regime has Howitzer artillery
  2. The Howitzer does not have chemical warheads
    Irrelevant, as the chemical weapon is the UMLACA
  3. Only the regime has chemical weapons
  4. Liwa Al-Islam had casualties in the attack
    Interesting if true.
  5. The flag has Liwa Al-Islam written in a strange way. Screenshot:

    This is very interesting. I indeed could not find this flag ever being used by Liwa Al-Islam, but this led me to a more interesting find. The flag in the videos is actually Jabhat Al-Nusra's flag with the words "Jabhat Al-Nusra" replaced with "Liwa Al-Islam". I currently can't find any good explanation for this.
    Analysis: I initially thought this was indeed not the Liwa Al-Islam flag, but following a comment from CE below, I found several recent videos (also here and here) showing flags similar to the one in the video. None are identical to the one above, but the high variability indicates there is nothing "strange" about it specifically. I assume further research will eventually find an identical flag - feel free to help.
    A few screenshots:

These flags (above) don't have a good screenshot.
They are better seen in the video at 3:55.

In a later post, Brown Moses added further suspicions:
  1. A journalist with connections with Kurdish groups could not find any confirmation of the story that these videos were found by Kurdish fighters.
    Analysis: Definitely interesting, but hard to evaluate without knowing the journalist's connections. In any case, it is very possible that the story behind the finding of the video is incorrect. If it is not fabricated, then it was most likely forwarded between close acquaintances as a "you won't believe what I just got" story, and there is no knowing how it leaked.
  2. Everyone but the cameraman was wearing a gas mask.
    Analysis: While not seen in the video, the audio does seem to indicate so. Indeed suspicious, but a reasonable scenario can be imagined: There's probably no real exposure risk as the rockets were sealed beforehand, and it's just standard procedure to wear masks for precaution. The cameraman took his mask off in order to narrate the video and keeps it close by. He might also be a commander showing off ("you wear your masks, but i'm not afraid").
  3. People were wearing gas masks, but also short sleeves that exposed their skin, which would readily absorb any sarin in the air.
    Analysis: Sarin requires much higher concentrations to cause damage through contact with skin. Protection by gas masks alone is standard.
  4. Why would they do an operation under the cover of darkness, only to light up the launcher with a big spotlight that would make it stand out for miles around?
    Analysis: Nothing in the video indicates this is done under cover of darkness. It just happens to be a night operation since the regime chose to attack at night. They could well be within rebel held territory, not attempting to hide. In any case, it is near impossible to hide while launching rockets..
  5. In the Storyful newsroom Brown Moses also pointed to the fact that the videos were published on the same day as the UN report.
    Analysis: I don't think this is a strong enough coincidence to be considered. The fact that the videos were published long after the risk of military intervention subsided is a much stronger indication of their authenticity.
Besides these, a few more problems are evident:
  1. The attacks in the videos target Qaboun and Jobar, while the chemical attack was in Zamalka. Specifically, one UMLACA launch is said to be targeting Qaboun, which was never considered part of the area affected by the chemical attack (even when it was mistakenly thought to cover most of East Ghouta).
  2. The attacks in the videos target regime forces, while the August 21st attacks seem like a deliberate attack on residential areas behind front lines.

So what are these videos? It's still hard to tell, but here are a few options to consider:
  1. A real video showing the chemical attack on Zamalka
    Analysis: Unlikely. (a) The target locations are incorrect, (b) Why would people in the process of carrying a complex large-scale chemical warfare operation be bothered with shooting a Howitzer?
  2. A real video from the day of the attack, just not the one on Zamalka (and possibly not even chemical)
    Analysis: Very possible. This seems like the only explanation that fits the evidence well (in the case of a non-chemical attack, 
    the gas masks may be explained as protection from regime attacks). It also fits surprisingly well to the estimated launch source, with Qaboun and Jobar covered well by a 2.5 km range. Evidence of UMLACAs falling in Jobar and Qaboun would be of great help. Anyone?
  3. Fabrication by RegimeAnalysis: Possible, although it would make for a very weird fabrication job: (a) Why publish this when a diplomatic solution is being negotiated and not earlier when military intervention seemed imminent? (b) Why show the Howitzer which no one connected to a chemical attack before, yet not show an M14 launcher? (c) Why describe an attack on the wrong targets when the regime's official story was a rebel false flag? (d) Why use such low quality video making it unusable for mass media? (e) Why put so much emphasis on Liwa Al Islam being responsible, but not give clear indications that this is a chemical attack (e.g. mention sarin like in this video)?
  4. Fabrication by a competing rebel faction to implicate Liwa Al-Islam Analysis: Possible. While this fits the evidence well (low quality work, access to weaponry), the motivation is problematic: If the videos had succeeded in convincing the world, it would save the regime from an international attack. This seems to far outweigh the benefits of smearing another faction.
So while these videos could prove to be helpful, they require more analysis and evidence before they can be used to determine the source of the attack.

The ISTEAMS / Mother Agnes Report

This report mostly analyzes videos from the event and attempts to show they were staged. As it doesn't seem anyone takes this claim seriously, I will not perform a full analysis of the report, and just give my general impression:

The writers go through great efforts to point out any detail in the videos that may somehow be interpreted as abnormal, despite many other reasonable explanations. All the evidence may easily be explained as the behavior of thousands of people in panic and pain.

It additionally claims that the victims of the attack were Latakia residents taken hostage by Al-Nusra. This claim can be easily refuted: Survivors of the attack don't claim to be from Latakia, and there is no way the attack was able to just kill the hostages while leaving so many others alive and with sarin symptoms.

The Quirico-Piccinin Story

Hostages held in captivity by rebels reported hearing a skype call in which their captors said the chemical attack was a rebel provocation and death toll reports were exaggerated.
As with the US's 'senior official' call, and Germany's Hezballa-Iran call, it is difficult to assess the weight of this evidence without access to a recording or transcript. Specifically, speakers speculating about the source of the attack may easily be misunderstood as displaying actual knowledge.

From a probabilistic perspective: If the chemical attack was a provocation, you would expect it to be highly confidential and known to very few people. On the other hand, everyone in Syria and their mother would be discussing who is behind it, and rumors would travel all over the place. The probability that the hostages happened to hear an English skype call of the first kind and not just misinterpret the second kind is very low. When considering that the witnesses are not native English speakers and one of them specifically expressed such doubts, it is clear this evidence has no value.

Nevertheless, it is very interesting to note that senior opposition officers consider a false-flag as the likely explanation, and don't trust the death toll number.

Update: In the comments below several contributors have shown that Piccinin has strong English comprehension, and that in later interviews he described the conversation in a manner that suggests it was not misinterpreted.
However, since Quirico does not seem to agree, and we should be extra careful with evidence coming from a single source that may be interested in a certain outcome (e.g. the Al-Saket story), I will take the cautious route and keep this evidence out of the final analysis.

Jobar Chemicals

According to this report, upon entering Jobar a few days after the chemical attacks, the Syrian Army found materials and a laboratory for chemical weapons (Video1, Video2).

In a close examination of the videos the only relevant items I could see are the gas masks, atropine injectors and Caustic Soda (Lye) bags from Saudi Arabia. The first two could be explained as protection against external attacks and Lye has too many applications to be associated with anything specific. So unless anyone sees anything else interesting there, this does not seem to be of value.

Update: The final UN report provided a description of sarin IEDs used in the attack, which matched two items seen in the videos. This strongly indicates the location was indeed used for storing chemical weapons. Full details here.

My conclusions at this point:

  1. The Mint Press, ISTEAMS, Quirico-Piccinin and Jobar Chemicals reports are of no value.
  2. The Liwa Al-Islam videos cannot be easily dismissed as fabrication, and if so would be of immense value, but further analysis is still required.
In the next posts I will work on compiling all the evidence into a final conclusion.

Did I miss anything? Please share your evidence and analysis and help me improve my conclusions.

Summary of Anomalies in the UN Report

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

The UN report has been the main source of evidence in this research. Over time I found in it multiple flaws and misrepresentations, which I list here together, for convenience.

Wrong Trajectory Calculations

The trajectory analysis from the Zamalka impact site was found to be inaccurate by over 50 degrees.
The trajectory analysis from the alleged Moadamiyah impact site was found to be based on faulty evidence, including a rocket brought from another site, dents that are likely not related to any rocket impact, and unsubstantiated speculation that the the rocket hit an adjacent building without it interfering with its trajectory.

These trajectories were later used in the famous “azimuth intersection” calculation to claim the source of the attack was the Syrian Republican Guard base.

Implying Stabilizers were Found

Data about Impurities and stabilizers was the most important information the world was waiting to get from the team. Yet the report chose to hide these in the appendix, and refer to it in the misleading sentence: "In addition, other relevant chemicals, such as stabilizers are indicated and discussed in Appendix 7”, which was indeed quickly misinterpreted in the press to mean stabilizers were found.

Instead of clearly stating that the sarin contained numerous impurities and no stabilizers, they allowed the media to misinform the public.

Implying High Grade Sarin

It was reported that in a private briefing "Mr Sellstrom confirmed that the quality of the sarin was superior both to that used in the Tokyo subway but also to that used by Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war".

This is a highly misleading statement, exploiting the public’s lack of knowledge of Iraq’s low quality chemical program. Iraq’s sarin purity was discovered to be low and it deteriorated quickly in storage, reaching quality levels as low as the sarin used in Tokyo. The statement also ignores the fact that Syria’s chemical program is considered far more advanced than Iraq’s (e.g. having operational binary warheads). 

Naturally, this statement was also quickly misinterpreted to mean the sarin was typical of a military source.

Understating Sarin Impurities 

While all sarin degradation products were described as such in a footnote, the many impurities found by the labs were grouped under “Other interesting chemicals” without further explanation

Omitting Information Crucial for Associating the Rockets with a Chemical Attack

All samples were taken from the immediate vicinity of impact rocket sites. In order to rule out other sources for the sarin contamination, samples should have been taken at locations within the attacked area that are not near any impact site. This was not done. 
Just to avoid misinterpretation: Despite this, there is still evidence associating the rockets found in Zamalka with the attack (unlike the M14).

While results are reported for multiple samples from the rocket bodies found in Zamalka, none of the six wipe samples taken at the site of the M14 rocket body were from the actual rocket. No reason was given for this omission. Since it now seems that the M14 is not related to any chemical attack, this omission is especially concerning.

In page 23, an "Impact Site Number 2" is first mentioned. While other sites were photographed and sampled, this was not. An azimuth was given for it (pointing at the same base), but without explaining how it was calculated. There was also no mention of a rocket body at that location. Based on the omission pattern seen so far, it is probably a safe bet that this site contained evidence of a conventional attack.

Update: Mishandling Blood Samples

In the final UN report another amazing misstep is reported, in which the UN team has mishandled multiple blood samples taken from Syrian soldiers who suffered from an opposition sarin attack. Full details here.

Sep 25, 2013

Mapping the Source of the Attack

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

As it seems that we're reaching an agreement about the UMLACA's range, and we have multiple independent indications of the rocket azimuths, we can now make a reasonable location estimate for the chemical attacks' launch site.

I prepared an area that roughly matches the calculated azimuths and falls within 2.0 to 3.2 km of the farthest impact sites (which also happen to be the ones for which we have an azimuth). 

Here it is:

And zoomed out: 

See the area in an interactive map.

It is interesting to note that the 12 impact sites seem to form an arc around the southern part of this area, which may indicate a series of launches made from the same point at different directions.

By the way, does anyone know who geolocated the other 10 impact sites? I copied it from the HRW report and saw it also in another map. I currently don't use them for the estimate, but would be helpful to know.
Update: In a comment, 'CE' referred me to footnote 16 in the HRW report indicating the site locations were collected from local activists via skype, and in some cases were based on GPS readings.

At this point, I would like to ask your help in gathering information about this area:
  1. Who controls it? How tight is that control?
  2. Are the residential areas in it populated or deserted?
  3. Any other interesting events happened there during the war? 
  4. It would be especially interesting if anyone could think of a way to contact residents of the buildings surrounding the area. They couldn't have missed the sound of 12 UMLACA launches, and must have valuable information or perhaps even a video.
Findings so far:
From the discussion here, I got this video published 3 days after the chemical attacks showing a rocket launched from Qadoum (I identified the minaret in the video to belong to Ghoufran Mosque). The launch is from the Special Forces HQ, which is 1.5 km northwest of the center of our suspected area. 
After examining the video frame by frame I could not determine if this is an UMLACA. Some frames seem to show an oversized payload and others do not.
The discussion provides reliable evidence that the area has been deserted and outside regime control for a long time, and indeed on the same day another video was published showing an attack on the area attributed in the title to "Assad's Gangs".

Sep 24, 2013

Summary of Conclusions

This page contained a collection of conclusions gathered during the investigation. Now that a final conclusion has been reached is is mostly obsolete. Read the final conclusion here.


Seeing as the blog is getting very detailed and rapidly growing in traffic, I prepared a summary of the conclusions so far, so new readers can easily find their way around.

This blog is an online collaborative effort to find who was behind the Ghouta chemical attack.

Immediately following the event, numerous reports were published by governments and NGOs. Some blamed the regime and some the opposition, but somehow, they all reached the conclusion that matched their existing prejudices and interests.

Here you will find the most detailed analysis of all evidence available. It is built in a hierarchical structure that allows the reader to verify any step of a conclusion by following the links until reaching the hard evidence. There are no "we have information that shows", or "it is well known" or "a renown expert has determined". Only evidence, verifiable claims and logical conclusions.

It is still work in progress, but so far we reached several interesting conclusions:
  1. The US Report presented no significant evidence to support the regime attack theory.
  2. The UN Report has major flaws, such as wrong trajectory calculations, which were widely misinterpreted to imply regime culpability.
  3. The blogger Brown Moses is the only one to present reliable evidence to support the regime attack theory, by proving the attackers used rockets developed and deployed by the Syrian Army.
  4. Any munition of the Syrian Army should be assumed to also be available to the opposition.
  5. The rockets used in the attack come in two versions: a conventional warhead and an incendiary warhead. There is no evidence that they were used as a chemical weapon prior to the attack.
  6. The attackers could have used the incendiary warhead, and filled it instead with sarin. Since incendiary and chemical detonators are similar, this would have allowed them to bypass the technological difficulty of building an effective chemical warhead.
  7. There is somewhat stronger evidence for past use of lethal chemical weapons by the opposition than by the regime.
  8. The opposition has attempted to acquire sarin, but there is not enough evidence to determine whether they were successful.
  9. The sarin used in the attack was of low quality, indicating it is more likely not from a military source.
  10. The chemical attack was limited to the area of Zamalka, and the report of a chemical attack in Moadamiyah is probably incorrect.
  11. The rockets used in the attack were likely shot from the north at a short range, an area which was not under regime control at the time (map).
Follow this page for updates as more findings come in.

Want to help improve the conclusions? Just comment with a clear argument based on reliable evidence.

Thank You!

Chemical Analysis

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

In this post I will examine evidence relating to the chemicals used in the attack.

Of course, the most important evidence is the UN report which reported finding sarin in the Zamalka area and in blood samples. The report further provides more detailed results from two labs, but did not provide any analysis. So let's try and analyze it ourselves.


Sarin manufactured for military use requires storage for extended periods and therefore contains chemical stabilizers. Alternatively it can be kept as two precursors (binary form), that are mixed when the projectile is in-flight. For this to work the projectile needs to have a barrier that is removed or broken at deployment, and then spin to mix the materials. Since the sarin UMLACA was determined to be a converted White Phosphorus weapon, and does not seem to be spin-stabilized, it is very unlikely to support this process.

Therefore, lack of stabilizers should indicate the sarin did not come from military storage and was prepared shortly before the attack. There seem to be three types of sarin stabilizers: dibutylchloramine, tributylamine and diisopropylcarbodiimide. None of them appear in the UN Report (Appendix 7). Furthermore, all chemicals listed are linkable to sarin by-products, sarin degradation products or traces of explosives (see more below).

In a comment, Gleb Bazov referred me to this report, showing Iraq had a process of mixing binary weapons manually before launch, thus avoiding the use of stabilizers. However, this seems like a non-standard and risky process, which could be attributed to Iraq's low quality nerve agent program. 

Sarin by-Products

Finding Sarin by-Products in samples is an indication of low-quality production. Sarin is produced through several stages, and each step requires matching exact quantities of the reacting chemicals. If this is not done professionally, remains of earlier steps will react with later stage chemicals, and produce undesired impurities in the final product, which will reduce its efficiency and shelf-life. Advance chemical weapons programs, such as Syria is believed to have, should produce sarin with very low levels of impurities.

A careful reading of the Appendix brings up an interesting find. While Lab 1 has a column marked “Degradation Products and by-Products”, Lab 2 reports “Degradation Products” alone (Degradation products are chemicals created from the exposure of sarin to the environment). Both labs then have a column for “Other interesting chemicals”. Interestingly, Lab 1 has nothing listed under “Other”, while Lab 2 has a long list of chemicals there. So since these chemicals are not listed as sarin degradation products, they may be the sarin by-products we're looking for.

To verify this claim, let’s examine some of these chemicals:
  1. Ethyl isopropyl methylphosphonate
  2. Isopropyl methyl methylphosphonate
  3. Isopropyl propyl methylphosphonate
  4. Diisopropyl dimethylpyrophosphonate (Update: this is more likely a degradation product)
  5. Dimethyl methylphosphonate
The other chemicals seem to be traces of explosives (specifically, RDX and TNT). See here a more detailed discussion of the many findings of Hexamine. See here a discussion of Hexafluorophosphate.

To try and make sense of these without getting too technical, let’s examine a very simplified sarin production process:
  1. Take Phosphorus
  2. Add Methyl groups (and Oxygen)
  3. Add Chlorine
  4. Replace the Chlorine with Fluoride
  5. Add Isopropyl Alcohol (aka Isopropanol)
Our final product has Phosphorus, Methyl, Fluoride and Isopropyl.

So since all our chemicals contain a methyl group (or ethyl - see below), isopropyl and phosphorous compounds, it seems that these are all remains of step 2 that didn’t react at steps 3 and 4, and instead reacted at step 5.

And just to make the evidence more compelling, Item 5 (Dimethyl methyl phosphonate) is actually the exact result of one of the steps in the production of sarin (i.e. it survived all later interactions).


DDTea has provided a detailed professional analysis in the comments below (Thank you again!). His main findings:
  1. Sarin was indeed impure.
  2. The finding of an ethyl group in by-product 1 (Ethyl isopropyl methylphosphonate) indicates the isopropanol used in the last stage of production was "technical grade" (i.e. the cheapest).
  3. The last stage of production was done on site, thus avoiding stabilizers.

Eyewitness Reports

Another good indication for the sarin's production process are reports about odors at the site of the attack. When produced professionally, sarin is odorless (and colorless). Odors would therefore indicate impurities.

Zamalka victims provided numerous eyewitness reports, and they were near unanimous in their descriptions of weird odors. Examples:
  1. "vinegar and rotten eggs"
  2. "cooking gas"
  3. "overpowering smell"
  4. "insecticide"
  5. "unpleasant smell", "yellowish color"
  6. "the smell was quite strong that I could not recognize it at all. It was a little bit like the smell of burning"
  7. "rotten smell"
  8. "a smell of gas-like odor, or sulfur, but you do not feel the smell too much"
  9. "a strong sulfur-like smell, and a foggy white color"
  10. “strange smell”

Comparing this to the Halabja military chemical attack in 1988, which involved mustard gas (brown-yellow color, garlic smell), sarin (odorless), tabun (fruit smell) and VX (odorless), shows a much more "correct" depiction of odors:
  1. "sweet apples"
  2. "It was just like the smell of garlic."
  3. yellowish smoke smelling of "bad garlic" or "rotten apples"
  4. “pleasant smell in the air; smell of sweet apples, orange, and garlic”
  5. "We thought it was home gas, like garlic and gas from the kitchen"
  6. "it was like apples but also other kinds of fruit."
  7. "aroma that reminded me of apples"
  8. "It was similar to rotting garbage, but then it changed to a sweet smell similar to that of apples. Then I smelled something that was like eggs."
  9. "smelled like sweet apples"
The difference is even more interesting when considering that Iraq's nerve agents were later found to have high level of impurities.

In the Tokyo Sarin Attack, which used very low quality sarin, eyewitnesses reported either not noticing a smell or "odors like burning rubber or mustard".

Update: Further analysis found stronger evidence of low-budget production.

Conclusion: The sarin used in Zamalka was produced in an immature process, which is inconsistent with the Syrian regime's chemical program.

Did I miss anything? Please share your evidence and analysis and help me improve my conclusions. 

Appendix - Sarin Process

For those who like to get technical, here's an example of a full sarin production process. Click on each step's product for more details (from Wikipedia):
  1. White Phosphorus + Chlorine = Phosphorus Trichloride
  2. Phosphorus Trichloride + Methanol = Trimethyl Phosphite
  3. Trimethyl Phosphite + Halo-Methane = Dimethyl Methylphosphonate
  4. Dimethyl Methylphosphonate + Thionyl Chloride = Methylphosphonic Dichloride
  5. Methylphosphonic Dichloride + Potassium Fluoride or Hydrogen Fluoride or Sodium Fluoride = Methylphosphonyl Difluoride
  6. Methylphosphonyl Difluoride + Isopropanol / Isopropyl alcohol (+ Isopropylamine to neutralize Hydrogen Fluoride)  = sarin
Item 3 was the one found by the UN on site.