SYRIA report 74 Chemical Weapons



The NCF promised an updated note on the latest information as to culpability in regard to the chemical weapons attack in suburban Damascus. We are now in a position to provide more information.

The following are the facts in so much as the NCF can discern them. The NCF has already indicated in our previous report that : A number of rockets were found in the area of the chemical weapons attack on the following day. The rockets that appear to have carried chemical weapons may have been 330mm. Most smaller rockets appear to have shown no indication of having carried chemical weapons. Many were 140mm artillery rockets; 'M14s' from BM14 or BM 21 rocket launchers in the possession of both the rebels and the government.  These could carry chemical weapons (in the Vietnam war mortars were even used to deploy chemical weapons) but in this instance this seems not to have happened. The form of munitions used is not of itself decisive, since, as mentioned above, rebels have captured government artillery bases, at least one of which was in close proximity to Syria's main chemical weapons plant. More importantly the rebels captured an artillery base in East Ghouta last December and indeed have now captured some quite immense rockets.

Much has therefore to depend on the azimuth (the bearing from due north) of the rockets as found by the UN. Unfortunately the UN report is grossly redacted and does not have full information on azimuths or even rocket size for all rockets examined (presumably the UN Security Council has unredacted information but there can be no credible reason for withholding the full data from the public in the NCF's view). A pdf of the complete report is on this link if you wish to access the full document but you may find it easier to open this New York Times link. Most unfortunately of all the report contains no map of locations as to where rockets were found. Inferences can be made e.g. if a rocket landed in Ein Tama one can assume it landed in Southern Ein Tama not northern Ein Tama (the difference has a significant impact on the source given the claimed azimuth of the rocket). The UN report is incompetently written with little clarity (the words reverse azimuth and inverse azimuth for instance are both used in the same report without clear definitions). Generally the report is sub standard.  The UN examined five rockets. Their conclusions for each of the five are as follows and may be of interest to the more technically minded amongst you - and contain at least one gross error (data for rocket 2). The result that is generally referred to as confirming the culpability of the Syrian government is that for Rocket 4: We reported that the attack resulted in 367 recorded deaths (our initial figure based on the examination of all available open sourced material). Since when three additional videos have come on line bringing the total number of dead as recorded by the NCF to 394 (our researcher erred on the side of caution when two videos may have showed the same scene - and more records may yet come to light so this should be regarded as a minimum figure). Of these 211 were men of fighting age (though the researcher who examined the video record said that "many of the men did not look like fighters"), 2 were women, 4 were older men (but not very old - they were still arguably of fighting age), 144 were children (small boys and girls). You will note that adds up to less than 394 - that is because some adult bodies were shrouded or otherwise difficult to observe and it was hard to see whether these victims were male or female. We find that number (394) adequately horrific. We can fully understand why Local Coordination Committees may wish to make claims of higher numbers but claims of far higher numbers of dead cannot be regarded as credible (note that the US intelligence community itself is concerned by the way in which the Obama administration has "cherry-picked" the evidence to support its contentions). Kerry's assertion that 1429 died is evidently mistaken. The Syrian Observatory suggested a figure of 502 which we would regard as the highest possible number. "The list is based on interviews with hospital officials and activists in the affected areas," said Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Observatory. Abdel-Rahman said he was not asked by U.S. officials to share his information. He questioned the claims of more than 1,400 killed and urged the Obama administration to "release the information its figure is based on." Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders reported 355 deaths but theirs was a partial list.

We can now add new information from our own anecdotal sources (in the Syrian military) that: We surmise in conclusion that the following is the probability. We must stress that this is what we surmise, not what we know, and is a deduction based on information from a source we regard as credible but we cannot name that source. We surmise: We assume (but we must stress this is mere supposition) that the chemical agent then drifted into a wider area where civilians were present in greater numbers and it was no longer in sufficient strength to kill adults but children remained vulnerable, hence the large numbers of child deaths.

There is an alternative, possibly less plausible, scenario. That is that the FSA were negotiating surrender and al Nusra therefore regarded them as expendable and conducted the attack (al Nusra does now have heavy artillery). This alternative would be the one to believe if you are inclined to President Putin's viewpoint.

We are much encouraged by the fact that Syria will now sign the chemical weapons convention immediately. This will means that the only seven nations who have still to sign up are Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea, Somalia and South Sudan. There should be a major international effort to bring them into line. NOTE: Technically the position in regard to Israel and Myanmar is that they have signed but not ratified the chemical weapons convention. This means that they are not bound by the CWC's provisions (though they have expressed an "intention" to ratify the CWC at some time). It is one thing to sign an agreement (the US signed the Kyoto Protocol for example), but until it is ratified by whatever procedure is binding on a particular government, it is not bound by its provisions.


In spite of the UN inspection team's submission of its report to the UN Security Council, all that seems to be known for certain is that Sarin gas was used during an extensive attack on a Damascus suburb early on the morning of 21 August.  While the available evidence suggests Syrian Government culpability, without additional information concerning the identity and types of the weapons used and a clearer indication of the trajectories of the artillery shells, rockets, or mortars deployed, it is not currently possible to rule out other scenarios.  We do have a clearer picture of the casualties from this attack.  In the absence of clarifying information as to how it reached its total of 1429 victims cited by one government, we believe that the figure is closer to our own approximation of 394 which does not lessen the impact of this event as one of the singular horrors of an especially brutal conflict.

The Next Century Foundation

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