Syria: some unanswered questions

In separate statements on Monday and Tuesday, secretary of state John Kerry and White House spokesman Jay Carney explained why the US believes the Assad regime was responsible for the chemical attacks on the outskirts of Damascus last week.

Kerry said the reported number of victims and their symptoms "strongly indicate ... that chemical weapons were used in Syria". He continued:

"Moreover, we know that the Syrian regime maintains custody of these chemical weapons. We know that the Syrian regime has the capacity to do this with rockets. We know that the regime has been determined to clear the opposition from those very places where the attacks took place."

Yesterday, Carney said:

"We have established with a high degree of confidence that the Syria regime has used chemical weapons already in this conflict. We have made clear that it is our firm assessment that the Syrian regime has maintained control of the stockpile of chemical weapons in Syria throughout this conflict. It is also the case that the Syrian regime has the rocket capacity to deliver the chemical weapons as they were delivered with repugnant results on August 21 outside of Damascus."

Their point, basically, was that the Syrian regime is the only real suspect. Nobody has produced any evidence of substance to back up the regime's claim that rebel fighters were responsible. The regime said earlier that it would provide the evidence but it hasn't done so. That, together with its behaviour since the attacks – its treatment of the UN weapons inspectors, for example – reinforces the conclusion that its claim is spurious.

Theories circulating on the internet that seek to exonerate the regime – including the Russian foreign ministry's claim that reports of the massacre were published before it happened – have also been widely debunked (see here, for example). 

One claim still circulating, based on a Daily Mail story last January, is that Qatar had been trying to obtain a chemical weapon in order to "frame" the Syrian regime. The story was later deleted from the Mail's website – which of course only added to the suspicions of conspiracy theorists.

The reason for its deletion was that the email which supposedly provided the evidence turned out to be a fake. In April, the Daily Mail published an apology to those who had been named in the article and said it had paid them "substantial damages".

In their statement to the media, both Kerry and Carney have said the US will provide more information about last Wednesday's attacks during the next few days (with Carney suggesting it will come this week), so it's interesting to consider what that information might be. 


Although sarin is strongly suspected, the US has said nothing officially about the type of chemical used. There's no doubt that it killed many people, but identifying it would would fill in an important gap.

To identify it in a way that would not be open to challenges is less easy than it sounds. The "gold standard" in such cases is to obtain soil, blood and other environmental samples that all test positive. A Foreign Policy article from last June explains just how difficult that can be.

With samples smuggled out of the country there are questions about chain of custody between sampling and testing. There have also been suggestions that the Syrian regime could have mixed sarin with CS gas or other chemicals to confuse testing.

According to the Foreign Policy article, the US has previously obtained samples from Syria which did test positive for sarin and it quotes an official as saying "It's impossible that the opposition is faking the stuff in so many instances in so many locations."


In his media briefing yesterday, Carney talked repeatedly about Syrian rockets:

  • "The Syrian regime has the rocket capacity to deliver the chemical weapons as they were delivered with repugnant results on August 21 outside of Damascus."

  • "We know that the regime maintains custody of the chemical weapons in Syria and uses the types of rockets that were used to deliver chemical weapons on August 21."

  • "It is our conviction that the Syrian regime has the rocket capability that was employed to devastating effect in this chemical weapons attack."

  • "The regime ... has the rockets and the rocket capability that were employed in this chemical weapons attack."

This implies the US has identified the type of rocket used last week, and hopefully it will make the details public. If it can be established that these rockets are used only by the regime and not by the rebels, the case against Assad will be virtually watertight.

Brown Moses, the blogger who specialises in analysing weaponry from the Syrian conflict, has suggested that the rocket concerned may be this one, and it would be interesting to know if the US agrees.

Brown Moses has also studied images of a canister which was photographed by a UN inspector (see video) and suggests it's the warhead from a Soviet 140mm M14 artillery rocket which can be used to carry 2.2kg of sarin.


There have been several reports of regime communications relating to last week's attack being intercepted. If true, details of the conversations would help to build a rock-solid case.

Yesterday, Foreign Policy said US intelligence had "overheard" what claimed to be "panicked phone calls" from an official at the Syrian defence ministry to a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers about last Wednesday's attacks.

There have also been reports that Israeli intelligence intercepted "a conversation between high-ranking regime officials regarding the use of chemical agents at the time of the attack". Details of the conversation have not been published but it is said to show that the regime was responsible for the use of nonconventional weapons.

Some of this tallies with a story published in The National (from opposition sources) that that "some of the army officers involved had tried to distance themselves from what happened, and insisted they were not told the rockets they were firing were loaded with toxins".


Knowing more about these intercepts, assuming they exist, could help to clear up the question of why the regime would have decided to use these weapons. In a previous blog post I suggested it could have been a deliberate provocation – Assad choosing to cross Obama's "red line" at a time when he thought he could get away with it.

Another possibility is that it was more of a cock-up – at least as far as the large number of civilian casualties was concerned. A report in Le Monde, which has not received much attention outside France, alleges that poison gas has been used in Syria more than is generally realised. 

It has been "used occasionally in specific locations by government forces to attack the areas of toughest fighting with the encroaching opposition rebels", the report says. Because its use has been on a small scale, this has previously avoided "the kind of massive spread of toxic chemicals that would easily constitute irrefutable proof". 

If that is true, the Syrian military may not have been expecting the devastating consequences seen last week.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 28 August 2013