More clues from the weapons inspectors?

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon is due to brief the Security Council tomorrow on the findings of the weapons inspectors in Syria. Now that the immediate crisis has blown over as a result of yesterday's Russian-American agreement and Syria's formal acceptance of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the inspectors' report may have lost much of its previous urgency.

Ban Ki-moon has already said it will provide "overwhelming" confirmation that chemical weapons were used in Syria last month, though the inspectors' brief does not allow them to apportion blame – at least not directly.

Nevertheless, the report may provide several pointers as to who was responsible. Here are some of the things to look out for:

1. Chemical analysis

If the report merely identifies sarin as the offending chemical we shall be none the wiser. However, if it goes into more detail – describing any additives, for example – this could give some strong clues as to the method of manufacture. 

In other words, it could indicate whether the sarin was produced expertly on an industrial scale (thus pointing to a government source) or in a more amateurish fashion (indicating a rebel source).

2. Delivery systems

Although the inspectors are prevented from from giving an opinion about who was responsible, there appears to be no reason why they can't identify the munitions used in the chemical attacks on August 21.

Interest has focused mainly on a type of rocket which Brown Moses, who blogs about weaponry used in the Syrian conflict, has dubbed the UMLACA (Unidentified Munition Linked to Alleged Chemical Attacks). Brown Moses' research suggests UMLACAs come in two version – one with an explosive warhead, the other with a chemical warhead.

Up to now, there has been no evidence of rebel fighters using UMLACAs and a video (below) appears to show one being launched – probably the non-chemical version – by the regime's fighters.

The remains of five UMLACAs have been photographed at the scene of the August 21 attacks. They lack the kind of damage that would be expected from an explosive warhead – suggesting that this was a chemical weapon. Those associated with chemical attacks also have numbering in red, whereas the explosive type appears to be numbered in black.

We know that the UN inspectors took an interest in these weapons, since they can be seen in videos examining and measuring them. In some of these videos (below) the inspector's electronic alarm starts beeping. Triggering of the alarm does not necessarily mean traces of sarin are present but it does indicate that as a possibility.



If subsequent and more elaborate tests have linked the UMLACAs conclusively to sarin use it will be very difficult to claim than anyone other than the regime was responsible for the attacks. 

3. Quantity of chemicals used

Large-scale production of sarin is quite difficult without the use of government facilities. It's worth recalling that the attacks in Japan by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in 1994 and 1995 which killed 19 people involved only seven litres or so of chemical solution – of which only about 30% was actual sarin.

If UMLACAs are definitively linked by the inspectors to the chemical attacks on August 21, it will also be possible to work out the quantity of chemicals used. Measurements of the wreckage suggest each UMLACA could be filled with about 50 litres of chemicals and, since remains have been found of five UMLACAs (there may have been more), that indicates a total of at least 250 litres of chemicals.

Again, this would point to production on an industrial scale rather than in some makeshift rebel laboratory.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 15 September 2013