Sarin in Syria

Following their investigation of the Sarin attacks that killed hundreds near Damascus on August 21, the UN inspectors have continued to look into other alleged cases of chemical weapons being used in the Syrian conflict. Their latest report, issued this week, confirms that people in Syria have been exposed to Sarin on other occasions – including government forces.

However, none of these other instances investigated by the UN caused deaths on the same scale as the August 21 attacks, nor do they appear to have involved the same type of munitions.

In contrast to the August 21 attacks, where the inspectors say there is "clear and convincing evidence" that chemical weapons were used against civilians "on a relatively large scale", their findings in relation to other instances are a lot more tentative.

There is no incident among these other cases where inspectors have been able to establish a definite link between the alleged event, the alleged site and the people affected by Sarin.

The UN investigation was triggered by complaints from various member states about 16 alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria since October last year. Based on the reports it had received, the UN eliminated nine of these from its inquiry for lack of "sufficient or credible information", leaving six to be investigated (in addition to the attacks on August 21). These were:

  • Khan al-Asal (19 March 2013)

  • Sheikh Maqsood (13 April 2013) 

  • Saraqeb (29 April 2013) 

  • Bahhariyeh (22 August 2013) 

  • Jobar (24 August 2013)

  • Ashrafiah Sahnaya (25 August 2013)

Under the terms eventually agreed with the Syrian government the inspectors were not allowed to apportion blame for any attacks and the latest report makes no attempt to do so. 

The fact that a number of soldiers on the government side were affected by Sarin might suggest rebel fighters had access to chemical weapons as well as the Syrian regime, but on that point the report is far from conclusive. There could be other explanations, and if the rebels did have Sarin there’s no evidence that they possessed it in the quantities needed for the August 21 attacks or that they had the type of munitions used on August 21.

Khan al-Asal (19 March 2013)

This attack hit government-held territory in Aleppo province, reportedly causing at least 25 deaths. Although everyone seems to agree that a chemical weapon was used, most of the other facts are disputed. The Syrian regime, backed up by Russia which sent a lengthy report about it to the UN, insists it was a rebel attack. Others suggest it was a government attack that missed its target.

UN inspectors were unable to visit the site for security reasons, so their report does little to clarify the picture. They say they “collected credible information that corroborates the allegations” of chemical weapon use but could not verify this independently.

(There’s more discussion of this on the Brown Moses blog.)

Sheikh Maqsood (13 April 2013) 

The US reported to the UN secretary-general that Syrian government forces had used a small amount of Sarin against the opposition in an attack on the Sheikh Maqsood district of Aleppo. According to witnesses, 21 people were affected and one died.

Efforts by the inspectors to failed to uncover further information. Consequently, the report says they were “unable to draw any conclusions”.

Saraqeb (29 April 2013) 

A source close to the opposition claimed that a helicopter flying over Saraqeb had dropped items at three locations. One of these allegedly fell into the courtyard of a house where it “intoxicated” some of the family members.

A 52-year-old woman who had been severely affected was transported to Turkey where she died. The inspectors’ report says:

“During an autopsy that was observed by members of the United Nations Mission, samples of several organs from the deceased woman’s body were recovered for subsequent analysis. The results from most of these organs clearly indicated signatures of a previous Sarin exposure.”

Although inspectors were unable to visit the site, the report says collected evidence suggests that chemical weapons were used but “in the absence of primary information on the delivery system(s) and environmental samples collected and analysed under the chain of custody, the United Nations Mission could not establish the link between the alleged event, the alleged site and the deceased woman”. 

The UN report also notes that this incident was “atypical for an event involving alleged use of chemical weapons”:

“The munitions allegedly used could hold only as little as 200 ml of a toxic chemical. Allegedly tear gas and chemical weapon munitions were used in parallel. 

“The core of the device allegedly used was a cinder block (building material of cement) with round holes. These holes could, allegedly, serve to “secure” small hand grenades from exploding. As the cinder block hit the ground, the handles of the grenades would become activated and discharged. Some of the hand grenade–type munitions allegedly contained tear gas, whereas other grenades were filled with Sarin.”

(The Saraqeb incident is also discussed on the Brown Moses blog.)

The remaining three incidents in the investigation were all based on complaints from the Syrian government, at a time when it was blaming rebels for the August 21 attacks.

Bahhariyeh (22 August 2013) 

A number of government soldiers engaged in fighting were reportedly taken ill when an object landed nearby and emitted “blue-coloured gas with a very bad odour”.

Blood samples collected by the Syrian government and the UN all tested negative for “any known signatures of chemical weapons”. The report therefore says the inspectors “cannot corroborate the allegation that chemical weapons were used”.

Jobar (24 August 2013)

The report says:

“Based on interviews conducted by the United Nations Mission with military commanders, soldiers, clinicians and nurses, it can be ascertained that … a group of soldiers were tasked to clear some buildings near the river in Jobar under the control of opposition forces. 

“At around 1100 hours, the intensity of the shooting from the opposition subsided and the soldiers were under the impression that the other side was retreating. Approximately 10 meters away from some soldiers, an improvised explosive device reportedly detonated with a low noise, releasing a badly smelling gas.”

Ten soldiers were reportedly evacuated – four of them seriously affected.

UN inspectors visited the site but saw no value in collecting samples because the fragments of the alleged munitions had already been removed and the site had been corrupted by mine-clearing activities. 

Blood samples taken by the Syrian government (and authenticated by the UN using DNA techniques) tested positive for signatures of Sarin. One of the four blood samples collected from the same patients by the UN a month later also tested positive for Sarin. 

The report finds the collected evidence “consistent with the probable use of chemical weapons” but again adds that “in the absence of primary information on the delivery system(s) and environmental samples collected and analysed under the chain of custody, the United Nations Mission could not establish the link between the victims, the alleged event and the alleged site”.

Ashrafiah Sahnaya (25 August 2013)

According to the Syrian government, cylindrical canisters were fired at some soldiers, “using a weapon that resembled a catapult”.

Again, UN inspectors were not able to visit the site for security reasons but blood samples taken by the Syrian government and authenticated by the UN using DNA techniques tested positive for signatures of Sarin. Samples taken by the UN one week and one month after the alleged incident tested negative.

The report says collected evidence suggests that chemical weapons were used, though it is unable to “establish the link between the alleged event, the alleged site and the survivors”. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 14 December 2013