Syria sarin attacks

A report issued on Wednesday by the UN Human Rights Council came closer than any previous UN report to blaming the Syrian government for the chemical attacks near Damascus last August, as well as an earlier attack in Khan al-Assal.

While not directly accusing the Assad regime, the report says "the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on 21 August [near Damascus] indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary to manipulate safely [a] large amount of chemical agents".

The strong wording of this assessment suggests it is based, at least partly, on new information as result of the regime handing over its stockpile to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). This would enable comparisons to be made between samples gathered by UN inspectors at the attack sites with chemicals now known to have been in the regime's possession.

Chemical weapons expert Dan Kaszeta has been pointing out for some time that hexamine was found in samples from the attack sites and that the Syrian government declared 80 tonnes of hexamine to the OPCW in its chemical weapons inventory.

Kaszeta, citing multiple sources, says the Syrian government has admitted using hexamine as an additive in sarin – an additive that is sufficiently unusual to suggest that the sarin used on August 21 came from the government's stockpile. Kaszeta maintains that hexamine is a "smoking gun" as far as responsibility for the attacks is concerned.

The latest UN report, if it's correct, poses serious difficulties for those who claim rebel fighters carried out the attacks – killing hundreds of people – as a "false flag" operation aimed at triggering western military intervention in Syria.

It virtually rules out the possibility that rebels made their own sarin or acquired it from any source other than the Syrian government – and the Syrian government has never reported losing any sarin or having any stolen. Even if the rebels did steal it they would, as the report points out, also need to have acquired the "expertise and equipment" to use it.

The UN report, which covers many other human rights violations in the Syrian conflict, goes on to say that chemical agents used in Khan al-Assal (in Aleppo province) "bore the same unique hallmarks" as those used in the August 21 attacks near Damascus. In other words, whoever was responsible for the Damascus attacks was also responsible for Khan al-Assal.

The Khan al-Assal attack hit government-held territory, reportedly causing at least 25 deaths, but most of the other facts are disputed. The Syrian regime, backed up by Russia which sent a lengthy but so far unpublished report about it to the UN, insists it was a rebel attack. Others suggest it was a government attack that missed its target.

In a report last December, UN inspectors said that although they were unable to visit the Khan al-Assal site for security reasons they had "collected credible information that corroborates the allegations" of chemical weapon use but could not verify this independently. Wednesday's report goes much further – implying that some new information has come to light regarding Khan al-Assal too. But it gives no clue as to what the "unique hallmarks" of that attack might be.

Wednesday's report also mentions other allegations of chemical weapons attacks but says they "displayed markedly different circumstances and took place on a significantly smaller scale".

Referring to the UN inspectors' investigations, it adds: "In no incident was the commission’s evidentiary threshold met with regard to the perpetrator." This is a very odd thing to say because there is no reason to believe that any threshold was ever set. The inspectors were prevented from apportioning blame under the terms of the agreement that allowed them into Syria.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 5 March 2014