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Analyzing the UN Mission's Report on the Ghouta Massacre

The UN mission to Investigate Allegations of the use of Chemical Weapons in Syria published on Monday its report on the use of Chemical Weapons on August 21st, 2013 in Eastern and Western Ghouta outside Damascus. The report is five pages long, with 33 pages of appendices. The report starts with the terms of references, methodological considerations, the results of the mission, and a conclusion. I will summarize here the report’s findings in terms of what I need to cover in my analysis. The full report can be accessed here.

1. Regarding the visited areas and what the visits covered:
The affected areas that were visited are Moadamiyeh in Western Gouta (26/8, for two hours), and Ein Tarma and Zamalka in Eastern Ghouta (28,29/8, for a total of five and a half hours). The mission covered the following:
- Interviews with survivors and other witnesses
- Documentation of munitions and their sub-components
- Collection of environmental samples for subsequent analysis
- Assessment of symptoms of survivors
- Collection of hair, urine and blood samples for subsequent analysis

2. The investigation’s results:
- The investigation confirms that on August 21st, 2013, Chemical Weapons were used in the conflict in Syria, on a relatively wide-scale in (Eastern and Western) Ghouta, against civilians and children.
- The samples collected from Zamalka, Ein Tarma, and Moadamiyeh confirm that Sarin Gas was used in the attack, and was launched using surface-to-surface rockets. Some of the facts leading to this conclusion are:

  • Impacted and exploded surface-to-surface rockets, capable to carry a chemical payload, were found to contain Sarin.
  • Close to the rocket impact sites, in the area where patients were affected, the environment was found to be contaminated by Sarin.
  • Over fifty interviews given by survivors and health care workers provided ample corroboration of the medical and scientific results.
  • A number of patients/survivors were clearly diagnosed as intoxicated by an organophosphorous compound.
  • Blood and urine samples from the same patients were found positive for Sarin and Sarin signatures.

- Finally, the findings left the mission “with the deepest concern”.

***

What I found most intriguing in the report are the technical issues that were elaborated on in the appendices. These issues are:
1. Pointing out the perfect weather conditions at the time of the attack
2. The size and accuracy of the attack
3. The amount of used Sarin
4. The type of rockets used to carry the chemical substances, and the direction of which the rockets were launched.

I will discuss each point individually:

1. The weather:
The report mentioned that the temperature in the affected area dropped between 2:00 and 5:00 am, making the weather conditions perfectly suitable for a Chemical Weapon attack. This is because the cold air keeps the poisonous gas at a low altitude, inflicting most possible damage to people, since the weather allows the gas to reach people’s homes and shelters.
It is as if the report is implicitly stating that whoever conducted this criminal act has done it with premeditation, with the accurate knowledge of the ideal conditions for using this toxic gas.

2. The size and accuracy of the attack:
It is very clear by now that the attack targeted areas in Eastern and Western Ghouta, (noting the considerable distance between the areas). Also, the attacks were conducted in a timely manner, and covered large areas like Zamalka, Ein Tarma, and Moadamiyeh (Which are the areas visited by the mission, at least). Those are areas outside the Syrian regime’s control, and pose a great threat to the regime’s control over Damascus. In this attack, a large number of civilians were killed, most of which were children.

3. The amount of used Sarin:
The report points out that the warheads that were supposedly carrying the chemical substances were loaded with approximately 56 liters (± 6 liters) of chemicals. This leads to believing that the total amount of chemicals used in the attack exceeds 300 liters.
A huge volume of chemical substances like this should be handled with great care when mobilized and stored. The presence of over 300 liters (at least) of these substance translates to having a specialized team to oversee the loading, mobilizing, and storing processes. In addition, the production of such amounts of Sarin requires resources and abilities that are not easily obtained.
It seems like Sarin gas can be produced in labs using simple methods (as in the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995). Also, the BBC wrote an article (here) on how to produce Sarin gas in labs. Having said that, the amount of Sarin used in this attack cannot simply be produced in labs; as it requires high levels of resources, expertise, and abilities that the armed rebels just don’t own.

4. The type of rockets used to carry the chemical substances, and the direction of which the rockets were launched:
The report discusses the samples of the munitions that were observed in four impact sites. It mentions that the mission was not able to verify the type of munitions used because evidence had been tampered with in the majority of the areas. Also, the mission could not confirm whether the rockets used in the attack were originally designed to be equipped with warheads or if they were improvised to carry warheads.
However, the mission was able to collect definitive evidence on the type of munitions used and the direction of rocket impact from two of the four sites they observed:

First is Moadamiyeh:
The mission concluded that the munition used in the attack on Moadamieyh is M14 – 140mm.
By an online search, it is found that this type of munition is launched using BM14 (for more info on the weapon, click here). This weapon has a minimum range of 9.8Km that can reach to 15Km. The report established that the trajectory of the projectile had an azimuth of 215 degrees South-West, meaning that the reverse azimuth is 35 degrees North-East.

BM14

Using a compass and google maps, we can approximately detect the area where rockets were launched, based on the information above (range of 10 – 15Km, 35 degree azimuth) as follows:

Moadamiyeh
 

Here, we ask two logical questions:
1. Who controls the area where the rockets were launched (Maaraba, Assad Suburbs)?
2. Do armed rebels have any 140mm munitions and/or their launchers?

I did another online search and couldn’t find any evidence that confirms or denies whether rebels have such weaponry. Also, blogger Brown Moses (here) pointed out that he had studied the kinds of weapons that rebels use over the past year and a half, and concluded that the largest munition they had used is the Croatian M106. Despite that, some have pointed out to him that armed rebels own BM14, and backed their claim with this video:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PHC4JoGrdg]

 

Nevertheless, I still can’t confirm nor deny whether the armed rebels own BM14, but with definite certainty, the Syrian regime does own it.

The second site is Ein Tarma:
The mission mentions that the munition used in the attack on Ein Tarma on August 21st matches a 330mm caliber artillery rocket. They confirmed in the report that the munition they have studied in this site was in a perfect condition, as it hadn’t been tampered with since the day of the attack. The concluded landing azimuth of the rocket in this site is 115 degrees South-East, making the reverse azimuth 285 degrees North-East.

Searching online, it is found that munitions of 330mm caliber are mainly used in the Soviet BM-30 Smerch (more info here), which has the minimum range of 40Km and the maximum of 90Km, with other variations that have a minimum range of 20Km and a maximum of 70.

BM-30 Smerch

In addition to BM-30 Smerch, The Iranian rocket launcher “Falaq 2″ also uses munitions of 330mm caliber. Falaq 2 has the minimum range of 11Km, and it was previously used in January 2013 in Syria, as documented by the Local Council in Daraya here.

Falaq 2

 

Here is a video filmed by activists depicting the preparation and launch of surface-to-surface rockets by what is believed to be Falaq 2

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6CZtF6pGvQ]

With the available information that demonstrate the range and azimuth, and using a compass and google maps, we can propose three areas where the rocket launch took place.

First, with minimum range of 11Km, and maximum of 30Km (Falaq 2)

11Km, and maximum of 30Km

minimum range of 11Km, and maximum of 30Km

 

Second, with minimum range of 20Km, and maximum of 50Km

minimum range of 20Km, and maximum of 50Km

minimum range of 20Km, and maximum of 50Km

 

Third, with minimum range of 40Km, and maximum of 90Km

minimum range of 40Km, and maximum of 90Km

minimum range of 40Km, and maximum of 90Km

 

Realistically speaking, we can assume that the attack on Ein Tarma on August 21st was launched using Falaq 2.

Hence, we propose the same two logical questions:
1. Who is controls the area where the rockets were launched (Qudsayya, Al-Arin, and other surrounding ares)?
2. Do armed rebels have any 330mm munitions and/or their launchers?

By searching online, we find that those munitions are so advanced and sophisticated, and there is no video/photo evidence that the armed rebels in Syria own them or anything similar.

***

This mission was dispatched to Syria in accordance with a UN mandate that was sponsored by Russia and the United States and agreed to by Syrian regime to investigate in the events of Khan Assal. It was later authorized to investigate the August 21st attack on Ghouta. The mandate originally demanded that the mission is not to identify or disclose the perpetrators. But why? And was the United States the one responsible for this demand as mentioned by some sources (e.g. Syrian opposition member Haitham Manna’a)?

What happened in Syria is a crime against humanity and it is unethical, inhumane, and illogical to hide the true perpetrator responsible for this catastrophe, be it the Assad regime or the armed rebels.

But putting all this aside, and looking closely at the report’s conclusion, the criminal who committed this act possess the following characteristics:

1. The ability to produce, mobilize, and store considerably large volumes of sarin gas, and to load warheads with the substance.
2. The ability to have precise and accurate information on the weather, inflicting most possible damage
3. The ownership of a military arsenal that includes 140mm and 330mm caliber munitions
4. The ability to mobilize rocket launchers and chemical reserves around Damascus uninterruptedly
5. The ability to conduct a large-scale attack in a timely manner
6. The control over areas like West Qudssaya, Al-Arin, and Assad Suburbs

The report did not explicitly mention who the perpetrator was, but left the matter open for speculation.

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This article is also available in Arabic, here

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