The UN Chemical Weapons Report: One Third of the Story that Needs to Be Told

  • Sep 20, 2013

    The first report of the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic marks a courageous breakthrough on the part of the inspectors, but it also tells only part of a story that needs immediate support from U.S., British, and French intelligence. Its very title indicates the limits to its coverage: “Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013.”

    The report follows strict protocols and can only report on firm evidence. It was carried out under a mandate not to address who was responsible. It also did not attempt to tie the assessment of the use of chemical weapons on August 21st to an assessment of the initial mission of the inspectors, which was to cover possible attacks at Khan al-Asal, Sheik Vlaqsood, and Saraqueb.

    Racing the Clock Under Terrible Conditions

    The report does not represent the kind sweeping, unfettered effort that could address the entire series of chemical attacks. It provides convincing evidence that Sarin was used, but the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and other inspectors did not have the ability to analyze the scale of the attack. It is only the first of what it states will be part of an ongoing investigation. The inspectors only had limited access to a limited number of locations for very limited times with no real prior ability to survey or characterize the site. They were in Moadamiya in West Ghouta on August 26th for two hours, and in Ein Tarma and Zamalka in East Ghouta on August 28th –29th for five hours during a temporary cease fire.

    It is a real tribute to their efforts that they were able to interview 50 people in that time, interview them on their symptoms and what they saw, and their impressions of the conditions of the attack and the dead. They were also able to interview nine nurses and five doctors, and find that the weather was somewhat unique on August 21st in that the falling temperature in the morning condensed the vapor (gas) coming from the attack and kept it in the area and near the ground. The report indicates that all of the evidence corroborates that a non-persistent – and normally quick-dissipating – nerve agent called Sarin was used, but that it may not have been pure and may have deteriorated before use – something common during the Iraqi attacks that used Sarin during the Iran-Iraq War.

    Clear Physical Evidence that Sarin Was Used

    As the report makes clear, these inspections on August 26th-29th only came after the sites had been disturbed for days. The inspectors were then able to examine a limited number of 80 survivors and carry out a diagnosis of 36. They interviewed 36 living persons, Ages 7 to 68, 69% male, and 83% of whom reported being exposed after nearby attacks, and 17% of whom were exposed after responding.

    They got blood samples from 34, hair from 3, and urine from 15. The blood tests in the three sites indicated 79% to 93% positive for Sarin. The urine samples (after 5 to 8 days)

    were 91-100% positive. The hair samples did not test positive. This evidence consistently indicated the use of Sarin – as did the interview data (which are still being assessed,) and the follow up examination of the medical records in Zamalka Hospital. It is also telling that none of the subjects had physical injuries from a cause other than the chemical agent – showing that this was a gas attack and not a conventional attack. (See Appendix 3 and Appendix 4 for broad details and Table 7.2 in pages 35-37 of Appendix 7 for detailed blood and urine test results).

    The inspectors did not get to survey and examine the dead. The inspectors did not have the kind of access that allowed them to determine the number of dead and wounded, determine whether the attack left persons who were permanently injured, or assess the lethality of the chemical attacks versus reports of artillery shelling of the site with conventional weapons.

    Some Useful data on Munitions and Trajectories

    The data on the munitions (Appendix 5) are limited. The inspectors had little time and the sites that they went to show that much of the evidence has already been disturbed or removed. They did find one case where a rocket landed without exploding a warhead – indicating that it may have carried gas. The inspectors later went to a nearby site that had suffered a gas attack – possibly from the warhead of the rocket. They took physical data on the rocket body showing it was a 140 mm rocket some 630 mm long with inscriptions in Cyrillic, 10 jet nozzles, and a metal electric contact plate (firing mechanism) in the center.

    Evidence was found at two sites indicating that the rockets fired during the attack had a long tubular warhead that could contain Sarin, and that they came from the northwest. It also seemed clear that the warhead was not explosive and had lost velocity before hitting, indicating that the dispersal of a chemical agent had slowed it before it hit. (p. 22)

    The trajectory data only came from two of five locations – Moadamiyah and Ein Tarma – that the inspectors examined. However, the inspections at one site provided enough evidence to show the trajectory of one of the 140 mm rockets coming from the northwest. The inspection at Ein Tarma showed that a 330 mm rocket came from an East/Southeast trajectory. (pp. 18-23) This is consistent with attacks by the Assad forces, but the report makes no effort identify the meaning of these trajectories.

    More data on the munitions and their effects may come from the environmental samples and weapons fragments listed in Appendix 6. (pp. 24-26) The data in Appendix 7 already indicate that weapons fragments had compounds of some significance, and that 11 out of 42 fragments tested positive for chemical weapons in “Laboratory 1,” and 16 tested positive in “Laboratory 2.”

    Reporting by the New York Times, Washington Post and Human Rights Watch all strongly indicate that this evidence implicates the Assad regime. The trajectories and target areas closely match the location of the Republican Guards 104th Brigade on a hill in a military complex near Mount Qasioun on the outskirts of Damascus.

    This unit is located that is in a large military area that includes the Presidential Palace, a nearby major Syrian command and control complex, and elements of a second

    Republican Guards Brigade. Some reports it also includes elements of the 14th Special Forces (Airborne) Division) and elements of the 101st and 102nd Security Regiments, whose mission is to protect Assad. The 104th Brigade is also located near the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Scientifique (CERS), which is widely reported as a key center of Syrian Chemical weapons Activity.

    For example, an article by C. J Chivers in the September 18 edition of the New York Times (“U.N. Data on Gas Attack Points to Assad’s Top Forces; “ provides a more specific indication of the importance of this trajectory data. Excerpts from Mr Chivers d report note that:

    Mount Qasioun is Damascus’s most prominent military position. It is also a complex inseparably linked to the Assad family’s rule, a network of compounds and positions occupied by elite units led by members of the president’s inner circle and clan….Rebel forces have never penetrated the major military installations of Mount Qasioun. In tactical and technical terms, they would almost certainly have been unable to organize and fire sustained and complex barrages of rockets from that location undetected.

    …At one impact site, investigators found both the place where the rocket had passed through a “vegetal screen” above a wall just before it hit the ground, and the small impact crater itself….They noted that “the line linking the crater and the piercing of the vegetal screen can be conclusively established and has a bearing of 35 degrees.”

    At another impact area in another section of Damascus, a 330-millimeter rocket landed on what investigators described as “earthy, relatively soft ground, where the shaft/engine of the projectile remained dug in, undisturbed until investigated.”

    The rocket’s shaft, the investigators noted, “pointed precisely in a bearing of 285 degrees.” ..These azimuths, or compass bearings, they noted, can be reversed to show the direction from which the rockets had been fired. They point back toward the geographic source of the attack, which investigators on the ground presumably would have been able, with their own eyes, to see high above them in the city…. When taken together, the azimuths drawn from different neighborhoods lead back to and intersect at Mount Qasioun — so far an impregnable seat of Mr. Assad’s power — according to independent and separate calculations by both The New York Times and Human Rights Watch.

    The map …suggested that gas-filled rockets, which sailed over central Damascus and landed in civilian neighborhoods, originated “from the direction of the Republican Guard 104th Brigade,” which occupies a large base on the mountain’s western side…Depending on the degree of accuracy in the measurements, the flight path for at least one of the rockets could also be read to lead back to the government’s sprawling air base at Mezzeh, near the foot of Mount Qasioun.

    A senior American intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the United States, via satellite, had confirmed rocket launches that corroborated the United Nations data and the Human Rights Watch analysis for one of the strikes. …American analysts said that the data for the other strike was less clear, but that the United States had stronger data indicating that another Syrian military installation — an air base — was also involved in the sarin attacks on Aug. 21…Republican Guard units are responsible for maintaining control of the city and securing the presidential palace.

    The data in Appendix 7 already indicate that weapons fragments had compounds of some significance, and that 11 out of 42 fragments tested positive for chemical weapons in “Laboratory 1,” and 16 tested positive in “Laboratory 2.”

    What Now Needs to Be Done

    These are powerful new indicators, but the UN alone cannot produce the report that is needed. It is going to take a concerted effort by outside governments and intelligence agencies to put these data in full context, tie them firmly to the Assad regime, and provide the assessment of total casualties the UN cannot make – clarifying the total mess the conflicting British-U.S. estimates have made of the assessment of the dead: 350? 375? More than 1,000? More than 1,400? An exact 1,429?

    Some estimate is needed of lethality and the extent to which the weapons produced lasting symptoms. It is all very well to talk about the horrors of chemical weapons, but most technical reports indicate that pure Sarin tends to either kill or produce a total recovery. Conventional artillery weapons can produce long recoveries, cripple, disable, and disfigure.

    The intelligence evidence needs to show the trajectory data confirm to U.S. and French reporting indicating that Assad forces were known to be in the right locations. These data need to be tied to the reports of a clear chain of communications showing who gave the orders and the identity of the specific Syrian units involved. The UN data could indicate that the rockets were fired from or near a Syrian military complex with rocket range of both Moadamiyah and Ein Tarma.

    The probability that two known weapons systems in Syrian hands capable of delivering chemical munitions were used needs analysis and confirmation. These include the type BM-14 Soviet bloc or its Chinese equivalent rocket. The Russian version is known to have high explosive, smoke, and chemical variants and is carried or towed on truck mounted launchers like the BM-21 Grad, RPU-14, Type 63 which carry 8-17 rounds each

    (normally 16-17 rounds) and fires them in ripples that amount to a volley (2 rounds per second or 16 rockets in 8 seconds).

    The Russian chemical version of the rocket is called the M-14KChR, and is much more sophisticated than the Syrian weapons reported to date. This indicates Syria developed its own version of a chemical warhead, but only government experts can really assess this. Intelligence is needed on the precise version of Sarin carried, its age and stability, and the side effects of contamination or decay. An assessment is needed of range – which is nominally 9.8 kilometers for the high explosive warhead. (For further background, see,, and

    A separate characterization is needed of the 330 mm rocket found in Zamalka, which may be of Syrian design or modification. According to some estimates, it carries some 16-20 times (up to 56 liters) as much agent as the other rockets, and has a tubular warhead that may limit its range and accuracy, but can disperse far more agent than most similar chemical munitions. It is also part of a weapons system that has been under far tighter control by Assad’s forces and makes any reports of rebel use even less convincing, and should make it easier to determine if Assad or his top command approved the use of chemical weapons.

    There also are some indications that it used an Iranian launcher, and one key issue that needs to be addressed is the extent to which Iran has or has not disposed of its own chemical weapons inventory, fully complied with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and whether it has or has not cooperated with Syria in any aspect of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons development. (For a nominal estimate of this system, see

    Above all, intelligence analysis needs to build on the UN report to fix the blame as clearly as possible. Intelligence analysis is needed to determine whether the units identified in the unclassified French intelligence report were in the right areas, can be shown to have the right weapons, and whether their movements and orders confirm their role. Within the limits of sources and methods, reporting is needed on whether any indicators exist showing the weapons came of out government held chemical weapons storage areas. Similarly, intelligence analysis is needed to determine how clearly and decisively the rebels can be cleared of the blame. There are growing reports that they have captured some elements of chemical weapons in the north, although at least the moderate elements of the feuding rebel forces deny this.

    Here, the United States and the British have a great deal to learn from the French. This does not mean coordinating on the details. The end impact will be much more convincing if each report is clearly based on individual analysis. Quite frankly, however, the British Joint Intelligence Committee analysis issued before the Parliamentary vote was little more than vacuous “trust me” rubbish. The U.S. intelligence report was only marginally better.

    If the U.S. and other Western governments are to make a convincing case, they must make it properly and build on the detail in the French report. They need to do this not only to give the UN report its full meaning, but because they need to lay the groundwork for months of effort to determine whether Assad is really getting rid of his weapons, and begin overcoming the global distrust growing out of their mistakes in assessing Iraq. 

    Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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