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Monday, September 16, 2013

UN hints Assad used Russian rockets in sarin gas attack

The United Nations has this day released a report on its investigation into the attack that took place in the Damascus suburbs in Syria on 21 August 2013. The investigation found that sarin gas rockets were used to kill hundreds while they slept. While the report was not allowed to name the perpetrator, all the evidence points to the Assad Regime. Furthermore, it would appear that the source of some of the rockets used in the chemical attack is the very country that is expected to oversee Assad disarmament of chemical weapons, Russia!

The Secretary General gave the report's main conclusions in his introduction, saying that the investigation found that:
chemical weapons were used on a relatively large scale, resulting in
numerous casualties, particularly among civilians and including many children.
In the language of international law, he declared:
this act is a war crime and grave violation of the 1925 Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases
In summing up the results of the on-site investigation and the laboratory testing, the UNGS concluded:
the environmental, chemical and medical samples. we have collected, provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used in Ein Tanna. Moadamiyah and Zamalka in the Ghouta area of Damascus.
A No-Fault Investigation

The UN investigation was a bit of an oddly as criminal investigations go because they had already agreed, as a condition to be allowed into Syria and investigate, that no responsible party would be named. They could determine if a chemical agent was used and various details, such as the exact type and method of delivery, but not who used them. No culprit would be named.

In spite of these limitations, the UN investigation and report provide a wealth of details and information, all of which point to the Assad regime as the source of what we can now definitively say was a sarin gas attack.

Most of these details point to a very large scale and professional attack. Al Qaeda or other jhidist groups have never carried out a sarin gas attack, even a little amateur one, anywhere in the world and the Syrian opposition has no known chemical weapons capabilities, but the Assad Regime does. Bashar al-Assad has Republican Guard units with a chemical weapons speciality and the facts of the report point to them as the culprits.

That unit would know just the right time and weather conditions to kill the most, as the UN reported:
22. Weather information from Damascus on the morning of 21 August shows a falling temperature between 0200h and 0500h in the morning (Worldweatheronline.com). This means that the air is not moving from the ground upwards, but rather the opposite. Chemical weapons use in such meteorological conditions maximizes their potential impact as the heavy gas can stay close to the ground and penetrate into lower levels of buildings and constructions where many people were seeking shelter.
What the report didn't say was that the people had already been trained to run to the lower levels of buildings and constructions whenever they heard incoming rockets by weeks of Assad Regime bombardment with conventional high-explosives, a bombardment that continued even after the gas attack.

They also determined the method of delivery:
21. Information gathered about the delivery systems used was essential for the investigation. Indeed, several surface to surface rockets capable of delivering significant chemical payloads were identified and recorded at the investigated sites. These were carefully measured, photographed and sampled. Samples later confirmed to contain Sarin were recovered from a majority of the rockets or rocket fragments. For more detailed information and assessments see Appendix 5.
And we will be skipping ahead to some of those very interesting details in Appendix 5 shortly, but before we get to that, it should be noted that the UN report found that the sarin was of an exceptionally high quality. One might be tempted to call it "Breaking Bad" quality. In anycase, it put the stuff Saddam Hussein used to shame.

It also comments on the delicate question of stabilizers, saying:
According to the reports received from the OPCW-designated laboratories, the presence of Sarin, its degradation and/or production by-products were observed in a majority of the samples. In addition, other relevant chemicals, such as stabilizers are indicated and discussed in Appendix 7.
The question of stabilizers rises to the fore when it comes to fixing blame. The presence of certain chemicals such as stabilizers typically separates somebody's "homebrew" sarin from the military grade stuff. Wikipedia has this to say on the question of sarin and stabilizers:

Its otherwise-short shelf life can be extended by increasing the purity of the precursor and intermediates and incorporating stabilizers such as tributylamine. In some formulations, tributylamine is replaced by diisopropylcarbodiimide (DIC), allowing sarin to be stored in aluminium casings.
Like rocket tubes.

In Appendix 7, under the heading of "Other Interesting Chemicals" found in their tests, is listed, along with a lot of other long names, one identified as Diisopropyl. I will leave it to the chemists to ID this and the others but I would say that the implications of this aspect of the UN report is that the attack was done with a military grade of sarin gas and that points to the Assad Regime.

There is also the matter of trajectory. In the case of two of the rocket landings they examined, the UN investigator were able to make a determination as to which direction they came from. Unsurprisingly, they appear to have come from regime controlled territory.

Trajectory of rocket that hit Ein Tarma. Showing exact location of Rep Guard base

Human Rights Watch Map

Russian rockets carried the sarin gas

Moving right along to Appendix 5, we have a discussion of one of the two types of rockets used in this attack. The other type appears to be Syrian made:
Appendix 5

Munitions recovered in Moadarniyah and Zamalka/Ein Tarma

Observations and assessments from Moadamiyah findings:
The team began the investigation of an alleged impact site which was initially located in the backyard terrace of an apartment building. The information given to the Mission was that, in and around this building, persons either died or were affected by a toxic material after coming under attack via barrage on the 21 August 2013. The members of the Mission discovered, at this location, a small crater/impact point in the stone tiles which formed the floor of the terrace. Stone and earth debris were scattered outside of the crater as well as small metal fragments were visible in the locality. Of primary interest was the intact rocket motor found coincident to the impact crater. This rocket motor was noted to have stone and earth debris impacted in the front section of the motor identical to that found in the crater. There was no indication of damage around the crater area having been caused by blast or explosives. This implies that the warhead was not present upon final impact. Noting the location of the impact crater and other damage to the upper parts of existing knee/trellis work, the inspectors followed the trajectory of the rocket and determined that it initially impacted the corner of the second floor of an adjacent apartment building to the east, with either the warhead functioning or shearing off from the body at that point and the motor section having sufficient kinetic energy to continue along its path to its terminal impact location.

Following an overall reconnaissance of the area, the members of the Mission took samples, made detector readings (no detection indications on the LCD 3.3) and took measurements of the area and the discovered munition. The scene was photographed and video was recorded throughout the entire activity.

Upon further discussion with alleged witnesses, the team moved to the adjacent apartment
building where the initial debris from the first impact/functioning of the rocket was found. The Mission was told that the inhabitants of this location were also injured or killed by a `gas'. This location was also surveyed and no intact identifiable munitions fragments were located. Masonry debris and smaller metal fragments were noted and relevant samples were taken both inside the apartment where victims were alleged to have been as well as from the debris field.

The ordnance identified had the following characteristics:

Color: light gray painting

1. Black numbers on the outside: 97-179
2. Engravings on the bottom ring of the engine: Г И Ш 4 25 - 6 7- 179 K Dimensions:
Length — 630 mm
Width — 140 mm

The engine had 10 jet nozzles ordered in a circle at the end of the rocket with a metal electrical contact plate in the middle.

The time necessary to conduct a detailed survey of both locations as well as take samples was very limited. The sites have been well travelled by other individuals both before and during the investigation. Fragments and other possible evidence have clearly been handled/moved prior to the arrival of the investigation team.
Graphic from UN Report
The United Nations report doesn't tell us where this rocket was made, for that we must turn to other sources. They do give us a hint by pointing out the Cyrillic script on the bottom of the engine casings.

Dr. Igor Sutyagin, Research Fellow, Russian Studies, with the Royal United Services Institute, has a video report on-line that identifies the very Siberian plant that the rocket body was made in. I have transcribed the part of his talk that relates to the rocket's source below the video clip. I'm sure "sheep-shin-moss" is not the correct spelling of the plant. My Russian ain't too good, so if you can help out, please leave a comment. [Thank You Brian O.]

[0:04:50] And the final piece is that marking "179." The Russian technical manuals on the M14 rocket says that is the marking of the plant which produced the rocket section body and that is located on the same part of the rocket body as was found in Damascus.

The American sources agree that. They also show this marking although they do not specify the meaning of the marking. That is very interesting to notice that the Russian armed forces still possesses the artillery rocket of the M14 type based on the M14 rocket body. Still possess it and just recently the Russian Ministry of Defence displayed them for journalists. I can show you the picture from the journalist tour on the Russian cruiser Moska in the Black Sea Fleet on a stopover on the 21st July of 2011. You can see the rockets PSP47 which utilizes the same rocket part as the M14 and I'd like to attract your attention to the fact that one of these rockets carry the very same marking - 179. So that is the same marking, actual marking, it is not false.

And the interesting fact about these markings on these rockets is that it was designed and assembled in CIS by the Institute of Applied Physics and nearby there is the plant called Sibselmash that is the Siberian Agriculture Machinery Plant, which is known to be the largest in Europe artillery/munitions plant but the most interesting part about that is that since 1936 Sibselmash plant had another coded name and that name was Combine No.179. So it seems that the rocket found on the Russian cruiser, as well as the rocket in the Damascus in was at some time produced in Sibselmash.

Lost in this focus on chemical weapons is the fact that Bashar al-Assad has done, and continues to do, the vast majority of his civilian slaughter without chemical weapons. He deserves to be overthrown for his many crimes against humanity even before his slaughter of over a thousand in Ghouta with sarin. This is the demand of the Syrian people.

But instead of increasing support for his ouster, the Obama administration is now partnering with the Assad Regime in a deal with the practical implications that if the regime gives up chemical weapons, the weapons of greatest concern to Israel, Obama won't trouble it with military strikes while it continues to slaughter its own people with the more acceptable weapons he used to kill the first hundred thousand.

This is the deal with the devil that Obama is making, with Russia as the guarantor of Assad's performance. And what has been the Russian performance?

When, for three days, the Assad Regime denied that a chemical weapons attack had even happened in Ghouta, the Russian media said the video tapes of the dead and dying were all studio fabrications.

After the Assad regime was forced to admit that the attack had taken place, it blamed the attack on the opposition and the Russians have been saying the same thing.

The Russians are also partners in this toothless deal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons and even after this damning UN report, they still maintain that the Assad Regime didn't do it.

Meanwhile, Assad's conventional rockets keep falling on Ghouta without missing a clip, or making the news.

And now we know that the rockets that carried the sarin gas, although not necessarily the gas itself, came from Russia.

Putin is in to this deeper than I thought.

UPDATE 18 Sept 2013:
The Siberian Times carries a piece today validation that this rocket body was made in Russia but also claiming 'The code 4-67-179 means the 4th batch in 1967 by factory 179'. The Russian source says that the Syrian government would never use something this old but blogger Brown Moses, who closely tracks weapons on both sides of the Syrian conflict, notes "They're still using cluster munitions from the early 70s, so 1967 isn't much more of a stretch."

Click here for a list of my other blogs on Syria


  1. Great post Clay. This combination of evidence seems "compelling" as they say. The transliteration of the Siberian weapons plant's name would come out as something like Sibselmash (a contraction of its full name)

  2. This "compelling" evidence compels what? Obama's previous "red line" compelled unilateral tomahawk attack? What is your unstated recommended response? And what would be its likely effect?

    1. There's been so much bs on this subject that its "compelling" just to get the facts straight. Then maybe we can have a sensible discussion about the response.
      Obama's original proposals are useless - just a well-signalled gesture. An astute MP in the British House of Commons debate pointed out that it was basically lifted from the script of West Wing.
      Personally I favour the provision of serious weaponry (anti-aircraft; anti-armour) to the opposition forces. But I'm open to suggestions.
      Anyway, it doesn't really matter - Russia and Asad have got the US neatly sown up in this "chemical weapons convention" farrago.

    2. You're not one of these people who believes the conclusions should determine the facts are you?