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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Syria: December 2012 Chlorine Seizure Stories

Syria Chlorine Allegations: December 2012 Chlorine Seizure Stories
Sept 27, 2016
last edits October 27

I initially brought this up at A Closer Look On Syria, but finally expanded it the what follows.

Black Magic, Just Stumbled Upon?
Flag of Jabhat al-Nusra
Al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise Jabhat Al-Nusra (now trying to go by Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, not a formal Al-Qaeda franchise) is widely believed to possess and use chemical weapons, including both sarin and chlorine. From different reports and news stories, there are numerous points supporting this, and explaining how - smuggled in, made from precursors, seized from a factory ...less often, it's said the jihadists stole their CWs from the Syrian government's stocks. It's likely some of these reports are false, and others are true, and al-Nusra has these chemicals, quite likely independent of anything Syria ever owned....

A new and questionable revelation adds to or maybe tries to replace these previous stories:
Present at the Creation - Harald Doornbos and Jenan Moussa Foreign Policy Aug 16/17, 2016
and https://www.yahoo.com/news/islamic-state-seized-chemical-weapons-120434256.html

From part 2, on how first al-Nusra and later (by inheritance) Islamic State got their chemical weapons: it happened "roughly four months before the split between the Nusra Front and ISIS, in December 2012" (not an enemy split - they worked together on various massacres through 2013 before major infighting started almost a year afyer this). But at the time, JaN was a powerful force including everyone who would switch to ISIS). Islamist rebels led by them had taken Darat Izza, near Aleppo, over the summer, and had since then besieged the base of army Regiment 111, aka the Sheikh Suleiman base. 

The alleged witness Abu Ahmad said "The fighters knew that the base possessed ammunition and other weapons, but did not know in advance it contained chemical weapons." This helps clarify they couldn't even possibly be seeking chemical weapons. Once inside, to their surprise, they found "mainly barrels filled with chlorine, sarin, and mustard gas." This must have been according to labels, not field testing or assessment by experts. The article continues:
What followed was the distribution of the war spoils. Everybody took some ammunition and weapons. But only the Nusra Front seized the chemical weapons. Abu Ahmad watched as the al Qaeda affiliate called in 10 large cargo trucks, loaded 15 containers with chlorine and sarin gas, and drove them away to an unknown destination. He did not see what happened to the mustard gas.
"Three months later, both the Syrian government and rebel groups reported an attack in Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo...."
This attack of March 19, 2013 (ACLOS) apparently involved both chlorine and sarin. I understand they don't mix well, but there were several rockets, at least one each probably delivered each chemical separately. The only basis for chlorine is a reported smell, but that's good enough. However, it's secondary to the sarin apparently also delivered - Syrian and Russian tests showed sarin in the dead, and the large toll and manner of death (dropping dead on the spot) are far more consistent with sarin than with chlorine.

Point is, JaN or an ally probably fired that, ... with chemicals obtained somewhere. The new article strongly suggests it was from materials seized from the 111 regiment base. It's a compelling twist, and gaining some acceptance. As well-informed Syria commentator "b" noted at Moon of Alabama not long ago, casting some doubt on another report:
The explanation of Die Welt reporter, that al-Nusra Sarin's was different from Syrian government Sarin, is also dubious. According to a recent extensive report based on interviews with an al-Qaeda aligned "rebel" in Syria, al-Qaeda acquired the Sarin from a storage facility of the Syrian regime when it conquered the Syrian base of Regiment 111 in late 2012. This was before the split of al-Nusra and the Islamic State. There would thus be no difference between "regime Sarin" and "al-Qaeda Sarin".
Previously, several clues have suggested a distinct and important difference between the sarin types. So far all tests on sarin used in the war seem (by direct findings or by awkward silence) to be non-professional grade, not government stocks, un-stabilized, impure, and with a short shelf life. But it's been used consistently from at least March 2013 to February 2015,  with Syria supposedly surrendering its own stocks in between. That certainly shouldn't be tossed just because of this new claim, as tempting as that might be crafted to be. This could be the valid clue some will take it for, but it could be disinformation. My causes for doubt and the reasons seem worth sharing here. 

First, how they didn't even know about CWs as they gunned for the base is plausible enough, but also a convenient claim - it was not the motive of Jihadis to find and seize chemical weapons, which makes it basically "Assad's" fault for having the stuff lying around, because "he" was using it already against his own people. Once stumbled upon, this is a potent magic some would be tempted to use, That's not obviously a good enough reason to fabricate a story, but perhaps one of a few motives. It seems helpful to some people - as the article notes:
Dutch-Turkish jihadi Salih Yilmaz justifies the use of chemical weapons in response to a question posed to him on his blog and responds to a critique of the Islamic State by saying the jihadist group seized its chemical weapons stockpiles from its opponents.
In other words, "As long as someone else criminally used it first, we can criminally use it once we take it."This really might be worth fabricating a story over.

Why Would it be There?
I have little to say at the moment on mustard gas. It was recently used, by Islamic State, against Kurdish civilians in Aleppo, as the UN-OPCW investigation confirms they did a year ago. Then it was used again with less effect against US-Kurdish-coalition forces in Iraq. Why Syria would have it laying around in army bases is unclear. It's apparently the "research center" they claim...

Sarin, briefly; this is allegedly available by one or another of several avenues (precursors in Turkey, smuggled from Libya, from Iraq, etc.), with no need to seize more ready-made. But of course, they'd take it if they found it.

But chlorine? At a weapons research or just storage facility? It's accepted by many they do use it, but this is supposed to be reality-based claim, and chlorine as a weapon still makes no sense. The opposition frames it as a "psychological torture" that could be countered by education, or a "no fly zone," and they prefer the latter.

And the government always said it was careful about its possible CW stocks, not to let them get in jihadist hands. And that only makes sense, right? This base was under attack for months - the area was conquered in August, but not the base - evacuating people and material might be difficult after this, but not before. Yet three months later, they've still got these deadly chemicals - sarin! - sitting there to be found as soon as it's all overrun? And they never, for example, used them against the attackers?

Dec 9 report (The National.ae), said the base was largely conquered "yesterday." So on December 8, according to SOHR director Rami Abdel Rahman said. "The rebels took control of Regiment 111 and three other company posts located inside the base after fierce fighting overnight, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. "Two rebels and one soldier were killed, while five soldiers were captured. ..." This was the final capture, with only some mop-up remaining.

As for where this alleged research center was - looking at the area on Wikimapia, it almost has to be amongst the underground bunkers. Otherwise, the base area looks like simple army terrain with nothing but a few sheds and dirt roads. Externally, only  the Hammiko company grounds just to the west could be some kind of real facility.

December 2012: Chlorine Galore!
The timing of this alleged seizure of sarin and chlorine - in December, 2012 - was enough to ring a bell, even without a clear date. As it turns out, the base seizure was apparently on December 8. With that in mind, some parallel developments:

Early December: a Sunni extremist chemist - or someone posing as one - kills two rabbits with chemical gas on a disturbing video (posted December 5, California time) with a "wind Isber chemical battalion" (stern wind is my preferred translation) using chemicals from a Tekkim company, based in Turkey. It seems he uses hydrochloric acid and potassium permanganate to synthesize chlorine gas inside the sealed plexiglass cage, killing the rabbits within a couple of terrible minutes. They promise this fate to Syria's Alawites, then leave it looking like a possible hoax, and it was mainly ignored. Except, perhaps, by Syria's Alawites, etc. ... (see ACLOS analysis)
The chlorine reaction in the "Isber wind" video - yellow-green color just barely noticeable
The timing of this release, in context, raises questions. It could be to say hey, it doesn't matter where they get their chlorine, just as they were reportedly getting it in a big way.

AFP reported, via Israeli Ynet, December 8, 2012:
"Terrorist groups may resort to using chemical weapons against the Syrian people... after having gained control of a toxic chlorine factory" east of Aleppo, the (Syrian) foreign ministry said...  The ministry was believed to be referring to the Syrian-Saudi Chemicals Company (SYSACCO) factory near Safira, which was taken over earlier this week by militants from the jihadist Al-Nusra Front."
Israeli National News reported on base seizure, not knowing of an alleged chemical aspect, adding:
The report of the takeover came hours after the regime of President Bashar al-Assad said that Syrian rebels had gained control of a toxic chlorine factory east of Aleppo.

However, the spokesman who issued the statement was sacked within hours for making statements that “did not reflect government policy,” according to Beirut-based Al-Manar TV, linked to Iran-backed Hizbullah terrorists.
"Earlier this week" would be between Dec. 1 and 8, more likely the second half but not "yesterday," so Dec. 4-6. Note this.

the SYSACCO factory taken by Jabhat Al-Nusra in 2012
A fascinating report on the plan seizure: The Mystery Behind a Deadly Chemical Attack By Aryn Baker, Time, April 1, 2013. Following the March, 2013 chemical attack in Khan al-Assal, Baker interviewed Mohammad Sabbagh. "[A]s the owner of Syria’s only chlorine-gas manufacturing plant, Sabbagh knew that if chlorine was involved, it most likely came from his factory."

In August, she heard, "rebel forces took Sabbagh’s factory by force, as part of a sweep that also netted them an electricity station and a military airport about 30 km from Aleppo." From exile in Beirut, Sabbagh " says his factory is now occupied by Jabhat al-Nusra," taken over by agreement presumably. Sabbagh says the plant was no longer producing chlorine, but that could have changed. As of 2016, the al-Safira area and this plant are back in government hands. But at the time it mattered, there was a lot already made.

Add October 27: Previously missed video, via Syricide - incomplete panoramic view including more than half of those shows. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZV0V60DYOE (around 10:50) thanks to FriedmanWo 

"[Sabbagh] has no idea what has happened, if anything, to the 400 or so steel barrels of chlorine gas he had stored in the compound. ... "There is no other factory in Syria that can make this gas, and now it is under opposition control,” he says. Faris al-Shehabi, head of the Aleppo Chamber of Industry “We warned back then that chemical components were in the hands of terrorists, but no one listened.”
Further, we can note it got in the hand of those terrorists, by their decision, about a day or two after Obama issued his red line offer a second time to show he meant it, on December 3. Al-Nusra takes over the chlorine plant probably between December 4 and 6, then the first clearly-reported chemical attacks of the war emerged on December 6 and 8, then  Dec 22 and 23, with both sides attacking/blaming each other.
These were far from Aleppo, in Homs and Damascus. But ... at least one of these attacks apparently used chlorine, deployed by rebels, that reportedly killed seven SAA soldiers. That was in Daraya, Damascus suburbs, on December 8. The same day Syria decries a dangerous seizure of chlorine in Aleppo, other terrorists kill their soldiers with the same stuff clear across the country. What does this mean?

Considering Both Stories
Some will wonder if the government claim of the SYSACCO plant seizure was a lie - knowing their base with the chemicals was overrun on the 8th, they quickly highlighted just the chlorine part, blaming the chlorine factory, which, it seems, was also taken over at some point ( we don't know when, and if Sabbagh's claim is a lie, we don't know if it was occupied at all) The motive would be to keep any heat off themselves. That's possible, but I don't think it's likely.

Let's consider where chlorine was reportedly seized  the factory vs. the base overrun just after- some distance northwest or southeast of Aleppo, which is itself a big city.
The two places JaN allegedly seized chlorine gas in early December, 2012

So, Dec 4-6, Al-Nusra comes in possession of the biggest concentration of chlorine in Syria, maybe 400 tons - useful, but only so useful - as a weapon. Then on the 8th or so, as they check out the overrun 111 base and allegedly stumble upon sarin and mustard gas... they feel a need to send extra trucks to pick of some more chlorine, perhaps even having to leave behind the mustard gas?

This could make sense just to have some closer at hand in this theater. The distance is great enough you might not be able to truck any over from Safira easily. But motive would be relatively low, so this part of the story is dubious

The initial reports mentioned five soldiers were captured and,  per the SOHR (that is, according to claims lodged originally by the Islamist fighters) they were saying "140 of their men had fled to the scientific research centre on the base," perhaps to guard the unknown chemical weapons. Does this lend support to the new claim, that it was true all along? It might. But it might be an untrue claim.

Maybe the interrogators feeding the prisoners their lines (or just making the lines up?) wanted us to know they might claim to finding unspecified CWs there. They probably knew that would include chlorine, as al-Nusra was on its chlorine-gathering spree and others were synthesizing it, with intent to use ... here they have soldiers in their custody sowing clues that this might all be "Assad's CWs" to begin with. They say some 140 soldiers had retreated here to guard it. Maybe some 140 were massacred and dumped in a spot to help prove the point. 

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