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Friday, February 10, 2017

What Happened in Homs, December 23, 2012?

The First Bodies Tossed Across Obama's "Red Line" in Syria, Part 2:
What Happened in Homs on December 23, 2012?
Adam Larson aka Caustic Logic
February 11/12, 2017 

    The first two real-time reports of a deadly chemical attack came at about the same time, in late December, 2012. These came from the government and from the opposition, each blaming each other for two separate incidents, one in Damascus and one in Homs. 

December 22: Just Lies?
    The first incident was reportedly on December 22, in Daraya, in the southwest Damascus suburbs. There had been a report on the 6th of poisonous gasses "thrown" by government forces in Daraya, with no word on casualties (presumably no deaths). That was the first noted CW-related claim following US president Obama's December 3 re-iteration of his "red line" threat/offer. 16 days later, pro-government sources reported, a group of Syrian soldiers was in Daraya and had toxic gasses fired at them. It's said the shells produced a greenish-yellow cloud (like chlorine, or like the type of sarin to hit Khan al-Assal the following March). Within less than an hour, seven of the soldiers had died. (that's too vague a time frame to say if chlorine/etc. or sarin is more likely, but an informed probe later decided the former, a non-persistent irritant, was used) (ACLOS

    The report was mostly ignored, dismissed as Iranian propaganda (Press TV's report is the most-seen), and/or eclipsed by the following day's events. The alleged attack of December 23(ACLOS page, under revision) might offer a glimpse of the Syrian rebel CW false-flag industry, with a relatively ambitious true start after the weak first effort of the fall (see part 3 for the very first bodies we know of being tossed - upcoming). 

Dec. 23: First Reports
    Clay Caiborne's compiled tweets and articles. - cites Al-Jazeera reporting "Seven people have died in Homs after they inhaled a poisonous gas sprayed by government forces," citing activists. ABC News (Australia) cited the famous Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reporting "six rebel fighters were killed yesterday on the al-Khaldiya-al-Bayada frontier by a poisonous gas" The SOHR's even-less-credible UK-based rival Syrian Network for Human Rights weighed in with "reports from three eyewitnesses on Sunday" he passed to NBC News: "He said field doctors in Homs were seeing patients “losing consciousness, experiencing severe shortness of breath and vomiting.”

    One activist reported to Al  Jazeera "medics are saying it's something similar to Sarin gas," while an Australian ABC news report translates the doctor as saying "It's definitely a poisonous gas, but we don't know what type it is ... It is definitely not sarin." 

    From the start, experts agreed, and decided something less serious and perhaps non-lethal was responsible ... except maybe for the dead people? With years to sort it out, the picture is not much clearer. So let's see if we can clarify it here.

Two Stories from State Dept. Contacts
    This is a little complex, and perhaps a good to go way is outline how the various claims line up with the two distinct versions of events handed to the US state department consulate in Syria. Foreign Policy Magazine's The Cable reported in mid-January on a released State Department cable that showed the competing cases and contradictions. 

    One group of contacts basically described the nerve agent sarin. That kills instantly in small doses, and marks a straight line to a war-worthy CW claim. 

    The other sources, seeming a bit more credible and more trusted by the consulate, suggest a usually non-lethal incapacitating agent was used. It could be the agent dubbed "BZ," invented by the US military during the Cold War, or in regional context, the purported Iraqi-made imitation "Agent 15," or something akin to those. For shorthand, I'll used BZ. As I gather, this causes confusion, delirium, muscular relaxation or paralysis, and maybe strange behavior. It was designed to make an enemy incapable of fighting for a time, but without killing them. Apparently Syria was using it, and it can be fatal.

    Here are the cases in some detail, citing The Cable, with supporting claims from other sources.

Homs doctors/BASMA* describe sarin: A colorless but pungent-smelling gas was released, in 3 areas (Old City, Bayada, Khalidiya), at night, using an unclear method. They said "most victims had pinpoint pupils, also known as miosis," and it responded to atropine: "two doctors in Homs ... said that they used Atropine on the victims and that it improved their conditions, which would mean that BZ was not the gas used," and sarin might have been. 

-- Supporting: Raji Rahmet Rabbou, an activist in Homs, told Al Jazeera "We don't know what this gas is but medics are saying it's something similar to Sarin gas." But the effects reported include "nausea, relaxed muscles, blurred vision, and breathing difficulties," which is not very consistent.
-- Supporting: Mousab Azzawi, chairman of the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights and a doctor, told NBC News that his organization had received reports from "field doctors in Homs" and ""to our understanding, this is similar to poisoning with pesticide," he said, although he was not aware of any pesticide that could take the form of a gas." Sarin is liquid and forms a vapor or mist, if not a gas, and is similar to pesticides, an organophosphate.
-- Supporting: "...but two doctors who treated victims on the scene told The Cable that the gas was colorless but that several victims reported a pungent odor." (colorless describes military grade sarin, but is unlikely to be described reliably, in a confusing night-time attack, and more likely to be made up - a pungent odor IF from sarin means it's not military grade stuff)

-- Against: videos show no one with sarin symptoms, like miosis (pinpoint pupils) or the messy SLUDGE syndrome.  One man's pants are soiled, but only at the knees, from when he collapsed in the mud.

* BASMA = an opposition media project. The name means "fingerprint," as this news report explains, and it's "run out of an office in Istanbul where Syrian activists write and produce reports for a Facebook page and the Basma website. A promotional video explains the goals of Basma: "to support a peaceful transition for a new Syrian nation that supports and guards the freedom of all of its citizens." The Website has since died, but the Facebook page still exists in 2017.

Consulate contacts/SLN describe BZ:
This version has a white cloud causing, as a Syria Life News  Syria Life News (SLN) reporter told the consulate staff, symptoms including: "burning eyes, temporary blindness, relaxed and numb joints, unresponsiveness, nausea, unconsciousness, difficulty breathing, and temporary paralysis affecting the spine." "The consulate’s contact also reported that most victims had dilated pupils, which contradicts the account the two doctors." One contact told the consulate "Atropine worsened the condition of the patients ... which would be consistent with the theory that a BZ-like compound was used," and would basically prove it wasn't sarin. Both the breathing problems and the eye irritation might be unrelated to BZ itself, but seem to come in conjunction with this symptom set.

-- Supporting: SOHR cited white smoke  but symptoms were: "severe dizziness and headaches, some even suffered from epilepsy" which sounds different.
-- Supporting: the field doctor who decided "it is definitely not sarin," maybe after treating with atropine and finding it made the problem worse.
-- Supporting: Dr. Al-Fida, CNN: "labored breathing, disorientation, hallucination, nervousness and lack of limb control."
-- Supporting: "The Local Co-ordination Committees also reported the use of "bombs containing gases" in Homs. "These gases lead to muscle relaxation, severe difficulty in breathing and the narrowing of the iris..." (which should be a dilation of the pupil). (AFP via news.com.au)

- Against: I don't think BZ is known to tear up the respiratory tract like we see (below) or like described, causing breathing problems, nor is it known to burn the eyes. This could be impurities, additives, or a separate gas loaded into a second shell/grenade. Somehow, this may be two poisons mixed.

Differences on Delivery Device
    Two methods were reported to the consulate. The Cable: "Initial reports said a regime ground vehicle was the delivery method, but later reports said a number of short range missiles were fired into rebel-controlled civilian areas, the cable states." BASMA "couldn’t confirm the delivery method because the gas was dispersed at night and caused mass confusion," and perhaps there was no incoming rocket sound.  It seems both claims came from BASMA, requiring the confusion note. Apparently they didn't like the original story, so that ground vehicle version is of some interest.

    The SOHR heard the white gas came from a "grenade," apparently tossed by hand, and likely from that "regime ground vehicle." As ABC reported, SOHR said "[It] discharged white smoke and would disperse quickly once the grenades were thrown by regime forces. This weapon is unidentified and has not been used before."  The original statement is apparently in Arabic somewhere, quoted in a few news reports, but using different translations. Some say these were "bombs," or "canister bombs," or "grenades" is used in two cases. All agree these bombs were "thrown" (not dropped, launched, or the like), so that they "hit a wall," and it was "during street battles." None of these cites a vehicle involved, so apparently SOHR didn't hear about one. But still, that's my guess.

L: Mystery grenade from April 29 incident. R: JaN policeman spots one
    The munition is not shown, neither rocket nor grenade. But if it's the latter, it might look like this mystery grenade used in chemical attacks five months later, in April, 2013. These were at the time never-before seen. Rebels said they were dropped from a helicopter by regime forces on at least two deadly occasions But otherwise they're used exclusively by Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, as far as anyone's seen. The pro-rebel blogger Eliot Higgins (aka Brown Moses) had to acknowledge this on May 8 when he was sent the photo shown at far right. No one knows where they're made, but Turkey seems likely. (ACLOS)

    These known sighting were in northern Syria, Aleppo and Idlib provinces, again in April, 2013. Could they be used in Homs this early? Well, after the above link to al-Nusra was noted, along with the strange helicopter story and other story problems, rebels in the Damascus area showed a number of these grenades on video, on May 24.  What luck! These were just then captured in Irbeen, they said, from government forces (who allegedly got them from Iran). Brown Moses was pleased. There's no proof they didn't actually borrow these from their local al-Nusra friends.

    Government ownership claim aside, these grenades might be spread wider in space than thought, and maybe in time. This might be what was used back on December 23, as part of the operation anyway, tossed not from a helicopter but from a moving car or truck - a "regime" one, of course.

    Whatever the poison(s) or delivery method(s), both of the consulate's info streams seem to agree the event was singular, it was done by the regime, and it killed a total of seven people.   "BASMA and SLN contacts reported to the consulate that seven people were killed by the dispersed gas and 50 more victims were treated in a field clinic."    

World Reaction: Up and Down
    The story was initially greeted with much enthusiastic "worry" that "Assad" was about to get "himself" bombed. The timing of this matches the later report that the Saudis flew someone to UK in winter 2012-13 to be tested for sarin exposure (Wall Street Journal). This is the most prominent alleged attack NOT by rebels, among a very few such known incident in this span. That would mean the subject was allegedly connected to this alleged sarin attack.

    But for all we know, he's a Jihadi who volunteered to sip (slowly) some diluted sarin, to get their positive result with minimal side-effects. And no clear sarin connection was found, or was never publicized anyway. And it seems this attack was probably not done with sarin - at least, not the parts we've seen.

    Some incident involving a chemical gas is widely credited as happening, but experts in Israel and the West at the time swiftly decided it was nothing important. No banned substances were used, and the event did not constitute a crossing of the "red line" set by President Obama. As NBC News reported on the 24th "The gas is thought to have been a concentrated irritant, but not one of the deadly chemical weapons stockpiled by the regime of Syria president Bashar Assad." 

    After a couple of weeks to look into it... experts decided on a "super-strength tear gas" or a riot-control agent, or something, was responsible, somehow. A Dr. Abu al Fida, "who treated about 30 of the approximately 100 people who were affected by the mysterious gas, told CNN for a January 14 report how, as they put it, 
    People who were further away from the source suffered labored breathing, disorientation, hallucination, nervousness and lack of limb control, al Fida said. But those closer to the source of the gas had much more severe symptoms, including paralyses, seizures, muscle spasms and in some cases blindness, he said. Six people were killed by the gas, the doctor said.

Fatality Questions
    Six people died. Or seven. As an official told CNN: "if you breathe in an entire canister, that can have a severe effect on your lungs and other organs."  But why would 7 men each stand there and inhale a whole canister (as the example goes)?

    The question is especially sharp here; As an article at Medscape states flatly "By definition, incapacitating agents are nonlethal. BZ has a high safety ratio. The dose required to produce incapacitating effects is roughly 40 times less than the fatal dose." It  seems very rare, as in, it makes little to no sense these 6-7 people died from it. 

    If they had, the article suggests it would be through hyperthermia (overly-high body temperature), or some zany and dangerous behavior (not in 7 cases). And these are only somewhat possible, after a ridiculously high dose. Such a thing could make sense if we propose it happened in a small enclosed room. But no one has proposed that, and even if you had someone in a gas chamber, why would you opt to use BZ instead of, say, the exhaust pipe from one of your trucks?

    Anyway, if this gas or vapor was spread at random, from a rocket or grenade, it makes no sense to alleged that was BZ. Maybe that was fired somehow, but it's probably not what killed anybody. So far, there's no good explanation offered as to how they wound up dead. It seems like an opposition top secret, lidded over with a couple of failed explanations, taped together with general apathy. And so the issue sat for just a few weeks.

Failed Revival
    But after March 19, 2013, the picture changed abruptly. On the 20th, the Syrian government was demanding an investigation into a fairly obvious terrorist chemical attack the previous day. It seems Syrian soldiers and civilians they guarded were the targets, and at least 20 were killed. States opposed to Syria's government immediately demanded other incidents had to be probed as well, and this was one of two added first. On March 21, representatives of France and the  UK informed the Secretary-General about it, and the next day Qatar also reported  it. So they had to insist on looking at this, and a March 19 attack in Damascus area, as equally urgent as investigating Khan al-Assal.

    More allegations, fresh ones and cold cases, were added into the summer. This plus more slowed the process, but it did continue, and in December, 2013, the UN and OPCW managed to issue a report (PDF). Having by then 16 alleged incidents to look at, they found seven were credible enough to weigh in on, and four of those were lodged by the Syrian government against the foreign-backed militants.

    For the other nine claims, all added by pro-rebel states,  "The United Nations Mission did not receive sufficient or credible information" to declare much of anything, with months to send it in, and after several visits to Turkey and Syria by the mission. These probelematic or too-vague allegations included "Homs on  23  December  2012," and the other urgent first addition, "Otaybah on 19 March 2013." For these nine incidents, nothing further was said.

    And so the issue has sat for the last three years.

The Victims Assessed
    With no secretly-submitted evidence from member states, just what's publicly available, how much credible information can we see? To start, as usual,we'll lean away from words and focus on the visual record, as well as getting a little more specific about who died vs. who lived, and things like this, which sometimes helps see the shape of an alternate narrative that's likely closer to the truth than we ever got at the time.

Surviving Fighters
    I don't think I ever really watched the videos until, now. First, survivors in the clinic, mostly or all fighters, or all adult males, anyway. 

The choking is real: blood in the airways
     One video shows a particular young man suffering genuine-seeming problems breathing. like a fish out of water, eyes wide, gulping breaths, leaking fluids at times - needs the nebulizer,. In another one, we see more patients,  2:35 does not want the inhaler, gulping breaths, strange behavior 2:50 red face, red, teary eyes staring, they each get their eyes rinsed. This video shows the victims have blood in the lungs or airways - drainage tube is inserted through the Islamist's nose, and is soon filled with pink froth (screen grab at right). 

    Suggested: an irritant, causing eye irritation as we see, and the tissue damage in the airways behind that choking. Some patients may also display a delerium or paralysis as with a BZ-type agent. And so this is a better fit than sarin - no SLUDGE syndrome evident - the consulate/SLN version above seems to explain what happened, at least, to the men in this group, if there was also a nasty irritant involved.
State Department cable
All (SLN and BASMA) agreed the contested chemical killed seven people. They would disagree on how that happened, physiologically, since they disagree on the poison. But that doesn't matter. They agree it was the regime.
    The seven dead were buried and videos of their burial "clearly show the absence of visual injuries," the cable stated. 
    They will have suffered chemical injuries, which often leave signs. Which of the two versions, if either, did these support? The question was dodged.

    Here, we'll take a bit of a look at what seems like a third and different case... I'd like to compare these to what a BZ or Agent 15 death look like - could not even find a source. But I can't say the clinical signs are wrong, since I don't know what to look for. What does an atropine overdose look like? That was said to be tried, but worsened the symptoms. What if they worsened to the fatal point? I may come back to this.

The Fatalities
    As noted above, there's a little variation and vagueness in the reported death toll. First of all, it was known and reported from the start, and only rose, if at all, by one victim. The SOHR heard at one point 6 people died, and they were all rebel fighters. Others said 7 died, and they were simply people.
VDC query: 7 victims
    All these are adult males, no women or children were effected that badly, with this random-dispersal rocket strike.  The SOHR heard there were 6 dead rebels, but by this, one is a rebel fighter, and the other six are civilians. As far as I know, it's not explained how and why these guys all wound up together with those surviving fighters, nearest to the rocket's impact, or whatever.

    In fact, it's reasonable to presume these were all fighters, likely gassed by the government, in a way that should have been non-fatal ... so okay, it's still reasonable to note that this is odd. The SOHR heard that, but then everyone else seemed to agree it was just people. Even gender isn't usually given. I initially presumed these were fighters, and the issue therefore didn't seem as urgent. But looking back after learning more, I urge caution with that conclusion. The SOHR claim might have been a guess, not based on any clear info. These might be (mostly) non-militants, who wound up dead in this militant-run area.

    Also from the clinical signs they exhibit, it's not clear they ever did wind up in the same spot as, or suffer the same poisoning as those fighters. It's not even clear that all these dead guys died in the same manner and place as the rest. I think we have at least two different poisons here, and at least two, and likely three or four different pools of affected people. Considering the two different stories of what happened, and noting both might have (sort of) happened, we might now be glimpsing a third and/or fourth segment to the day's chemical shenanigans. This is where the actual deaths happened, in at least one manner that's worthy of some thought, considering the lack of a good explanation thus far.

* Alaa Asad al-Hasan "al-Sharkse"  Non-Civilian, from Bayada, merchant and member of "FSA" - Known as (Abu Asa'ad al-Sharkasi), "Martyred as a result of exposure of toxic / chemical gases thrown by military forces, leading to suffocation. reports to be validated." Video (still at right) - notes: possible eye damage, yellow color? Minor burns or bruises on the forehead? Otherwise, nothing obvious. Clearly, he's been washed for burial, so any mucous, etc. is gone. I have no guess what killed him.

VDC name check (Arabic) "Al-Sharkse" seems to be a fighter nickname; it only appears with 3 entries, all fighters - the other one from Homs was with Jabhat al-Nusra, killed in 2015. 104 Hasans from Homs. That's too many too look at right now. Most recent before him: a misplaced SAA soldier killed in Damascus. What if they were related? Could that - and failing to be clear about it - land this guy in some Islamist gas chamber? It's possible. And that's just a thought exercise.

* Bassam Abu al-Rous civilian, from Rabee Arabi Neighborhood, age 25, unmarried, student. An image of him alive shows him in Saudi-style robes, holding an AK-47 as if firing it) Video (still at right) - notes: mild cyanosis? (purple color - usually shows especially in the lips), and the color seems a little splotchy. Clearly, he's washed for burial, but possible mucous traces remain in his nostrils.

VDC Name check: (Arabic) - 6 al-Rous from Homs to die so far, most with photos. He and the two before all sport beards and the checkered headscarf, others appear Islamist and tended to die with FSA. Others look secular/beardless, and died under torture in regime prisons, date unknown. Hmmm...

* Ehab Asi civilian, from Bayada - video - (still at right) - notes: purple color, in patches? Staining? Bruising? Cyanosis? Possible eye damage (puffy lids). He doesn't seem washed, but no sign of fluids. His hair might "stick up," as if he were hanged upside down for a while and it crusted that way. It may not be an important point here, but it's a real phenomenon I'm watching for, and it's something no Assad missile can do to people who wind up gassed in a rebel-controlled area.

VDC name check: Arabic search - from Homs - 14 total, all civilians except the last two, in 2015 and 2016 (the usual vague "FSA"). It says the civilian majority mostly died in one-off shelling and shooting (by the regime side, of course), but a 42-year-old Asi woman and 85-year-old Asi man were singled out to be massacred by pro-government NDF militias, in Karm al-Zaytoun, 2014-04-09 (VDC lists 15 Homsis field executed this day, previously missed at ACLOS)

* Saber Mando civilian, Bayada - video -  (still at right) - notes: same color issues (cyanosis?), mostly across the forehead. Hair may "stick up," in a crusted way. The victim is fairly thin, may have been ill or deprived of food for a time prior to dying, but maybe he was just a thin guy. Starvation and illness/neglect can easily get extreme when someone is stuck in an Islamist group's dungeon, for example.

VDC lists 33 killed from Homs province with this name. Through 2012 several Mandos were killed in some of the grimmest Homs massacres, with one centered the family of a doctor named Mando, in February. Then there was this sole CW victim in December, then in 2013 some Mandos with the FSA start dying in clashes. Then later Mando civilians around the Houla-Rastan area die at random from "warplane shelling," because rebels are in charge there, as those elsewhere hardly get listed (order is mostly restored in Homs).  

The other three fatalities have no videos or photos.

* Unidentified, civilian (this is likely the 7th person the SOHR didn't hear about, and it seems maybe no one got a name for.
* Ahmad Walid Hamadi, civilian
* Satouf Ibrahim Hamadi, civilian

   It's interesting that the last two have the same family name. This is common, and probably means they were related. The different middle names suggest different father's names, so they're cousins, not brothers. Cousins sometimes might join the opposition together, but here they wound up together in this small pool destined to die. 

    They may have even joined, or tried joining, some rebel faction. But maybe the issue was their refusal to join, or their family at large - and if so, then also these other families - running afoul of someone, having the wrong religion, etc. Maybe some men were kidnapped, then at the right moment, gassed quietly and logged as CW deaths, and used as the first corpses publicly tossed across Obama's Red Line.

    The overall video record suggests: resp. irritant and maybe BZ on the surviving fighters, maybe the same or different for the one who died, and something else, more acute that causes cyanosis, perhaps in a gas chamber, for the civilians.

    Finally, two thoughts on the numbers: In relation to the alleged December 22 attack in Daraya, where 7 soldiers were killed. One possible readin of the Homs incident is it was the government's revenge. A decent script would have sarin, not BZ, in the active role. But it might help clarify the tit-for-tat impression if exactly seven people died in "revenge."

    Then I note we have a record  - a questionable one - of one rebel and 6 civilian males, for seven dead in an Assad CW attack. Almost the same formula emerged in the Otaybah incident in March, but the rebel-looking man was also listed as a civilian, and the last male was a baby and added late. The inclusion of a fighter and otherwise all adult males reported adds to the impression they must all be fighters, who "got gassed" or gassed themselves on accident, and maybe it's not clear or a big deal, and we move on - that's how I felt at first. Glad I was spurred to finally look closer.

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