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Sunday, October 15, 2017

Saraqeb Sarin Incident: The Magic Grenades

Saraqeb Sarin Incident: 
The Magic Grenades
October 15, 2017
(rough, incomplete) 
edits 10/16, 10/18

(incident: alleged sarin attack, April 29, 2013, in Saraqeb, Idlib province. partial background: A Closer Look On Syria talk page, main page that might finally get filled in soon)

While clarity is pending, my analysis along with Pmr9 suggests the lone fatality of this attack, Mariam Al-Khatib (as given), suffered a rather massive dose of sarin. That could require some explaining when such a small amount was deployed, and it seems no one else suffered serious or any exposure, despite symptoms (real and/or claimed). The more extreme the poisoning, the less plausible it is by the activist narrative - the most extreme doses can best be delivered up-close, but not easily with a dropped bomb or other remote delivery as alleged.

In this case, a strange weapon was allegedly dropped right inside the front gate of the Khatib family's courtyard. Note rubble on right side and towards the camera - this might suggest it flew in from the left, whereas things from helicopters fall straight down. The view seems to be facing north, so perhaps this projectile was fired from the northwest? It didn't explode, it seems to me, just hit the pavement with some weight and displaced some dirt beneath.
clockwise from top left: map from UN report w/note, best view of that home from Google earth, BBC view, app. firing line?

What could help explain a massive dose (for the locale, not for any one person) is early morning with cold air, at a home tucked into its own little hollow, or inside a walled courtyard, with no wind. The sarin vapor, which would behave like fog, would stay pooled at maximum concentrations and evaporate only slowly. The home has a walled courtyard, but otherwise those  best conditions aren't met, and only one person there suffered serious exposure. Maybe it sprayed her right in the face when she got too close? It's possible.

The UN's Dec. 13 report S/2013/735
"Weather information from Idlib on the afternoon the 29 April 2013 shows the temperature to be between 34°C and 33°C at 1600 hours (worldweatheronline.com), with  no  clouds  and  a  north  to  north-east  wind  at  4  to  5  miles  per  hour."

That's Idlib, not Saraqeb some distance away. North-northeat should be wind origin, so it would blow southwest, away from the home, but perhaps remaining trapped in the walled courtyard. They could mean the opposite as well. I won't even look up which it shows, because worldweatheronline uses computer models that only sometimes approximate reality - it's not worth citing for something this important. Further, wind barely matters here where it's all allegedly at one home

All we can say is it was mid-afternoon in late spring, so almost surely too warm for ideal sarin conditions - it would evaporate faster than the ideal. The report seems to agree: "In  those conditions, chemicals like Sarin would disperse quite rapidly, especially considering the small volumes allegedly used, while  migrating  a  short  distance  in  the  direction of the wind," which is not actually known. So it would evaporate or dissipate and be less harmful than expected, although the alleged impact is close enough to the home that these issues don't matter much.

But the ultimately fatal dose observed in Mariam Al-Khatib was allegedly from "smoke" released in her courtyard from this munition - an unmarked white plastic hand grenade they showed to explain the incident. One man handles it with bare hands. It's now said this another copy of the weapon, or a similar one used for illustration, not the exact unit responsible. The exact allegation at the time is unclear to me.

The smoke it emitted is described as white, but the smoke stains on this unit are black. Heat is suggested too, whereas burning level heat would destroy fragile sarin molecules - they need a cool dispersion, like fog. As for quantity: one unit could only hold so much sarin, but it's alleged two of these - or similar - were used at each attack site (see below).

The same style of grenade was allegedly used once before, in an April 13, 2013 chemical attack in Aleppo district of Sheikh Maqsoud. The sprawling Kurdish-majority district was just overrun by Islamists headed by Jabhat al-Nusra when this grenade fell into an apartment building, after allegedly being dropped from a helicopter, killing 14 (4 women and children reported right away, 10 men barely mentioned later). US tests later claimed to identify sarin in this incident, despite the initial lack of indications by symptoms like gillettosis - shaving cream applied to the face (ACLOS page).

Otherwise, the device was unseen and unknown at the time.  After the 29th, its profile was raised, and was quickly matched to some photos of a Jabhat Al-Nusra religious policeman in the country's north. This was publicized by Eliot Higgins/Brown Moses, it should be noted, on May 8, 2013. It was sort of astounding. Was al-Nusra behind these events?

Shortly, an explanation appeared; the Assad regime had these things first. Non-Nusra but Islamist rebels ("Abu Dhar al-Ghafari Brigade") proved that by showing some they had, because they had just then found them on some soldiers they captured across the country in Irbin, Damascus. (May 23 video by Marwan the Umayyad, showing a chest of "booty seized by the heroes of the Free Army after defeating the Assad forces") On May 24 Higgins passed on this claim and seemed to buy it, it should be noted.
Add Oct. 16: Michael Kobs identifies some other improvised weapons siezed from the regime thugs in that video - matched to weapons Al-Nusra filmed themselves improvising (not verified, but looks pretty likely).

Later on, German journalist Alfred Hackensberger poked around inside Syria, using photos and questions to find a number of rebels and a defector to say the same, incrementally. At first no one knew, then some guys remembered JaN had them, or maybe it as another militia, but they weren't chemical grenades. Then al-Nusra people said they had them, having seized them from the regime, but they weren't chemical weapons, just smoke or maybe tear gas canisters. Then a defector (who admits running weapons deliveries at the Turkish border) appeared, and said he saw them used back in the army: Iranians sent them to disperse a nerve agent to "calm" the protesters, or so the common grunt was told. So if it turns out these things have something dangerous, it's the regime's and Iran's fault, not this smuggler's or Turkey's. At least this is what Hackensberger heard, as he pushed for an explanation and, I think, as one was fabricated for him. (his article in Die Welt (German), and credulous Brown Moses coverage - and see my lone comment) 

Eliot Higgins at Bellingcat revisited the case in 2017, with the same story he had in 2013 as re-hashed by the French intelligence report just released. On their end, it seems quite clear whose copies of the grenades were used in the attack. According to the (accepted) activist claims; they were packed into something like cinderblocks (or breezeblocks) - 2 grenades per block, somehow secured, maybe with an external box, and dropped from a regime helicopter. It's alleged three blocks total (six grenades) were dropped in this attack.

The regime has no reason to do this, everyone agrees, but hey ... Jabhat al-Nusra doesn't have helicopters.

Activists provided video for one of the three drops at the time, with James Miller alerting Eliot Higgins swiftly. This was accepted as adding to the picture; the bomb package glows and pours white smoke as it falls. Higgins thinks they lit the outer box on fire for some reason. But to me this is pretty clearly some white phosphorous being dropped, as a screening agent for some Syrian army ground operation (ones in the area were underway, at an air base a way away from Saraqeb). It would look exactly like this. Look up videos to see.

Hence, there's no supporting video of this cinderblock drop. Is it that hard to admit? That reported drop might have happened anyway, or quite likely not. The grenades, smoke, poison - whatever part was physically true - may have gotten in the Khatib courtyard or Mariam's bloodstream in this way, or in some other way. But it is problematic how three alleged drops in broad daylight somehow didn't get filmed.

Higgins maintains even now this is the weapon falling, but he acknowledged to me in 2013 (comments) "this doesn't seem to really match with a Sarin attack ... The more I think about it, the weirder it gets." Maybe after a few years of not thinking about these details, it got to seeming alright again.

He credits the French intelligence report (presentation and report, English versions) for clarifying things. This was released in 2017 to bolster the case for government guilt in the Khan Sheikhoun incident. It does add some details I haven't assessed fully, claiming to link two exact grenades to the attack, and to have found 60% pure sarin inside them. They show two units, top from the Khatib family home, broken into pieces, and bottom from another impact on the edge of town.

Both appear a bit different from the kind shown at the time, and perhaps different from each other. Both appear slightly curved, they think, because they fell from a helicopter. The top image is especially unclear, second-hand. Also lest we forget, they say there were two grenades per brick, and the French report claims 3 weapon drops that day. That means we're only seeing 1/3 of the claimed units here.

The main thrust of the report was to let France claim that Khan Sheikhoun was a regime attack, because it used the same exact kind of sarin used in Saraqeb, which was ... an especially clear case, in their minds? From that case, the French spooks learned the Syrian government's method of producing sarin. The clever buggers! It was uniquely devised and "involves the use of hexamine as a stabilizer." It's suggested the Syrians invented this process and remain the only people in the world capable of using it.
"The  presence  of  the  same  chemical  compounds  in  the  environmental  samples collected  during  the  attacks  on  Khan  Sheikhoun  on  4 April 2017  and  on  Saraqib  on 29 April 2013  ...  produced using the same manufacturing process ... Moreover, the presence of  hexamine  indicates  that  this  manufacturing  process  is  that  developed  by  the  Scientific Studies and Research Centre for the Syrian regime." 
That was "formally  confirmed  by  France," the report itself states with authority.

Hexamine is made to sound like some DNA fingerprint level clue meaning Assad did it. But it can in fact be from several things, like the small explosive opening charge on a CW munition, or sarin made with the same process but by someone else, or even manufacturing or burning plastics in the area. This is partly explained at Washington's Blog, where Dr. Ake Sellström (former head of UN-OPCW CW invstigations in both Iraq and Syria) acknowledged this, and noted "the phrasing in the (French) statement is clever." Science, of course, isn't about being "clever."

Anyway, it was apparently the French report that led Higgins to summarize:
... it is now clear that this attack was the deployment of sarin as a chemical weapon by Syrian government forces against a civilian population ... one question remains. Why did Syrian forces use sarin in such a bizarre way, ... we are yet to understand exactly why the attack took place in the manner it did.
Of course whether it even did happen that way is a far more important question, among  the many questions that he doesn't mention.

Just considering opposition sources, there have been two other earnestly-offered explanations (original articles all pulled now, but documented here at ACLOS). .
* barrel bombs filled wit TNT and sarin was dropped from a helicopter, "each poisoning an area of one kilometer in diameter," while "a third barrel" didn't blow up but spread phosphorus "to cover up the Sarin" (which would be destroyed already by the TNT). "Phosphorus is used in fertilizer, so they could have claimed that the people were poisoned because of an agricultural accident." Hm. Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat reported this.
* Others said a helicopter  "dropped bags" to disperse "dust particles, causing 14 suffocation injuries." Turkish sources at first spoke of "some 13 victims of an attack that included white powder." (PRI) Elsewhere, two people were killed" (who's the other?) "and 20 others were injured Tuesday when planes dropped bags of suspected chemicals in Idlib province, al-Jazeera reported." (UPI) If the Al-Jazeera report was in English, it's was apparently pulled. I'll check Arabic. <add 10/18>found it, Arabic, April 30, Google translated: "Two people were killed and about 20 injured in the town of Sarqeb in rural Idlib after the warplanes dropped bags containing what they described as foreign materials..." The word for bags also translates as "tanks" (in the article) but bags in the preview. Isolating it, it's the same word in both:  أكياسا A Bing image search shows handbags, mainly. The two dead could be the two seriously affected (one of whom later died at the Turkish border) misreported as dead. But here it sounds like they died in Saraqeb.<end 10/18>

* So it's basically "whatever, but from a helicopter," or maybe from "planes." Heck, it could have been scud missiles, just something only the regime has. That part is clear.

But if we accept the grenade story, we have to accept these others weren't telling the truth. But then if this class of activist produces multiple false helicopter-based stories, why believe their other helicopter story? 

And the Syrian government had an unusually-detailed counter-claim involving  ... yes, terrorists and ... hostages, barrels of poisonous liquid with incapacitating fumes, and/or plastic bags of white powder people had "thrown" in their faces near the southern entrance into town, and people rushed to Turkey just to get test results. (ACLOS)

Every story here is weird. The event almost surely was weird. So which story seems closer to likely?

Why is it bags of powder the most agreed version, between Syria's, Turkey's and some of the opposition's sources?  Eliot Higgins early ran on the notion that "canisters" of powder and grenades were used, showing this pile of white powder with some solid, caked-seeming chunks. This is how first reports sounded, but soon the BBC-backed Ian Pannel story of grenade-packed cinderblocks emerged, and Higgins decided this is really the smashed block remains at an alleged impact site. This is by the highway at the southern entrance into town ... or actually I thought it was the north end earlier, hen I first looked. But it needs review. This might be where Syria's sources have powder thrown around.

Where's the same dust of smashed block in the courtyard impact shown above? (the outer boxes will be burned away, since they were apparently lit on fire to appear as glowing, the thinking probably runs).

Magic Grenades in Memoriam

Between its Aleppo debut and this second appearance, the ingenious brick-drop sarin grenade managed to kill a murky few civilians, and to make rebel accusations look bizarre and even silly, and to make the deaths look kind of like ... things the terrorists themselves were doing. Aha! Is this why the regime did it? Well, after doing such a good job of embarrassing the rebels, they must have taken off and had them appear all over, right?

No. This was the second and final attack involving this specific weapon. Someone put it into retirement, took a break, and then switched to large-quantity surface rockets, as blamed for the infamous Ghouta chemical massacre a few months later. Afterwards, that weapon too - and sarin attack allegations - were put to sleep for the time being, favoring chlorine from helicopter stories for 3 years. Now it's sarin again, in murky bombs maybe with chlorine, dropped from one guy's jet Quds1, and he's a friggin' Alawite who they say should die and maybe did.

After all this, I note that chemical scud missiles have really been underplayed so far. Might that finally spark an intervention? Will Assad just have to try it at some worst possible time?

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