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Sunday, December 9, 2018

Talmenes Chemical Incident, 21 April, 2014

2014 Chlorine Attacks {masterlist f/c}
Talmenes, 21 April
December 9, 2018
(rough, incomplete)

This was the one clearest incident of five 2014 CW attacks considered by the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) in their Aug. 2016 report S/2016/738

"52. The launch of a projectile from the ground would not explain the 200 to 300 victims suffering from chlorine exposure. .." Why not? If it falls from above before releasing, there should be no difference, if the device holds the same amount in either scenario. Further, as the commission noted, it's not really clear that many were actually affected. "While the exact number of patients could not be definitively established, it is obvious that large numbers of people were affected by toxic chemicals." And that unknown number is definitely too big to be cause by anything but chemicals dropped from a government helicopter?

Of the 5 considered, three were ruled inconclusive (Gamba interview), and by its treatment in the report, 18 April sounds more like those than it does like the solid and well-founded 21 April attack here. So this is the clearest it got.

Here in a December 2014 report from just the OPCW, it's one of a slightly larger number of considered attacks.

They heard about 200 people were affected and three were killed; the OPCW and the opposition VDC agree, it seems a brother and sister from one home (or a man and his child, or just his child) and an older woman dying in the second barrel bomb impact, with a scene that appeared poorly-staged to the OPCW's consulted experts...

The Attack Sites and Fatalities 
A sketched map from the December report - barrels dropped, it seems, just a stone's throw from the minaret. But that likely means nothing (I don't think locations matter much here, but I will double-check this detail at least - the coordinates are given in reports).

"The family living in the first house lost a seven-year-old boy, who died within a few hours of exposure, and a teenage girl, who died on the third day after exposure.  The other family members were also severely exposed ... Though the seven-year-old boy was some 15 m from the point of impact of the barrel bomb, there were no signs of physical trauma on his body, which had developed cyanosis and, as explained by interviewees, “turned blue in colour”.  The Mission was provided with a photograph of this dead child; the body lacked any signs of physical trauma."

There's a dispute over the deaths here: Point # 20 explains how the Syrian government "provided the name of the owner of the house that had been targeted … The name corresponds to the name of the owner of the house at location #2. The Government had stated that this person had died in the attack; however, this person was interviewed by the FFM several months after the attack..."
or, as point 51 clarifies, again, the government says the attack at site #2 "killed the owner (name provided) and his child. However, a witness interviewed by the FFM later identified himself as this person (i.e., the owner of the house and father of the child that died in the attack)." 

The government heard one man and one child died, but the accepted story is two children and no adults, with the reportedly dead man as one of their sources. One could presume the government's information was wrong or a lie, or perhaps that interviewee was an imposter, and perhaps neither of the children that were reported were even from that house.

"In the second house, the family members who were home at the time of the attack and inhaled the toxic chemical suffered from severe medical effects and required medical care.  The matriarch of this family died as a result of this exposure on 25 April 2014, in a hospital outside the Syrian Arab Republic."

"Photographs and/or autopsy records of the seven-year-old boy and the teenage girl from the first house, and of the elderly woman from the second house, were provided to the Mission.  The Mission was also provided with autopsy-related records for these purposes."

This was one of four fatal chlorine attacks in this span, at least as I noted back in 2014-15, and the only one of those four where the victims were from the town they died in (per VDC listings). The others are all from other towns, "displaced" to a spot that wound up being right under a helicopter dropping 'chlorine barrel bombs.' They all tend to be the opposite of the usual fighting-age adult males: almost totally women and children. That's just as suggestive of segregation as with hostages. "Displaced" might be the way they report these people, probably with made-up names to conceal their true identities as, for example, Alawite civilians kidnapped from nearby Ma'an in February.

VDC: all Idlib CW deaths in this span = 3 total from Telmenes.
* Mahmoud Abdul Razaq Hashash "Nawas" child-male, age 7, died 4-21 "Martyred due to exposure to Chlorine gas which was contained in a barrel bomb shelled on his house, delivered by the government helicopter"
2 delayed deaths in Turkey, both listed on April 25:
* Maryomeh Abdul Razak al-Hashash"Nawas" child-female, age 14, from Telmenes, "Martyred with her brother due to exposure to Chlorine gas which was contained in a barrel bomb shelled on their house on 21-04-2014, delivered by the government helicopter"
* Khadiga Mohammad Barkat, A-F, Telmenes, Martyred with due to exposure to Chlorine gas which was contained in a barrel bomb delivered by the government helicopter on a house on 21-04-2014

I have several sources on this, but still working on a readable format. I open it advance just to be anchored into finishing that. And if anyone has info past those reports, the VDC, and these further sources...



Videos: https://syrianarchive.org/en/collections/chemical-weapons/database?unit=38dc338&incident=TMI210414 

"A Reuters photograph of another young boy who had been transferred to a hospital closer to the Turkish border showed him lying dead on a stretcher with blood around his mouth. Medics said he had been exposed to chlorine gas at Telminnes. Videos from the site of Monday's bombing showed the same yellow canisters, this time twisted from an explosion." 

I have this photo - it's available on searches. Here's one at the primary source:

The boy has eyelids pulled open wide, no red eyes, as usual for chlorine exposure (and as reported to the OPCW). But a lot of red-pink coming out his nose, soaking into the gauze across his mouth, and suctioned up a tube from his airways, as if he breathed in something caustic. Why it was breathable but didn't affect his eyes seems strange, but it wouldn't be the last time we'd see that. His torso is oddly yellow in color. I don't know what that could mean, but it's notable. It's said he turned blue, but if so it was after this medical intervention.

Attack Site Details
Location #1
The problems here were noted and discussed in July, 2017 by Philippe Lemoine
...here is how the report describes one of the videos, in paragraph 26 of annex IV:
The forensic report further stated that the remnants seen in v04 [a video provided by a witness] are not likely the carrier of the explosives that caused the crater (“pit”), since the device would have fragmented at the top and sides dispersing into smaller pieces, like the remnants in v04. The munition would only have carried a small amount of explosives and could not have caused a crater of this size. In addition, the bodies of the dead animals seen in v04 look clean and intact, making it highly unlikely that they were in the backyard or at close vicinity when the device causing the crater detonated.
This screams of a scene that has been tampered with, but the authors of the report don’t even point that out explicitly. Instead, they merely conclude the discussion of the evidence about this impact by saying that, “as a result of these inconsistencies, location #1 was disregarded for further investigation”.

"Indeed, their conclusion against the regime is based entirely on the second location, where another impact was observed. But as the report itself acknowledges, “given that v02 [another video provided by a witness] has been taken two days after the incident, it is possible that the remnants may have been moved from the initial point of impact”.  (It should be noted that v02 also documents the impact at the first location, so the witness who provided it also shot a scene that was clearly tampered with. He may not have been aware of that, but it obviously casts doubt on the reliability of that video, a point that is not even discussed in the report.)" 

Moving remnants is the main reason other incidents were left unclear. It doesn't do much to suggest initial planting, just removal after the first videos. As seen below, the animals are gone too. 

The conclusion that the regime is responsible for the use of chlorine at this location is entirely based on the fact that the Syrian government’s explanation for what happened at this location, unlike the allegation by the rebels, was deemed inconsistent with the evidence shown in v02. In other words, the regime was asked to prove that it was innocent and, when it couldn’t, it was declared guilty. The investigators in charge of this case evidently have a rather unusual conception of the burden of proof…

Lemoine then discusses seized chlorine from  Aleppo, possibly moved here - more specifically, SyGov had "barrels containing chlorine gas" and unknown chemicals stored in two specific homes in Kafr Zeyta the OPCW should look into, but they were prevented by the side with apparently fake videos.

In fact their expert felt a buried explosives might explain that crater:
"24. According to the forensic expert analysis, the crater (“pit”) in v02 and v03 is caused by a detonation, but the origin of the detonation is probably an explosive charge of 5 to 10 kg TNT-equivalent buried in the ground."

It's not clear why someone would do this, bury explosives in someone's barnyard, and then detonate it. I'm no expert, but an explosive warhead that goes off late after it hits the soil might look similar. There is a possible direction to the dirt piling, towards the raised side, but that's mild or perhaps my imagination. But note below how much soil is just missing. No simple thud caused that. Much was blown far up and drifted some distance before settling across the neighborhood. This huge crater does require a blast that wound up leaving no marks, as if a bunch of dirt absorbed most of its violence. 

Of course animals with no wounds would be taken as victims of the gas, not an explosion the opposition's story doesn't even include. Did they all come out of the barn and the coop just to flop over dead or like the chickens, tumble down into the crater? That seems possible, but this scene doesn't line up anyway. That evident blast would probably vaporize or disperse any toxic agents too much too have any effect.

As for the unharmed animals: the December report's appendix 25 shows a dead cow from location #2 that doesn't help here (top), then in the middle, a goat and half the crater from site #1, from rotated video, but there flipped backwards from the actual video. The bird is I think also from location #2.

Below is my location #1 view from 2 videos: left rotated frames taken from street side. right + below, details on the dead animals around and in the crater. The black-and-white long-haired goat (or some kind of sheep? an ungulate) may be foaming from the mouth, but that would be very vivid white foam, and thick. That can happen. Behind him is a door into a barn area with a sheep, a trough and perhaps a few more bodies, I forget. It seems mostly empty.

Next the bomb side - implicitly, it plowed into the dirt, then bounced up onto the raised platform on the opposite side, next to the tiny chicken coop, I presume, and some blue barrel, maybe used for water collection, but not blast damaged. Also I note odd symbols-writing on the concrete ledge. This might be a clue to who really lived here. Something says this indicates Druze faith, perhaps? Looks mystical, not a stern Takfiri kind of thing...

The actual device apparently landed somewhere after quite a flight or fall. It's a little hard to read, but involves outer casing with at least one big bolt, a yellow gas cylinder inside, something red...

"Metadata of V04 include timestamps that indicate 20 April 2014 as the creation date, one day before the incident. It is noted, that metadata depends on the settings of the recording device used and can be altered."

The alteration could go against the ones that did fit just as well. But they're right that this is inconclusive; a fuller set of data could show more or less reason for suspicion, but couldn't prove anything.

Location #2
Not as many issues here ...

Other Issues
Chemical Findings:
S/2016/738 August 2016
30. Samples taken two days after the event at location #2 were provided to an international newspaper. The results of a sample analysis have been published on
29 April 2014, stating that soil samples from Kafr Zita and Talmenes “were found by a chemical warfare expert to contain traces of chlorine and ammonia”.
... the details of the analysis and the chain of custody for these samples have not been established.
31. Another source had collected samples “in Talmenes at the end of April”. This source shared its analysis results, stating that chlorinated compounds, as well as traces of TNT, had been found in the soil and gravel. However, the source cautioned that it had no scientific evidence of the use of chlorine.
32. Another witness mentioned the presence of a likely foreign non-governmental organization which also took samples. The Mechanism did not have direct access to any of the samples.
52. ... According to a witness, ...  Despite a smell of “rotten eggs”, the witness did not feel any symptoms and did not see any injured people; just those in panic..."

S-1230, Dec. 2014
Strange symptoms caused by the "honey wax-to-yellow coloured gas" were noted as:
"burning sensation in the eyes; redness of the eyes; itchy eyes; excessive tearing; blurred vision; a burning sensation on the face and exposed skin; a burning sensation in the throat; coughing; difficulty breathing; shortness of breath; a feeling of suffocation; excessive nasal discharge; watering in the mouth; nausea; vomiting; abdominal pain; diarrhoea; headache; generalised weakness; drowsiness; disorientation; feeling of panic; and loss of consciousness."

Burning/irritation, coughing, some discharge is caused by chlorine. The rest of this is not. In fact few have noted the unknown second chemical in these 2014 chlorine bombs - a light-yellow powder in small plastic tubs. I'll be coming back to that.

One video shows many gas cylinders in front of a busy clinic, as armed men and civilians cough and transfer between vehicles frantically... this boy has a catheter in his right hand from prior medical treatment. But he's coughing and gasping badly. Some people take him off for a second round of help. Bottom view shows the yellow canister with a marking.

Government Story:
S/2016/738 August 2016
11. The Government ... an armed opposition group fired a projectile from Ma’ar Shamarin (south of Talmenes)
did not include any information on the use of chlorine gas or affected people.
32.  The Government provided a picture of the type of munition supposedly used at location #2. The munition shown in the photograph has a number of significant differences as compared with the remnants seen in the other pictures and videos related to location #2. That munition is rocket-propelled, with at least eight fins. No remnants of this kind were documented at the site.

20. The Syrian government "provided the name of the owner of the house that had been targeted … The name corresponds to the name of the owner of the house at location #2. The Government had stated that this person had died in the attack; however, this person was interviewed by the FFM several months after the attack..."
51. again, the government says the attack at site #2 "killed the owner (name provided) and his child. However, a witness interviewed by the FFM later identified himself as this person (i.e., the owner of the house and father of the child that died in the attack).
He had 2 children die - allegedly.

52. ... According to a witness, armed opposition fighters spread the information about the use of chemicals after the explosion, causing panic among the population. The same people also provided face masks to people and told them to leave the village. Despite a smell of “rotten eggs”, the witness did not feel any symptoms and did not see any injured people; just those in panic. The witness attempted to enter the hospital, but was denied access. The same witness stated that people who were referred to other hospitals came back to town two days later, with no visible signs of injuries.

12. Someone blamed ISIS/ISIL, saying they had a presence there the JIM found no information on, and tried to lauch a regular rocket from one of these homes, had it blow up and kill them with unknown chemicals. The JIM rightly dismissed this as an apparent politically-lotivated bad guess.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

2014 Chlorine Attacks and the OPCW's Loss of Trust

2014 Chlorine Attacks {masterlist f/c}
… and the OPCW's Loss of Trust
December 4-5, 2018
(rough, incomplete)
adds Dec. 9

The OPCW's Remote Investigation Approach
As everyone knows, when it's time to investigate frequent allegations of CW attacks in Syria, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons (OPCW) doesn't do site visits to opposition-held areas, where they're usually reported.

The OPCW were able to do proper on-site work and collect their own samples after the 2018 Douma attack, as the government gained control at the same time (they found chlorinated compounds, but no sarin in peoples' blood, or anywhere in the environment). But that switch in control being fairly rare, mainly they stay away. Following the April, 2017 Khan Sheikhoun attack, the OPCW visited the government-run airbase the attack was said to be flown from, but couldn't visit the stricken town, as they said, for security reasons. They relied, as they had before, on samples collected by others (in that case, by both the White Helmets and someone affiliated with the Syrian government, both confirming limited sarin presence).

Everything says this in not an official policy, but it seems to have become the effective one, held to perhaps 100% of the time in opposition areas (pending review, it's "perhaps"). This effective policy runs back at least to 2015, when an OPCW report (S/1319 - PDF) explained:

"Taking into account various constraints, such as the available time, geographical distribution, and security concerns … the FFM conducted off-site interviews with relevant witnesses and affected persons, and performed the off-site receipt of samples, records and documentation, as collected by others."

As such, they're left at the mercy of the gaps in what's handed in, with chain of custody issues and the possibility - I think very underrated - that someone will mislead them with manipulated evidence. They're often forced to remain unclear about the facts of an incident, although ways are found of infusing additional confidence of government guilt later on (see below).

The reason for this remote approach is not well understood, and remains open to interpretation. Early on, it seemed the Syrian authorities were blocking an OPCW probe they had first asked for (see here for a fuller explanation). But considering how the investigators finally got into Damascus just fine, time and again, security issues are probably the main concern. Maybe if it's fear of the ruling militants there, as many presume. Others might surmise that the worry is more like the regime barrel bomb attacks said to hit these areas on a daily basis. Those people should definitely keep reading.

Non-access has always been the norm one way or another, but was not always universal like it is now. Back in 2013, there were mixed and politicized efforts to access crime scenes including at Khan al-Assal, Aleppo, and in East and West Ghouta, Damascus. These high-profile cases of deadly sarin usage trip over each other in profound ways best skipped here (see above link for some of that optional context).

From August, 2013, there was a long pause in serious allegations of chemical attacks as the world community seemed to verify the destruction of Syria's CW stockpiles. Then new claims came across the wires between 11 and 29 April, 2014, of not-so-deadly chlorine barrel bomb attacks in the north of Syria. These didn't seem to involve sarin or any prohibited chemicals, but the use of even chlorine as a weapon still counted as adequate to spur a new OPCW deployment to investigate. Their Fact Finding Mission (FFM) began arriving by 3 May, and reached full-force and ready to go by the 18th. At the outset, it seems, the intent was still to conduct on-site work if possible. But before this mission was over at the end of May, they were done visiting rebel areas, it seems for good and up to the present day.

May 2014: from Deployment to Detention to Done
For the following, I heavily cite a report of the OPCW Technical Secretariat, S/1191/2014 - 16 June, 2014
Summary Report of the Work of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria Covering the Period from 3 to 31 May 2014

Fresh attack reports had been coming in all through April up to the 29th, but then calmed down; "Since the arrival of the FFM in early May, no further attacks had been reported." The report explains how the team was at full strength on 18 May. On the 19th they decided to investigate a recent alleged attack in nearby Harasta, on the 22nd. But fresh attacks across the country emerged just then. "However, on that same day (the 19th), allegations of a new attack on the town of Kafr Zeyta came to light. This was followed by another allegation on 21 May of an attack on the nearby town of Al-Lataminah."

Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya was one of those who ran one part of this story. Citing the opposition Hama Media Center, they reported 21 May on "more than 130 villagers" affected by "an alledged poison gas attack launched by the Damascus regime a day earlier." The victims reportedly "were all showing extreme difficulties breathing, including 21 children who were in critical condition."

<add Dec. 9> I had previously noted a fatal incident on 22 May, but in Tamanaah. again
A month of non-deadly attacks passes, then one more to consider here. OPCW lists 4 dead in this attack, with some detail:
"In another case, a mother aged 30 years, her sister aged 16 years, and two children (a five-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy) belonging to the same family died in an attack.  The autopsy for the male child aged four years was conducted on 23 May 2014 outside the Syrian Arab Republic.  The mother had died in the ambulance while being transferred, her sister died in Talmenes hospital, and the girl died at Saraqueb hospital."

VDC lists one of these only: Soad al-Alloshy  Adult - Female. From Hama: Soran  2014-05-22 Chemical and toxic gases Martyrdom location: Idlib:Tamanaah. "Cause of Death: Chemical and toxic gases. Notes: IDP, due to inhaling Chlorine gas which has being delivered by Arial barrels shelling, due to sever breathing problems"

If one member of this unfortunate family was chased out of Soran before dying in Tamanah, the others were too. Only the sister is clearly the case; the mother and the children aren't specified as being hers. But we have a woman, her teenage sister, two young children - as with the first attack, there are no correlating men or older boys listed. <end Dec. 9>

Further claimed attacks on 22, 25, and 26 May would eventually surface. Now these attacks would have to be probed as well as those in April. Furthermore, they also heard an alternate version of this 19 May incident, from their hosts in Damascus:

"46. In a letter dated 25 May, the National Authority of the Syrian Arab Republic informed the FFM that, on 19 May, an armed group had tested a “locally made rocket with a gas cylinder warhead”, which had resulted in a toxic release. The letter also claimed that the Syrian Government had come across information on the existence of barrels containing chlorine gas in a certain house owned by an individual in the town of Kafr Zeyta, together with other unidentified canisters stored at another location. The Team was requested to inspect these locations when it arrived in Kafr Zeyta."

As the report noted, "all reported incidents took place at locations that the Syrian Government considers to be outside its effective control." They would need contacts with local opposition militants, "in an atmosphere of mutual trust and confidence," for effective work and in fact "safe access and passage and/or escort."

Now, if they tried to rely on those agreements as they asked to inspect the site of an Islamist group's false-flag event … this could get tricky. It's not at all certain they would have the nerve, or would find anything by then - or what would happen if they did find that evidence. But that's impossible to test now, as they never got to Kafr Zita, nor any of the attack sites.

A visit to the Hama/Idlib countryside was planned for 25 May, but was postponed two days. On the 26th, "a day prior to the field visit, both the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic and the opposition confirmed in writing their commitment to observe a cease fire on 27 May 2014." Implicitly, they would all agree to not shoot at each other and endanger the mission. Certainly they agreed to not shoot at the mission directly, not even to blame it on the other side.

"48. The composition of the FFM convoy for the cross-line mission was six (6) armoured vehicles; four (4) of these were to cross into the designated mission area and the other two (2) were to remain at the last Syrian Government checkpoint with a Syrian Government ambulance.  The mission arrived in Homs from Damascus on 26 May.  On 27 May, it departed from the hotel in Homs at 7:10 and arrived at the last Syrian Government checkpoint at 9:20." See map at right; last checkpoint location is not clear, but somewhere north of secured Hama.

"49. From this point, an escort arranged by the Syrian Government led the OPCW FFM convoy towards the perimeter of the town of Tayyibat-Al-Imam, where he stopped, signalling the way to Kafr Zeyta, and then left, taking another road.  While travelling through the town, the team did not observe any unusual or suspicious circumstances."

"The convoy continued on the planned route towards the agreed point of meeting with the opposition escort, which was located between the Tayyibat-Al-Imam and  Al-Lataminah villages.  Approximately 1,000 meters of the agreed road lay ahead.  With a slight incline in the road, it appeared possible that the opposition contacts might not be visible. In order to overcome the visual disadvantage due to the terrain gradient and in order to establish a direct line of sight, the first vehicle in the convoy proceeded ahead, with the second vehicle waiting some distance behind and the rest of the convoy still further back. "

"At 9:35, the leading vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device, causing severe damage to the vehicle but no injuries to the occupants except for minor soft-tissue injuries to the left arm of the driver. "
(my emphasis.)

"50. After the occupants were evacuated into the other vehicles, the convoy made an effort to return to safety.  On re-entering the town, the first vehicle in this convoy was attacked with automatic gun fire.  While this vehicle managed to get away, some distance ahead from the point of the shooting, the remaining two vehicles were intercepted by armed gunmen and members of the team detained for some time.  Upon the intervention of the opposition group with which the arrangements for the visit had been made, all team members were released unharmed. "

People attacking and scaring off investigators, it's reasonable to suspect, are people with something to hide. It's possible the militants learned of that request "to inspect these locations" with the terrorists chemical weapons material when and if the FFM "arrived in Kafr Zeyta." If so,they might have been taken in as government spies. Luckily they were all released. But their mission was ruined.

"51. Given the circumstances and the loss of time, together with the approaching deadline for the end of the cease fire, the field mission was aborted and the team returned to Damascus via Homs."

The team continued its work as possible from Damascus, but it didn't take long. Their in-country activities ran from 3 to 31 May before the team wrapped up and went home. The first report cited so far was finished in jut over two weeks from there. It closes so:

"55. While field visits are not envisaged for the immediate future, these remain an option."  

- - - o - - -
<add Dec. 9>http://www.dailynews.com/2014/05/27/chemical-weapons-inspectors-attacked-in-syria/
 Chemical weapons inspectors attacked in Syria - Associated Press May 27, 2014. This raises doubts about the reports at the time, with a question answered by the above details.
"The circumstances of Tuesday’s attack were unclear. Syria’s Foreign Ministry initially reported that 11 people, including six members of a U.N. fact-finding mission and their Syrian drivers, had been abducted …  As the team reached the nearby government-controlled village of Taibet al-Imam, the government said it was unable to provide protection beyond that point but the team decided to continue without Syrian security forces, according to the statement."

"A roadside bomb then hit one of the team’s vehicles, forcing the passengers to move to another car and turn back toward Taibet al-Imam, the ministry said. The ministry said only one vehicle arrived in the village, which is under government control, a fact that might have caused Damascus to issue the statement saying the rest had been abducted."

"Syria’s state-run news agency SANA later said the members of the fact-finding mission were released. It was not immediately clear why the government said members of the team had been abducted when the OPCW said all were safe." (because they were abducted, but then released, and were then considered safe.)
<end Dec. 9>

The Crudely Made Weapon
How many attacks were there on the FFM's slate? One large and inexact list is at the valuable Syrian Archive website's CW video database:
* KafrZita , Hama on 09 May 2014.
* KafrZita , Hama on 19 May 2014.
* KafrZita , Hama on 19 May 2014. (2 incidents listed)
* KafrZita, Hama on 22 May 2014
* Tamana'ah, Idlib on 22 May 2014.
* Kafr Zita, Hama on 22 May 2014 (3 incidents)
* Latamneh, Hama on 23 May 2014
* Tamana'ah, Idlib on 23 May 2014.  (2 incidents)
* Tamana'ah in Idlib on 26 May 2014 (elsewhere 25/26 May, overnight)

It's likely the OPCW is referring to these five 19 and 22 May incidents lumped as two incidents/reports on 19 and 21 May. If so, it means this is part of the cluster they were going to investigate, if not the one the government claimed as using locally made devices.

Let's consider 22 May, in Tamanah. It's not one of the sites mentioned in the report, but shared the approximate date of one referred to. The location is closer to Morek on the above map - same basic area. 

Chemical attack on Tamana'ah, Idlib on 22 May 2014.
This incident likely to have occurred
Tamanaah - Tamanaah - Al Ma'ra
A chemical weapons attack appears to have occurred in Tamana'ah. One of the videos show remnants of the munition. Injured people in the video were being treated at Haneen medical facility. Videos show children affected as a result of this chemical attack.

<Dec. 9>As noted above, 22 May in Tamanah, four people were killed. Apparently not by this dud bomb - apparently two were "dropped" and one worked?</Dec. 9>

I haven't reviewed the several attached videos of civilian casualties. It's said to include many children. This is likely just a confused reference to the same attack(s) and victims as attached to one or another of the actual attacks in those days, and the only incident of the day could be the impact of a poorly-made dud of a chlorine bomb that's shown in one video.  

A lot of primacord. Pretty sure they built the bomb right in that courtyard.

As shown in the report - the same courtyard or semi-open area, and as shown below, the same crudely-made weapon. It's apparently loaded backwards: this is the tail end with the square hole cut in it (see below). The gas cylinder inside has its nozzle end pointing to the rear, instead of the impacting front end, which is distorted, but apparently didn't trigger the desired gas release.

(cropped; original show this plus the other view Kobs shares above, as Appendix 12 with the text: "A dropped barrel bomb that failed to function, as the point of impact was in soft soil.  The nose-end of the bomb has been blunted on impact.  The second photograph is the cross-section view of same bomb, showing the toxic chemical cylinder.  A blue detonation (fuse) wire is also visible.") 

It could be the device was just disassembled here, if it held a lot of blue cord. dirtier floor, sand neatly bagged up, cord set aside … He slips in and out of open smiles - is he just amused at the poor work of someone else, and the relief that no one died from this one? or is this also the smiling face of the proud maker? is this where the locally-made chemical "rockets" mentioned by Damascus were made? Perhaps even the same house with the barrels of chlorine? Or the other place with unknown chemicals? (note: it seems these were contained inside the barrel bomb as well, in little plastic tubs like the one at his feet here.)

Conclusion: It Never Happened?
These 2014 incidents were revisited in a 2016 report of the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (third report, August, 2016 - PDF). Upon that report's publication, JIM chief Virginia Gamba explained how three of the five incidents they probed were

 "...inconclusive – we cannot get sufficient information, or that there is information that is too contradictory for us to be able to continue with this – so there will be no further investigation in these three cases, that is: Kafr Zita (11 April 2014); in Al-Tamanah (29 to 30 April, 2014); and in Al-Tamanah again (25 to 26 May, 2014)." (UN interview, Aug. 30)

The ones the OPCW found clarity on were 18 April in Kafr Zita, and April 21, in Telminnes, Idlib. The latter was blamed for the death of a local family - thee others only killed people oddly listed as IDPs, besides predominantly child and female. That might be a sort of code for kidnapped people from different towns than named, like Ma'an, a nearby Alawite village from which about 80 civilians had been kidnapped in February.

The 2016 JIM report itself includes those three among nine cases under investigation, five of them from 2014, as follows:
Kafr Zita, 11 April 2014
Kafr Zita, 18 April 2014
Talmenes, 21 April 2014
Al-Tamanah, 29-30 April 2014
Al-Tamanah, 25-26 May 2014

Somehow in the shuffle, the 19 and 21/22 May incidents are no longer mentioned. They weren't specified as unclear, just never mentioned again after the June, 2014 report. The case with that odd device, the one with "21 children who were in critical condition" <dec. 9> - and the four deaths (2 young kids, a woman, a teenage girl) - </dec. 9> fell off the radar screen. Why?

The May attacks aren't listed as confirmed, and in fact the big gap in verifications starts after 29 April, 2014 and continues through early April, 2016, as seen in a graphic by the UNHRC's related Commission of Inquiry, and in a list run by the New York Times - both seeming to draw from the same big list with a gap nearly two years wide.

… But if it did happen, Assad did it
The first report, 1191 in June, had only said:
53. The attack on the Team and the resulting denial of access to the FFM prevents it from presenting definitive conclusions.  It is nonetheless the considered view of the FFM that the available information cannot be dismissed as unconnected, random, or of a nature attributable to purely political motives.  This information lends credence to the view that toxic chemicals, most likely pulmonary irritating agents such as chlorine, have been used in a systematic manner in a number of attacks.

In this blocked investigation, they decided to blame a systematic attack, if not specifically an aerial one as reported. A later report on actual findings, s-1230 in December, 2014 (PDF), explained: "Of a total of 37 interviewees, 32 saw or heard the sound of the helicopter over the village at the time of the attack with barrel bombs containing toxic chemicals." (my emph.) This is stated like a fact, that was deepened further in the 2016 JIM report:
"The Mechanism repeatedly requested flight logs, situation reports and other documents of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces from the Government. The Government has not yet provided them."
"After reviewing all the information gathered, the Mechanism found no evidence that armed opposition groups had been operating helicopters at the time and location of the cases investigated."
+  For example, Talmenes on 21 April 2014. "There is sufficient information for the Panel to conclude that the incident at impact location No. 2" because people said they saw a helicopter drop that bomb.
The government must have done it.

The possibility that those claims are false, that there was no helicopter, appears to have barely entered their thinking and to have been easily exorcised. There was such a flight in each case, and so the April attacks were considered to be verified, and were clearly the work of Syrian government. The May attacks would presumably be the same, despite the lack of clear findings, and however unlikely the overlooked details make that seem.

The helicopter *fact* meant none of these chemical incidents could have been done by opposition false-flaggers with chlorine, unknown chemicals, and some kind of "rockets" to disperse them. The OPCW's FFM was blocked from looking into that. The blocking was scary and had the effect of discouraging such "spying" in the future. The needed trust to go there in person had been broken.

And so the OPCW's ability to investigate properly was removed, by choice of opposition actors lodging the CW charges against Damascus. In fact this left the opposition's activists to largely run the investigation for the OPCW. It's disconcerting how those proxy findings - unverified stories, supplied "witnesses," and perhaps token-dose sarin volunteers -  continue to be credited to this day. That's the kind of trust that really matters, and it seems the Islamist opposition forces in Syria cannot break it, no matter how hard they try. They could blatantly gas ~500 hostages in a single night and execute the few survivors and still get away with blaming Assad; the evidence suggests they did just that with the Ghouta attack in August, 2013.

It might pale next to attack on and detention of the OPCW's FFM, but signs of staging in other 2014 chlorine incidents under study were also overlooked, in order to maintain this partnership in the war against Syria's government. In fact, with one of the two incidents they later accepted as totally clear, investigators had to acknowledge the two crime scenes were (at least) half fake. Next post...

Monday, November 19, 2018

"Some Type of Non-Persistent Irritant"

Analysis of the OPCW's Investigation 
into the CW Attacks of 29-8-2014 
November 19, 2018
(slightly rough)
(edits/adds Nov. 21)

On August 29, 2014, as reported by the government of the Syrian Arab Republic and alleged witnesses, opposition forces launched two chemical weapons attacks on Syrian troops in the Jobar district of Damascus. It was far from the first such incident, with some before and since confirmed by the OPCW as involving sarin. A list of 10 chemical attacks in 2014 (most seeming to use simple chlorine) was handed to the OPCW bodies tasked with investigating chemical crimes in Syria, including these two - but listed as what seemed like one attack, causing some confusion and the deletion of one of the incidents.

But just from what comes through in their December, 2015 report, we have intriguing clues this could well be another use or even two uses of the nerve agent sarin, even though some key indicators of that are lacking. It's clearly a substantial poison, but neither the OPCW nor anyone else has offered another guess that really explains the evidence. The report closes the case(s) with a sort of "who knows?" conclusion that, as I'll show, is not clearly founded in reason.

Syria's Request and Starting Point
The relevant report long absent from their site, made available by J.P. Zanders, then ACLOS,
and just now, correcting an ostensible error, at the OPCW site

17 December 2015
Original: ENGLISH

The OPCW's Technical Secretariat "received a note verbale from the Syrian Arab Republic (reference number 150, dated 15 December 2014, hereinafter “Note Verbale 150”) providing information about incidents involving the possible use of chemicals as a weapon, particularly chlorine." (The attack(s) under study is at least one exception using a substance they and I agree was not chlorine. Considering these in Jobar, and some vagueness about it, I also wonder about Jobar, 16 April.)

A table 1 lists ten attacks listed in NV150:

- these came over just a five-month span, April to September, 2014. As we'll see, it should have 11 incidents)
- A total of 92 casualties is attached, meaning affected - there were few or perhaps zero fatalities. As we'll see, there are some related deaths missing...
- for some reason (because it hadn't been mentioned yet?) NV150 mentions in passing the December 22, 2012 attack that killed seven soldiers (MMM ACLOS)...
- but it seems to exclude a late April 2014 attack (within the frame of others) that reportedly KILLED 70 soliders. That was likely because it was noted in an earlier NV 41 of 29 May, just a month after the incident. It's not mentioned by the OPCW in this report outside of tables listing Syria's complaints... apparently they didn't look into it at all. (ACLOS)

Of those ten dates, arguably the most important to Syria, the one agreed to start with, was entry 7 - as related, a singular incident in Jobar, Damascus, on 29 August, 2014.
"an agreement was reached between the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic and the FFM -the OPCW's Fact-Finding Mission] to focus initially on the incident reported to have taken place on 29 August 2014 in Jober. The fact that this particular event involved the highest number of casualties from among all of the incidents described in Note Verbale 150 served as the basis for this agreement."

This was one year and a few days after soldiers were attacked in the same district with sarin, just after the infamous Ghouta attack, on 24 August, 2013. The OPCW verified sarin in those soldiers' blood, without ascribing blame as to how it got there (see WhoGhouta). They didn't find for sarin a year later, but as we'll see, their reasoning is debatable.

The 2014 incident had the highest number of casualties of the 10 listed - 33 affected, no deaths.
But that single entry contains a glossed over earlier attack of to in the same day, in which (13?) soldiers were killed in the unclear mix of fighting and gas attack (see below, the deleted 4pm attack). Only two survived, both speaking to the OPCW's FFM, but having their story virtually erased; other than passing this on as a "discrepant narrative," the FFM did nothing, it seems, to look into this related incident, and always refer to the slightly later one when discussing the events of 29 August.

They reached agreements on interviewing soldiers busy in fighting (wouldn't always be possible). Witness interviews were arranged, etc. 38 interviews were conducted in June; 22 affected soldiers and 16 medical staff. Military and medical logs were reviewed, and they had one video provided, from an open source or "available on the Internet" (I haven't seen it, would like to, but have no idea where it might still be found). But "the FFM could not establish a firm link between this footage and the alleged incident."

Casting Doubt?
As the report reads anyway, the FFM picks for inconsistencies and casts doubt on much of the government's claims, in this case and others. Primarily, they point to medical records supposedly conflicting with witness statements. for example:
- "objective medical tests such as blood sampling and chest x-rays" were recalled, but "none of the medical records submitted by the Syrian National Authority contained the results of any such diagnostic procedures...." Were the tests made up? Withheld? Lost or deleted? Actually handed over but overlooked by the FFM in some ostensible error? Not clear.
- "According to the written medical records, all patients were discharged back to their units after a 24 hour admission. This introduces a discrepancy between the story provided by the soldiers wherein 50 % of them report a hospitalization of two nights or more. It is unclear why the two sources of information do not agree." It could be the medical reports were overly-rosy, or said "all" when they should say "most or "half"" - or they did say most or half and it was mistranslated. Unclear.
- While some mentioned excess salivation, others didn't, and reports of dry mouth differed as well; the FFM decided "this discrepancy is hard to explain."
- - On page 83 annex 2, interview extracts - a whole big, well-filled-in column for "narrative departures." It's not clear if they do this for opposition-provided narratives.

"4.1 The FFM could have been "more precise in its findings if further objective evidence, complementing what was provided by the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic, had been made available to the team. The FFM was not able to obtain hard evidence related to this incident, either because it was unavailable or because it was not generated in the first place. The lack of hard evidence precluded the FFM from gathering further facts in a definitive way."
Evidence apparently missing or not provided includes:
- reports on x-rays and blood tests
- Remnants of any ordnance, launching system, ... Unfired ordnance similar to that used
- Environmental samples ... including background samples;
- Comprehensive witness testimonies generated at the time of the
- military and medical reports were provided, but more "comprehensive" ones would have helped.

It sounds like a lot is missing, but that's not the only issue. An important supposed conflict was identified on the issue of consciousness and alertness. As noted below, about one in three of the affected soldiers reportedly blacked out and had to be carried to safety. But the FFM notes:
"While a considerable number of victims and medical personnel described symptoms like disorientation and loss of consciousness, these symptoms are not documented in the medical records ... (which) state that [the victims] were awake and responsive." 

They took this as a "discrepancy between the victim’s description of their status, the medical personnel’s description of the patients’ status and the medical records" which "may indicate that there is a significant degree of amnesia among the alleged victims, or may challenge the reliability of the records themselves." The alleged victims and medical staff did not likely suffer mass amnesia, innocently filled in with imagined symptoms. Either they were neurologically affected or - as this sounds like a soft implication of - they conspired to fabricate the story. Any such accusation was maybe cut short by the FFM's restrained professionalism. What else could explain this point?
"33. While it is not our aim to critique possible errors on behalf of fellow medical professionals, such inconsistencies are difficult to overlook when trying to establish a confident, scientifically valid, medical conclusion regarding the possible use of a toxic industrial chemical as a weapon."

A reasonable possibility they didn't mention is that this conflict is nothing more than varied subjective descriptions of the same thing; medics accurately noted the victims were all awake (by then) and responsive, just glossing over the disordered nature of some their responsiveness. The detailed accounts win on such details, and the reports, though lacking in some details, don't necessarily clash with them. It's not clear if the FFM had some better and legitimate reasons to be so skeptical, but there's little basis evident in the report.

Also note (Nov. 21 add): they say the accusation is of "the possible use of a toxic industrial chemical as a weapon," not an actual chemical weapon. It's doubtful the possibility as raised by Syrian authorities and witnesses was specific in that direction. But on what basis does the FFM probably alter that claim in this way? They didn't even offer a specific toxin, so how do they know it's some "industrial" chemical?

It will be easy for many observers to compile these questions into a basis to doubt the whole thing - the Syrians lied, but didn't coordinate it very well. Further, as we'll see, the FFM distort the reported symptoms and smells to dismiss the significance of what they claimed, besides glossing over an entire same-day incident with likely the same incapacitating chemicals and about a dozen soldiers actually killed.

The 6pm Incident

At about 6 pm local time on 29 August, a group of approximately 33 (also given as 30-35) Syrian Arab Army soldiers were preparing to advance on an area held by miltants. Before they could do this, someone launched two locally-made munitions that seemingly released the toxic substance in dispute, with "a very bad smell." "Some of the soldiers were indoors, while others were outdoors" when a total of 22 (or just 20?) swiftly experienced the symptoms described below, mainly breathing problems and diminished consciousness, with many of them reportedly blacking out. 
"About 1/3 of the victims lost consciousness on the site and can’t recall how they were taken to the first-aid medical point or hospital.'' 
The FFM notes since the devices affected so many despite being release in the open air, "the substance must be highly toxic in order to obtain the concentration needed to cause these dramatic symptoms."

But oddly, the FFM decided this was "some kind of airborne irritant." It "appears to have produced significant and varied symptoms." Too varied! Irritated airways do not cause widespread loss of consciousness, to start with. We'll come back to this below. Still, the FFM decided throughout that the symptoms are "consistent with acute, non-specific irritation of the mucosa and respiratory tract." "Consistent with" often means next to nothing. This seems to be one of those cases.

And besides, the whole thing is no big deal; "the effects had a short duration and resolved without antidotes or specific treatments." No patients stayed more than a few days, none had lasting problems, and none died. So no firm answers seem to be needed, which is lucky, as they decided none could be arrived at, due to the flawed evidence.

Just for background and possibly further research, the location given on the attached map is not really in Jobar, per Wikimapia labels, but a bit south of it in Al Maamouniye, at the edge of Souq al-Hal, (Wikimapiasome ways south of the Jobar attack a year earlier. "Soap factory" as given vs. "meat market" as lebeld on Wikimapia is considered a point of confusion, but is likely no issue; soap is made from rendered animal fat. Likely this vaguely-named facility is somewhere in the slaughter-sale-rendering process, usually ... At the time, it was some kind of militant base, apparently, maybe a place the militants really wanted soldiers to stay away from.

The Deleted 4pm Incident

Other than the cited excerpts below, this event doesn't exist, or at least doesn't matter enough to mention or consider, in the rest of this report.

3.71 The FFM identified a notable discrepancy in the prevailing narrative referring to an additional incident. The main points of this discrepant narrative are as follows:

(a) Two of the casualties interviewed by the FFM alleged that an incident involving a toxic chemical occurred around 16:00 on the same day.
(b) According to the testimonies of these two casualties, a group of around 15 soldiers of the Syrian Arab Army were confronting enemies in Jober when a device allegedly filled with what was described by these two soldiers as a chlorine-like gas was thrown at the group.
(c) The described chemical incident incapacitated some of the group, apparently preventing them from escaping the scene and ultimately leading to their capture and execution.
(d) The two soldiers who were interviewed described symptoms upon contact with a chemical that are consistent with acute, non-specific irritation of the mucosa and respiratory tract.
(e) There then followed a combat/fire fight with opposition groups that led to other fatalities and the capture of other members of the group.
(f) The two soldiers interviewed by the FFM were the only ones who managed to flee the scene.

That is a grim tale, maybe depressing to repeat. Luckily it was also "discrepant."

Note Nov. 21: these seem to be included in the 22 total they interviewed, so if this is another incident, only 20, not 22, were affected in the later one.

As with the incident covered above, irritants do not usually cause people to lose consciousness, nor to fall paralyzed or suddenly dead. But just what "incapacitated" means isn't explained clearly. (maybe they were just gasping and coughing so badly they couldn't run?) 13 of 15 died, one way or another. These two guys were too busy surviving to get all the details on just how each one died. Some might have dropped dead. One could suspect a nerve agent in this. It seems like one was used in the same basic (or exact?) area against other soldiers, just two hours later. So it should be possible … motives and capabilities don't change much over two hours.

Previously, I took that "chlorine-like" description, combined with an implication the military report cited a chlorine odor, and thought this attack smelled like chlorine - despite being a probable nerve agent. That May be, but that report refers to the later incident, it seems, and it's not clear if it really claimed that (see below). The FFM accepted that attack had a sort of opposite smell of things that could use bleach.

And this only says "chlorine-like," perhaps not by smell. They survived, so were likely further away, like too far to smell it. Seen from further off, it might visibly resemble chlorine, if it was yellowish, like the impure sarin used in Syria is.

There is a clear oddity here in that the initial Syrian request was just for one event on this day, when witnesses were provided for two. Maybe the request had just lumped the two together as one event with two phases? But either way, evidence was provided for two events or phases, and half of that was just tossed aside.
3.72 The FFM was not able to identify a cohesive narrative based on the testimonies of these particular casualties. Additionally, the FFM could not corroborate this narrative
with the prevailing narrative established by the analysis of the testimonies from the bulk of interviewees.

Here's how you might correlate this account if you were willing to try: there were 2 CW attacks the same day in or near Jobar, one around 4pm, the other around 6pm. That's no a contradiction or anything to get confused over. There's no sign in the report that they really tried to sort this out; it almost appears like they didn't want to know, and took the initial confusion as an excuse to go no further.

And from what the FFM assembled here, one might guess this was a different and flawed version of the only Jobar attack story there can be - a "discrepant narrative." And the appearance of one made up story suggests maybe both of them were, and poorly coordinated. Considering the well-known poisoned atmosphere making this so easy, the OPCW might be more careful to avoid such implications.

Minimizing the CW Issue: Smell Games?

This 29 August attack is one of the majority of cases wherein the FFM:
"cannot confidently determine whether or not this potential irritant was produced by factors, including but not limited to:
(a) A chemical payload contained in the launched objects;
(b) A combustion product of a propellant;
(c) The detonation of a conventional or improvised explosive device
on a stored chemical already in-situ;
(d) A mixture of detonation products with surface soil and dust; or
(e) Some combination of all of the factors mentioned above."

It could be anything randomly arising from the conflict, combining to have these CW-grade effects, in case after case. They blame sub-standard evidence from Syrian authorities for preventing firm conclusions, forcing them to this conclusion of, basically, "who knows?"

"[T]he visual and olfactory description of the potential irritant does not clearly implicate any specific chemical." They claim some symptom mismatches (see below), and note vaguely "any number of chemicals or environmental insults" might explain those symptoms. But oddly, these points are secondary. The main issue they raised is smell, and they're completely wrong on that.

There seems to be some confusion, or maybe a shell game (smell game?) involved here. A “Report of Colonel Commander of Brigade 358 for Special Missions on the Exposure of a Group of Soldiers from the Brigade to the Inhalation of Toxic Gases” is cited. This offered a brief description, presumably of the 6pm attack. Among the many points they attribute to this incident overview is, as they put it:

"a description of the smell of the explosion (reported as chlorine-like, according to witnesses)."

This suggests the report cited chlorine smells, while the witnesses interviewed give a very different picture. That might be a mix-up, or a contradiction they don't list explicitly as one. It's not clear if this is their added note, or what the report says. If the latter, it might be incorrect, filled-in, misreported by people worried most about chlorine; The same smell was first reported with the Khan al-Assal attack of 3-19-2013, and it wound up being sarin. 

Other than that unclear spot, the FFM heard and relayed a consistent picture of a "very disagreeable" odor at 6pm, unlike most other attacks in NV150.
"The described irritant had a very bad smell that most victims either did not recognize sufficiently to describe or were described as the smell of rotten bodies, dead animals, corpses and rotten eggs."

"The victims who were exposed all recall that the gas had a particular odour which some compared to the smell of dead animals or corpses and others reported as similar to rotten eggs. Still others reported that they had never experienced anything similar before and couldn’t compare the smell to anything."
Just by smell, the FFM propose a range of chemicals of unclear plausibility with the usual chlorine at the far end of the scale "low probability." Indeed, rot and cleaning products smell quite diferent, if not opposite. "DiBorane" is the second best fit by smell, and taken as most likely by smell and caustic properties combined, and its having some military use (as a rocket propellant). The FFM found it's said to have "a repulsive, sickly sweet odour which could very well be compared to the smell of rotting dead bodies." Wikipedia explains "The toxic effects of diborane are primarily due to its irritant properties. ... tightness of the chest, shortness of breath ... Skin and eye irritation can also occur."

So diborane is good because of the smell fit, and matching "most" symptoms. But chlorine is out from the opposite smell, and also for having the wrong symptoms ("Neither are the symptoms those of chorine exposure"). But as a basic irritant, its effects should be just as consistent as diborane's. (more on symptoms below)

And the next most unlikely substance they considered is called "organophosphate" - the group of compounds including sarin.
39. As for sarin (GB) or other organic phosphoric compounds (OPs), the smell would not
be consistent with the unpleasant signature of rotting corpses or eggs, since the smell of sarin is most frequently described as a sweet smell of apple or pear.
Well, that was a dumb thing to say. As they should know from investigating, as I know just from following, none of the attacks in Syria with confirmed sarin involvement has an apple/pear smell reported. Has the OPCW's FFM been paying attention to the facts they and other have collected?

Wherever there's sarin confirmed by the OPCW themselves, the associated smell is never fresh and fruity; in fact, it's occasionally reported as having no smell (by those who didn't smell it, and think that's the right thing to report?), but the most common description by people from both sides of the conflict who really got a whiff is "foul" like decay, and also "strange," hard to place. Sound familiar?

All such descriptions, perhaps, from NINE cases of verified sarin usage, by date

3-19-13 (Khan al-Assal) "a strong pungent smell, possibly resembling sulfur"
3-19-13 (Ateibah) "foul-smelling"
4-29-13 (Saraqeb) "a horrible, suffocating smell."
8-21-13 (Ghouta) "something like vinegar and rotten eggs" or "like cooking gas"
8-24-13 (Jobar) "a foul and strange odour" "a badly smelling gas."
8-25-13 (Daraya) foul-smelling smoke ... A badly smelling gas ...a bizarre odour
2-15-15 (Daraya) "like burning nylon." 
12-11-16 (rural Hama) "a strong odor, although they could not describe it"
4-4-17 (Khan Sheikhoun) "like rotten food" "foul ... a strange smell. I can’t put my finger on it." a "really disgusting odor," a "stench." - "strong ... really disgusting, but I am not able to compare it to anything else"

see: https://libyancivilwar.blogspot.com/2017/11/sarin-and-foul-irritants-in-syrian-cw.html

And furthermore in these possible but not confirmed sarin cases (besides the one under study here):
8-22-13 (Bahariyah) "a very bad odour"
4-7-16 (Sheikh Maqsoud) "a strange smell"
11-18-17 (Harasta) "a stench that does not exist in Sarin gas." Is this the FFM's adviser?

And one inverse case: 4-7-18 (Douma): One stray report from a refugee camp that it smelled like garbage and rot (because he didn't smell it, and was better informed than most on what to describe in support of the running sarin claims?). Everyone else reported chlorine smells or nothing, depending on their location and/or honesty. The OPCW found chlorine compounds appeared at two sites, sarin nowhere.

Infographic attempting to summarize the above, for some reason:

I've found in research I didn't document very well that the smell, the caustic properties, and the color are all from the impurities in this sarin, said by France to be 40% by volume. This seems to be mostly from solvents residue, and the same idea apparently applies to smelly applications of commercial OPs like malathion - the purest forms are as colorless and odorless as pure sarin. Considering the basic cause then, many, many compounds are bound to have those properties; burning plastics, etc.

But from all I know (a bit), there must be more to it to cause the fatigue, nausea, drooling, and lost consciousness or paralysis or perhaps even some swift deaths - something more like a nerve agent.

Minimizing the CW Issue: Symptoms Ignored

As noted, the way so many lost consciousness is not something a simple irritant is likely to cause. As I found on deep research, chlorine does not make you pass out as opposition sources developed the habit of claiming. So neither would diborane, another simple irritant. Something like sarin quite likely would, but the FFM concluded it was not sarin, primarily by a wrong understanding of its smell, but also because "The symptoms would likewise be different," more severe, and there would be secondary contamination, which seemed to be lacking:

"26. Neither in interviews nor in medical records were any reports of foul smells emanating from the exposed, nor were there any reports of signs of secondary contamination among those who assisted or transported the victims."

This isn't a certain sign of anything; it could still be sarin, depending on the details. None of the soldiers died, so their exposure was limited. Many were affected, 22 of 35 in the end, but maybe just 12 to start, with 10 others comntaminated as they assisted each other to safety - there could have been sarin, but it rubbed off on each other and evaporated before they all stumbled into the hospital. The most acute effects pass within just the few minutes it takes to get there - people who had passed out might all be awake by then. 

And consider in the August 24, 2013 attack, the UN-OPCW investigators found "No signs of secondary contamination were reported to the United Nations Mission," even though it was sarin. The closest they heard to the classic case was "A medical doctor reported itchy eyes in the evening after examining the patients." (UN report) That's too mild to count, but reaffirms the caustic impurities aspect. The smell in that case was "foul" and "strange." And as noted above, the OPCW confirmed by DNA match the soldiers they spoke to were exposed to sarin.

This time, they didn't check if it was sarin, but rule it out partly on this basis which, precedent shows, has limited validity.

As for no antidotes used; there is no antidote for sarin exposure anyway; atropine just limits fluid creation, making breathing more possible, as long as the body has broken down enough nerve agent to manage the complicated task of breathing in the first place. In this case, the victims kept on drooling and vomiting, but it's likely the treatments given were adequate. (per the report: oxygen, intravenous fluids and in some cases inhalation of ß2 agonists such as salbutamol.)

And as for the "different" or more severe symptoms sarin would cause ... it's actually the same, but arguably more severe. Below is the list given in the FFM report, with lines drawn in to organize my added notes. 

Calling this all "consistent" with an irritant is ludicrous. Calling it all consistent with sarin is totally reasonable. They did the opposite. Why?

Still, this isn't enough to say it was sarin, or (as far as I know) that it must be an organophosphorus nerve agent. There are some important missing clues for that:

- no clue the Syrians tested for sarin and found it - ther's no mention of sarin, or even of AcHE levels, let alone fluoride ion regeneration testing to confirm sarin. Was it not checked for? Not mentioned? Mentioned but left off somehow?

- The key pupil constriction - miosis - is not mentioned here, even to note its absence or presence in the Syrian reports. That's an important indicator we could presume was lacking, or perhaps it was left out in some editing error by the FFM.

- Seizures or paralysis go unmentioned, unless they're lumped in with unconsciousness (unresponsiveness?) or supported by interview details not shared here.

But still, it's an open question, because otherwise the symptoms are very like those of an nerve agent: excess salivation, tears (lachrimation), nausea and vomiting (emesis) are part of the SLUDGE syndrome, other parts of which often seem to go unmentioned for decency. Blurred vision that also goes dim is a feature of sarin. Fatigue and reduced consciousness with a sharp headache, and most distressingly, difficult breathing, are all primary effects.

Caustic agents could explain a different sort of breathing problem, caused by physical ("mechanical") damage from droplets of acid, and the production of protective mucous that can cause slow suffocation (the type of difficulty the soldiers suffered isn't clarified). And they could also explain irritation of the eyes and thus tears. But that's it.

So … all clues that support diBorane should work for chlorine as well, or for the impure, caustic sarin used in Syria. But many symptoms would be left unexplained, so these answers can't be right. Only sarin, of these three considered substances, offers a match for the rest of the symptoms, the apparent strength of the poison, and that horrible smell the OPCW is so slow to learn about. 

Therefore, based only on the interviews that were carried out and the documents that were reviewed," and quite a bit of misplaced skepticism, and ignoring the symptoms, and being ignorant of the relevant smells of sarin attacks in Syria … "the FFM is of the view that the soldiers who were interviewed may have been exposed to some type of non-persistent, airborne irritant secondary to the
surface impact of two launched objects." Nothing more, no action needed.

Now as for those alleged soviet sarin bomb and chlorine tank attacks by the Syrian government... despite lacking evidence and clashing stories galore, which they occasionally acknowledge and gloss over, they manage to get more specific with those.