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Sunday, July 8, 2018

OPCW Leading A Scientific Revolution

Or Everything You Learned about Chemical Weapons is Wrong! 
July 8, 2018
(rough, incomplete)
edits 7/11, 7/15, 7/18 …

No Nerve Agent in Douma? 
Still largely on break mode and not doing fresh research or much writing, I'm reviewing now a larger bottlenecked back-burner project to trace the emergent allegations of chlorine-sarin combined attacks. From the end of 2016 and all though 2017, up to the Douma attacks in April this year, the strange entanglement of chlorine an sarin clues was growing in clarity, despite its uncertain logic and the dubious record of supporting clues.

The OPCW's Douma results were much anticipated, expected to solidify this growing, and possibly cartoon menace. But now their work appears to not do this - the OPCW finds no indicators of sarin or any organophosphate nerve agent in places it would.

As the report explains (only briefly reviewed so far) over 100 environmental samples in total were collected and transported to the OPCW Laboratory. To speed things up, 31 samples were selected - those deemed the most important or fragile - for the "first round of analysis by the OPCW designated laboratories." "The results of analysis ... of the prioritised samples ... were received by the FFM team on 22 May 2018," and form the basis of the report we're looking at.
"No organophosphorus nerve agents or their degradation products were detected, either in the environmental samples or in plasma samples from the alleged casualties. Various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples from Locations 2 and 4, along with residues of explosive. These results are reported in Annex 3. Note: "Work by the team to establish the significance of these results is ongoing."
So it's not a final answer, and about 2/3 of environmental samples haven't been tested, or reported on yet. But for the 1/3 thought to be most telling to come up clean is pretty firm already.

We already knew this much about the victims: no sarin on the surface - unless this White Helmets responder died. (old graphic, prophecy seemingly not fulfilled) (add 7/12: and the not washed part is probably wrong after all. See here. So like most, she's ostensibly contaminated, but has been suspiciously washed at least in the face and hair... )

And for no biological sample positives, this means the local terrorists who would be staging this had no sarin for even token doses, or chose not to use it, or had their plans to do so disrupted. Modern tests can say if it really was sarin, but the tiniest trace too small to feel will register; the OPCW apparently does not measure for quantity, making fakery still very easy. A lack even of breakdown products in the samples suggests the plotters didn't even use the older IMPA powder method. (or maybe they did - IMPA in urine samples was cited by someone …maybe for a prior incident?)

This may leave some potential wiggle room, like if the unnamed nerve agent people saw signs of ... is not orgahophosphate-based(??) But it seems so far they in fact rule out something that would help make the accepted story of the Douma incident make sense ... if it ever did make sense to mix chlorine and sarin in the same weapon or deployed in the same space. All of these are open questions as far as I know - which is actually a good bit, if not enough to be definitive.

Briefly, some of what I was going to say, and where we are now, in part ... I'm still drafting now, but here's a comment space for new report, old ones, incident details, etc.

Sarin in Saraqeb? Pretty Harmless if so...
Back in May Eliot Higgins at Bellingcat was left wondering "whether chlorine-Sarin attacks are the Syrian government’s dirty chemical weapon secret." That was in reference to OPCW findings about a Feb. 4 incident in Saraqeb/Saraqib.

The story there was a helicopter attack at night time, two yellow chlorine cylinders hit an open field, sickening 8 men sheltering in a nearby basement and 3 White Helmets responders, but killing no one. It was reported at the time as a simple chlorine attack. Upon release of the OPCW's report in May, a number of clues came under scrutiny. Among these:
- an unusual cloverleaf pattern on the nose end of the canisters
- missing valves on both of them
- unexplained explosives residue
- spread and topography issues make it hard to belive chlorine would drift to the basement indicated.

And most interestingly, the signs of both sarin and chlorine appearing side-by-side: 11 patients all complained of breathing problems, consistent with chlorine, but also some symptoms only consistent with a nerve agent: costricted pupils, a reported loss of consciousness by some of those exposed, nausea and vomiting (only occasional/secondary w/CL, but a primary sign for nerve agents). Oddly, all complained of crepitus (air pockets in the joints that cause popping), and it was mentioned in the report. That's not a CW signs I've ever heard of. Sarin being more complex, effecting nerves and thus muscles, it might cause tension, resulting joint issues most people don't even notice. I don't see how chlorine could cause it.

And the environmental samples collected from the site tested positive for chemicals that happen to be standard breakdown products of sarin. But oddly, they did not find the chlorinated forms of these compounds, as they did for other recovered organic chemicals. They also did not comment on how these compounds - nor the explosives residue - got there and what that would mean.

I'll be a genius and suggest this is the still-unrevealed whole story - probably fictional. Some unknown device or 4 devices - that cause a cloverleaf imprint when pressed - had been secured to the nose end. That's now missing along with the valve, but they'll say it had a small explosives charge rigged to blow on impact and separately release some sarin.

But so far, it's just an unexplained mystery. But it's one of some interest and potential in relation to other and more prominent events, like the deadlier attacks in Khan Sheikhoun and Douma, and to the course of future CW allegations.

Same Expected for Douma
At the time, Bellingcat's Eliot Higgins noted these sarin indicators are
"...particularly interesting when it is alleged in the Douma chemical attack ... that not only was chlorine used, but reports from multiple groups, including the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), UOSSM, and White Helmets allege an organophosphate (which would include Sarin) or nerve agent was used in the attack, and the US government has also stated they believe both chlorine and a nerve agent, likely Sarin, was used in Douma."
If the OPCW-FFM investigation in Douma does confirm the presence of DIMP, IPMPA/IMPA, and MPA it would add weight to the allegation that Douma was not only a chlorine attack, but also a Sarin attack, raising the question of how many other chlorine attacks that have taken place over the last 4 years which also included the use of Sarin."
Oddly, the no-death mixed-poison attack had the same mix called in Douma, mainly, because people insisted chlorine was part of it, but the high death toll and suggested suddenness of death suggested that couldn't be the whole picture, which are valid points. Interestingly, direct physical evidence is also cited as indicating sarin was used. Some examples:

Reuters, April 9
Professor Raphael Pitti, a doctor who viewed videos taken at the scene, said patients appeared to have had convulsions more typical of sarin poisoning. “Everything suggests that during the second attack, chlorine was used to conceal the use of sarin at the same time,” Pitti said.

April 12 https://www.nbcnews.com/news/mideast/u-s-has-blood-samples-show-nerve-agent-syria-gas-n865431
"WASHINGTON — The U.S. now has blood and urine samples from last Saturday's deadly attack ...The samples suggested the presence of both chlorine gas and an unnamed nerve agent, two officials said. Typically, such samples are obtained through hospitals and collected by U.S. or foreign intelligence assets on the ground. The officials said they were "confident" in the intelligence, though not 100 percent sure.
The Assad regime is known to have stocks of the nerve agent sarin, and has previously used a mixture of chlorine and sarin in attacks, say U.S. officials."

French Intel report
"French experts analysed the symptoms identifiable in the images and videos that were made public," and tallied:
Suffocation, asphyxia or breathing difficulties, (observed for sure, or inferred from claims and the wearing of masks?)
Mentions of a strong chlorine odour and presence of green smoke in affected areas, (they observed mentions? Or just passing on claims?)
Hypersalivation and hypersecretions (particularly oral and nasal), (the noted and evident foam)
Cyanosis, (noted, evident)
Skin burns and corneal burns. (observed? mentioned?
No deaths from mechanical injuries were visible. All of these symptoms are characteristic of a chemical weapons attack, particularly choking agents and organophosphorus agents or hydrocyanic acid" (the latter is the solution of hydrogen cyanide in water. Chlorine is not mentioned as a plausible explanation for people dropping dead like that).

Adam Taylor, Washington Post: "Mohammed Marhoum, a medical worker, told The Post that he saw symptoms he had never seen before, including twitching, abnormal pupils and foaming at the mouth. “We believe the gas used was chlorine and another kind of gas,” he said. Outside experts have said that the speed with which the victims died suggested that a nerve agent was used. Chlorine usually takes longer to work."

The look of the bodies “is pretty much consistent with a nerve-agent-type exposure,” said Alastair W.M. Hay, a professor of toxicology at Leeds University who has been studying the human impact of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein’s gas attack on Iraqi Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1989. “That’s suggestive of something that was very toxic, and people have pretty much died where they were when they inhaled the agent. They’ve just dropped dead.”

“It’s just bodies piled up. That is so horrific,” said Hay, the Leeds professor, expressing shock as he watched the video online during a telephone interview Tuesday. “There’s a young child with foam at the nose and a boy with foam on its mouth. That’s much, much more consistent with a nerve-agent-type exposure than chlorine.”

This centers on World Health organization statements about patients in Douma with chemical symptoms. The article was amended on the first day "to clarify in the text and page furniture that the WHO’s statements were based on reports from its partner agencies and not its own verified evidence." As for what they reported: "Medics on the ground in Douma... said the symptoms, which included frothing at the mouth, suffocation, dilated and constricted pupils, corneal burns, central cyanosis – a blue tinge to the skin – and a chlorine-like odour, were consistent with exposure to
an organophosphorus compound. Sarin gas is such a chemical." Well, it doesn't smell like chlorine, or cause dilated pupils, and there are zero images to support the claim that living patients suffered these symptoms, in line with open and widespread release. Rather, we only see them on the few who died, who could have been gassed in a basement here or somewhere and staged. But it's true, this description, and also the different reality, points away from a simple chlorine attack.

April 17, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert:
QUESTION: And then the U.S. has said that you still haven’t found – you still believe there’s one agent that was used in that chemical attack, but you have not named --
MS NAUERT: We have information that leads us to believe that two agents were used. I think this was discussed in our State Department and NSC background briefing the other day. The United States continues to look at all of that information.
QUESTION: But you’ve not mentioned sarin. You’ve – or has that actually been --
MS NAUERT: In that background briefing, that was mentioned. We have information that leads us to believe that both chlorine and sarin were used in the attack.
QUESTION: And you still stand by the --
MS NAUERT: Hi, Michelle.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks. You still stand by the proof that you say the U.S. has on this, right? You --
MS NAUERT: I certainly do, yes.

The U.S. military did too. April 18
"The symptoms described in reporting from media, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other open sources—such as the WHO—include miosis (constricted pupils), convulsions, and disruption to central nervous systems. These symptoms, in addition to the dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries reported, suggest that the regime also used sarin in its attacks on April 7."

Or, if no sarin, that the reports were false. 

Did the OPCW confirm these pretty confident reports? I was expecting they would, as it's quite easy to do, even with purely fake means. Or at least, so long as terrorists with access to sarin are around trying to lodge such accusations. But somehow, it seems here was nothing.

Why the Opposition Story Needed Sarin (or Should Need it)
That's very interesting, because some kind of nerve agent is the best way to explain how so many died from just one weapon. That need was clear from the start, to those informed enough (see many of those above).

No prior chlorine attacks have even allegedly killed anywhere near 35-43 people at once, let alone the 100+, 180 or 200+ some expected or had confirmed dead in the first days. The worst is about six at once (a family of 6 killed twice - a Taleb family in Sarmin 2015, and a Baytounji family in Aleppo, 2016). These death tolls were in themselves implausibly high, and a different cause of death is strongly suggested in both cases (see links). A realistic average death toll from a chlorine tank dropped from the air would be one, rounding up a bit.

(Here's my report compiling all incidents up to early 2017 - PDF link - does not cover Khan Sheikhoun or anything since. There are some omissions and errors to fix in time, so double-check. But it's a handy resource - check death tolls for chlorine attacks and none is higher than these two stray cases of 6).

In Douma, there are 34 or 35 people dead in one apartment building, all strangely clustered (see count and basic mapping here: we think the full 35 bodies reported are all visible in the limited tours shown on video, with no stray people in the majority of rooms we don't see (body #6 being the one we and others dither over counting). That's all in one building the people were allegedly free to leave. But only a few did, reporting how the chlorine made them pass out, after they saw everyone else die, and other nonsense. There are a total of "at least" 43 people generally accepted as killed, 35 at this place, apparently 8 at the other site with a chlorine bomb (the one taking a nap on an intact bed). 34-35 verified at one site is nearly six times the usual - and already implausible - high end. This may not be ridiculous, but it's very unusual and requires an explanation. So far everyone acts like it's natural, considering Assad's evil.

Why do people so rarely die? The damage caused by chlorine exposure is mechanical: when the yellowish gas contacts water, it forms hydrochloric acid and other acids, which will irritate and damage wet tissues like the lungs, eyes, etc. A mild form happens at wswimming pools, in the shower, etc., with chlorinated water. breathing molecules in the air, obviously, would be unpleasant, depending on the concentration. This damage is cased only during actual exposure. Exposure can be severe but usually isn't, and it's usually short; people find breathing chlorine uncomfortable, painful, and even scary, and they leave as soon as possible. They often rush from the scene, in fact. Any damage is done, and the after-effects then play out; injured lungs, filling with mucous and perhaps blood, will complicate breathing. The patient either slowly recovers or slowly dies, almost always somewhere well away from the gas incident. When the few die, it's usually hours or even days later.

Important point: not only does chlorine not kill instantly, it also does not cause paralysis or unconsciousness, limiting its ability to kill at all. (explained here) Activists have increasingly reported that in Syria it does, and this is why so many die; they pass out first thing and thus keep breathing the stuff until it's too late. Well, that gets accepted, but it makes no sense anyway. If the victim is knocked out by something else, trapped under rubble, tied up or locked into the gas-filled room, then they surely can die in time, and be found at the site. But as with prior cases, no one here appears knocked-out from the bomb's violent impact, nor tied up (here), or locked in or pinned down.

The best source I have for my own findings is my analysis (above link) focused on retention of consciousness, also giving various details on real chlorine exposure incidents in war and peace, realistic effects and death tolls. It makes sense in activist lore, fine. It doesn't in reality.

In contrast, sarin or similar nerve agents frequently leads to instant paralysis and seemingly sudden death (hard to say really, from the outside). People will often "drop dead" from it and never move. The other clues for and against sarin are best kept aside, except to note it's not clearly indicated either. But chlorine alone can be pretty much ruled out on basic scientific grounds.

Yet, it seems we have a chlorine-only crime scene. The thinking has been maybe that's the "dirty secret" of sarin hidden in the chlorine. But in Douma, we hear chlorine is the only thing that (apparently, and probably) turned up. Allegedly, it can now make people drop in piles running up to the exit but before they can get there, just from breathing chlorine. If that's true, it's a previously unknown property for chlorine; the best scientists should be brought on board, not the ones working the case so far. If that's not true … isn't some related review in order?

Keith Ward has been a or the prominent expert on chlorine-induced high casualty estimates for Bellingcat and the New York Times, besides HRW and Amnesty. He may be trotted out again to explain why chlorine alone makes sense. His prior analysis for Bellingcat leaves much to be desired. Here he uses some math to decide what sounds patently absurd to me: "even if only 1% of the contents of a cylinder (1 pound) of chlorine made its way into the lower floors and basement of the buildings attacked, that would be sufficient to fill a large space with a concentration of chlorine that would cause death to those sheltering therein within a matter of minutes. ... Chlorine is less lethal than nerve agents. But its level of lethality suffices to explain the high death and casualty tolls in the recent attack on Douma, Syria."

It should be noted that any span of time can be measured in "minutes," so we can't say he's flat wrong. But he's uselessly vague on that point, at best. He doesn't give a reason why the victims would stay put through these minutes to die right there, rather than leaving the scene as people normally would.

How can I doubt an expert? He also thinks the way eyes get opaque or cloudy after death is from chlorine, when it's really just from being dead (see above link and comparisons here). Chlorine burns are red, as anyone with any knowledge knows (post forthcoming). Does he lack that basic knowledge, or is he willfully ignoring it?

to be continued...


  1. If I were the OPCW, I would take a very close look at the samples for the March 24th 2017 incident

    Bellingcat admit, like everyone else, they didn't know anything about it... so an unreported attack with a story that is just too far fetched to reasonably have happened but produced soil samples with 'regime' sarin present. The samples for Saraqeb could well be related.

  2. An excellent point (among many) by Mr Kobs https://twitter.com/MichaKobs/status/1016356869152169984

    Combine with the 10pm video where they didn't feel the need to check all the rooms.

    I think the nerve agent speculation by those who believe victims are shown in the places they died was understandable, less understandable is the backtracking e.g. BC's "What to Watch Out For" in the Douma FFM report mentions the word "Sarin" 32 times.. an odd article to write if they honestly believed it was purely a chlorine attack.

    1. The talk of sarin only made sense, to the extent it did alongside chlorine (unclear to me but dubious). What seems odd is those who felt some need to explain how just chlorine makes sense. Keith Ward for one. There being little logic to the argument, why? Did he have a heads-up from their intel contacts that sarin won't be found? Is that the kind of expertise he brings, preparing the way for the next round of propaganda?

    2. Can only speculate: just after the Ward article (that still contains a few caveats about not ruling out a nerve agent), the Financial Times published the story about the OPCW's plan to take the unprecedented step of exhuming the bodies. This seems to indicate a lack of positive results from any of the 500 victims in "Country X". BC certainly has contacts there (they defend everything the White Helmets say and do) and Higgins recognized there was no apparent sarin delivery method.

      I was surprised by the initial OPCW results but from their sarin speculative article, I expect BC secretly were too. Dropping dead en masse from something that can be seen, smelled and the effects felt isn't an obvious go-to explanation.

    3. Even though it says results were received 22nd May, I'm assuming there was some kind of initial testing done and contact with people (White Helmets?) in "Country X" about exhumation before Üzümcü's statement to the press. Plasma samples are dated 18th, 21st and 25th April.

    4. Sounds like access they had was to basement, cylinder impact, room under that. Limited or no access to where the bodies were. Not clear enough to say though.

      I think the gov. should have made an exception and got all possibly relevant doors open, in the circumstances. Just this alone will let people presume the secrets were all hidden there by the regime.

      They took 2 swabs from the burned wall, one using water. Reuters photo probably shows the spot they swiped, not an attempted clean-up.

      The talk of 31 samples analyzed compares to 20 enviro + 11 bio samples set aside as if to be tested. But 2 plasma samples handed over by "1757" were for some reason not tested.

      The burned wall samples aren't among those tested yet.

      A post in the works, but slow...


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