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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)

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 - - -

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.
2014-05-22
Confidence:
This incident likely to have occurred
Location:
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.  

https://twitter.com/MichaKobs/status/1033639652392091648
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.
http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/File:UN_COI_CW_Attacks_MAP_numbered.jpg
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/04/13/world/middleeast/syria-chemical-attacks-maps-history.html

… 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...