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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.

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