Syrian soldiers exposed to ‘sarin or a sarin-like substance’

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

In November I presented the main findings of the preliminary Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) report of 29 October. This particular investigation of alleged use by the Technical Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had been requested by Syria. Government officials had transmitted four Notes Verbales alleging  26 chemical weapon (CW) events resulting in 432 casualties. The preliminary report focussed primarily on incidents at Jobar (northeast of Damascus) on 29 August 2014. While the investigators believed that government soldiers had been exposed to an irritant, they could not confirm that the chemical had been used as a weapon. They as good as ruled out chlorine or a neurotoxicant, such as sarin, as the causative agent.

However, the investigative team also looked into five other events reported by the Syrian government: Al-Maliha on 16 April and 11 July 2014, al-Kabbas on 10 September 2014, Nubel and al-Zahraa on 8 January 2015, and Darayya on 15 February 2015.

On 17 December the Technical Secretariat circulated the final report on those allegations by the Syrian government. Whereas the interim report of 29 October comprised 59 pages, the final report almost doubled in size to 106 pages.

The final report repeats the findings about Jobar. With respect to the five other incidents, it reaches similar conclusions. However, as regards Darayya it summarised:

From the results of blood sample analyses, the FFM is of the opinion that there is a high degree of probability that some of those identified as being involved in the alleged incident in Darayya on 15 February 2015 were at some point exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance. In order to determine how, when, or under what circumstances the exposure occurred, further investigation would be required to complement the interviews carried out and the documents reviewed.

It does not say that those individuals were exposed to the neurotoxicant at Darayya, nor does it confirm that such exposure was the consequence of combat operations.

Investigating possible use of irritant chemicals as a weapon

With regard to the alleged incidents in Jobar on 29 August 2014 (for details, see my earlier posting), al-Maliha on 16 April 2014 and 11 July 2014, al Kabbas, Damascus on 10 September 2014 and Nubel and al-Zahraa on 8 January 2015, the report offers parallel conclusions. These are:

  • The affected soldiers ‘may have been exposed to some type of non-persistent, irritating airborne substance, secondary to the surface impact of the launched objects’.
  • The investigators could not determine with any degree of confidence as to whether exposure was the consequence of the irritant being delivered as the payload of a projectile, or whether the irritant had another source of origin (combustion product of a propellant, detonation of a conventional or improvised explosive device on a stored chemical already in-situ, some combination of substances mixed with surface soil and dust, or a combination of all mentioned factors).
  • The affected soldiers in question present clinical symptoms that are ‘consistent with a brief exposure to any number of chemicals or environmental insults’. Furthermore, ‘the visual and olfactory description of the potential irritating substance does not clearly indicate any specific chemical’.

In each of the five cases, the investigators pointed out that the lack of hard evidence precluded them from gathering facts in a definitive way. Little ‘objective evidence’ was made available to the team to complement the materials given by the Syrian authorities, ‘either because it was unavailable or because it was not generated in the first place’. The report lists the types of evidence that would have been crucial to establishing facts with a higher degree of confidence:

  • Photographic or video recordings of the incident;
  • A visit to the site where the incident took place;
  • Detailed medical records including, inter alia, X-rays, pulmonary function tests, and timely blood laboratory values;
  • Timely biomedical samples from the patients;
  • Remnants of any ordnance, launching system, or other forensic evidence retrieved from the location of the incident;
  • Unfired ordnance similar to that used in the incident;
  • Environmental samples from the surroundings of the location of the incident, including background samples;
  • Comprehensive contemporaneous incident reports generated by the chain of military command and the medical system; and
  • Comprehensive witness testimonies generated at the time of the incident.

Concerning some alleged incidents, the investigators would have also welcomed:

  • A greater sample of witness testimonies (al Maliha, 11 July 2014; Nubel and al-Zahraa, 8 January 2015); and
  • Samples from remnants of cylinders or other containers alleged to have been used in the incident and retrieved from the incident location (al Kabbas, 10 September 2014; Nubel and al-Zahraa, 8 January 2015).

Exposure to a nerve agent-related substance

According to Note Verbale 41 (29 May 2015), a follow-up to the initial document submitted by the Syrian government on 15 December 2014 that led to the FFM investigation, eight military personnel became casualties in an alleged CW incident on 15 February 2015. It provided a brief description of the incident, signs and symptoms, a more precise location, the hospital where casualties received treatment, and the names of the victims. The incident appeared sufficiently grave for the FFM to investigate it.

The FFM conducted interviews with medical staff and casualties relevant to the allegation and visited hospitals and research laboratories where tests on victim blood samples had been conducted. It also visited the Centre for Studies and Scientific Research Institute in Barzi, Damascus, on 12 and 14 August 2015. On the first day, team members had a discussion with the head of the research institute on the storage and research methods for blood collected for acetyl-cholinesterase (AChE) analysis and were made aware of the existence of several blood samples stored onsite related to the Darayya incident. Two days later the FFM revisited the institute to seal the selected blood samples.

In the course of the investigation the FFM received a variety of documents, including battlefield and medical reports, video footage and images from GoogleEarth indicating exact locations. These documents included the medical records of the eight reported casualties and the AChE analyses of six alleged victims. In several cases the investigators were granted access to requested documents, albeit without being provided with photocopies. Four of the reported casualties were given HI-6 (asoxime chloride) and dematropine, both nerve agent antidotes.

The retrieved blood samples were forwarded to OPCW-certified laboratories for analysis and a certified laboratory conducted DNA analysis to link the samples to the casualties.

In its medical review the FFM report draws a sharp distinction with the other investigated Syrian allegations:

The Darayya incident was the only reviewed incident wherein the alleged victims had a prolonged recovery phase of 10-12 days. This departed from all other alleged incidents wherein recovery was rapid and rarely resulted in hospital observation for more than two nights. Darayya is also the only alleged incident wherein antidotes and specific treatments such as oximes and atropine were employed, or were even mentioned. Finally, and perhaps most notably, this was the only incident wherein blood analysis was performed with quantitative results noted in the medical records. Though such results are precisely the type of objective evidence the medical team would have preferred to have had in the aforementioned incidents, in the case of Darayya the presented test results proved more confounding than helpful, as they were significantly outside of the expected range for such a scenario.

As a consequence, the report notes, the recovered blood samples had to be forwarded to an independent laboratory for further assessment. The final results were still pending when the report was issued. In its absence the medical evaluation necessarily rests on the interviews and provided documents, but given the shortcomings of the methodology and gaps, these merely contribute to the uncertainties that permeate the entire report on the allegations by the Syrian authorities. (It should be noted that Appendixes 8 and 9 provide detailed results of the analyses of the blood samples suggesting exposure to neurotoxicants in all tested samples collected from casualties, so that paragraph 90 of the report may either indicate failure to delete language from an earlier draft or point to additional laboratory testing.)

As with the investigation of the other incidents, the FFM noted that the Syrians could have supplied more documentary evidence or undertaken certain actions to  corroborate the testimonies of the casualties and witnesses it interviewed and establish the value of the evidence supplied:

  • Immediate notification to the OPCW that a suspected chemical attack had occurred would have allowed the prompt deployment of the FFM to gather primary evidence and establish the facts surrounding this incident;
  • Photographic or video recordings of the incident;
  • Visit to the site where the incident took place;
  • Detailed medical records including, inter alia, X-rays, pulmonary function tests, as well as timely and complete blood laboratory values;
  • Remnants of any ordnance, launching system, or forensic evidence retrieved from the incident location;
  • Unfired ordnance similar to that used in the incident;
  • Environmental samples, including animal tissue, from the surroundings of the incident location as well as background control samples;
  • Comprehensive contemporaneous incident reports generated by the chain of military command and the medical system;
  • Comprehensive witness testimonies generated at the time of the incident; and
  • A greater sample of witness testimonies.

On the basis of the evidence collected, the FFM concludes that:

there is a high degree of probability that some of those involved in the alleged incident in Darayya on 15 February 2015 were at some point exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance. However, the FFM could not confidently link the blood sample analyses to this particular incident nor determine how, when, or under what circumstances the exposure occurred.

The one sarin-like substance the report mentions is chlorosarin (O-isopropyl methylphosphonochloridate), a final precursor to the manufacture of sarin. However, the analysis did not indicate a specific date of exposure, nor a specific time that the blood was drawn. The FFM was also unable to verify the chain of custody between the time the blood was drawn from the casualties and the time it sealed the samples. In addition, blood sample analyses indicated that four of the eight individuals were at some point exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance, but the investigators were unable to link these results to the Darayya incident of 15 February 2015 as reported by the Syrian government. It is in this context that the report observes that the immediate notification to the OPCW of the suspected chemical attack would have allowed the prompt deployment of the FFM to gather primary evidence and establish the facts surrounding this incident.

Some observations

A striking feature of the general debate at the 20th Session of the Conference of States Parties (30 November–4 December 2015) was that not a single country referred to the preliminary FFM report on the allegations put forward by the Syrian government. As one participating diplomat put it to me, conclusions were not yet definite. He added that ‘the Executive Council had kicked the can down the road’ and that the findings would make for a difficult meeting early in 2016. Indeed, a week earlier, on 23 November, the Executive Council had noted the FFM’s inability to confidently determine whether or not a chemical was used as a weapon. It further noted that the FFM report was an interim report and that other incidents under investigation are pending final analysis and will be included in the final report.

The paragraph stands in stark contrast to the previous one addressing the FFM reports on alleged CW use in Marea and Idlib province, where the Executive Council

Expresses grave concern regarding the findings of the Fact-Finding Mission that chemical weapons have once again been used in the Syrian Arab Republic, and in this regard:
(a)     underscores that, with respect to the incident in Marea, Syrian Arab Republic, on 21 August 2015, the report of the Fact-Finding Mission confirmed “with the utmost confidence that at least two people were exposed to sulfur mustard” and that it is “very likely that the effects of sulfur mustard resulted in the death of a baby” (S/1320/2015); and
(b)     further underscores that, with respect to several incidents in the Idlib Governorate of the Syrian Arab Republic between 16 March 2015 and 20 May 2015, the report of the Fact-Finding Mission concluded that they “likely involved the use of one or more toxic chemicals—probably containing the element chlorine—as a weapon” with an “outcome of exposure [that] was fatal in six cases in Sarmin,” including those of three children in the same family (S/1319/2015).

Reading the latter two documents, I was struck by the fact that despite the difficult circumstances in which the investigations had to be conducted, the reports were still able to advance conclusions with fair to very high degrees of confidence that toxic chemicals had been used as a weapon. The investigators also indicated which chemicals may have been involved and proffered details about the munitions that delivered the agents. Indeed, the Idlib report contained a detailed graphical reconstruction of the barrel bombs dropped from helicopters to deliver the chlorine (see my earlier posting). All the evidence collected from Idlib province leaves little doubt that government units were responsible for those attacks. Concerning the mustard agent attack at Marea, the report does not implicate the Syrian government despite the certainty of its conclusions. Press and NGO reports have pointed the finger to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The OPCW and Iraq are collaborating on the investigation into a similar incident implicating ISIL near Mosul last summer.

During the Conference of States Parties the Syrian delegate vehemently denied that his country had ever launched a CW attack. In 2013 Damascus requested the UN Secretary General to investigate certain allegations of chemical warfare; the UN investigative team was in the Syrian capital when sarin-filled rockets hit the Ghouta suburb. The offer to accede to the CWC and have its chemical warfare capacity eliminated under international supervision averted international military strikes and ensured regime survival, at least in the short term.

The request for an investigation submitted in December 2014 was the first since Syria had joined the OPCW. One imagines that the Syrian government would have mobilised all possible resources to substantiate its allegements to the greatest possible extent. Trivial or plainly false allegations would inevitably undermine the country’s standing and the international community will tend to brush off any future accusations as a figment of a desperate government’s imagination.

Investigating false accusations also drains the OPCW’s limited budget resources. Unfortunately, no arms control or disarmament treaty currently in force envisages specific penalties for false allegations. Before entry into force of the CWC the Preparatory Commission (PrepCom) of the OPCW held consultations on the ‘costs of abuse’ detailing what direct and indirect costs should be covered by the State Party requesting a challenge inspection should the Executive Council rule that the requesting state party abused its right to request such an inspection. However, the PrepCom transferred the question as one of the outstanding issues to the OPCW and 18 years after the entry into force of the CWC this particular question remains unresolved. [Per Runn, Verification Annex, Part X, in W. Krutzsch, E. Myjer, and R. Trapp (eds.), The Chemical Weapons Convention: A Commentary (2014), p. 618.] Whichever way, since Syria claims that it cannot pay for verification and other operations for which a state party should cover the costs, the international community must cough up the money.

What Syrian objectives may lie behind the accusations? First, the government may genuinely believe that it has been the victim of chemical attacks. In that case, one would expect government officials forthcoming with evidence. Even lacking experience in dealing with such a situation, the questions and requests for further evidence they could address in such a way that either it complements initial information with supplementary evidence or demonstrates that the desired data are genuinely not available, for instance, as a consequence of war circumstances.

Second, the accusations could be part of a broader scheme to deflect responsibility for the Syrian regime’s own chemical attacks or to deny the international community evidence that later might inculpate Syrian officials for war crimes. If the allegations are indeed part of a plan to deflect responsibility for CW use, an outside observer’s impressions can only vacillate between sloppiness and sheer incompetence, on the one hand, and unwillingness to provide relevant documentation (which many or may not have been deliberately destroyed or hidden), on the other hand. Alas, the latter concern is one I have also often heard mentioned in connection with Syria’s declarations as part of its disarmament obligations.

There is a third possibility, but here one can only hope that the request for an investigation was not part of an exercise to learn how to better disguise chemical warfare attacks or to manufacture evidence in support of alleged insurgent use of toxicants.


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