[Cross-posted from The Trench]
Warning: contains extreme graphic images of injuries and infection
Last September Amnesty International (AI) issued a 105-page report entitled Scorched Earth, Poisoned Air alleging the use of chemical weapons (CW) among other atrocities committed by Sudanese forces in the Darfur region. The chemical warfare section contains numerous images of civilian victims with horrifying skin lesions. It suggests that these are the consequence of exposure to a vesicant, possibly a mustard agent. The report is accompanied by a 4-minute video on YouTube. Several press articles and contributions to on-line media after the report’s publication have reinforced the allegation of mustard agent use.
To AI’s great frustration some countries have expressed reservations about the allegations, and so has the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The non-governmental expert community on CW matters has remained silent. After the initial buzz of interest in the press, the ripples caused by the investigation have all but faded. No fresh chemical warfare allegations seem to have surfaced since the report’s publication.
Were the reservations warranted? This posting reviews the report.
The AI report documents several atrocities allegedly committed by Sudanese government forces against civilians in Jebel Marra, an area east of the town of Zalingei in south-west Sudan. Zalingei is the state capital of Central Darfur State. For decades famine and war have ravaged Darfur, causing immense human suffering and displacing millions. Humanitarian concerns about people living in camps set up by the United Nations or in the most squalid conditions in remote villages are immense. Access to Jebel Marra is as good as impossible, meaning that the plight of the local population and war crimes remain under-reported. According to AI, even the United Nations–African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) cannot access the region.
It is in this context that AI alleges CW attacks against civilians. According to the report summary (p. 5):
Amnesty International interviewed 56 residents of Jebel Marra, 46 civilians and ten members of SLA/AW, who alleged that Sudanese government forces utilized “poisonous smoke” during attacks in Jebel Marra between January and September 2016. These individuals, all of whom are either survivors of the alleged attacks or cared for survivors and victims, provided Amnesty International with substantial testimonial and photographic evidence in support of the allegations. The evidence strongly suggests that Sudanese government forces repeatedly used chemical weapons during attacks in Jebel Marra.
Survivors and caregivers described a wide variety of ailments that victims of alleged chemical weapons attacks experienced during the hours and days after exposure to the alleged chemical weapons agents.
Based on testimony from caregivers and survivors, Amnesty International estimates that between 200 and 250 people may have died as a result of exposure to the chemical weapons agents, with many – or most – being children. The vast majority of survivors of the suspected chemical weapons attacks have had no access to adequate medical care.
Amnesty International documented alleged chemical weapons attacks in and around at least 32 villages in Jebel Marra between January and September 2016. Several of the villages were attacked multiple times. The earliest attacks occurred during the start of the government’s offensive in mid-January. The attacks are ongoing. The most recent attack recorded by Amnesty occurred on 9 September 2016.
Exact identification of the specific chemical agents allegedly used in the attacks documented in this report would require the collection of environmental samples and physiological samples from those directly or indirectly exposed to the alleged chemical agents. An identification would also require an analysis of weapon remnants used during the attacks. Given that access to Jebel Mara is severely restricted, it was not possible for Amnesty International to obtain such samples.
Amnesty International asked two chemical weapons experts to independently review the clinical signs and symptoms revealed by the photographic and video evidence and interview notes. They are both respected experts with experience in unconventional munitions, including biological and chemical warfare agents, and are experienced in the diagnosis of exposure to chemical weapons agents.
Both experts found that there was credible evidence to strongly suggest that chemical weapons agents were used in the attacks documented in this report.
Both experts concluded the clinical signs and symptoms were most consistent with exposure to a class of chemical warfare agents called vesicants or blister agents, which include lewisite, sulphur mustard and nitrogen mustard. However, they also asserted that it was possible that survivors were exposed to a combination of chemicals in addition to blister agents.
These claims the report elaborates in chapter 6 (pp. 69–94), which includes numerous pictures of the effects of the alleged warfare agents on the victims and transcriptions of interview notes. Supporting evidence comes essentially in three forms: witness narratives, pictures, and expert assessment.
AI collected statements from three categories of witnesses: caregivers, civilian victims and members of Sudan Liberation Army/Abdul Wahid (SLA/AW). It conducted most of its interviews pertaining to the chemical warfare allegations between June and September 2016. Five statements were recorded earlier: one in April and four in May. The earlier assertions thus appear to have been registered while investigating other atrocities such as the deliberate targeting of refugees and local civilians. They likely prompted AI to expand its probe so as to include possible chemical warfare.
Unsurprisingly, many witness accounts are confusing and descriptions of experiences do not easily match academic and medical treatises on CW exposure. They often reveal an interviewee’s subjective linkage between cause and effect, something not uncommon in crisis situations. Equally striking is the rapid sequence of symptoms suffered by victims in various witness accounts. Unfortunately, at no point did the interviewers attempt to establish as precise as possible intervals between the noted incident and the onset of particular symptoms, or the sequence of manifestation of symptoms (e.g., in the eyes, miscarriages, etc.). Consequently, the AI report can but enumerate indicators (p. 70):
Survivors and caregivers reported a variety of changes to skin [Sic]. The changes included severe blisters, rashes, and itchiness. The victims’ skin reportedly hardened, changed colour to white, black, or green, and subsequently fell off. Changes to the skin often occurred very soon after exposure, normally within an hour; however, many caregivers reported that changes to the skin occurred the following day.
If the agent were to have been a vesicant, as is often suggested in the AI report, then some time frames are short.
Certain witness statements appear consistent with mustard agent exposure. However, the random listing symptoms, lack of time frames for their appearance, or the generalisation of observed symptoms from multiple casualties all make it difficult to attribute causality (p. 86):
“These are the most common symptoms from the bombardment and the rocket fire, which diffused poison, which changed the colour of eyes and induced vomiting and diarrhoea, which was sometimes bloody and caused many miscarriages… Sometimes people with diarrhoea get a high fever and then their diarrhoea becomes bloody… Sometimes you can see the colour of the body change and the colour of the eyes and then, all of a sudden, they die… their skin becomes dark black and there are rashes and blisters and they turn into wounds… Some people’s eyes become yellow/green, some become yellow/orange, and some become maroon… and if you open the eyelid, the inside changes to red with black spots… In two cases it looked like [the eyes] were going to pop out of the head… Some children suffered hair loss… The patients’ urine changes to different colours. To orange and then red. Sometimes [the urine] is mix of black and dark blue…. Some people have trouble breathing… and they have a very fast heartbeat… Sometimes the blood pressure is low and sometimes it is very high… Many children have swollen bodies… [In three cases] adults had seizures. Two died… Once we noticed the sick person shaking uncontrollably… we needed three or four people to keep him on the bed until one part of the body became paralyzed. Fifteen minutes later, he passed away.”
While passages such as this one each represent a single interviewee, the AI report does not lay out any individual case studies detailing the evolution of symptoms. Even when allowing for the difficulties in collecting testimonials, two other methodological issues also affect the quality of the claims.
First, as the quote above illustrates, many sentences are not written out in full. Combined they do not leave the impression of having been transcribed from a recorded interview; they rather seem handwritten notes transposed into sentences. As a consequence the reader has no inkling how the interviewer pursued his questions, whether and when he followed up replies with additional questions to collect more detail, or if he attempted to corroborate, correlate or disambiguate individual witness accounts. This inevitably opens AI’s estimates of the number of CW incidents and fatalities to critical questioning.
Second, which communication framework was established to ensure that interviewer and interviewee share a common interpretation of signifier and signified? More specifically, how were concepts transposed from a local language whose speakers are unlikely to have assimilated vocabulary of chemical warfare during the interviews? Chapter 2 on methodology (p. 7) describes the difficulties AI encountered trying to acquire information and evidence from the Jebel Marra region. It also outlines the general methodology:
Amnesty International’s investigation was carried out by two researchers with extensive contact networks inside Jebel Marra, one of whom is from the area and fluent in Fur, the main local language’.
Amnesty International interviewed the survivors and witnesses individually. Interviews generally lasted between 30 and 120 minutes. The majority of the interviews were conducted in Fur, a minority were conducted in Arabic, and a few were conducted in English.
Fur is unlikely to contain specific chemical warfare vocabulary. The report does not reveal who translated the interview notes: the interviewer himself or a specialised translator? Since the report does not list the questions put to witnesses, it is not possible to assess how the interviewer communicated his questions on chemical warfare. Similarly, the reader has no sense whether and how he assisted witnesses when they did not fully comprehend a question. Finally, the reader also lacks insight into possible interpretation bias by the questioner and what steps were undertaken to avoid it from occurring as much as possible.
I noted earlier that the bulk of interviews concerning CW use took place in the later stages of the investigation. So, at what point in the project and how did AI become convinced that Sudanese government forces had resorted to mustard agent or another vesicant? Were chemical warfare experts already at this stage involved in this assessment? At what point in the investigation did AI begin to receive pictures suggesting possible exposure to chemical warfare gents? The latter question is of particular importance to know how the pictures in the report correlate in time and place with the narrative or individual testimonials.
[Cross-posted from The Trench]
Tabletop Exercise (TTX) on the Implementation of Article VII of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)
8-9 November 2016, Palais des Nations, Geneva
[Prepared by Élisande Nexon, Ralf Trapp and Jean Pascal Zanders]
Article VII of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) provides that
Each State Party to this Convention undertakes to provide or support assistance, in accordance with the United Nations Charter, to any Party to the Convention which so requests, if the Security Council decides that such Party has been exposed to danger as a result of violation of the Convention.
In recent years, considerations such as emergence and re-emergence of diseases, including Ebola, or the use of chemical weapons in Syria, have highlighted challenges pertaining to public health and assistance facing the international community. Many lessons have in the meantime been learned. The Eighth Review Conference gives the international community the opportunity to consider the potential contribution of Article VII to those considerations.
To this end the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (FRS) and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) convened a workshop on 8 and 9 November 2016. The primary goal of the exercise was to stimulate reflection on the decision-making processes both within a BTWC State Party and by the international institutions that may become involved if Article VII were to be activated. It also aimed to identify issues that require further study and clarification.
The workshop benefited from financial support by France and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Twenty-six national representatives and experts from civil society organisations, including public health and disarmament experts, participated in the exercise.
Fostering discussion on the implementation of Article VII: General framework of the tabletop exercise
The exercise enabled participants to exchange views based on a scenario involving a pneumonic plague outbreak in several locations. All victims had been exposed to the same genetically-modified strain displaying enhanced antibiotic resistance. The circumstances aroused suspicion about possible deliberate release. The scenario covered only the timeframe between the detection of an outbreak and the moment when the international community would be called upon under Article VII of the BTWC to offer assistance to the country suffering a major outbreak.
The exercise comprised three breakout sessions. In each session the plot advanced to the next stage of major decision-making by governments. Workshop participants were instructed not to play the scenario, but to consider themselves as a committee of government officials that has to assess alternative policy options and make a final recommendation to the minister. Participants split into three groups, each one representing a different perspective, namely that of the country in which the outbreak was first noticed, the neighbouring country suspected of being the perpetrator of the attack, and a nearby neutral country that might conceivably become an assistance provider.
The exercise was designed to examine specifically in which ways the BTWC as a disarmament and security treaty could contribute to mitigating a (suspected deliberate) outbreak in addition to other international assistance mechanisms. It factored in the current lack of procedures or mechanisms for its implementation.
This synthesis aims at underlining the main conclusions reached and questions raised during the tabletop exercise.
[Cross-posted from The Trench]
Investigations under the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism
- Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013 (16 September 2013)
- United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic: Final report (12 December 2013)
Investigations by the OPCW Fact-Finding MIssion
- Summary report of the work of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria covering the period from 3 to 31 May 2014 (16 June 2014)
- Second report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria: Key findings (10 September 2014)
- Third report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria (18 December 2014)
- Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria regarding the incidents described in communications from the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates and Head of the National Authority of the Syrian Arab Republic from 15 December 2014 to 15 June 2015
- Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria regarding alleged incidents in the Idlib Governorate of the Syrian Arab Republic between 16 March and 20 May 2015 (29 October 2015)
- Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria regarding alleged incidents in Marea, Syrian Arab Republic August 2015 (29 October 2015)
The Trench blog comments
- 16 November: Investigation of alleged chlorine attacks in the Idlib Governorate (Syria) in March – May 2015
- 23 November: CW incidents alleged by the Syrian government: an industrial chemical as likely cause?
- 3 January: 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.
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.
[Cross-posted from The Trench.]
My previous posting (16 November) presented the findings by the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concerning allegations of the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon in Syria’s Idlib Governorate. The FFM concluded that the incidents likely involved the use of a toxic chemical containing the element chlorine as a weapon.
This report was one of three that the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW transmitted to states party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) for consideration at a special session of the Executive Council on 23 November. The other two reports address allegations of mustard agent use at Marea in northern Syria and chlorine attacks against Syrian government forces around Damascus.
This contribution focusses on the latter investigation. Syria submitted four Notes Verbales alleging a total of 26 chemical weapon (CW) events resulting in 432 casualties. The first reported incident dates back as far as 19 March 2013; the most recent ones took place in May 2015.
The investigative team deployed to Syria on 1 June, 1 August and 13 October. It has not yet finalised its investigation and the interim report circulating among CWC states parties focusses primarily on one incident at Jobar (‘Jober’ as spellt in the report), a municipality northeast of the old town of Damascus, on 29 August 2014. Although the investigation is ongoing, the FFM
is of the view that those affected in the alleged incident may have been exposed to some type of non-persistent, irritating airborne substance, following the surface impact of two launched objects.
However, based on the evidence presented by the Syrian National Authority, the medical records that were reviewed, and the prevailing narrative of all of the interviews, the FFM cannot confidently determine whether or not a chemical was used as a weapon.
The FFM was unable to identify a specific irritant, but believes an industrial chemical may offer the most plausible explanation for the reviewed symptoms. It as good as ruled out use of chlorine or nerve agents in Jobar on 29 August 2014.
Conclusions about some other incidents reported by the Syrian government will be part of the final report.
Allegations by the Syrian government
The Syrian Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, who also heads the Syrian CWC National Authority, submitted Note Verbale 150 to the Technical Secretariat on 15 December 2014. The document alleges 10 separate CW incidents in four Damascus neighbourhoods between April and September 2014 that resulted in 92 casualties, all among military personnel.
Syria’s Permanent Mission to the OPCW delivered Note Verbale 41 to the Technical Secretariat on 29 May 2015. It lists 13 separate incidents, five of which preceded Syria’s accession to the CWC, four whose dates fall within the date range of Note Verbale 150 and an additional four that took place early in 2015. These attacks allegedly occurred in the areas surrounding Aleppo and Damascus. Although this note is less explicit about the nature of the victims, it lists a minimum of 317 casualties, including at least five civilians. The document offers details on suspected chlorine use. The Syrian authorities requested members of the advance team (who deployed to Syria from 25 to 29 May 2015) that these events be included in the scope of the FFM. That, however, proved impossible without a new mandate covering additional events.
It is interesting to note that some of the incidents predating Syria’s accession to the CWC had already been examined by the UN investigative team in August and September 2013. That investigation corroborated allegations of CW use at Khan Al Asal and described the incident as ‘a rapidly onsetting [sic] mass intoxication by an organophosphorous compound in the morning of the 19 March 2013’, but added that ‘the release of chemical weapons at the alleged site could not be independently verified in the absence of primary information on delivery systems and of environmental and biomedical samples collected and analysed under the chain of custody’.
The two other incidents alleged in Note Verbale 41 took place immediately after the infamous Ghouta attack of 21 August 2013 and had also been investigated by the UN team. Of the one at Al-Bahriya (spelt as Bahhariyeh in the UN report) on 22 August 2013, the UN team could not corroborate the allegation. Blood samples all tested negative for any known signatures of chemical warfare agents.
With respect to the incident at Jobar on 24 August 2013 the UN report confirmed a ‘relatively small scale’ use of sarin against soldiers. However, again ‘in the absence of primary information on the delivery system(s) and environmental samples collected and analysed under the chain of custody, the United Nations Mission could not establish the link between the victims, the alleged event and the alleged site’.
Note Verbale 41 is equally intriguing for the absence of several other alleged incidents between March and September 2013 investigated by the UN team. These presumably concerned the investigation requests by France, the UK and the USA included in the mandate of the investigators by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Note Verbale 41 also lists some incidents not addressed by the UN team.
It is clear that the OPCW has all but ignored the allegations prior to Syria’s accession to the CWC.
Note Verbale 43 dated 3 June 2015 reports three additional incidents in May 2015.
Note Verbale 47 dated 15 June 2015 comprises six incidents that had already been mentioned in Note Verbale 41, but offers more background information, including greater detail on events, greater precision of sites of alleged attacks, and references to symptoms suffered by the exposed victims.
Based on Notes Verbales 41, 43 and 47, the FFM was dispatched for a second investigative deployment.
Assessment of the alleged incidents
In view of the large number of allegations, the FFM was unable to investigate each one or had to sequence investigations based on the severity of allegations. Thus it was agreed with the Syrians that the FFM would focus initially on the Jobar event of 29 August 2014 because it involved the highest number of reported casualties in Note Verbale 150.
After receipt of the additional Notes Verbales, the FFM proposed additional investigation of two allegations in 2014 and one in 2015. Based on additional data supplied by the Syrian government, the investigative team eventually looked into five reported events during its second deployment: 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.
The report of 29 October indicates that the FFM completed its mandate for the Jobar investigation. It expresses considerable frustration about the dearth of additional evidence to support the allegation:
The FFM is of the opinion that it would have been able to be 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.
While interviews with soldiers point to the possibility ‘of exposure to some type of non-persistent, airborne irritant secondary to the surface impact of two launched objects’, the FFM could not confidently determine whether such exposure might have resulted from the payload of the projectiles or from another source (propellant, a chemical stored in the area of impact, detonation products, etc.) because of insufficient evidence presented by Syria, insufficient details in reviewed medical records, and inconsistencies in the narratives of interviewees. So, the FFM concluded that:
while the general clinical presentation of those affected in the incident is consistent with brief exposure to any number of chemicals or environmental insults, the visual and olfactory description of the potential irritant does not clearly implicate any specific chemical.
This particular investigation was also hampered by the delay of some nine months between the alleged incident and the start of the mission. Notwithstanding, the FFM all but ruled out chlorine and organophosphorous compounds (e.g., sarin) as agents responsible for the described symptoms. High on the list of probabilities figures diBorane, which besides use as a rocket propellant also has application in electronic industries and the vulcanisation of rubber. As the report notes, these uses make it ‘relevant to the interests of a militarized non-state actor [and it is] also readily available in the region’. Many of the reviewed symptoms appear consistent with exposure to this non-persistent and volatile chemical.
The report on the allegations raised by the Syrian government is preliminary. The Jobar investigation is in the process of finalisation. The other mentioned incidents also remain under investigation pending final analysis. The interim report only contains an overview of activities undertaken until October 2015. These findings will also be included in the final report.
[Cross-posted from The Trench.]
On 29 October, the Technical Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) circulated three reports on investigations of alleged chemical weapons (CW) use in Syria. On 5 November Reuters published some details from the one addressing the alleged use of sulphur mustard agent in Marea, a town to the north of Aleppo, on 21 August. The two other reports address a series of incidents between 15 December 2014 and 15 June 2015 at the request of the Syrian government and between 16 March and 20 May 2015 in the Idlib Governorate documented by a variety of non-governmental sources.
For the purpose of clarity, the OPCW maintains a single Fact-Finding Mission (FFM), which has so far produced six reports. Under the FFM, the OPCW may deploy different teams to different locations.
The most recent reports will be released as part of the monthly OPCW reports on Syria to the UN Security Council, presumbly at the end of this month following the special session of the Executive Council on 23 November called to consider the findings.
Incidents in Idlib Governorate, March – May 2015
The Idlib Governorate lies to the south-west of Alleppo. During the spring of 2015 the international press and social media reported a string of incidents suggesting the use of chlorine as a weapon.
This team of the Fact-Finding Mission received its mandate to investigate incidents involving the use of toxicants as a weapon based on open-source media, other sources of information and materials obtained from non-governmental organisations. The investigation could not take place under optimal conditions, because the OPCW inspectors were unable to visit the sites of alleged incidents shortly after their occurrence, take their own samples or review the records onsite. Instead they based themselves on interviews and supplementary materials submitted during the interview process. They were nevertheless able to conclude:
In itself, no one source of information or evidence would lend particularly strong weighting as to whether there was an event that had used a toxic chemical as a weapon. However, taken in their entirety, sufficient facts were collected to conclude that incidents in the Syrian Arab Republic likely involved the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon. There is insufficient evidence to come to any firm conclusions as to the identification of the chemical, although there are factors indicating that the chemical probably contained the element chlorine.
The report documents 17 incidents in 6 locations between 16 March and 20 May 2015. They were responsible for six fatalities.
First depiction of a chemical barrel bomb dropped from helicopters
The report also included a depiction of a so-called barrel bomb, based on the various testimonials and collection of bomb fragments. It notes that the design of the improvised weapon underwent an evolution of their manufacture, probably driven by trial and error. However, only a singly type appears to have been used in the Idlib Governorate between March and May 2015.
The configuration consists of 9 gas cylinders (green) presumably filled with poisonous chemicals. The report suggests that they may have been filled with a chlorine or chloride containing compound. The flasks with potassium permanganate (pink) would then have been used to oxidise the chlorine containing compound, resulting in Cl2. The potassium permanganate may be responsible for the purple–red colour occasionally seen in pictures and video footage of impact sites.
This depiction definitely explains how high concentrations of chlorine were achieved locally, earlier assessments of improbability having been based on the assumption of the dropping or firing of single gas cilinders fitted with a light detonator. Interestingly, the barrel bomb configuration would not have contradicted this assumption, given the individual rigging of gas cylinders (see Brown Moses’ speculation on this in 2014) and the focus of outside observers on those cylinders. To the best of my recollection, only a single report on developments in Syria in 2014 prepared by Human Rights Watch made a passing reference to the possibility: ‘evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas on three towns in Northern Syria in mid-April‘.
On the value of the evidence
As usual and for good reason, the reports by the Technical Secretariat remain careful in their conclusions. Determination of reponsibility for the violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and other legal instruments banning chemical warfare is pre-eminently a political judgement. As noted earlier, the Executive Council will consider these findings (as well as those in the other two reports) on 23 November, after which they will be transferred to the UN Security Council. They will also inform the Joint Investigative Mission established by the UNSC in August, whose principal task it is to determine responsibility for chemical warfare in the Syrian civil war.
Meanwhile, the investigators assess their findings concerning the delivery system as follows:
The description of the alleged chemical weapon and its deployment derives from several inputs, as previously described. The features of the improvised chemical bomb are consistent with its being designed for deployment from a height. As most incidents happened during darkness, it is not surprising that no interviewees claimed to have seen the means of deployment. The deformation of the remnants is consistent with mechanical impact and explosive rupture, rather than explosion causing deflagration. Witnesses also reported a lesser explosive sound than for other more conventional types of bombs. Moreover, casualties’ signs and symptoms do not include physical injuries that would be expected from the deployment of an explosive device. The craters which have been claimed to have been caused by the device are also consistent with its being dropped from a height with lesser explosive power. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the devices were not designed to cause mechanical injury through explosive force but rather to rupture and release their contents.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is about to investigate the various allegations of the use of chlorine in Syria over the past few weeks. It is the right decision. It is the only decision possible in view of the many witness accounts and footage available on internet sites. However, the hope that the announcement of the fact-finding mission on 29 April might deter the perpetrator from future chlorine attacks was quickly dashed: a new chlorine bombing took place a day later.
The symbolism of the date cannot be overstated. 29 April was the 17th anniversary of the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). 29 April is the UN’s annual Day of Remembrance for all Victims of Chemical Warfare. And now, 29 April is also the day on which for the first time the potential violation of the ban on the use of chemical weapons (CW) by a state party to the CWC was officially recognised. A mere six months after Syria joined the convention. And 99 years after chlorine ushered in the age of modern chemical warfare.
On the same day, a British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, felt the need to headline that it had the proof that Assad launched the chlorine attacks. It caused a stir, not in the least because the article ended with the claim that the newspaper’s investigation was on a par with OPCW procedures. Hardly.
No stranger to the battlefield of world opinion
It is worth recalling that initial accounts on the chemical attack at Khan al-Assal (near Aleppo) on 19 March 2013 referred to chlorine. Early press reports mentioned 26 fatalities, a figure that would eventually rise into the low thirties, and scores of otherwise harmed individuals. I was not convinced that the observed effects correlated with claims about the agents used. In a March 2013 brief for the EU Institute for Security Studies I wrote:
This claim is intrinsically problematic. Exposure to chlorine stored in a warehouse or near a production installation hit by a shell could account for respiratory problems and skin irritation, but not for a high number of fatalities. One would need a very high volume of the agent to obtain lethal doses in open air; the explosion would most likely destroy part of the agent; and highly recognisable evidence of corrosion at the site of attack could not be missed.
More recent accounts specify that Islamic extremists filled a home-made rocket with chlorine dissolved in a saline solution. The agent would thus amount to Eau de Javel (bleach). Even in its highest industrial concentration of 40%, the agent cannot explain the fatalities, even if one were to assume that a very large number of home-made rockets hit the target in a tight cluster.
A month later, I remained just as unconvinced. In the meantime, having reviewed all CW references I had collected since the start of the Syrian civil war, I was struck by how stories on a particular incident may change with time. As a rule of thumb, everything ultimately turned into sarin. And as suggested in the quote above, sarin could become bleach. It is worth retracing that metamorphosis.
The Khan al-Assal attack of 19 March prompted the Syrian Government to request the UN Secretary General to conduct an investigation of alleged use. As already mentioned, reports at the time were referring to chlorine or witnesses recalling a chlorine smell. Chlorine was also what the Syrian government reportedly cited in its letter to Ban Ki-moon. Already early in December 2012, the Syrian Foreign Ministry had warned of possible insurgent use of CW in letters to the UN. It alluded to a Syrian-Saudi factory SYSACCO near al-Safirah (southeast of Aleppo), which had just been captured by militants from the jihadist Al-Nusra Front. That factory produced sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) and hydrochloric acid (HCl). Not only did this claim prepare a plausible foundation for the chlorine allegations three months later, it also gets close to the bleach (sodium hypochlorite), commercially known as Eau de Javel in Europe.
Four days after the alleged attack we learn that ‘the Syrian military believe that a home-made locally-manufactured rocket was fired, containing a form of chlorine known as CL17, easily available as a swimming pool cleaner. They claim that the warhead contained a quantity of the gas, dissolved in saline solution’. Now, what form of chlorine is Cl17? A look at the Mendeleev’s Periodic Table teaches us that Cl is the chemical abbreviation of chlorine and 17 is its chemical number. However, this demystified CL17 is contained in a saline solution, which is, of course, sodium hypochlorite. I use it to disinfect my toilet. Eau de Javel as a chemical warfare agent, that was new to me. (However, do note the source of that story.)
So, please forgive me if I seem to demand a higher level of convincing.
Questions I would like to see answered
- From some of the footage available on the internet, I do think that a toxic substance must have affected a number of people. However, I am less sure about the more precise elements in the accusations. For example, based on the pictures of one of the flasks, I gather that a substance (in this case, liquid chlorine, I presume, but then letters with white powder are also often marked ‘anthrax’) was contained in a small industry-standard vessel (apparently of Chinese origin & and marked Cl2). What I would like to know is how much explosive it would take to break open such a container? How much chlorine (if this is what was inside) would have been destroyed or burned by that explosion? What are the dynamics of chlorine release in the scenario that the amount of explosives is sufficient just to break the seal / valve of the vessel? I have been told that such an amount would be very small, but how does the resulting aperture affect the dynamics of gas release? Was the vessel contained inside a drum (i.e., a confined space), as some reports suggest? If so, how does that affect the dynamics of the explosion and gas release? What would the impact of an explosive devise have on the rate of release of the chlorine and how much of the chlorine would actually remain after the rupture of the container?
- How much chlorine (if this was what it was) was inside the vessel? How would sufficient chlorine be built up locally to seriously injure or even kill people? In what environment was the chlorine released (e.g., closed space of a room or outside in the open air)? Chlorine is perceptible to humans in very low concentrations, so why would people remain in close vicinity of the devise long enough to absorb a harmful dose of chlorine? Following the blast, I have been told, people in close proximity of the bomb may be dazed and confused and in their disorientation may consequently not escape from the area. Was this the case?
- Would an industry-standard container rupture simply by dropping it from a helicopter?
- One film clip on Brown Moses’ blog shows a helicopter dropping something, followed by a – in my mind – big flash. Would chlorine withstand the forces and heat of such a detonation? Detonation of chlorine was pretty ineffective in Iraq (at least as regards the impact of chlorine on the targeted group of people).
- Are there any reports of corroded metals in the vicinity of the area of release? (Moisture in the air acts as a catalyst for chemical reactions with chlorine, and the agent is very aggressive on metals and alloys.)
- Why do press reports refer to a ‘yellow’ smoke or powder (as one Beirut-based journalist described the observations to me)? Chlorine tends more towards pale green, sometimes with a yellowish hue. However, the yellow might dominate in a sun-swamped environment and an overall sandy-colour backdrop. I do not know. A BBC clip (2nd clip, middle article, final seconds) posted on 28 April, shows yellow smoke from a barrel bomb attack in which no chlorine was used. So, can we see similarities of symptoms and phenomena between different types of attack, but which witnesses do not or cannot differentiate? Another example: as for the reports of a chlorine smell near the scene of the Khan al-Assal attack in March 2013, chemical weapons expert and chief operating officer of SecureBio, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, then said that conventional high explosives can also produce an odour which might be mistaken for chlorine.
- Would one expect a hissing sound as the chlorine under pressure escapes from the container? Have we seen any such witness accounts?
- Are we looking at a case of what I call ‘opportunistic use of toxic chemicals’, where people (government soldiers, their allies, or insurgents) took hold of containers at an industrial site and improvised a new device of war? In other words, are we looking at a case of deliberate preparation for chemical warfare by whoever is responsible for the events?
A good call
The OPCW Director-General’s decision is the right one. Ambiguity and speculation must be removed—and fast. The lack of precise timing (or explanation of the necessary preparations and precautions) in the OPCW press statement is worrying, and not just because this is the first time the organisation is called upon to launch an investigation of use all by itself (in previous investigations the OPCW assisted the UN Secretary-General, as Syria was not yet a party to the CWC). Chlorine is a very volatile element, so the critical question is how long the agent might reside in the soil, on other surfaces or inside containers? The answer is not long, especially not in the heat of Syria.
Still, the exercise should not be futile. Investigations of alleged use typically apply various methods (medical analysis, identification of plausible witnesses and corroboration of individual stories, matching pictures and film footage based on the stories by the carefully selected witnesses, etc.), whose independent results should contribute to building a more or less consistent picture of events. The OPCW inspectors would deploy sophisticated detection equipment. Any evidence brought back from the incident sites would be subject to strict procedures to preserve the chain of custody and then divided over multiple OPCW-certified laboratories for analysis.
And oh, just as a small afterthought: with an OPCW investigation, one of course does not have to wonder who has paid the piper.
[Cross-posted from The Trench]