Investigation of alleged CW use in Syria: The reports 2013–15

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Investigations under the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism

Investigations by the OPCW Fact-Finding MIssion

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CW incidents alleged by the Syrian government: an industrial chemical as likely cause?

[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.

Summary of allegations in Note Verbale 150

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.

Summary of allegations in Note Verbale 41

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.

NV43

Summary of allegations in Note Verbale 43

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.

NV47

Summary of allegations in Note Verbale 47

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.

FFM Jobar chemicals probability

Jobar: Likelyhood of toxic chemicals to which victims might have been exposed (Source: OPCW)

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.


Gradually making sense of Syria’s CW declarations

Since my last update on the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapon (CW) capacities in May, all precursor chemicals have finally left the country. Some have been shipped to facilities in Finland and the USA, where they are in the process of being destroyed. The United Kingdom meanwhile completed the destruction of 190 tonnes of chemicals at an incinerator in Ellesmere Port.

As of 7 August, 74.2% of Syria’s entire stockpile of chemical warfare agent precursors have been destroyed. Other chemicals are meanwhile being neutralised on board of the US vessel Cape Ray in the Mediterranean, and the resulting reaction mass will eventually be commercially incinerated too.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is gradually slipping off the radar screen of international media. The huge pressure of safely evacuating the precursor chemicals from the war-torn country now removed, the organisation can slowly return to its more familiar role in the background of international politics: monitoring compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and resolving any outstanding issues. Syria will increasingly become more integrated as a ‘normal’ member of the OPCW. This, however, does not mean that the OPCW will relax its efforts to achieve full accounting of its chemical warfare programmes, clarification of allegations of CW use, or complete destruction of all relevant declared facilities. Syria’s recurring amendments to its initial declaration of 23 October 2013 demonstrate the grinding, but nonetheless steady progress the OPCW is making.

Two new elements (at least to outsiders) have surfaced over the past couple of weeks: Syria’s presentation of a destruction plan for abandoned chemical weapons (ACW) and the declaration of a CW production facility dedicated to ricin manufacture.

Re-hexamination of Syria’s sarin

The UN Secretary-General’s latest monthly progress report on the elimination of Syria’s chemical warfare capabilities refers to Syria’s submission on 14 July of a destruction plan for two sarin-filled munitions. Syria denies ownership of these CW and has therefore declared them as ACW.

The two munitions were recovered after the CW attack at Jobar, an eastern suburb of Damascus, on 24 August 2013 (i.e., three days after the Ghouta chemical attacks). Four days later, Syria notified the UN Secretary General of the use of an improvised explosive device (IED) releasing a foul and strange odour. The UN team investigating alleged CW use visited the site on 29 September. It was unable to examine the place of impact or recover munition fragments, because mine clearing operations had completely corrupted the surroundings. Syrian officials handed over IED fragments and contaminated soil samples, which they claimed came from the incident site. For obvious reasons, the UN team could not certify their chain of custody.

According to the Final Report by the UN Mission (p. 65), the investigative team ‘was also presented with two metal canisters discovered by Government soldiers during the offensive operations in Jobar on 25 August 2013 in the immediate aftermath of the incident and in close vicinity of the site of the alleged incident’. These were said to be identical to ones used in the chemical incident the day before. Made of steel sheeting of 1mm thickness, the plates were bent and welded together manually at a sub-industrial standard. The canisters nevertheless revealed a high degree of expertise with the electric welding process. The UN investigators were also able to establish that ‘a detonator and a coiling of the detonating cord, acting as a booster, composed the fire train, electrically initiated’. They had an internal fill capacity of up to approximately 4 litres (see figure below). The two metal canisters are the ACW Syria declared to the OPCW. (This description corrects the suggestion in my posting of 26 May that the two ACW were Volcano rockets. The claim that Syria did not declare any Volcano rockets as CW still stands, however.)

Syria CW IED - UN investigation

Analysis of their contents by the OPCW confirmed sarin as their payload. Moreover, the filling displayed all the characteristics of sarin as produced by the Syrian government, the principal telltale sign being the presence of hexamine (hexamethylenetetramine). Since its presence in samples was first reported by the UN investigative team last September in relation to the Ghouta attack and the OPCW later released that Syria had declared 80 metric tonnes of the chemical in connection with sarin production, there has been furious speculation as to its exact role. In a recent analysis focussing explicitly on the role of hexamine, UK-based CW expert Daniel Kaszeta argued that the Syrians used the compound as an acid scavenger in the final reaction of their rather unique sarin production process. Reacting DF (methylphosphonyl difluoride) with isopropanol yields sarin and hydrofluoric acid, the latter being a toxic and extremely corrosive gas that would have quickly damaged the production and agent filling installations. Hexamine binds this acid, and does so more efficiently than other amino compounds.

However, recent discussions with officials from some Western states indicate two other roles of hexamine, namely as catalyst and stabiliser. The catalyst function is probably closely tied to the acid scrubber role. In an e-mail exchange today, Ralf Trapp, a chemist and consultant to the OPCW, confirmed that hexamine increases the yield of the chemical reaction by pulling the equilibrium between the precursors and reaction product (sarin) in favour of the latter. As a result, the sarin concentration receives a significant boost, possibly up to 60%. This degree of purity is considerably higher than the yields achieved by Iraq in the 1980s.

As a stabiliser, hexamine probably allowed the Syrians to store freshly produced sarin for days, if not several weeks. This understanding is more compatible with views before the civil war that Syria’s CW served strategic deterrence. Munitions declared to the OPCW last autumn also seem to validate those views. Initiating the final reaction shortly before use, as was the case in Iraq, would have undermined this doctrinal role. The insight also raises fresh questions about the curious White House claim last August that the United States had observed Syrian preparations for three days prior to the Ghouta attacks.

Strictly speaking, the chemical analysis of the sarin in the two ACW confirms beyond any doubt that the nerve agent was produced by means of the same process as the one used by the Syrian government. The distinctive signature, however, cannot exclude the possibility that insurgents might have captured some CW. Western officials tend not to give much credence to this hypothesis.

Castor beans: cancer research, castor oil, or ricin?

The latest monthly progress report also reveals that on 14 July Syria submitted yet another amendment to its initial declaration. The document lists a dedicated ricin production plant. As a weapon the toxin is banned under both the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the CWC. The CWC requires the verified destruction of CW production facilities, but the amendment claims that it is located in an area not under government control. It also states that the entire quantity of ricin produced was eliminated prior to the entry into force of the CWC for Syria. If correct, then Syria need not declare its past toxin weapon holding. CW disarmament in Syria, however, is hardly a normal operation. As with its claimed destruction of 200 tonnes of mustard agent early in 2013, the OPCW must investigate those statements to ascertain that the country is not hiding any residual CW.

This progress report was the first to publicly mention ricin production. Last April concerns about the toxin had already filtered out of the United Nations, but they have thus far remained a relatively low-level matter at the OPCW. This was in part a consequence of the high-priority preoccupation with getting the precursor chemicals out of Syria, and in part because nothing seems to indicate that the country presently has ricin weapons. Questions remain nonetheless.

Syria apparently cultivated castor oil plants (Ricinus communis) on several tracts the size of football fields. In itself, this is no so unusual as the oil makes for an excellent lubricant for heavy engines, such as those in military lorries. However, Syria’s initial explanation referred to cancer research and treatment, which was wholly implausible in view of the minute quantities of ricin required for research. Castor oil also lacks any medicinal value to cure cancer. It was used to deliver some chemotherapy drugs to tumours, but occasional side effects, such as allergic reactions, have led to the adoption of alternatives. Starting in the 1980s, Texas Tech University and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center conducted long-term research on the oncological application of genetically modified ricin to kill diseased cells. According to a press release of October 1998, ‘just two acres of land, given the right castor seed, could produce enough ricin to meet the world’s pharmaceutical supply need for cancer treatment’. Ricin is also being investigated in relation to neurological degenerative disorders and in the treatment of intractable painful neuropathies.  It is rather hard to think of Syria as a global supplier of medicinal ricin many times over.

This leaves the question of ricin as a weapon. Ricin is an instrument of choice for assassinations, as befell Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov in London in 1978. More recently clumsy attempts to send ricin-filled letters to hated persons, including President Barack Obama, have also put the spotlight on the agent. Since the First World War many states considered ricin as a possible tool of warfare, but they have never incorporated it as a standard agent into their chemical and biological warfare arsenals. Despite the military attractiveness of its toxicity, the toxin poses several serious problems in relation to large-scale production, longer-term storage (unless turned into a solid), and dissemination techniques. While none of these problems are insurmountable, the net effect is that the agent is more cumbersome to weaponise or less effective on the battlefield than alternatives.

Right now the reason behind Syria’s declaration of a CW production facility exclusively dedicated to ricin manufacture remains murky. On the one hand, in view of the many publicly available accounts describing the many difficulties of producing and especially storing the toxin in free state for longer periods of time, it almost seems implausible that Syria would have embarked on a major ricin weapon programme. Interestingly, several Western officials I recently spoke to tend to discount public Israeli reports on Syria’s ricin programme. The annual US State Department report on arms control treaty compliance for 2014 dropped the reference to ricin-based biological weapons in the BTWC section and does not mention the toxin in the separate CWC compliance report. The 2013 treaty compliance document still stated: ‘In 2004, Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center said in a report on Syria that the Scientific Studies and Research Center had been developing ricin-based biological weapons’.

On the other hand, if the Syrian factory was indeed dedicated to the production of oil or lubricants, the possibility exists that it used a cold hydraulic pressing technique, in which case 1–5% by weight of ricin might remain in the resulting mash. A fact sheet on ricin by the OPCW Science Advisory Board (SAB) released in February 2014 notes that castor oil production plants are not subject to Schedule 1 inspections under Article VI of the CWC. The SAB therefore recommended that the Director-General encourage National Authorities in producing countries to promote hot pressing and other techniques that ensure inactivation of residual ricin in the waste mash. In other words, the Syrian amendment might reflect a compromise with the OPCW to remove any ambiguity about the purpose of the ricin resulting from a particular production process in view of the need for absolute certainty that all aspects of the country’s CW programme have been eliminated. A future oil-extraction plant using a process that inactivates residual ricin could then be constructed without the need for long-term verification modalities for that installation.

A possible explanation for the ricin factory declaration for sure, but more details are required to confirm the scenario. To be continued.

And the destruction of mustard agent?

As I reported in May, OPCW inspectors were looking into Syria’s claim earlier this year that it had destroyed some 200 tonnes of mustard agent in the spring of 2013. They are still trying to obtain further documentation substantiating these destruction operations. Onsite inspections of the disposal sites are still pending before this particular file can be closed.

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]


Must the Belgian babies be bayoneted all over again?

August, 100 years ago: the Hun from the east invaded little, neutral Belgium. In the opening weeks of the campaign the Hun was not a good boy. He willfully executed civilians, raped women, destroyed historical monuments and burned down university libraries—all war crimes that have been extensively documented. The worst barbarian acts, however, he committed against babies. He cut off their hands, so that the grownup man could never take up arms against the Hunnic master. Worse, he tossed them in the air and caught them on his bayonet. Alas, each investigated claim proved to be a myth. Meanwhile, many a Brit had enlisted to revenge the ‘Rape of Belgium’.

Similar stories appealing to public emotion circulated before the outbreak of World War I. And they have been fabricated since. Remember the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and Nayirah’s testimony before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus? Nayirah, then 15 years old, told of Iraqi soldiers seizing incubators from Kuwaiti hospitals and leaving the babies to die on cold floors. Nayirah turned out to be the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the US, and the accusations were reportedly coached by a US-based PR company contracted by the Kuwaiti government. However, the tale received a huge credibility boost from  Amnesty International. The human rights watchdog claimed in a December 1991 report that its investigation team talked with several doctors and nurses who ‘gave details of the deaths of 300 babies removed from incubators in hospitals by Iraqi troops and left to die on cold floors’ (Douglas Walton, 1995, p. 772). (Amnesty international eventually retracted its report, unlike Human Rights Watch today, which released a dubious report on the Ghouta attacks and—in a modern version of the Vietnam-era ‘destroy the town to save it’—seized on the chemical weapon allegations to call for military strikes against Syria.)

Which brings us to current press reports of genetically malformed babies as a consequence of chemical warfare in Syria.

Deformed babies after the Ghouta attack

A few days ago, The Telegraph (London) and the Daily Star (Beirut) published testimonies and pictures of children born with genetic defects from the Ghouta district near Damascus. Other babies were reported to have been stillborn. Parents and attending physicians attributed the occurrences to the chemical attacks there last August. The UN investigative team confirmed the use of the nerve agent sarin in those attacks.

Many toxic chemicals are known mutagens. Some directly damage the DNA, resulting in replication errors. Some interfere with the replication process itself, and yet other ones can create mutagenic metabolites. Certain cancers may result from genotoxic properties of chemicals. As a matter of history, research into the physiological consequences of exposure to mustard agents after World War I and during World War II contributed to the development of chemotherapy against cancer. Chronic exposure to such genotoxicants may also lead to transgenerational genetic effects. Images of mutant fish and amphibians living in polluted water reservoirs come to mind. The severely malformed infants of Vietnamese parents and US veterans who were exposed to large doses of Agent Orange sprayed to defoliate forests during the Indochina war remain living proof of the transgenerational mutagenic and teratogenic consequences of certain chemical warfare agents. Research into the long-term health implications of the chemical bombing of the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988 has revealed similar transgenerational effects of mustard agent.

The main problem with the current claims of genetically malformed babies in the Ghouta area is that no indicators are available to conclude that the nerve agent sarin provokes cancer or leads to genetic defects.

Long-term research into the effects of sarin

As a consequence of the prevalence of illnesses related to the 1990–91 Gulf War among US military personnel, the United States conducted extensive investigations into the consequences of exposure to nerve agents. One report, published in 1996, failed to link the neurotoxicants to cancers or mutations (GB is the US military code for sarin):

Carcinogenicity, Mutagenicity, Teratogenicity
Organophosphates are not recognized as being carcinogens. No evidence was found to suggest that GB has carcinogenic potential. In a follow-up study of approximately 995 U.S. Army volunteers who participated in anticholinesterase experiments at the U.S. Army laboratories, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Edgewood, Maryland during 1955-1975, no consistent pattern of increased risk of cancer was found (NRC, 1985). The study was of relatively low statistical power, and was only able to identify large differences. The investigators concluded that, based on these findings, and the 10 lifetime studies of carcinogenicity of organophosphates sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, that anticholinesterase compounds did not induce malignancies among the Edgewood subjects.

Goldman, Klein, Kawakami and Rosenblatt (1987) concluded that GB is not mutagenic based on both in vivo and in vitro evaluations. Negative results were found in the Ames Salmonella bacterial gene mutation assay using 5 different strains exposed to a range of concentration of GB. Mouse lymphoma cell tests, Chinese hamster ovary cell tests, including sister chromatid exchange assays, and rat hepatocyte assays (for unscheduled DNA synthesis and damage) were all negative for mutagenic activity.

No evidence of teratogenicity of GB was found. Organophosphates are generally not considered to have significant reproductive effects; no studies to directly evaluate this characteristic in GB were found. In their study of the toxicity of chronic exposure of dogs to GB, Jacobsen, Christensen, DeArmon, and Oberst (1959) had the male animals bred after 25 weeks of daily moderate doses of GB; the offspring were normal.

In their one year, low-dose GB inhalation exposure study of a variety of animals, Weimer et al (1979) found no abnormalities in reproduction and fertility, fetal toxicity, or teratogenesis in Sprague-Dawley/Wistar rats. Testicular atrophy was noted in the Fischer rat, but the authors speculated other causes, since later experiments (using a different route of exposure) did not replicate the finding. In their report, the authors also cite work conducted by J. R. Denk (EB-TR-74087 Effects of GB on Mammalian Germ Cells and Reproductive Performance, February 1975) which came to the same negative conclusions.

Similarly, an Emergency Response Card, last reviewed by the Centers for Disease Control on 12 May 2011, notes:

EFFECTS OF CHRONIC OR REPEATED EXPOSURE: Limited data are available on chronic or repeated exposure to sarin. The available data however, suggest that sarin is not a human carcinogen, reproductive toxin, or developmental toxin. Limited data suggest that chronic or repeated exposure to sarin may result in a delayed postural sway and/or impaired psychomotor performance (neuropathy).

 Attribution to chlorine and mustard agent exposure

The Daily Star also offered a bizarre linkage with chlorine, the agent of recent chemical warfare allegations in Syria:

While stressing that he was not a doctor, chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon pointed to similar birth defects witnessed after the 1988 Halabja massacre, when the Iraqi government launched a chemical attack against the local Kurdish population.

De Bretton-Gordon, CEO of SecureBio, a UK-based Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear consultancy firm and former commander of the British military’s CBRN forces, said of the images of Joud: ‘Yes I think there is something in this and we saw similar from Halabja victims. I’m obviously not a doctor but chemical weapons, including chlorine, are known to be carcinogenic and mutanogenic.” (Sic)

The Center for Disease Control, the U.S. national public health institute, states that in the use of organophosphates such as sarin, ‘the possibility that birth defects could occur has neither been confirmed nor ruled out.’ Chlorine is not included in this nerve agent category, as it is a blister agent.

The Health Protection Agency (today Public Health England) published a toxicological overview of chlorine (2007) and excluded any of the above cited consequences from exposure:

Genotoxicity

No data are available on the mutagenicity of chlorine gas per se, although the mutagenicity of solutions of chlorine in water (hypochlorite and its salts) has been investigated. Sodium hypochlorite has been shown to have some mutagenic activity in vitro (both bacterial and mammalian cells) that may be due to the generation of reactive oxygen species. However, there is no evidence for activity in vivo. Negative results were obtained in bone marrow assays for clastogenicity (chromosome aberrations and micronuclei) in mice. The negative results reported in the carcinogenicity bioassays also support the view that hypochlorite does not have any significant mutagenic potential in vivo.

Carcinogenicity

Negative results were obtained when chlorine (dissolved in drinking water) was investigated in a National Toxicology Program (NTP) carcinogenicity bioassay in rats and mice; concentrations of up to 275 ppm chlorine were used. Previously, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) had evaluated the carcinogenicity of hypochlorite salts and concluded that there was no data available from human studies and that the data from experimental studies in animals was inadequate. Therefore, hypochlorite salts were assigned to Group 3, i.e., compounds that are not classifiable as to their carcinogenicity in humans.

Reproductive and developmental toxicity

In general, animal studies have demonstrated no reproductive or teratogenic effects of chlorine. The effects of water chlorinated to a level of 150 mg L -1 were investigated in rats over 7 generations. No effects were observed on fertility, growth or survival.

Whether the interviewed expert actually expressed the words as recorded in the Daily Star is uncertain. The last sentence in the newspaper quote may indicate a mixup on the part of the journalist: ‘Chlorine is not included in this nerve agent category, as it is a blister agent.’ Chlorine, of course, is a choking agent, not a vesicant such as mustard gas.

As noted above, Saddam Hussein’s forces did employ mustard agent against Halabja and exposure to the agent can have genetic consequences for the survivors. However, nobody has ever alleged mustard gas use with respect to the chemical weapon attacks against Ghouta (or for that matter during the Syrian civil war). Therefore, speculating on the consequences of an agent not at issue is entirely irrelevant.

Spurious argumentation

Substantiation of the claims rests on impressions and convictions of the affected families and some doctors working in the field making straightforward linkages between an observed phenomenon and the appearance of supposed consequences a while later. The articles offer no independently verified facts on the previous incidence of malformed children in the affected area or within the families.

The mothers in question are all reported to have been pregnant at the time of the gas attacks against Ghouta. Certain chemicals are known to affect the development of the foetus, the consumption of alcohol and smoking during pregnancy being prime examples. Sarin, however, does not appear to have such an impact, although, of course, one cannot exclude that the ways in which the body responds to the poisoning and the administered antidotes may impact on foetal growth.

Instead of exploring the deeper connections between cause and effect, The Telegraph chose to refer to the testimony by Dr Christine Gosden before the US Congress (which actually took place on 22 April 1998). She described how the inhabitants of Halabja were exposed to a cocktail of chemicals. With regard to the impact of mustard gas, she noted:

Long term effects. The most serious of the long term effects arise because mustard gas is carcinogenic and mutagenic. In the respiratory system there are increased risks of chronic lung disease, asthma, bronchitis. Permanent impairment of vision may occur and eye damage may be severe, leading to blindness. Skin lesions and burns may be severe with persistent changes and hypersensitivity to mechanical injury. Carcinogenic and mutagenic effects can result in cancers, congenital malformations and infertility. Long term effects (mutagenesis, carcinogenesis, eye, skin, lung, fertility, etc.) are dose and route dependent.

She does not claim similar consequences from exposure to nerve agents. Most importantly, the remainder of her testimony details the various short- and long-term symptoms observed in the victims over a 10-year period, but does not attribute any one of them to a specific warfare agent. In other words, invoking Gosden’s report as evidence in support of the claims regarding the consequences of the Ghouta attack is misleading, more so as the only agent that might strongly suggest carcinogenic or mutagenic consequences was not used in Syria.

The Telegraph article (unwittingly?) offers a very good alternative explanation for the genetic malformations (emphasis added):

‘We are receiving pregnant women in Arsal from many areas such as Qusair, Homs, Kalamoon, and [outer] Damascus, they come across the border for giving birth but in some cases the result is tragedy.’

‘We are receiving around 100 births a month in Arsal, about 12 per cent in the average out of them are stillborn,’ [Dr Kasem al-Zein] said. ‘The problems for newborn children are mostly occurring in women who were exposed to the chemical weapons, but also we have noticed that all women who lived in areas exposed to shelling by barrels and missiles are suffering fetal diseases.’

Arsal lies to the northeast of Baalbek in Lebanon. Since the reported cases attributed to chemical attacks are all from the last week or two, it is very difficult to determine how large a part of the monthly average they (can) represent. In contrast, the numbers do hint at possible roles of prolonged extreme stress, concussion, exposure to high levels of dust, malnourishment, and so on, in the incidence of miscarriages and malformed babies.

Déjà vu

The story leaves a distinct impression of having seen it all before. The Telegraph came up with a defector, General Zaher al-Sakat, who had replaced sarin with Eau de Javel, a story that did not get much traction. Last month, it offered proof of chlorine use, which it claimed to be on a par with the methodologies applied by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. And interestingly enough, as the Christian Science Monitor wrote on 6 September 2002, ‘the first mention of babies being removed from incubators appeared in the Sept. 5 [1991] edition of the London Daily Telegraph’. That was on the eve of the decision to authorise military force to eject Iraq from Kuwait.

Seeking out plausible alternative explanations for observed phenomena and then eliminating them systematically goes a long way to establishing the credibility of an allegation. Are the current claims of mutagenic consequences of the chemical strikes in Ghouta part of a concerted ploy to again build a humanitarian case for Western military intervention against the regime of Bashar al-Assad? If so, it smacks of bayoneted Belgian babies all over again.

[Cross-posted from The Trench]


Let’s Get Syri-ous About Chemical Weapons

A few days ago Robert Serry, the UN Middle East peace envoy, informed the Security Council of increasing reports on chemical weapon (CW) use in the Syrian civil war. He was right of course: in the first four months of 2013 the total number of alleged incidents had already risen by 500% compared to the whole of 2012. Last year there was one claim of CW use with a specific place and time: an attack with an incapacitating agent—sometimes referred to as BZ, other times as (the non-existent) Agent 15 (part of the Iraq invasion lore) near Homs.

Up to 30 April 2013 five such site- and time-specific reports emerged:

  • 19 March: The Syrian government accused the insurgents of a chemical attack in Khan al-Assal, Aleppo province. The chlorine (which incredibly turned into sarin over time, and ultimately became bleach) in the rocket killed 16 people according to early reports, a figure that eventually rose to 31. Rebel forces quickly put the blame on the Syrian armed forces. As written in an earlier Arms Control Law contribution, pictures and film footage did not support the allegation.
  • 19 March: Rebel allegation of CW attack at Al-Otaybeh, east of Damascus, involving organophosphates. This incident yielded the image of man with foam around the mouth. Foaming is typical of drowning, so the accusation might have had some foundation if the rebels had alleged phosgene use. (Phosgene causes the lungs to be filled with fluid, producing a condition known as ‘dry land drowning’.) However, it is not characteristic of exposure to a nerve agent. A morgue allegedly held six CW fatalities, but not all victims came from Al-Otaybeh.
  • 24 March: Rebels allege the use of ‘chemical phosphorus’ bombs at Adra, near Douma. As they did not report burns, the term could have been a misuse for organophosphates. The reports also referred to poisonous gas of some variety producing convulsions, excess saliva, narrow pupils and vomiting.
  • 13 April: Two women and two children reportedly died from a chemical agent in a bomb dropped by the Syrian air force in Sheikh Maqsoud, Aleppo District. The death toll, however, varied. Twelve people were also reported to have been injured after contact with the initial victims and responded well to atropine treatment.
  • 29 April: Eight people reportedly suffered from vomiting and breathing problems after helicopters had dropped canisters over Saraqeb. One woman later died. One observer presented pictures of canisters similar to one found in Sheikh Maqsoud. While apparently correct, nothing indicates what their contents might have been (some pictures appear to show a bullet exit hole in a canister).

I cannot judge from afar whether these allegations are correct or not. However, I do remain surprised by the lack of visual evidence. In these days of the Internet and when every participant in the Arab uprisings seems to own a camera-equipped smart phone, I cannot find any images or film of victims displaying outward symptoms that correspond with the claimed agent. No images of fatalities; and no images of the areas where the actual attacks took place. Yes, one [1] picture showed a purported site, but did the scattered animals really die from a CW attack?

More strikingly, the allegations lack density. One would/should expect a multitude of reports with a variety of witnesses recounting a more or less similar incident. One would/should expect them evoke different imageries to express their respective emotions and experiences. These help to reconstruct a testable reality, even from afar. For instance, based on the many television reports in the immediate aftermath of the chemical attacks against Halabja in March 1988—internet and mobile phone prehistory!—I was able to sketch a map of the affected area. The layout later proved to be remarkably similar to the drawing in the report by experts from the Belgian-Dutch Médecins sans frontières who were the first foreigners to reach the town. (As I had no sense of distance, dimensions did differ.) If I read that the US State Department is working behind the scenes to identify medical professionals with proof of CW use and planning to move them out of Syria to meet with UN investigators in Turkey, then I really begin to wonder how scant all other evidence now available to governments must be.

Let’s get serious about chemical weapons in Syria

Based on materials available so far, I continue to find it difficult to give any credence to the CW allegations. The claims do not match reported symptoms. There is no evidence-based back-up of specific allegations from different (including government) sources. Nobody has offered serious refutation of plausible alternative explanations for the described phenomena.

With the passage of time even the narrative has changed: a Midas touch has turned chlorine to sarin, the golden accusation of evil (think Saddam; think Aum Shinrikyo). Indeed, the allegations have mouldered into amorphous compost fertilising calls for humanitarian or military intervention, arming the insurgents and regime change. Particularly, US President Barack Obama’s drawing of a red line with regard to chemical warfare in August 2012 and the questioning of his willingness to follow up on his threat in the light of more recent allegations have distorted discussion of what is actually happening on the ground. More to the point: all these issues have little bearing on whether CW were used or not. If humanitarian law judges 80,000 dead in the civil war as insufficient to justify foreign military intervention, then why would a few scores of fatalities from (supposed) chemical attacks sway the international community, represented by the UN and other regional security and humanitarian institutions? Is it perhaps that ‘eighty thousand’ already represents a ‘statistic’, while politicians today are desperately looking for a ‘tragedy’?

There are serious indications—no proof—that something is amiss in Syria. That something is poisoning the air, literally and metaphorically. For this reason alone, credible and independent investigation of incidents is overdue by long. We surely do not want another Curveball knocking democracy unconscious. Or do we?