Chemical Weapons Experts Respond to Damascus Gassings

Yesterday, the Assad regime said it would grant the UN team immediate access to the sites of Wednesday’s “alleged” chemical attack. “Alleged” because Faisal Meqdad, Assad’s deputy-foreign minister who confirmed the news in an interview with CNN, continues to claim that no chemical attack took place whatsoever and that the entire thing was fake and “staged” by the opposition. This was the Assad’s regime initial response to the chemical massacre. However, Russia and Iran’s response differed in that it did admit that chemical weapons had been used, but by the opposition. Shortly after, Assad’s propaganda outlets followed. Nothing out of the ordinary, it’s the usual schizophrenic “nothing happened but the terrorists did it”-line.

Meqdad’s return to outright denial is significant however because today, if the UN team has actually been given access this morning and seeing is believing, it would have been after more than 5 days since the massacre took place. Not only is that a long time, during those 125 hours or so Assad has constantly been “conventionally” bombarding these very sites. The chance that any significant evidence has been preserved seems therefore rather slim. Furthermore, in case the UN team does find enough evidence to establish that chemical weapons have been used, it doesn’t have the capability or mandate to establish who is responsible for using them.

That this massacre took place is indisputable, nor can there be much doubt that chemical weapons have been used to commit it whether that is very relevant in the context of the massacre itself or the genocide against the Syrian people in general or not. Claims made to the contrary by Assadist officials, media and volunteer propagandists are an insult to intelligence after being an insult to humanity. To believe that all the footage was staged, that it was pre-recorded and uploaded before it “happened” [never heard of YT’s local time difference?], that all those reports and witness testimonies were fabricated, that those suffocating toddlers and dead children were actors and so on is beyond any rational comprehension. It’s unlikely that any influential Assadist believes in such insane conspiracies himself, it is rather utter contempt for the public. No person of influence in this world actually believes that activist footage from Syria is recorded at the Al-Jazeera studios in Doha as Dunya TV claimed back in 2011:

Spielberg has been running the entire Syria Show! Too little attention has been paid to the outrageously bizarre nature of Assadist propaganda, in the media and on the net in general but on this blog as well. After the Barca-Jazeera-Weather-Rebel conspiracy I figured, what’s the point? But for the past two and a half years, this nonsense has been repacked by the likes of Press TV, Russia Today and all sorts of conspiracy websites, not only expanding its reach but also conceptually dripping through into mainstream media.

There are vast amounts of information about the chemical massacre in greater Damascus that are easy to comprehend by any rational person, it doesn’t take much expertise to understand what took place there. Actual experts with access to this information therefore generally agree on the main facts. Many people, however, got a different impression about this at first. One particularly notable article responsible for that was published by the New York times:

Chemical, but not “Conventional Chemical Weapons”?

The Times was the first major western publication to cast doubt on the claim that “conventional chemical weapons” had been used.

In a blog post published at around 12:40 UTC on 21 August, the Times wrote:

Chemical weapons experts said the symptoms depicted in the video were inconsistent with the use of a conventional chemical weapon, like sarin or mustard gas.”

As is common practice for the Times, that sentence was later removed and then replaced with an amended version – without mention or issuance of a correction – significantly altering the initial claim that had implied CW use was unlikely:

The videos, experts said, also did not prove the use of chemical weapons, which interfere with the nervous system and can cause defecation, vomiting, intense salivation and tremors. Only some of those symptoms were visible in some patients.

As I noticed that the cited sentence in question was floating around the net in isolation, giving the impression that “experts” were of the opinion that no chemical weapons have been used, I looked for it in the original article but couldn’t find it back either. Perhaps they dropped it after as the evidence that people were indeed gassed to death became irrefutable, so I thought. Emily Dische-Becker does an excellent job in researching the matter and clearing it up, its actual meaning even more so than the mystery of the disappearing quote:

The article went on to say:

Gwyn Winfield, editor of CBRNe World, a journal that covers unconventional weapons, said that the medics would most likely have been sickened by exposure to so many people dosed with chemical weapons — a phenomenon not seen in the videos. He said that the victims could have been killed by tear gas used in a confined space, or by a diluted form of a more powerful chemical agent. Others suggested that toxic industrial chemicals might have been used.

Exactly what kind of substance has been used is up to to laboratories to decide, but what is indisputable is that this substance is what killed all these men, women, children and even hundreds of animals. Whether it was Zyklon B or teargas, it killed them all. Such a deadly substance cannot be but chemical, but apparently the NY Times only refers to the “conventional lethal” type when it finally states that the videos “did not prove the use of chemical weapons” according to experts. They do, though what kind may not be perfectly clear.

Gwyn Winfield, however, had more to say:

CNN: It is “more and more likely” that chemical weapons were used in an attack outside Damascus, a Chemical, biological, and nuclear threat analyst told CNN’s Hala Gorani on Wednesday. “Initially what I thought is that it could well be a concentrated riot control agent,” Gwyn Winfield said. But “as the footage has sort of gone on, it looks more and more likely that some kind of organophosphate – so that is some kind of nerve agent – has been used.” Survivors, portrayed in videos posted online, are “showing more sort of typical chemical warfare agent signs and symptoms.” Winfield was not able to identify what type of agent may have been used, but said that it did not appear to be a “pure weapons-grade” attack. “It may well be that this was some kind of an Assad homebrew,” he said, “where he has managed to get elements of an organophosphate, mix it with other chemicals, and then delivered it onto these people.” –

As it turns out, Winfield initially based his views on the tens of victims that were being reported at first, as the video of the interview shows. However, tens became hundreds and the many videos backing those reports apparently didn’t reach him before he made his statements for the NY Times. Other experts had the following to say:

The Guardian: Chemical weapons specialists, who have studied footage showing the dead and dying victims of the attack, said several symptoms offered strong evidence that a nerve agent was used; it would be the worst such attack anywhere in the world in the past 25 years.

Stefan Mogl, a Swiss chemical weapons expert and former arms inspector, said: “There’s a significant number of videos of children’s faces and of adults who seem to have been exposed, that show typical symptoms of acetylcholinesterase inhibition poisoning, which coincides with a nerve agent.” Mogl told the Guardian it was very likely the agent used was sarin. “The significance is, it’s not a single case. One person with constricting of the pupils, or with excessive salivation, or with spasms, or gasping for air, one single incident is not very significant, but … I came to the conclusion that there is a likelihood of nerve agent poisoning and this should be thoroughly investigated. You see children dying, people with very severe effects. I’ve seen a lot of people with uncontrolled muscle movement.”

Alastair Hay, another former weapons expert, who investigated the aftermath of the Halabja attack, when up to 5,000 people were gassed in Iraqi Kurdistan by Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1988, said: “I’m struck by the appearance of the victims and the absence of any signs of trauma. This suggests some powerful asphyxiant. Many of the victims have individual signs suggestive of exposure to an organophosphate agent. Nasal and lung secretions are very evident in many of the victims. These are just some of the signs consistent with [such] exposure.” –

[Al Jazeera: Hamish de Bretton Gordon]

Washington Post: Amy Smithson, a senior fellow at the James C. Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said the photographic evidence “clearly indicates exposure to a toxic chemical,” citing a combination of telltale symptoms such as respiratory problems and twitching, and the near-absence of wounds that would be associated with conventional explosives. But she acknowledged that it was impossible to tell whether the apparent poisoning was caused by sarin or one of the other known toxins in Syria’s arsenal. “Regardless of whether this was a classic warfare agent like sarin, the Chemical Weapons Convention outlaws use of any toxic chemical for military purposes,” Smithson said.

Jean Pascal Zanders, an expert on chemical and biological weapons at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris, said in a blog posting that the photographs appeared to confirm “exposure to toxin,” but not necessarily nerve gas. He added, “It is clear that something terrible has happened. These scenes could not have been stage-managed.” –

[Ralph Trapp: from 1.50 onward.]

The show continues with the Assadist Ammar Waqqaf whose outrageous claims will hopefully be addressed later elsewhere.

[UPDATE #1: UN investigation ends before it starts]

Unidentified snipers shot at UN experts forcing them to suspend their attempt to investigate claims that chemical weapons had been used near Damascus, a United Nations spokesman has said. “The first vehicle of the chemical weapons investigation team was deliberately shot at multiple times by unidentified snipers,” said UN spokesman Martin Nesirky. No injuries were reported.

[UPDATE #2: They made it anyway]

Original longer live-feed with sound:

The footage is from Moadamiyet al-Sham, Western Ghouta. It’s unclear whether any of them reached Eastern Ghouta where most of the massacre took place. It was also at Moadamiye where the UN was shot at. The Moadamiye LCC uploaded the following video in which an activist member together with members of the FSA are waiting for the UN team at the entrance of the liberated territory while reporting that snipers from Assad’s Mukhabrat al-Jawiyye shot at the UN team who were trying to cross in.

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