Middle East

Syria chemical attack: Key UN findings

UN inspector collects samples in Damascus. 29 Aug 2013
UN experts began their inspections a week after the attack

Last September, the UN published a much-anticipated UN report concluding that chemical weapons were used on a relatively large scale in the Ghouta area of Damascus on 21 August. At the time, the US, UK and France said the report vindicated their stance that the Syrian government was to blame - something Damascus denies. BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus breaks down some of the report's key findings.

The document is prefaced by a note from the UN Secretary General himself - Ban Ki-moon - who reiterates the main conclusion of the UN mission's report and stresses his view that a war crime has been committed and that the international community has a moral responsibility to hold those responsible accountable.

This is a warning that all the evidence collected could ultimately be used in some kind of legal process. It should be remembered that there is already widespread collecting of evidence on the ground to chronicle a variety of atrocities committed by various parties to the conflict.

In transmitting simultaneously to the Security Council and the General Assembly the report on the incident which took place on 21 August 2013 in the Ghouta area of Damascus (see annex), the Secretary-General expresses his profound shock and regret at the conclusion that chemical weapons were used on a relatively large scale, resulting in numerous casualties, particularly among civilians and including many children. THE SECRETARY -GENERAL CONDEMNS IN THE STRONGEST POSSIBLE TERMS THE USE OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS and believes that this act is a war crimes and grave violation of the 1925 Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare and other relevant rules of customary international law. The international community has a moral responsibility to hold accountable those responsible and for ensuring that chemical weapons can never re-emerge as an instrument of warfare.

We have heard the US, British and French intelligence evidence. We have seen the harrowing YouTube videos of victims on the web. This now is the first independent and authoritative confirmation that there is "clear and convincing evidence" that chemical weapons were used on 21 August.

The substance concerned was the nerve agent sarin and the delivery system was ground-to-ground rockets. Note that the UN inspectors do not anywhere in the report explicitly lay the blame for carrying out the attack at the door of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

That was beyond the scope of their study, but as we will see a little later, there are strong indicators from their evidence that point the finger at forces loyal to the Assad regime.

On the basis of the evidence obtained during our investigation of the Ghouta incident: the conclusion is that chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic, also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale. In particular, the environmental, chemical and medical samples, we have collected, provide CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE THAT SURFACE-TO-SURFACE ROCKETS CONTAINING THE NERVE AGENT SARIN WERE USED IN TARMA, MOADAMIYAH AND ZAMALKA in the Ghouta area of Damascus. This leaves us with the deepest concern.

The report contains a clear statement of the methodology and approach taken by the inspection team. It also underscores the difficult and hazardous circumstances in which they worked.

However, they state clearly that they were able to collect "the necessary amount of samples". They were also able to interview a number of survivors.

On 26 August, the Mission visited Moadamiyah of West Ghouta for two hours. On 28-29 August the Mission visited Zamalka and Ein Tarma of East Ghouta for a total time of five and a half hours. IN SPITE OF THE IMPOSED TIME CONSTRAINTS, AND REPEATED THREATS OF HARM, INCLUDING AN ACTUAL ATTACK ON THE CONVOY BY AN UNIDENTIFIED SNIPER ON 26 AUGUST, THE MISSION WAS NONETHELESS ABLE TO GATHER A CONSIDERABLE AMOUNT OF INFORMATION AND TO COLLECT THE NECESSARY AMOUNT OF SAMPLES. The Mission was also able to collect primary statements from more than fifty exposed survivors including patients, health workers and first-responders. Based on these statements and the information gathered from various reports, the surface-to-surface rockets impacted in the early morning hours of 21 August.

The munitions - unguided rockets - are the key element in this report. Samples of sarin were recovered from the majority of fragments of the warheads.

But more importantly the two types of rocket used - a Russian-supplied 140mm system and especially the larger 330mm weapon of unknown origin - are significant since according to both Human Rights Watch and a number of independent arms experts - these are weapons that have only been observed in use by Syrian government forces during this conflict.

There is significantly more detail on these weapons in the Human Rights Watch report Attacks on Ghouta (caution: disturbing images) published last September.

INFORMATION GATHERED ABOUT THE DELIVERY SYSTEMS USED WAS ESSENTIAL FOR THE INVESTIGATION. Indeed, several surface to surface rockets capable of delivering significant chemical payloads were identified and recorded at the investigated sites. These were carefully measured, photographed and sampled. SAMPLES LATER CONFIRMED TO CONTAIN SARIN WERE RECOVERED FROM A MAJORITY OF THE ROCKETS OR ROCKET FRAGMENTS.

The expert blogger Brown Moses has also extensively chronicled the use of the 330mm calibre weapon on his blog.

More on the evidence - this time the medical analysis which again shows that victims were exposed to the nerve agent sarin.

Blood, urine and hair samples were withdrawn from 34 of the 36 patients selected by the Mission who had signs of intoxication. THE POSITIVE BLOOD AND URINE SPECIMENS PROVIDED DEFINITIVE EVIDENCE OF EXPOSURE TO SARIN BY ALMOST ALL OF THE SURVIVORS ASSESSED BY THE MISSION. These results are corroborated by the clinical assessments, which documented symptoms and signs that are consistent with nerve agent exposure, including shortness of breath, eye irritation, excessive salivation, convulsions, confusion/disorientation, and miosis.

So in summary the UN inspectors conclude that chemical weapons were used on a relatively large scale. There has been a whole series of earlier incidents where their use was alleged but these have not been investigated in this kind of detail.

On the basis of the evidence obtained during out investigation of the Ghouta incident, THE CONCLUSION IS THAT ON 21 AUGUST 2013, CHEMICAL WEAPONS HAVE BEEN USED IN THE ONGOING CONFLICT BETWEEN THE PARTIES IN THE SYRIAN ARAB REPUBLIC, also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale. In particular, the environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE THAT SURFACE-TO-SURFACE ROCKETS CONTAINING THE NERVE AGENT SARIN were used in Ein Tarma, Moadamiyah and Zamalka in the Ghouta area of Damascus.

There is much detailed information on the inspectors' findings in the various appendices to the report.

Appendix 5 deals in detail with the munitions used in the attacks. There are photos of the fragments and drawings and measurements describing the weapons in detail.

The 140mm system (M14) clearly has Cyrillic engraving suggesting that this is indeed a munition of Russian origin. The larger 330mm calibre munition is, as mentioned above, of a type used by Syrian government forces.

Images from the UN report of the rockets found in Ein Tarmar and Zamalka
Images from the UN report of the rockets found in Ein Tarmar and Zamalka

Two caveats are probably worth mentioning: The Syrian rebels have captured significant stockpiles of government weaponry throughout this conflict and as the inspectors' report notes many of the munitions and their fragments had been moved or otherwise tampered with.

However, in some cases the inspectors were able to make an assessment of the likely trajectory of the rockets and this again seems to corroborate US claims that they came from areas controlled by government forces.

Of the five impact sites investigated by the Mission, three do not present physical characteristics allowing a successful study of the trajectories followed by the rockets involved, due to the configuration of the impact places. However, Impact site number 1 (Moadamiyah) and Impact site number 4 (Ein Tarma) PROVIDED SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE TO DETERMINE, WITH A SUFFICIENT DEGREE OF ACCURACY, THE LIKELY TRAJECTORY OF THE PROJECTILES.

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