THE UN CHEMICAL WEAPONS REPORT: ONE THIRD OF THE STORY THAT NEEDS TO BE TOLD
By Anthony H. Cordesman
17 Sep 13. The first report of the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic marks a courageous breakthrough on the part of the inspectors, but it also tells only part of a story that needs immediate support from U.S., British, and French intelligence. Its very title indicates the limits to its coverage: “Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013.”
The report follows strict protocols and can only report on firm evidence. It was carried out under a mandate not to address who was responsible. It also did not attempt to tie the assessment of the use of chemical weapons on August 21st to an assessment of the initial mission of the inspectors, which was to cover possible attacks at Khan al-Asal, Sheik Vlaqsood, and Saraqueb.
Racing the Clock Under Terrible Conditions
The report does not represent the kind sweeping, unfettered effort that could address the entire series of chemical attacks. It provides convincing evidence that Sarin was used, but the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and other inspectors did not have the ability to analyze the scale of the attack. It is only the first of what it states will be part of an ongoing investigation. The inspectors only had limited access to a limited number of locations for very limited times with no real prior ability to survey or characterize the site. They were in Moadamiya in West Ghouta on August 26th for two hours, and in Ein Tarma and Zamalka in East Ghouta on August 28th –29th for five hours during a temporary cease fire.
It is a real tribute to their efforts that they were able to interview 50 people in that time, interview them on their symptoms and what they saw, and their impressions of the conditions of the attack and the dead. They were also able to interview nine nurses and five doctors, and find that the weather was somewhat unique on August 21st in that the falling temperature in the morning condensed the vapor (gas) coming from the attack and kept it in the area and near the ground. The report indicates that all of the evidence corroborates that a non-persistent – and normally quick-dissipating – nerve agent called Sarin was used, but that it may not have been pure and may have deteriorated before use – something common during the Iraqi attacks that used Sarin during the Iran-Iraq War.
Clear Physical Evidence that Sarin Was Used
As the report makes clear, these inspections on August 26th-29th only came after the sites had been disturbed for days. The inspectors were then able to examine a limited number of 80 survivors and carry out a diagnosis of 36. They interviewed 36 living persons, Ages 7 to 68, 69% male, and 83% of whom reported being exposed after nearby attacks, and 17% of whom were exposed after responding.
They got blood samples from 34, hair from 3, and urine from 15. The blood tests in the three sites indicated 79% to 93% positive for Sarin. The urine samples (after 5 to 8 days) were 91-100% positive. The hair samples did not test positive. This evidence consistently indicated the use of Sarin – as did the interview data (which are still being assessed,) and the follow up examination of the medical records in Zamalka Hospital. It is also telling that none of the subjects had physical injuries from a cause other than the chemical agent – showing that this was a gas attack and not a conventional attack. (See Appendix 3 and Appendix 4 for broad details and Table 7.2 in pages 35-37 of Appendix 7 for detailed blood and urine test results).
The inspectors did not get to survey and examine the dead. The inspectors did not have the kind of access that allowed them to determine the number of dead and wounded, determine whether the attack left persons who were permanently injured, or assess the leth