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Sarin, investigations, refutations and vested interests

May 03,2017 - Last updated at May 03,2017

France and Human Rights Watch have issued a fresh accusation that Damascus was responsible for an apparent attack with sarin gas on April 4 on the town of Khan Shaikhoun in takfiri-held Idlib province in northwest Syria.

The incident, which, reportedly, killed 80-90 people, “bears the signature” of President Bashar Assad’s government, stated the French foreign ministry. Human Rights Watch concurs.

The allegation is based on samples recovered from the town, said to be sarin or similar to sarin, but without a convincing pedigree and testimony of regime opponents.

The six-page report by French intelligence agencies claims the deadly nerve agent came from covert stores of chemical weapons Syria was meant to export for destruction under a US-Russian agreement reached in 2013.

This deal followed attacks in August 2013 on insurgent-controlled areas in the Damascus countryside, said to have slain hundreds.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault cited an unidentified source as saying: “The manufacturing process of sarin that was sampled [after the Khan Shaikhoun incident] is typical of the method developed in Syrian laboratories. This method is the signature of the regime, and it is what enables us to establish responsibility for the attack. We know because we kept samples from previous attacks that we were able to use for comparison.”

Comparisons were, in fact, made with chemical agents in grenades said to have been dropped by a helicopter on April 29, 2013, on the town of Saraqeb, also in the northwest.

The simple devices held “as little as 200 ml of a toxic chemical”.

Blood samples taken by Turkish doctors who treated victims in a hospital across the border in Reyhanli showed no sarin was present, but a UN report issued that December stated that the autopsy of the sole fatality of the Saraqeb attack “clearly indicated signatures of a previous sarin exposure”.

During visits to Turkey between June 24 and 28, and July 4 and 6, 2013, weeks after the attack, a UN fact-finding mission interviewed doctors from Syria and Turkey who had treated victims and “a source close to the opposition”.

The mission visited a clinical laboratory at the Turkish ministry of health and a forensic laboratory of the ministry of justice in Ankara. 

The UN delegation also “observed an autopsy of the deceased alleged victim at the hospital in Reyhanli... and recovered tissue samples for subsequent analysis”.

The body had previously been at least partially autopsied, creating some suspicion of tampering.

The UN mission could not conduct a visit to the site and could not “collect any primary information on munitions. The information gathered from interviews with the source close to the opposition could not be corroborated by the United Nations”.

No survivors were interviewed. 

A report by the Turkish forensic laboratory of the ministry of justice “showed identifiable levels of several pharmacological compounds” but “the methods applied were not adequate” for identifying “chemical warfare agents”.

The UN mission also received from France its report of the results of an analysis of biomedical samples obtained by its government. This document, the UN report stated, “identified sarin signatures and sarin degradation products in biomedical samples taken in connection with the incident”.

While the material was analysed by reliable laboratories, “the United Nations mission could not independently verify the information contained [in the French report] and could not confirm the chain of custody for the sampling and the transport of the samples”. 

Therefore, both the UN and French investigations were inconclusive.

It is significant that France chose to make its comparison between chemical agents allegedly collected at Khan Shaikhoun and Saraqeb, rather than samples that might have been retained during 2014 when Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons was destroyed by the US and others.

The chemical signatures of these agents should have been definitive in identifying the perpetrator, although the Syrian authorities said in 2013 that one third of the sites where chemical weapons were stored were under insurgent occupation.

It is also significant that France did not choose to make the comparison with evidence secured from the reported use of sarin in Western and Eastern Ghouta in August 2013, when full blame was placed on the government for killing hundreds of men, women and children.

The allocation of responsibility for this incident has been challenged by Theodore Postol, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and MIT researcher Subrata Ghoshroy who closely examined the UN report on the incident and found it flawed.

Ghoshroy wrote in a 13-page document: “I believe there was communication between the UN team and the analysts outside, which prejudiced the report.”

Among the experts consulted was Charles Duelfer, deputy head of the UN team before the 2003 US conquest of Iraq and chief of the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group after the occupation.

Two other analysts tapped were David Kaye, former chief UN inspector for Iraq, who was associated with a think tank funded by the Pentagon, and Raymond Zilinskas who, said Ghoshroy, “once spoke enthusiastically about the evidence presented at the UN Security Council by Gen. Colin Powell about WMD [weapons of mass destruction] in Iraq, which was discredited later as false”.

Commentators dubbed the August 2013 a “false flag” attack mounted to prompt the US, UK and France to take military action against the Syrian government.

US president Barack Obama was close to waging a massive attack on Syria, but then he drew back and settled for a deal with Russia to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons.

In a December 12, 2016, article in Common Dreams, former CIA officer Ray McGovern pointed out that on December 10, 2015, Turkish legislator Eren Erdem testified about the involvement of Turkey’s intelligence service in the delivery of sarin to insurgents in Syria.

He produced documents obtained from a Turkish court (Criminal Case No. 2013/20), which described “Turkish official reports and electronic evidence documenting a smuggling operation with Turkish government complicity”.

McGovern stated: “The general prosecutor in the Turkish city of Adana opened a criminal case and an indictment stated ‘chemical weapons components’ from Europe ‘were to be seamlessly shipped via a designated route through Turkey to militant labs in Syria.

“Erdem cited evidence implicating the Turkish minister of justice and the Turkish Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation in the smuggling of sarin.

Small wonder that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately accused Erdem [who belongs to the opposition Republican People’s Party] of ‘treason’.”

Thirteen suspects were arrested were held for only a week after they were indicted. The case was dropped.

The sarin attack on Ghouta took place shortly after the case was closed.

Shortly before the Ghouta incident, McGovern reported coordination meetings involving senior Turkish, Qatari and US intelligence officials at a Turkish military base in Antakya with the aim of finalising plans for “a war-changing development” leading to US bombing and an assault by insurgents on Damascus with the aim of toppling the government. 

Veteran US commentator Seymour Hersh wrote extensively on this topic.

In “Whose Sarin”, published on December 19, 2013, in the London Review of Books, Hersh revealed that the US intelligence knew Al Qaeda’s Jabhat Al Nusra “had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity. When the [August 2013] attack occurred Al Nusra should have been a suspect, but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad”.

Balked by Obama of their strike in 2013, Pentagon hawks could very well have been eager to prompt the erratic and highly emotional Donald Trump to launch a strike on Syria soon after he took office.

Which he did on April 7.


The regime-change camp must have been seriously alarmed by Trump’s call for cooperation between the US and Russia in the campaign to defeat Daesh, his readiness to leave Assad in power until Syria could be stabilised, and progress in the Geneva talks between the government and Saudi-sponsored opposition, which could resume this month.

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