As the majority of the world’s media have misinterpreted the UN inspectors report on the alleged use of chemical weapons in Ghouta, it is necessary to look closely at what the report actually says, to ensure the report is interpreted correctly and dispel the widespread perception the trajectories calculated by the inspectors indicate the rockets were launched from a Syrian government military base.
It would be preferable if the UN would issue clarifications to ensure that a wider circle of people understand the evidence they have gathered. HRI has covered much of this issue before, but my previous article tried to cover a lot of ground, so I will now concentrate on the pivotal evidence presented in the UN Report on the rocket motor and bearings found in Moadamiyah in West Ghouta, quoting extensively from the report so that people can hopefully understand the evidence and its importance.
Moadamiyah was the first area visited by UN Inspectors. They visited this site on the 26th August, days after the alleged chemical weapons attack on the 21st August. The area is in West Damascus and is a rebel enclave surrounded by government forces and pro-government militia. The inspectors visited this site because of reports of deaths from chemicals in this area and as they had been told there was a site they could investigate for clues about what happened.
When the UN team, including OPCW inspectors, arrived inside Moadamiyah they split up – one group went to the hospital to interview alleged survivors, another went to a site which was alleged to have been the landing-place for a chemical rocket. It is not mentioned in the report, but the rocket motor found at the location had previously been filmed at a different location, and uploaded to YouTube the day before the inspectors arrived. It is worth stressing that the rebels had a few days to prepare this scene for the weapons inspectors, a fact that is acknowledged in the report. The rebels and their advisers would have been well aware of the importance of measuring the bearings of the rockets as they landed, as this matter had been widely discussed on social media and by people with whom they were in touch, such as Human Rights Watch, blogger Brown Moses and would also have been well-known to the various advisers and intelligence agencies working with them.
This is what the report says (My comments in square brackets):
Observations and assessments from Moadamiyah findings:
The team began the investigation of an alleged impact site which was initially located in the backyard terrace of an apartment building. The information given to the Mission was that, in and around this building, persons either died or were affected by a toxic material after coming under attack via barrage on the 21 August 2013. The members of the Mission discovered, at this location, a small crater/impact point in the stone tiles which formed the floor of the terrace.
Stone and earth debris were scattered outside of the crater as well as small metal fragments were visible in the locality. Of primary interest was the intact rocket motor found coincident to the impact crater. This rocket motor was noted to have stone and earth debris impacted in the front section of the motor identical to that found in the crater. There was no indication of damage around the crater area having been caused by blast or explosives. This implies that the warhead was not present upon final impact. [This rocket motor is from an old M14 Soviet made rocket].
Noting the location of the impact crater and other damage to the upper parts of existing fence/trellis work, the inspectors followed the trajectory of the rocket and determined that it initially impacted the corner of the second floor of an adjacent apartment building to the east, with either the warhead functioning or shearing off from the body at that point and the motor section having sufficient kinetic energy to continue along its path to its terminal impact location.
[This is a key paragraph – the inspectors were shown a crater, a rocket and a hole in a trellis. They measured the bearing from the crater to the hole in the trellis. Under ordinary circumstances this bearing would indicate the original launch point of the rocket. If the rebels had arranged the scene in order to make the inspectors believe the rocket came from government territory they would have made a hole in the trellis at the required point and told the inspectors this is where the rocket crashed through into the courtyard. Whether or not the hole was a genuine one, when the inspector looked through the hole, he could see that the direction of flight of the rocket, if it went through the hole in the trellis to the crater, would have come from a neighbouring building. ie the rocket would have had to have ricocheted off the nearby building. So whether the hole in the trellis was genuinely produced by the rocket or not, the bearing from the crater to the hole was unlikely to be the bearing of the rocket’s original launch site.]
Following an overall reconnaissance of the area, the members of the Mission took samples, made detector readings (no detection indications on the LCD 3.3) and took measurements of the area and the discovered munition. The scene was photographed and video was recorded throughout the entire activity.
Upon further discussion with alleged witnesses, the team moved to the adjacent apartment building where the initial debris from the first impact/functioning of the rocket was found. The Mission was told that the inhabitants of this location were also injured or killed by a ‘gas’. This location was also surveyed and no intact identifiable munitions fragments were located.
Masonry debris and smaller metal fragments were noted and relevant samples were taken both inside the apartment where victims were alleged to have been as well as from the debris field.
[end of report segment]
Hopefully this is clear for our readers – there was a single rocket motor found, this rocket motor was the old Soviet M14 design. The story of the rebels was that it came through a particular hole in the trellis. One of the inspectors noticed that, if this was the correct hole – the direction of travel of the rocket would mean it would have had to hit a nearby building first. One of the inspectors therefore insisted they be allowed to investigate the nearby flat where they found masonry debris.
The evidence presented in the report does not prove that a rocket landed at the location the inspectors visited, it does not prove that any rocket travelled through the hole pointed out by the rebels. What the report does prove is that if the rocket came through the hole specified it first impacted at the neighbouring building. It is possible the damage at each of the locations (the courtyard and the neighbouring building) was caused at a completely different time and, for what its worth, the locations were close enough together they could have been caused by separate rockets from the same multi-rocket launcher, there is just no way of knowing.
The significance of this analysis is that it appears the rebels may have set up a scene designed to produce the conclusion the rocket had been fired from government territory. However, one of the inspectors noticed that trajectory presented came straight from a neighbouring building. So if this scene represents an attempt to fix the evidence to blame government forces, then it was an incompetent attempt which would have benefitted from a taller person making the hole in the trellis, the use of a ladder, or making a crater closer to the trellis. On the other hand, if this is a genuine scene which has not been manipulated (which is impossible to confirm from the evidence given in the report) it does not tell us a lot about where the launch site may have been, because the rocket had hit a building and lost its warhead before crashing through the trellis and making the crater.
Next we move on to the part of the report which looks into the bearings (or azimuths) of the rockets as they landed. This section of the report is, according to my reading, technically consistent and accurate, but has led to widespread misinterpretation which should certainly be cleared up by Professor Sellstrom or other experts on the team to avoid the charge that the report was produced under political pressure to be used as a stick with which to bash the Syrian government, (or even justify a military attack) whilst not saying anything technically incorrect about the evidence gathered by the investigators. I hope this worry is dispelled when the experts deliver their final report (or reports if there is disagreement), at the end of October.
Here is what is written in the report about the bearings:
Considerations on the likely trajectory of the rockets
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) provide sufficient evidence to determine, with a sufficient degree of accuracy, the likely trajectory of the projectiles.
Impact Site Number 1
The munition linked to this impact site, by observed and measured characteristics, indicatively matches one of the variants of the M14 artillery rocket, with either an original or an improvised warhead (not observed at the impact site). In the final stage of this trajectory, the projectile hit and pierced through a vegetal screen existing over one of the adjacent walls, before impacting the ground producing a shallow crater.
The line linking the crater and the piercing in the vegetal screen can be conclusively established and has a bearing of 35 degrees. This line represents an inverse azimuth to the original trajectory of the rocket, that is to say, the original trajectory of the projectile, as it hit the ground, had an azimuth of 215 degrees.
Impact Site Number 2 is located 65 meters away from number 1 and with an azimuth of 214 degrees. Both relative positions are fully congruent with the dispersion pattern commonly associated with rockets launched from a single, multi-barrel, launcher.
(end of report extract)
This section has been widely misinterpreted as suggesting the azimuth from the original launch site to the crater was 215 degrees. However, the report is clear, the bearing is of the rocket “as it hit the ground” measured from “the line linking the crater and the piercing in the vegetal screen.” As we have already seen in this discussion, the rocket is reckoned to have hit a neighbouring building first, rendering the projection of a line using this bearing to determine a potential launch site impossible.
My reading of the penultimate sentence above is that Impact Site Number 2 is 65 meters away from number 1 and at an azimuth of 214 degrees from Impact Site 1. There is no indication in the report that a second rocket was found at Impact Site 2 or that a bearing to the source of the rocket launch could be calculated from there.
The report is quite clear that “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.” That obviously includes the impact site in the nearby apartment which the M14 rocket supposedly crashed into.
Unless anyone is able to come up with a convincing counter-narrative which explains the wording of the report, it is clear the report has been widely misinterpreted and the public misinformed about the evidence in this important case effecting decisions of war and peace. We are hopeful that the team of experts will open up all of the evidence they have collected and provide full clarification as to the facts to finally put to rest the incorrect speculation as to the evidence they have gathered.
Now, whilst the UN has so far, despite its claims of transparency, failed to release the video and pictures taken by inspectors, rebel activists escorting the inspectors did film them at work. This is hugely significant, as transparency is the enemy of cover-up, distortion and propaganda. The video footage I will be analysing in my next article will confirm the above textual analysis, testify to the bravery and professionalism of inspectors on the ground and reveal more about the evidence concerning the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta and who is most likely responsible.