Key evidence about the range of the rockets allegedly used by the Syrian regime in the chemical attacks on 21st August in East Ghouta, which was first published by Human Rights Investigations (HRI) yesterday, indicates that widespread statements made by Human Rights Watch (HRW), government officials and the mass media about the attacks are erroneous.
A video this writer discovered on YouTube shows clearly, for the first time, the launch and explosion of a HE version of the ‘Volcano’ – the kind of rocket examined by UN inspectors in West Ghouta. The important thing about this video is that it allows us to estimate the range of this kind of weapon and corroborates a detailed investigation using rocket modelling techniques on the ‘Who Attacked Ghouta’ website.
Measuring the time it takes for the sound of the explosion to reach the camera indicates the actual range of these kind of rockets is around 2-2.5km, as has now been corroborated by weapons expert Eliot Higgins who quoted warhead technology consultant Richard Lloyd of Tesla Laboratories, saying:
“Richard Lloyd believes a range of 2-2.5km is reasonable for the Volcano rocket. That’s not to say the maximum range is definitely 2.5km, just that based of available evidence that’s a reasonable estimation.”
This means that the rockets which were allegedly fired on 21 August would have had to be launched from inside disputed territory, from areas in which Syrian government forces have only a limited presence.
This does not prove that the rebels fired the rockets allegedly used on 21st August, but it does indicate that many of the statements used to place the blame for the alleged attacks and encourage an attack on Syria are erroneous. It has been widely held, in large part due to the concerted efforts of Human Rights Watch, that rockets were fired from a government military base 9.6 km from the suburb in which they are alleged to have landed.
In reporting, which Human Rights Watch hailed as demonstrating their importance in informing the world’s media, the New York-based group stated:
“The two attack locations are located 16 kilometers apart, but when mapping these trajectories, the presumed flight paths of the rockets converge on a well-known military base of the Republican Guard 104th Brigade, situated only a few kilometers north of downtown Damascus and within firing range of the neighborhoods attacked by chemical weapons.”
Human Rights Watch produced the following map which was hugely influential in pointing the finger at the Syrian government and which, but for widespread opposition in the UK, may well have led to a US-led war on Syria:
On 16th September U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power claimed:
“It defies logic that the opposition would have infiltrated the regime-controlled area to fire on opposition-controlled areas,” she said. “Only the regime could have carried out this large-scale attack.”
On 17th September The New York Times published an article in which war reporter CJ Chivers wrote that for the rebels to have carried out the attack they would have had to move “the launchers undetected into position in areas under strong government influence or control, keeping them in place unmolested for a sustained attack that would have generated extensive light and noise, and then successfully withdrawing them — all without being detected in any way.”
Chivers also misinterpreted the UN Report saying “One annex to the report also identified azimuths, or angular measurements, from where rockets had struck, back to their points of origin. When plotted and marked independently on maps by analysts from Human Rights Watch and by The New York Times, the United Nations data from two widely scattered impact sites pointed directly to a Syrian military complex.”
On 18th September, in an Associated Press article which was published around the world, including on Fox News, Zeina Karam and Edith M Lederer reported on the UN report saying:
The report, however, provided data that suggested the chemical-loaded rockets that hit two Damascus suburbs were fired from the northwest, indicating they came from nearby mountains where the Syrian military is known to have major bases.
Mount Qassioun, which overlooks Damascus, is home to one of Assad’s three residences and is widely used by elite forces to shell suburbs of the capital. The powerful Republican Guard and army’s Fourth Division, headed by Assad’s younger brother, Maher, has bases there.
According to The Associated Press, Ake Sellstrom, leader of the UN/OPCW team investigating the attacks said the team will evaluate “allegations of chemical weapons use from both sides, but perhaps mainly from the Syrian government’s side.” saying he didn’t think there was a need for more investigations of the Aug. 21 attacks, but saying “if we receive any additional information it will be included next time we report.” He has now been provided with plenty of additional information.
The BBC echoed Human Rights Watch and stated:
Intelligence, including satellite detections, also indicated that government forces had fired rockets and artillery shells from a government-controlled territory towards the suburbs where the chemical attacks occurred, the White House said.
The Washington Post also echoed Human Rights Watch reprinting the map above and saying:
One of the most damning details from the United Nations investigation has to do with where the sarin-filled artillery shells appear to have been fired from. They appeared to sail in from the northwest – from a part of Damascus that just happens to be tightly controlled by Syrian regime forces and to contain a large Republican Guard base. Human Rights Watch, which conducted its own investigation that concluded that the Assad regime was likely responsible, actually put together this map of the attacks based on the U.N. data. It seems to point pretty squarely to the Assad regime.
WP also stated:
New York Times conflict reporter C.J. Chivers, writing on his personal blog, concluded that the theory that the rebels may have launched the chemical weapons “essentially evaporates” with this new evidence. “Viewed through a common-sense understanding of the limits and conditions of the battlefield, the rebels could not have done this,” he writes. “Claims of rebel culpability are now specious; technically and tactically implausible, they are too outlandish for even a sci-fi script.”
Our readers will doubtless be able to find numerous similar examples in the media and from government officials.
Although the social media investigation into what really happened on August 21st goes on, and we hope Professor Sellstrom will produce a comprehensive report on December 13th addressing all the many outstanding issues, it is clear that the world’s public has been greatly misled.
(Article updated with additional information on NYT 02/12/2013. Stylistic changes – indicates rather than proves, rockets allegedly fired etc 03/12/2013)
We doubt that Human Rights Watch or most media outlets and officials will admit their mistake but would suggest the following:
Readers of this article could contact the media outlets spreading misinformation (often aimed at encouraging military intervention) to ask them to issue corrections to their reporting. This is most likely to be successful with public broadcasters who are bound by stricter reporting rules.
Supporters of Ken Roth’s Human Rights Watch should discontinue that support as the organisation produces misinformation to support military intervention.
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The kind of research this article is based on is quite time-consuming but frequently reveals information of significant value in understanding human rights and peace issues.