The UN OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) report regarding Khan Sheikhoun has sharply divided opinion, largely because the US and some of its closest allies choose to maintain its central finding of “confidence” the Syrian Arab Republic was guilty is a finding of indisputable fact, whilst Russia (with the open or tacit support of others) argues the report is amateurish and has failed to properly investigate the possibility of a false flag attack. In this article I will look at some of the deficiencies in the JIM report which have led directly to the JIM’s own deserved demise.
It is not the purpose of this article to look at all the different theories which have been put forward regarding the alleged Khan Sheikhoun attack, or the political machinations at play or to attempt to attack the positions of the different commentators who have opined on the matter. It is not even possible, without writing a book, to go into all the deficiencies of the report. Instead I will focus chiefly on selected aspects of the JIM report and Russia’s response laid out in the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the UN’s “Additional Assessment of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism Seventh Report.
For the purposes of this article I am also going to focus largely on two of the three scenarios the Mechanism says most of the information obtained by the inquiry supported ie:
“ (a) sarin had been delivered through an aerial bomb that had been dropped by an aircraft;
(b) sarin had been released from the ground as part of a staged attack;”
It is worth noting at this stage what an unusual event the Khan Sheikhoun incident was.
Scenario a) requires the Syrian government
- To have secretly reconstituted its chemical weapons programme after it was announced to have been destroyed
- To have decided that launching a chemical weapons attack on a militarily insignificant target from an air base shared with Russia would bring it some kind of strategic advantage ( a perverse miscalculation as it would be the one thing which would turn the world against it and severely strained relations with its most important ally.)
- To have managed to load sarin into a chemical weapon they had hidden under the noses of the Russians.
- To have launched the chemical weapon at Khan Sheikhoun from a distance of 5km.
- To have been so disorganised or stupid as to have made considerable efforts to provide important forensic evidence to the enquiry (including having operatives take samples in Khan Sheikhoun) supporting its own guilt.
Scenario b) requires a false flag operation which would have required
- Access to sarin produced according to a similar formula to that produced by Syria
- Control of the site of the crater
- The expertise to stage the crater in such a way that experts would believe it resulted from an aerial attack
- Access to chemical weapons parts which the JIM would believe were uniquely consistent with Syrian chemical weapons
- Operatives on the ground with the ruthlessness to expose victims to sarin or mimic the effects of sarin sufficiently to persuade experts
- Control of the flow of information and narrative through propaganda efforts to ensure the false flag was successful.
Before moving on to examine the evidence, lets just think about the six points above which would have been required for a successful false flag operation and about which organisation could have possibly been responsible.
Syria has been in a state of war for years and one of the most powerful groups involved has been Al Qaeda through its Al Nusrah affiliate which has now calls itself Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and which for strategic reasons claims to have cut direct ties with its mother organisation.
HTS has swallowed up most of the other Syrian rebel organisations (including of course former military officers of the Syrian army who defected to the rebel side) and it controls the town of Khan Sheikhoun. This is recognised by the JIM which says in its report:
“The Leadership Panel considered that the high security risk of a site visit to Khan Shaykhun, which is currently in a situation of armed conflict and under the control of a listed terrorist organization (Nusrah Front), outweighed the possible benefits for the investigation.”
Despite rumours and alleged leaks, Nusrah Front’s chemical weapons capabilities are unknown, although it is known they have used chlorine gas. What we do know is that five days before he was killed by the US, Osama Bin Laden did warn of the dangers of using “poisons,” reportedly writing that his followers in Yemen should be “careful of doing it without enough study of all aspects, including political and media reaction.”
According to John Parachini Director, Intelligence Policy Center, RAND National Defense Research Institute writing in September 2016.
“In Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State group and the Nusra Front are breaking with this historical pattern and making chemical weapons part of their deadly arsenal. A United Nations panel investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria reported last month that it found evidence that the Islamic State group and the Nusra Front have acquired and used chemical weapons.”
“As the Islamic State group and the Nusra Front seized territory in Syria and northern Iraq, they came upon military sites where chemical munitions were hidden, abandoned or lost. In their land grab, they also captured industrial facilities with toxic chemicals … Not only did the Islamic State group and the Nusra Front exploit captured weapons resources, they also seized the opportunity to develop some of their own capabilities. Just as al-Qaida once enjoyed a safe haven in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, both the Islamic State group and Nusra Front have had the freedom to develop capabilities in Islamic State group-controlled territory and ungoverned spaces that neither the Syrian nor the Iraqi government has been able to control.“
Now, what if Al Nusrah’s chemical weapons specialists have moved beyond the ineffective use of chlorine and they have used Syrian scientists and Syrian equipment and possibly Syrian precursors? Given the considerable resources at their disposal does this not seem a reasonable supposition? And if they have mastered the art of sarin production, how would they most sensibly deploy it without public relations risks to themselves. Keeping the programme secret, whilst using the weapons at their disposal to launch false flag attacks at crucial times would seem a highly effective use of their capability.
Turning to Al Nusrah’s organisational capacity. It would be a mistake to underestimate the organisation’s ability to stage complex operations. One operation worth noting is their attack in Homs in February of this year in which they infiltrated the Homs green zone and blew up General Hassan Daabul, a close confidant of President Basha al-Assad and Syria’s military intelligence chief, after a suicide bomber (one of six employed in the attack) made it all the way into his office.
As for HTS’s propaganda abilities, who doubts that a significant proportion of the photographers, activists and media professionals trained as part of the Western Syria regime change effort (at the expense of the Western taxpayer) are now working for the organisation?
Indeed it seems unlikely that anyone can operate in HTS-controlled areas in the propaganda, civil defense (so-called White Helmets) or medical fields without HTS permission and control.
The timings of victim arrivals in hospitals
According to the JIM report,
“Certain irregularities were observed in elements of the information analysed. For example, several hospitals appeared to have begun admitting casualties of the attack between 0640 and 0645 hours. The Mechanism received the medical records of 247 patients from Khan Shaykhun who had been admitted to various health-care facilities, including survivors and a number of victims who eventually died from exposure to a chemical agent. The admission times noted in the records range from 0600 to 1600 hours. Analysis of the records revealed that in 57 cases, patients had been admitted to five hospitals before the incident (at 0600, 0620 and 0640 hours). In 10 of those cases, patients appear to have been admitted to a hospital 125 km away from Khan Shaykhun at 0700 hours, while another 42 patients appear to have been admitted to a hospital 30 km away at 0700 hours.”
Now this evidence would appear to be potentially exculpatory of the Syrian government and in any proper police investigation, impossible timings of victim arrival of 109 cases at seven different hospitals would have to be followed up.
But the JIM say, “The Mechanism did not investigate those discrepancies and cannot determine whether they are linked to any possible staging scenario or are the result of poor record-keeping in chaotic conditions.”
The reader can draw their own conclusions about the professionalism this displays. It surely goes some way to explaining the Russian reluctance to let the JIM continue to “investigate” without some major changes in its operations.
Moving on to the evidence which apparently persuaded the JIM that a discrepancy as big as the above could be ignored The crucial elements appear to be the flight paths of two Syrian jets near Khan Sheikhoun at the relevant time, analysis of the crater from which the sarin was allegedly dispersed, analysis of the bomb remnants and chemical analysis of the environmental samples.
The flight paths
Evidence of the flight path of the aircraft which allegedly launched the chemical weapon on Khan Sheikhoun can not confirm the Syrian government was responsible for the attack, as a false flag attack would obviously be timed to occur as aircraft were nearby.
As the JIM reports, the rebels had an early warning system to report on when aircraft took off from Sha‘irat airbase and their direction. As they control the territory, part of the false flag operation could include the explosion of IEDs to simulate an attack on the town and a sarin release would be timed to similarly dovetail with an overflight.
However, the rebels can not control the exact path that a jet takes and this provides a possible point of weakness in a false flag operation. According to the Russians, this was the case in this instance.
The JIM received information about the flight paths of the two jets in the neighbourhood of Khan Sheikhoun (including from Syria, US and France) in the relevant time frame and says,
“The Mechanism had access to another aerial map depicting the path of an aircraft alleged to have been in the airspace around Khan Shaykhun between approximately 0644 and 0651 hours on 4 April 2017. The aircraft was depicted as flying in a circular loop pattern in the vicinity of Kafr Zayta and north-east of Khan Shaykhun. The map indicated that the closest to Khan Shaykhun that the aircraft had flown had been approximately 5 km away. Additional information provided to the Mechanism referred to two aircraft that had taken off from Sha‘irat airbase at around the same time as indicated above, 10 minutes apart, following the same flight path.”
The JIM also states:
“The Mechanism obtained information detailing the presence of a Su-22 within 5 km of Khan Shaykhun, as well as information provided by a Su-22 pilot interviewed by the Mechanism indicating that he had been within 7 to 9 km of Khan Shaykhun at the relevant time. The Mechanism consulted with a weapons expert to ascertain the confluence of distance and altitude from which it might be possible to hit Khan Shaykhun with an aerial bomb. The expert concluded that, depending on a number of variables such as altitude, speed and the flight path taken, it would be possible for such an aerial bomb to be dropped on the town from the aforementioned distances.”
This element of the investigation is obviously important as if the SU-22 could not have hit the crater in Khan Sheikhoun based on its height and flight path, then the Syrian government attack scenario falls by the wayside.
It is therefore astonishing only one anonymous expert was consulted on this matter and it is far from clear that he was asked the correct question. In fact the answer the expert gave, “depending on a number of variables such as altitude, speed and the flight path taken, it would be possible for such an aerial bomb to be dropped on the town from the aforementioned distances” suggests that the expert is giving an opinion on whether it is possible to hit a target from 5 km – which it obviously is theoretically speaking. The real question should whether it would be possible given the flight path the jet was on, its operating height and operating speed.
It is here that the Russians provide crucial parameters:
“1. The Syrian aircraft Su-22 can carry out bombing in conditions of visual observation of the target, that is, from a height of not more than 4000 meters. In this case, aiming of an unguided aircraft ammunition is done by manoeuvring the aircraft to point it strictly onto the target.”
2. The actual lines of the SAAF aircraft on April 4, 2017, from 6 hours 37 minutes to 6 hours 46 minutes local time, which were monitored by the airspace of the coalition forces. Paragraph 30 of the JIM report states that, after reviewing the submitted materials and examining the testimonies, the JIM concluded that the aircraft did not approach Khan Shaykhun at a distance of less than 5 km.
In the case of a bombing run from a horizontal flight at the speed of 800-1000 km/h at altitudes up to 4000 meters the distance between the bomb drop point and the target range from 1000 m to a maximum of 5800 meters. At the speed of 800 km/h and altitude of 3500 meters the maximum drop distance from the target is 5400 meters. However, after the drop the plane continues its movement and even after a side maneuver it would have passed over or near the target since its turning ability would have been 3-9 km. But the plane was not observed closer than 5 km from the village of Khan Shaykhun. Moreover, when a plane manoeuvres, taking lists and gaining altitude, it requires a thrust margin and, consequently, racing the engine up to afterburning. Those modes of engine’s operation entail loud sounds, making them impossible to go unnoticed. If the bombing run is performed from a dive angle of up to 60 degrees the plane still has to pass over the target when exiting the dive, which does not correspond to the flight tracks on 4 April 2017.”
So according to the Russians, given the plane’s flight path, it could not have bombed Khan Sheikhoun as it needs to be pointed towards the target and its turning circle is such that it would have “passed over or near the target.”
There is no evidence in the report the JIM considered this point or asked any expert for their opinion on it.
Regarding the crater
The JIM has established, from satellite photos (which are not provided in the report), that the crater from which sarin was allegedly released was not there the day before.
The report also says, “No witnesses reported any activities related to the placing of an explosive charge on the ground at the location of the incident.”
Given that the JIM did not visit Khan Sheikhoun in order to interview witnesses, it seems unlikely the perpetrators of a false flag attack would lay their explosives or prepare the crater whilst there were witnesses around. It also seems unlikely anyone who did happen to be wandering around in that area during the night or early morning of that day would be disposed to contact the JIM with information implicating HTS.
The JIM did receive “expert analysis of the characteristics of the crater from three independent, internationally recognized institutes with specialization in the areas of forensics, defence and security, as well as by two individual independent experts in energetic materials.”
It appears from the report that these experts were asked about the possibility of an air dropped bomb or of a ground explosion as had been suggested by the Syrian government. It is unclear but appears unlikely that the experts were asked the crucial questions – whether and how it would have been possible for the crater to be deliberately staged to make look like it was produced by an air launched bomb.
Evidence this question wasn’t put includes the JIM saying “In considering what had caused the crater, the institute stated that the damage was consistent with that of an impact from an unguided aerial bomb, possibly containing a small bursting charge.”
Well, that is exactly the impression any staging would be intended to convey!
According to the report “One of the individual experts noted that the impact location was a section of paved road very close to which a metal cabinet was situated. As no significant impacts or holes were visible in the plates of the metal cabinet, the impact was consistent with that of a liquid-filled bomb that had a thin shell and contained a very limited amount of explosive in its bursting charge.”
This is also interesting as the report has nothing to indicate when the cabinet was placed in the position in which it is shown after the alleged attack. That the cabinet could have been part of the staging is not even considered.
In their assessment of the crater the Russians provide a technical explanation of bomb penetration depth determined by a formula known as the Berezan formula and argue the crater shows “no characteristic traces of an aerial bomb’s penetration into asphalt.”
As far as the bomb remnants are concerned, the JIM states that “According to information obtained by the Mechanism, the filler cap, with two closure plugs, is uniquely consistent with Syrian chemical aerial bombs.”
However, the JIM admits that the munition remnants were recovered from the crater by “unidentified individuals.” There was no chain of custody, there is no knowing where the remnants come from and they would obviously be held to be inadmissible in any court of law.
On this issue the Russians say, “Eventually, the report failed to present conclusive evidence either regarding the means of delivery, type of munition or the means of dispersion of sarin given the fact that the emphasis was made exactly on the corroboration of the use of binary sarin by a standard ordnance.”
“In such a case, the end product, sarin, forms directly in the body of an ordnance for which the latter needs to contain a special device to mix the components (a motor equipped mixer). No indications of its presence or witness accounts thereof were given (a standard mechanism of a Syrian chemical aerial bomb includes a mixing device, a motor with a mixer which would necessarily have to be present at the incident site).”
If an aerial bomb had indeed landed in the crater, it seems incredible the rebels would not make sure all the remnants were sent out of the country for analysis. But it seems the tail and motor with mixer have disappeared into thin air, from a crater which was allegedly full of fresh sarin.
The report contains no discussion of why this should be the case, but in a false flag scenario it could just be HTS did not have access to these components.
In considering the analysis of the samples collected in Khan Sheikhoun, it has to be noted that the OPCW and JIM’s recent practice of using samples without a chain of custody is asking for trouble. Nevertheless it should also be noted that Syria itself sent operatives into the town to gather samples which are now being used as evidence that the sarin produced war made from percursors originating from the Sarin CW program.
The JIM report states that “The presence of marker chemicals that are believed to be unique is a strong indication that the sarin released in Khan Shaykhun, as well as in previous incidents, was produced using DF from the Syrian Arab Republic stockpile.”
The JIM admits that “This finding relates only to the origin of the DF used as a precursor, not to those responsible for the dissemination of sarin.”
However, as stated above, if HTS has a sarin making capacity, or if it was helped by a foreign agency, there is no way of knowing what methods would have been used to produce the sarin and it is obviously possible it would have used methods, personnel and equipment similar to or identical to those of the Syrian government program, particularly if it was aimed at producing material for false-flag attacks.
The Russians point out that there is probably no way of finding out if the marker chemicals found were unique to the Syrian method of producing sarin “because other countries that used to have DF stocks as a component to make binary sarin, had destroyed it already and did not keep samples that couldn’t be used to conduct such a research.”
Dispersion of the sarin.
The wind direction at the time of the alleged sarin release would be an important indicator as to whether this was a false flag or an air-launched attack. Measurements of wind direction (form the videos for instance) could be matched to the alleged locations of victims to see if they marry up.
How does the JIM tackle this issue?
Well they say, “The Mechanism noted that the wind speed in the area that day had been <0,5 m/s which would normally result in a considerable variation in the direction of the air movement. The Mechanism also noted that the location of victims, as described in the report of the Fact-Finding Mission, serves as an indicator of prevailing air movements west to south-west of the location of the crater during the early morning on 4 April 2017.”
So, they provide no source for the <0.5 m/s calculation and whilst some researchers have calculated the wind direction would have blown any sarin away from the town and potential victims – the JIM simply asserts the location of the victims provides evidence of the wind direction.
Unsurprisingly, after reading this report, there was considerable disquiet in the UN Security Council, even among the USA’s usual allies. The USA decided to push on with its project of renewing the JIM without any changes, with the report writers having essentially supported Donald Trump’s decision to bomb Syria.
Russia, China and Bolivia wanted the JIM to be improved and renewed. After the USA’s draft was understandably vetoed by Russia, the draft supported by Russian and China and submitted by Bolivia, which would have extended the JIM mandate whilst professionalizing it and requiring it to abide by international standards was blocked by the USA and some of its closest allies, bringing the JIM to an end, at least for now.
Of course, the USA, UK and Human Rights Watch rushed to blame Russia for the JIM’s demise, but this was clearly a case of “suicide by report.”
This writer has asked some of the leading lights of the “Syria Government did it” camp to comment on Russia’s refutation of the JIM report, but neither the JIM itself, the UK delegation to the OPCW, George Monbiot or Bellingcat have been able to respond in any substantive way. So the last word goes to the Russians, who stated after their draft resolution to extend and improve the JIM was voted down:
“All this was preceded by voting on the American draft resolution on renewing the mandate of the JIM in an unchanged form, that is, with the purpose of preserving all the untenable methods of work that had been identified, without any attempts to rectify them. This was justified by claims that it was unacceptable to interfere in the work of an independent mechanism, which allegedly must determine itself what to do and how, without consulting the UN Security Council, the CWC, international norms, rules or standards.”
“This approach has already led to a situation where, without any serious investigation, the JIM began to rubber stamp guilty verdicts. The most vivid example was its most recent report, the seventh, released in late October. In defiance of objective facts, the laws of physics, ballistics and the blasting work, blame for the use of sarin in the Syrian locality of Khan-Shaykhun on April 4 was assigned in this report to Damascus, without providing any evidence. Russian experts on the subject speaking at an interdepartmental briefing at the Russian Foreign Ministry on November 2 relied on concrete facts and technical calculations to show that this accusation was baseless. No one was able or even tried to refute Russia’s arguments.”