Chapter 1: Making excuses

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Hundreds of people died — many of them in their sleep — when rockets hit Ghouta, a rebel-held area on the outskirts of Damascus, in the early hours of 21 August 2013. Thousands more were injured and the symptoms of survivors suggested exposure to a nerve agent. A UN investigation later confirmed that the nerve agent had come from rockets laden with sarin. It was the deadliest chemical attack anywhere in the world since the 1980s.

Considering that Ghouta was under fire from Assad’s forces at the time, that the casualties were on the rebels’ side and that the regime had previously admitted possessing chemical weapons, there was one very obvious suspect but the regime insisted it was not responsible, dismissing the accusations as “ illogical and fabricated “.

It was clear, though, that in order to maintain this denial some explanation would be needed to account for the carnage, plus an alternative culprit. But, apart from the regime, the only other conceivable suspects were rebel fighters — and why would they kill people on their own side rather than the enemy? The answer proposed by Assad’s defenders was that the rebels had engaged in an elaborate deception, hoping that the horror caused by the attack would make western powers come to their aid with a full-scale military intervention to overthrow the regime.

The first “evidence” in support of this notion surfaced on the internet a day after the events in Ghouta. A website called Islamic Invitation Turkey, which had links to Iran and Hezbollah (two of the regime’s allies), reported that videos of the dead and injured had been uploaded to YouTube on the day before the attack. The rebels, it said, had been in such a rush to spread the story that they had given the game away by releasing the videos prematurely.

Claims of that kind feature regularly in conspiracy theories. Details of the story change to suit the occasion but the basic outline stays the same. The conspirators are alleged to have set up an elaborate and meticulously prepared deception which is then accidentally revealed through some elementary mistake. It’s never a very likely proposition because it assumes both exceptional skill and bungling incompetence on the part of the conspirators.

An earlier example — one of many — had cropped up in Libya during the uprising against Colonel Gadafy a couple of years earlier. Al-Jazeera television broadcast scenes from Green Square in Tripoli showing it had fallen into rebel hands but Global Research, a conspiracy theory website, claimed the scenes were “an elaborate and criminal hoax”. The scenes had not been filmed in Libya, it said, but in a mock-up of the square constructed at al-Jazeera’s studio in Qatar. The supposed proof of fakery was a tiny detail: relief decoration in the stonework above an archway which could be seen in photos found on the internet was not visible in the TV footage, allegedly because the creators of the mock-up in Qatar had neglected to include it in their re-creation of the square. In reality, though, there was a simpler explanation. The decoration was the same colour as the archway and thus difficult to see unless the sun was shining and creating shadows. Al-Jazeera’s filming, however, had taken place after dark.

There were thus good reasons for treating the story about the timing of the Ghouta videos with caution. Russia, though, was quick to pick up on it and draw the desired conclusion. “We’re getting more new evidence that this criminal act was of a provocative nature,” foreign ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich said. “There are reports circulating on the internet … that the materials of the incident and accusations against government troops had been posted for several hours before the so-called attack. Thus, it was a pre-planned action.”

The Russians, however, hadn’t bothered to consider whether there was a more straightforward explanation. In fact, the videos had not been uploaded prematurely and they were not, as Russia claimed, evidence of a “pre-planned action”. The apparent discrepancy was the result of automated time-stamping on videos and web pages in different parts of the world. The YouTube videos showed the time in California when they were uploaded — which was ten hours earlier than the time in Syria.

As an example of Russia’s public discourse on chemical weapons in Syria, this little episode was far from unique. In the effort to protect its ally, Russia was happy to circulate and amplify spurious tales that cast doubt on the Assad regime’s culpability but it made no real effort to present a coherent case in the regime’s defence.

At the time of the Ghouta attack Syria — along with Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan — was one of only four countries worldwide that had not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international treaty banning possession and use of such weapons. It was widely believed to have been secretly developing them, mainly as a cheaper way of countering Israel’s nuclear programme.

The first public admission that Syria did have a stockpile of chemical weapons had come in July 2012 when foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the regime would never use them against the Syrian people or civilians “under any circumstances”. Such weapons, he added, were “made to be used strictly and only in the event of external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic”. Despite that assurance, there were several reports of chemical attacks in Syria during the ensuing months and in March 2013 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sent a mission to investigate. It was headed by Åke Sellström, a Swedish chemical weapons expert, and had technical support from the global watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Three days after the mission arrived in Damascus the attack in Ghouta occurred and the investigators switched their attention to that. Their report a few weeks later concluded that chemical weapons had been used in Ghouta “on a relatively large scale”. It said: “The environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used.”

Among those seeking to exonerate the regime there were various suggestions as to what might have happened in Ghouta — other than a chemical attack. Mother Agnes, a nun in the Melkite Catholic church who was based in Syria and sympathetic towards the regime, circulated a report claiming some of the children depicted in the videos were not from Ghouta but had been kidnapped by jihadists earlier in the summer from pro-regime villages in other parts of the country. She went on to claim that while some of the children seen in the videos were dead, others were either anaesthetised or merely sleeping. Interviewed about this on Russia’s RT channel, Mother Agnes said she had presented her findings to the UN’s commission of inquiry on Syria and “ they were very much interested “.

Shortly after that a different explanation surfaced, suggesting the whole thing had been an accident. Mint Press News, a US-based website which described itself as “tenaciously committed” to journalistic integrity, published a story claiming the deaths were a result of rebels mis-handling weapons supplied to them by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, it said, had not told the rebels they were chemical weapons or given instructions on how to use them. The only supporting evidence for the story was a series of quotes from unidentifiable people in Damascus but after publication by Mint Press under an “exclusive” tag its claims were unquestioningly reported by RT, The Voice of Russia and numerous “alternative” websites.

The Saudi weapons story and Mother Agnes’s claims about the videos were both cited by Russia as evidence that Sellström’s team of UN investigators had not done a thorough job. Speaking at a news conference, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov suggested the UN’s report on Ghouta should not be examined in isolation but alongside other sources such as the accounts from “nuns at a nearby convent” (i.e. Mother Agnes) and a journalist who had spoken to rebels (a reference to the Mint Press story). “We want the events of August 21 to be investigated dispassionately, objectively and professionally,” he said.

‘Home-made’ sarin

In Syria, President Assad also promoted the idea of home-made sarin. Interviewed by Fox News a day after the UN report on Ghouta appeared, he made the startling assertion that sarin is known as “kitchen gas” because “anyone can make sarin in his house”. This gave the impression that all it needed was a few pots and pans plus the right ingredients, but the idea was ridiculous. While it would be feasible for a chemist, working in a laboratory and taking suitable precautions, to make a tiny amount of sarin, producing it in the quantities needed for chemical weapons was a very different proposition.

Worldwide, there was only one known example of anyone other than a government manufacturing sarin on a significant scale. This was the Japanese doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, which used sarin to kill 12 people on the Tokyo subway and eight others in a separate attack at Matsumoto in the 1990s. Despite spending $10 million establishing a secret factory, the cult is said to have produced only about 20 litres over a period of two months before something went wrong and it had to be shut down. Twenty litres is less than half what would have been needed to fill just one of the rockets used in Ghouta. The difficulties faced by Aum Shinrikyo were a clear sign that do-it-yourself sarin wasn’t worth the effort.

In the Fox News interview Assad offered no evidence that Syrian rebels had actually made sarin but he also proposed other possibilities, such as acquiring it from a foreign government. “We know that all those rebels are supported by governments, so any government that would have such chemical material can hand it over to those,” he said.

Various theories were proposed as to where rebels might have obtained some sarin, though none of them stood up to serious scrutiny. As further evidence emerged from official investigations it also became clear that the sarin-from-abroad idea was a non-starter. There is more than one way to make sarin and clues to the production process can be found by testing it for impurities. These impurities are residues from the chemical reactions that take place when making it, and different formulas result in different sets of impurities.

Based on that, investigators eventually established links between the sarin used in attacks and the Syrian government’s production process. Furthermore, that process appeared to be unique to the Syrian government — no other country or entity was known to have manufactured sarin in quite the same way.

Mainly for safety reasons the sarin was stored as two separate components — methylphosphonyl difluoride (known as DF) and isopropanol — which had to be mixed in the presence of hexamine shortly before use. Hexamine, added to make the sarin less corrosive and reduce the risk of damage to munitions, was the first distinctive marker chemical to be identified, since there was no evidence of anyone other than the Syrian government using it for that purpose.

Investigators later obtained samples of DF from the government’s stocks, which led to the discovery of three more marker chemicals: phosphorus hexafluoride (PF6), isopropyl phosphates and isopropyl phosphorofluoridates. These were also found in samples from the scene of the 2017 sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun — which the investigators described as “a strong indicator” that the sarin used in that attack “as well as in previous incidents”, had been produced using DF from the Syrian government’s stockpile.[ 1]

There was thus no realistic possibility that Syrian rebels could have obtained sarin with the requisite chemical profile from abroad. In the unlikely event that they were capable of making it in large quantities themselves they would still have had to know the government’s formula in order to replicate its impurities. According to UN/OPCW investigators it was also unlikely that rebels could have followed the government’s formula without using “a chemical-plant-type production method” because it included hydrogen fluoride (HF). “HF is a very aggressive and dangerous gas and therefore is difficult to handle,” the investigators noted. “The use of HF indicates a high degree of competence and sophistication.”

In the light of all that, the only credible explanation was that the sarin used in attacks had come from the government’s stockpile and had been used by government forces. The possibility that rebels might have seized some of it was emphatically ruled out by Syrian government officials who insisted stockpiles had remained under their control at all times — none of their sarin had been lost or stolen.

That wasn’t the only problem with the “stolen sarin” theory. Since the Syrian government’s sarin was not kept in ready-made form, rebels would have needed to steal its separate components for subsequent mixing. They would also have needed suitable munitions along with specialised equipment for filling them — plus a lot of expertise in handling the dangerous chemicals.

During the UN’s Ghouta investigation Sellström, the chief inspector, had pressed Syrian officials to elaborate on their claims of sarin in rebel hands but was struck by their failure to come up with any coherent explanation. Interviewed in 2014, he said:

“Several times I asked the government: can you explain — if this was the opposition — how did they get hold of the chemical weapons?

“They have quite poor theories: they talk about smuggling through Turkey, labs in Iraq and I asked them, pointedly, what about your own stores, have your own stores being stripped of anything, have you dropped a bomb that has been claimed, bombs that can be recovered by the opposition? They denied that.

“To me it is strange. If they really want to blame the opposition they should have a good story as to how they got hold of the munitions, and they didn’t take the chance to deliver that story.”

For Syria and Russia, though, this vagueness wasn’t a problem but part of a defensive strategy. It didn’t matter if the theories they proposed were purely speculative, mutually contradictory or plain nonsense, because the point was not to persuade people of anything in particular but to spread as much uncertainty as possible about what had happened. The more confused the public became, the better.

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[ 1] For more discussion of the chemistry, see seventh report of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, pages 31–33; first report of the IIT, paragraphs 7.33, 9.27 and 11.3–11.8; FFM report on Ltamenah, paragraphs 5.37 (with table) and 6.4.

Originally published at

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: Author of 'Arabs Without God'.