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The Orton Report
April 26, 2017

Analysis: France Presents Evidence Assad Committed Chemical Weapons Atrocity

by
Kyle Orton

The French government has released its assessment of the 4 April chemical weapons attack in Syria, and “independently and categorically confirms that sarin was used”. France “deployed the required resources to obtain its own samples,” the report notes, and “collected biomedical and environmental samples and munitions and pieces of munitions” from this attack site and several prior.

The National Evaluation notes that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad has made “continuous” use of chemical weapons since 2013, both chlorine and the more lethal banned substances like nerve agents, and the evidence it has collected leads to the conclusion that “the Syrian armed forces and security services perpetrated a chemical attack using sarin against civilians in Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017.”

BIOLOGICAL, CHEMICAL, AND ENVIRONMENTAL EVIDENCE

A collected environmental sample “reveal[ed] the presence of sarin, of a specific secondary product (diisopropyl methylphosphonate—DIMP) formed during synthesis of sarin from isopropanol and DF (methylphosphonyl difluoride), and hexamine.”

A biomedical sample—blood taken from a victim in Syria “on the very day of the attack”—demonstrated that people in Khan Shaykhun had been exposed to Sarin on 4 April.

The French have intelligence that “the process of synthesizing sarin, developed by the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) and employed by the Syrian armed forces and security services, involves the use of hexamine as a stabilizer. DIMP is also known as a by-product generated by this process.” The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned five senior officials of the SSRC in January and another 271 individuals of the SSRC for involvement in the Khan Shaykhun attack on Monday.

Paris has been able to discover the regime’s method of manufacturing chemical weapons of mass destruction (CWMD) from, among other things, an unexploded grenade in Saraqib after the regime attacked it with poison gas on 29 April 2013. “Three unidentified objects, emitting white smoke, were dropped on neighbourhoods to the west of the city,” and the rebellion does not have aircraft. “The chemical analyses carried out showed that it contained a solid and liquid mix of approximately 100ml of sarin at an estimated purity of 60%. Hexamine, DF and a secondary product, DIMP, were also identified.” The United Nations verified these findings in December 2013.

Hexamine’s use as an acid scavenger is unique to the Assad regime’s chemical program and came to attention after the massive Sarin attack in Ghuta in August 2013 that massacred 1,400 people in a few hours. France, in other words, demonstrates Assad’s responsibility for at least three uses of Sarin against Syrian civilians—in Saraqib, Ghuta, and Khan Shaykhun.

The report concludes that the chemical composition of the weapons used earlier this month shows the same signature as the Saraqib attack that it is known Assad committed: “The presence of the same chemical compounds in the environmental samples collected during the attacks on Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017 and on Saraqib on 29 April 2013 has therefore been formally confirmed by France.”

TACTICAL EVIDENCE

The French report also notes the tactical evidence of the regime’s responsibility for the 4 April CWMD attack.

The CWMD came in the context of the regime coalition’s struggles in Hama, which was identified by the U.S. as the proximate cause of the chemical massacre. On 21 March, the insurgency, led by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the reorganized al-Qaeda presence in Syria, began an offensive in Hama Province. The pro-regime coalition responded by deploying Qawat al-Nimr (The Tiger Forces) led by Suhayl al-Hassan, one of two “elite” militias the battered Assad military has left, and Iran’s terrorist assets, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and the IRGC-QF’s Lebanese proxy, Hizballah. By 2 April, the pro-Assad forces had turned the tide, but have been unable to reverse everything.

(One might also note, relatedly, that had the CWMD attack not occasioned a response from President Donald Trump, it would have had the force-multiplying psychological effect of underlining the impunity under which Assad operates in trying to terrorize the Syrian population into submission.)

The French tracked a Sukhoi Su-22 bomber taking off from the Shayrat airbase that Trump’s cruise missile strikes devastated, and saw it conduct at least six airstrikes on Khan Shaykhun on the morning of the attack.

With regards to command responsibility, French intelligence agrees with the U.S. assessment, concluding that “only Bashar al-Assad and a few of the most influential members of his inner circle are authorized to give the order to use chemical weapons.”

COUNTERING FAKE NEWS

The French report examines the potential alternative perpetrators of the Khan Shaykhun CWMD attack, and finds that there is no credible scenario in which any actor but the pro-regime coalition conducted this atrocity.

Neither HTS nor any of the mainstream rebel groups in Hama have “the capability to employ a neurotoxic agent, or the air capacities required,” the French note. The Islamic State (IS) does not have these weapons or capabilities either—though it does have some rudimentary CWMD holdings, specifically Sulphur mustard—and, more to the point, IS “is not present in the sector of Hama.”

With regard to “the theory of a staged attack or manipulation by the opposition,” the French find that this is not credible, “particularly because of the massive influx in a very limited time towards hospitals in Syria and Turkey, and the simultaneous, massive uploading of videos showing symptoms of the use of neurotoxic agents.”

The U.S. findings on Khan Shaykhun noted that Assad and Russia had “sought to confuse the world community” with a blizzard of misinformation after the attack, and the French report takes apart these various narratives.

CONTINUING WMD MENACE FROM ASSAD

The French report concludes with what is the most obvious finding: the Assad regime lied to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the body charged with decommissioning Assad’s CWMD after he was spared retributive strikes for the slaughter in Ghuta and running over President Barack Obama’s “red line”. Assad retained stockpiles of CWMD, production-capacity, and delivery mechanism.

The Assad regime principally uses sarin in a binary form, mixing “methylphosphonyl difluoride (DF), a key precursor …, and isopropanol produced just before use.” Damascus claimed that 20 tonnes of DF was used up in lab tests or lost in accidents, and France told OPCW at the time that this was a lie. In 2014, French intelligence detected an effort by the Assad regime to “acquire dozens of tonnes of isopropanol”.

“The Declaration Assessment Team (DAT) from the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW has been unable to obtain any proof of the veracity of Syria’s declarations,” the French report states. “The OPCW itself has identified major inconsistencies in Syria’s explanations concerning the presence of sarin derivatives on several sites where no activity relating to the toxin had been declared.”

Politely stated, France therefore “doubts … the accuracy, exhaustiveness and sincerity” of Assad’s declarations on his CWMD arsenal. Israel has let it be known publicly that she believes Assad has up to three tons of chemical munitions remaining from 2013. Regime defectors put the estimates higher, but agree that Assad retained stocks in 2013—and indeed this “old Sarin” was used in Khan Shaykhun, accounting for the fact that the horrific death toll was not even worse.

In addition to the hidden stocks and production facilities, “France assesses that Syria has not declared tactical munitions (grenades and rockets) such as those repeatedly used since 2013.”

Since Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention on 13 October 2013, part of the Russian-orchestrated deal that called off the U.S. strikes in 2013, “[t]here have been over 100 allegations of [chemical weapons] use, concerning chlorine as well as sarin.”

The OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) has several times confirmed the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria, and the UN-OPCW Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) published reports in August and October 2016 that formally blamed Assad for three chlorine attacks and IS for one Sulphur mustard attack.