Sharmine Narwani and Radwan Mortada published an investigative piece on Narwani’s blog for Al-Akhbar English yesterday, which raises doubts about the UN chemical weapons (CW) report on Syria. I think they do a worthy job of pointing out the investigators’ indebtedness to rebel-friendly tour guides on the inspection dates (which the report also mentions), but the most potentially damaging element of their piece is the question they raise about where sarin was deployed in the area and the delivery mechanisms used.
Looking closely at the UN report’s Appendix 7, Narwani and Mortada argue that one of the sites surveyed shows a very high exposure to sarin among its residents but not a single environmental sample that demonstrated exposure to the gas:
There is not a single environmental sample in Moadamiyah that tested positive for Sarin. This is a critical piece of information. These samples were taken from “impact sites and surrounding areas” identified by numerous parties, not just random areas in the town. Furthermore, in Moadamiyah, the environmental samples were taken five days after the reported CW attack, whereas in Ein Tarma and Zamalka – where many samples tested positive for Sarin – UN investigators collected those samples seven and eight days post-attack, when degradation of chemical agents could have been more pronounced. Yet it is in Moadamiyah where alleged victims of a CW attack tested highest for Sarin exposure, with a positive result of 93% and 100% (the discrepancy in those numbers is due to different labs testing the same samples). In Zamalka, the results were 85% and 91%.
It is scientifically improbable that survivors would test that highly for exposure to Sarin without a single trace of environmental evidence testing positive for the chemical agent.
I have no way to verify this claim, but it has the virtue of sounding reasonable. On the other hand, when we look closely at the Appendix they are drawing this conclusion from, it turns out that while none of the 13 Moadamiyah environmental samples tested positive for sarin, five of them did test positive for either isopropyl methylphosphonate (IPMPA) or diisopropyl methylphosphonate (DIMP), the chemical substances that sarin degrades into.
So here’s a question: does anything else degrade into IPMPA or DIMP?
The author of the Moon of Alabama blog (which was the first to raise doubts about Appendix 7, a few days before Narwani-Mortada published their post) argues in a comment to a doubting reader:
A few “degradation and by-products” in some four probes out of thirteen could be anything. None of the probes has a CW agent while the probes taken later at a different place finds CW agents. Byproducts of organophosphate degradations are the same as from some fertilizer or some solid rocket fuels. They do NOT point to CW agents.
Is this true? I don’t know. This article in The Guardian argues that isopropyl methylphosphonic acid is considered “proof positive for sarin”. Maybe someone can confirm this for me. This would be an important step to determine whether Narwani and Mortada are justified in arguing that “there was no Sarin CW attack in Moadamiyah. There can’t have been – according to this environmental data.”
The next section in the post tries to raise questions about human testing, which is puzzling because the chief witness they call confirms that sarin was “clearly used,” perhaps alongside other unknown substances. The final section of the post addresses the question of rocket trajectories, which has formed the basis of the conviction among most Western analysts that the sarin was delivered by rockets that the rebels would not have had access to, from a location occupied by regime forces.
Here, Narwani and Mortada argue that one of the two impact sites that the UN felt could be used to judge rocket trajectories should be immediately discarded (i.e. Moadamiyah) because the rocket “was not found to have traces of Sarin, and is therefore not part of any alleged CW attack.”
But Appendix 7 shows that two samples taken of metal fragments in Moadamiyah tested positive for the trace chemical that sarin degrades into. Am I missing something? It seems to me that the UN covered its bases quite thoroughly by pointing out that the rockets could have been moved and the impact sites tampered with prior to their arrival, so we should be cautious about what conclusions to draw. But surely an alternative explanation would require a much greater burden of proof, given the contamination of the 330mm rocket in Ein Tarma.
This post is not meant to be a take-down of the Akhbar piece, just a request for some crowd-sourced clarification. If anyone at the UN would like to get in touch to comment on the report, send me an email via the contact page.