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Sarin gas is one of the most toxic poisons known
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Bad intelligence

Alexander Drechsel / bk
January 18, 2014

Experts agree that the chemical weapons attack in the Syrian capital of Damascus could not have happened the way the US government contends. Meanwhile, the planned destruction of the weapons has been delayed.


In the early hours of August 21, 2013, rebel-controlled areas of the Syrian capital Damascus were attacked with chemical weapons. Not long afterwards, videos, photos, and eyewitness accounts appeared on the Internet, and experts examining the symptoms concluded quickly that the nerve agent Sarin was used to kill and injure hundreds of people. According to the US government, 1,429 people were killed, including 426 children.

Nine days later, US Secretary of State John Kerry accused Syrian government troops of having committed a war crime. Speaking at a press conference, he presented a map of Damascus showing which areas were government-controlled, and which were controlled by rebels. He then went on to appear before a Senate hearing in Washington on September 3, and said, "We are certain that none of the opposition has the weapons or capacity to effect a strike of this scale, particularly from the heart of regime territory."

No attack from government quarters

This statement has now come under fire. In a 23-page report, two US experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) concluded that the attack could not have originated from "the heart" of the regime-controlled area.

Mass grave in Syria
Questions about the attack have not changed the fact that it happenedImage: picture alliance/ZUMA Press

In detail, the former United Nations weapons inspector Richard Lloyd and national security expert Theodore A. Postol explained that the rockets were much too short-range to have been fired from the center of the government-controlled areas. The "heart" of Damascus, they said, is between five and ten kilometers from the scene of the strike, while the missiles in question could only have flown two kilometers.

Re-tooled rockets

The reason for this unusually short range was that the attackers attached Sarin canisters on the rockets which impaired their ability to fly. This, the MIT experts say, would have curtailed their range from 20 kilometers to just two.

This finding is not entirely new. A month ago, UN weapons inspector Ake Sellström also questioned the US version of the atrocity, having already come to the conclusion that the range of the missiles was much shorter than had previously been assumed. "We don't know the weight, or a few other factors, but two kilometers is a good estimate," Sellström told a press conference.

Infographic on how Sarin works

Having read the MIT study, former German army General Egon Ramms is equally certain that the rockets could not have flown very far. "I would assume that the range is much shorter than could initially be reached with these rocket launchers, because of the adjustments that were made," he told DW.

Explain the errors

But both Ramms and the MIT scientists agree that this does not necessarily mean that the attack was not carried out by government troops.

The puzzle is much more why the US government has once again presented the public with questionable intelligence, following the secret service debacle surrounding Iraq's phantom weapons of mass destruction in 2003.

US-Frachter MV Cape Ray
The weapons are due to be destroyed on the US ship Cape RayImage: picture alliance/AP Images

"Whatever the reasons for the egregious errors in the intelligence, the source of these errors needs to be explained," Lloyd and Postol concluded in the paper.

"If you're dealing with intelligence agencies you should always rely on the two-source method," said Ramms. "If you don't have a second source you should be careful with the information."

But Ramms emphasizes that the international community increased the pressure on Syria following the chemical attack in August, which led to President Bashar al-Assad's decision to sign the international Chemical Weapons Convention.

By the end of June this year, around 1,000 tons of chemicals are due to be destroyed at sea on the US ship "Cape Ray." Britain and Germany are also involved in destroying the chemical weapons, while Norway, Denmark, Russia, China, and Britain have sent warships as protection.

Delayed destruction

But the process has stalled. Up until now, only a few tons of chemical weapons components have been brought to the Syrian port of Latakia for shipping. According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), delays have been caused by fighting, bureaucracy and bad weather.

Italien Hafen von Gioia Tauro
Gioia Tauro is not keen to host the transfer of chemical weaponsImage: Reuters

A municipal Italian politician is also causing problems. The Cape Ray is not itself traveling to Syria; instead, the chemicals are being transported by two freighters from Denmark and Norway, which can only happen at the start of February at the earliest. The Italian government wants to make the southern port of Gioia Tauro available, but local authorities there are resisting.

Local Mayor Renato Bellofiore has complained that the government in Rome did not inform him of the offer in advance. "Panic is spreading among the people," he says. Meanwhile, the mayor of the neighboring town of San Ferdinando has even proposed closing the area by edict and so preventing the transfer of the chemical weapons.

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