Examining Russia’s Allegation of Syrian Rebel Sarin Gas Use

July 10, 2013
Sarin Gas Bomblets, Photo by US Army

On Tuesday, Russia’s envoy to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, said that he had presented an 80-page report to UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon that conclusively proved that Syrian rebels used sarin gas on March 19th, 2013. According to Churkin, the rebels fired a “Bashar 3 missile” that was armed with sarin gas at the Aleppo suburb of Khan al Asal, killing 26, including 16 soldiers:

“The results of the analysis clearly indicate that the ordinance used in Khan al-Assal was not industrially manufactured and was filled with sarin,” Churkin added.

Associated Press provides more details.

The absence of chemical stabilizers, which are needed for long-term storage and later use, indicated its “possibly recent production,” Churkin said.

“Therefore, there is every reason to believe that it was the armed opposition fighters who used the chemical weapons in Khan al-Assal,” Churkin said.

“According to information at our disposal,” he added, “the production of ‘Basha’ir 3’ unguided projectiles was started in February 2013 by the so-called ‘Basha’ir al-Nasr’ brigade affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.”

The United states, via White House spokesman Jay Carney, refuted the idea, stating that they had seen no evidence to suggest anyone other than the Assad government had used chemical weapons.

The rebels have blamed the regime since minutes after the March 19th incident, and the regime has blamed the rebels. How can we tell which side is telling the truth?

As we’ve heard similar allegations in the past, let’s start with a basic question about this newest development – What is a “Basha’ir” missile? First, “Basha’ir,” despite its similarity to Syria’s President’s first name, means “promise” or “bringer of good news.” Digging through archived Youtube videos, there are several homemade weapons called Basha’ir used by Syrian rebels. Two videos are posted below showing the “Basha’ir al Nasr” brigade using such weapons in Deir Ez Zor, on the other side of the country as the alleged incident near Aleppo. This is the brigade that the Russia report says launched the sarin gas attack:

Videos such as these are common. The Syrian rebels have a rich history of making small grenade and rocket launchers out of surplus ammunition. However, like most of the homemade weapons used by Syrian rebels, these are very small caliber, used to launch excess rockets that are primarily used by anti-tank weapons or armored vehicles. In other words, these weapons are completely different from those designed to deliver chemical weapons. Take a look, for instance, at video showing the Syrian military testing Scud-B, M600, Frog 7, and several other types of ballistic missiles. These weapons are far more sophisticated, and magnitudes larger, than anything the Syrian rebels have ever been documented as using.

There’s another problem. Sarin is highly corrosive, so corrosive that it is not stored in active form even by professional militaries, but is mixed mechanically either directly before or during firing. Also, a spilled drop of it could easily kill those trying to use the weapon. In other words, sarin gas is not the kind of thing that one could easily retrofit some homemade rocket with. Also, sarin gas is easily damaged if it burns. In fact, the US military disposes of sarin by incinerating it. This is another reason why sarin-dispersal devices used by militaries are so complex, so that they can widely disperse the gas without damaging it in the process.

But the Russia report is definitive: Syrian rebels used Sarin, not some other less-potent chemical, and the missile delivery system was crude and clearly not professionally manufactured. Those statements are mutually exclusive.

Another issue is that the range of the missiles used by Syrian rebels does not match the range of the weapon that the Syrian government says the rebels used. Soon after the March 19 attack on Khan al Asal, the Syrian Information Minister claimed that the rebels had fired a rocket from a town that was 50 kilometers away. In order to hit a target at that distance, the rebels would need a much larger missile than the short-ranged weapons they’ve been seen using, and the theory that rebels in the field could make a weapon with that kind of range is highly improbable.

Finally, there is one more aspect to this story that nearly every news agency is ignoring – the rebels reported a chemical weapon attack on March 19th before the regime did. In fact, they reported two of them, in two different locations, only one of which the Syrian regime has acknowledged. There is no evidence that a rocket struck this second site, several hundred kilometers away in a suburb of Damascus, but there is significant evidence that the two incidents occurred at the same time.

There have been many claimed chemical weapons attacks across Syria, and there is too little evidence and too many theories to explain all of them. However, the available evidence casts significant doubt on this latest statement made by the Russian government.