Alleged Chemical Attack, December 23, 2012

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What would be the first confirmed chemical weapons attack of the Syrian conflict (if confirmed, and it's not the first allegation) was reported on December 23, 2012. It came in the form of at least two opposition videos showing at several adult males and older boys getting oxygen treatment in field hospital, gasping horribly for breath. The young age and prevalent short beards of the victims suggest they're mostly if not all rebel fighters. The charges came more than two weeks after the last allegation we noticed, as fears over the Syrian government's alleged preparations for using Sarin nerve gas from early December - and accompanying military threat from the United States - had subsided.

The active agent has not yet been guessed at by any public experts. Just what the videos show remains to be proven, as does whether or not it's deemed to have crossed Washington's "red line."

The content below is extremely fragmentary at the moment and hasn't been analyzed at all.

The Videos

3:03, Dec. 23 by علي احمد ياسين. Title translation: Homs Mahasrhatalaq chemical gases crippling nerve and temporary loss of sight

5:53, Dec. 23 by xmanw2011 Trans: Homs beleaguered field hospital doctor talk about toxic gases and the influx of more injuries

9:11, Dec. 23 by xmanw2011. trans: Homs beleaguered field hospital in the Khalidiya district in Homs

1:11, Dec. 23 by Ugrait News. Trans: 23 12 Homs Ugarit, comments doctors about cases of suffocation in the besieged Homs

0:53, Dec. 23 by Homslive. Trans: Homs Bayada one choking injuries due to toxic gases

More videos and analysis forthcoming. There are more videos and/or images of apparent fighters wearing respirators around on Facebook.

Opposition Sources / The Claims

  • Syrian Observatory for Human Rights - A SOHR report that quotes another source citing SOHR: :The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted activists in the central Syrian city as saying that a number of rebels died in two neighbourhoods on Sunday night after inhaling white smoke that came out of shells fired on the area. Australian ABC News reported on a SOHR statement (available?) quoted as saying:
"Activists from the city of Homs have reported that six rebel fighters were killed yesterday on the al-Khaldiya-al-Bayada frontier by a poisonous gas ... [It] discharged white smoke and would disperse quickly once the grenades were thrown by regime forces. This weapon is unidentified and has not been used before. Activists reported that whoever inhaled this type of gas suffered from severe dizziness and headaches, some even suffered from epilepsy."" [1]

The rival Syrian Network for Human Rights, a competing group (they call each other fake) was however quoted by NBC on the 24th:

Mousab Azzawi, chairman of the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights and a doctor, told NBC News that his organization had received reports from three eyewitnesses on Sunday. He said field doctors in Homs were seeing patients “losing consciousness, experiencing severe shortness of breath and vomiting.”

“To our understanding, this is similar to poisoning with pesticide,” he said, although he was not aware of any pesticide that could take the form of a gas.'

Clay Caiborne's compiled tweets and articles. - cites Al-Jazeera reporting

Seven people have died in Homs after they inhaled a poisonous gas sprayed by government forces ... scores of others were affected in al-Bayyada neighbourhood. Side effects reported include nausea, relaxed muscles, blurred vision, and breathing difficulties. Raji Rahmet Rabbou, an activist in Homs, told Al Jazeera "We don't know what this gas is but medics are saying it's something similar to Sarin gas..."

The ABC News report translates the doctor as saying "It's definitely a poisonous gas, but we don't know what type it is ... This man has been injured by the gas. We do not know what type of gas it is. It is definitely not sarin.". [1]

  • NBC News, Dec. 24: Syria activists: Several die after Assad's forces use 'poisonous gases' (apparently since-pulled): CAIRO -- Several Syrians have died after inhaling poisonous gas released by government forces in rebel-held districts of Homs, local eyewitnesses and activists claimed Monday. Civilians were admitted to hospital with serious breathing problems after Sunday’s attack, according to doctors and groups who posted what they said was video of the aftermath to YouTube. The gas is thought to have been a concentrated irritant, but not one of the deadly chemical weapons stockpiled by the regime of Syria president Bashar Assad.

Two Stories From the State Department's Contacts

Foreign Policy magazine's The Cable reported on a secret State Department cable about the incident, first in a January 15 report, [2] then with more detail on January 22. [3] This outlines two conflicting versions of events passed to the US consulate in Syria by its opposition contacts.

These are summarized, with supporting claims, in a detailed article at the ACLOS-affiliated Monitor blog, and reproduced below. [4]

Homs doctors/BASMA* describe sarin: A colorless but pungent-smelling gas was released, in 3 areas (Old City, Bayada, Khalidiya), at night, using an unclear method. They said "most victims had pinpoint pupils, also known as miosis," and it responded to atropine: "two doctors in Homs ... said that they used Atropine on the victims and that it improved their conditions, which would mean that BZ was not the gas used," and sarin might have been. * BASMA = an opposition media project. The name means "fingerprint," as this news report explains, and it's "run out of an office in Istanbul where Syrian activists write and produce reports for a Facebook page and the Basma website. A promotional video explains the goals of Basma: "to support a peaceful transition for a new Syrian nation that supports and guards the freedom of all of its citizens." The website has since died, but their Facebook page still exists.

-- Supporting: Raji Rahmet Rabbou, an activist in Homs, told Al Jazeera "We don't know what this gas is but medics are saying it's something similar to Sarin gas." But the effects reported include "nausea, relaxed muscles, blurred vision, and breathing difficulties," which is not very consistent.

-- Supporting: Mousab Azzawi, chairman of the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights and a doctor, told NBC News that his organization had received reports from "field doctors in Homs" and ""to our understanding, this is similar to poisoning with pesticide," he said, although he was not aware of any pesticide that could take the form of a gas." Sarin is liquid and forms a vapor or mist, if not a gas, and is similar to pesticides, an organophosphate. -- Supporting: "...but two doctors who treated victims on the scene told The Cable that the gas was colorless but that several victims reported a pungent odor." (colorless describes military grade sarin, but is unlikely to be described reliably, in a confusing night-time attack, and more likely to be made up - a pungent odor IF from sarin means it's not military grade stuff)

-- Against: videos show no one with sarin symptoms, like miosis (pinpoint pupils) or the messy SLUDGE syndrome. One man's pants are soiled, but only at the knees, from when he collapsed in the mud.

Consulate contacts/SLN describe BZ: This version has a white cloud causing, as a Syria Life News (SLN) reporter told the consulate staff, symptoms including: "burning eyes, temporary blindness, relaxed and numb joints, unresponsiveness, nausea, unconsciousness, difficulty breathing, and temporary paralysis affecting the spine." "The consulate’s contact also reported that most victims had dilated pupils, which contradicts the account the two doctors." One contact told the consulate "Atropine worsened the condition of the patients ... which would be consistent with the theory that a BZ-like compound was used," and would basically prove it wasn't sarin. Both the breathing problems and the eye irritation might be unrelated to BZ itself, but seem to come in conjunction with this symptom set.

-- Supporting: SOHR cited white smoke but symptoms were: "severe dizziness and headaches, some even suffered from epilepsy" which sounds different. -- Supporting: the field doctor who decided "it is definitely not sarin," maybe after treating with atropine and finding it made the problem worse. -- Supporting: Dr. Al-Fida, CNN: "labored breathing, disorientation, hallucination, nervousness and lack of limb control."

- Against: I don't think BZ is known to tear up the respiratory tract like we see (below) or like described, causing breathing problems, nor is it known to burn the eyes. This could be impurities, additives, or a separate gas loaded into a second shell/grenade. Somehow, this may be two poisons mixed.

Israeli Non-Corroboration

  • NBC News, Dec. 25: Syria activists: Several die after Assad's forces use 'poisonous gases' Israel: No proof chemical weapon was used in Syria: 'Israel voiced doubt on Tuesday about claims that chemical weapons had been used against rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad. ... "We have seen reports from the opposition. It is not the first time. The opposition has an interest in drawing in international military intervention," Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Army Radio. "As things stand now, we do not have any confirmation or proof that (chemical weapons) have already been used, but we are definitely following events with concern," he said.

Investigations: Reports Dismissed

In mid-January, it was revealed that Western sources had taken the claims seriously and investigated. The event was found to have not crossed Washington's red line. CNN reported, Jan. 14:

Foreign Policy's "The Cable" blog reported Tuesday that a secret diplomatic cable provided a "compelling case" that President Bashar al-Assad's military used chemical weapons in the attack.
The United States was informed of the incident by representatives of a non-governmental organization working in Syria, who told the U.S. consulate in Turkey that they believed a chemical attack took place in Homs, according to a U.S. official [5]

Even Turkish officials agreed, after their own investigation, that no banned weapons were used (and none apparently could prove by whom).

Fatality Questions

Dr. Abu al Fida, "who treated about 30 of the approximately 100 people who were affected by the mysterious gas" is cited by CNN: "People who were further away from the source suffered labored breathing, disorientation, hallucination, nervousness and lack of limb control, al Fida said.

But those closer to the source of the gas had much more severe symptoms, including paralyses, seizures, muscle spasms and in some cases blindness, he said. Six people were killed by the gas, the doctor said. [5]

However, as an article at Medscape states flatly "By definition, incapacitating agents are nonlethal. BZ has a high safety ratio. The dose required to produce incapacitating effects is roughly 40 times less than the fatal dose." It therefore makes little to no sense these 6-7 people died from it. An official had explained to CNN: "if you breathe in an entire canister, that can have a severe effect on your lungs and other organs." But why would 7 men each stand there and inhale a whole canister?

The Issue Revived - UN-OPCW Probe

Following the March 19, 2013 sarin attack on a government-held area of Aleppo, Syria requested the United Nations and OPCW launch a scientific investigation into it. This request was lodged on March 20, but objected to later the same day by the representatives of the UK and France. The next day they, (with US, Qatari, and other government support following), they started lodging other CW attacks that were just as urgent to investigate. The first two allegations added to the investigative queue were an attack on the same day (March 19) in the Damascus area, and this contested incident from Homs. It had been universally dismissed weeks earlier, but suddenly seemed urgent again.

The delayed, December, 2013 report from that investigation (PDF) of that investigation, in the end had 16 incidents to look at. Seven claims were found solid enough to look into, 3 of those lodged by the Syrian government. For nine other claims, all added by opposition-backing states, even with months elapsed and after multiple visits to Syria, "the United Nations Mission did not receive sufficient or credible information" to decide much of anything. These included "Homs on 23 December 2012," and the other first addition, "Otaybah on 19 March 2013." For these nine incidents, nothing further was said in the report.

Covering for the Rebels?

It should be noted there's no clear proof how these apparent rebel fighters had been gassed and by whom. An interesting insight comes from Wired magazine's website, which had earlier reported the case for Agent 15, a hallucinogen:

“We can’t definitely say 100 percent, but Syrian contacts made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on Dec. 23,” an unnamed U.S. official tells [Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin].
Agent 15 is similar to 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate or BZ, a powerful hallucinogen that the American military tested out on its own soldiers during the Cold War. Its emergence on the Syrian battlefield would be nothing short of bizarre. While Syria is well-known to have a massive supply of chemical weapons, international observers haven’t ordinarily included BZ on that list.
Over the years, there have been rumors of BZ being used on a battlefield — including one that Iraqi insurgents were dosing themselves with the drug to pump up their aggressiveness. If the cable is accurate, this would be the first confirmed case of BZ employed as a weapon. At the moment, however, the cable’s claims are not confirmed.

However, as noted above, BZ or anything similar is highly unlikely to explain dead people. It may explain the surviving fighters, if it were delivered with a harsh respiratory irritant. The ones seen suffocating in a clinic don't seem to have their aggressiveness amplified.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 Regime accused of using gas on Syrian rebels ABC News (Australia) By Middle East correspondent Matt Brown, wires Updated 24 Dec 2012, 1:52pm
  2. http://foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/01/15/secret_state_department_cable_chemical_weapons_used_in_syria Foreign Policy, The Cable, January 15, 2013.
  3. Secret Syria chemical weapons cable revealed. Foreign Policy, The Cable, by Josh Rogin, January 22, 2013.
  4. The First Bodies Tossed Across Obama's "Red Line" in Syria, Part 2: What Happened in Homs on December 23, 2012? Monitor on Massacre Marketing, February 11, 2017.
  5. 5.0 5.1 http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2013/01/16/u-s-syria-didnt-use-chemical-weapons-in-homs-incident/ CNN, January 16, 2013