Talk:British involvement in Syria
- 1 British operation of Syrian opposition media
- 2 British MI6 operation
- 3 Collection of samples from alleged CW incidents in March/April 2013
- 4 Collection of samples from Ghouta
- 5 Hamish de Bretton-Gordon's role in collecting samples for MI6
- 5.1 HBG's comments on the Sheikh Maqsood incident
- 5.2 HBG interview with PRI on 14 June 2013
- 5.3 HBG intervew on Brown Moses on 27 July 2013
- 5.4 HBG's comments on the UN report on 14 December 2013
- 5.5 HBG article on 28 April 2015
- 5.6 Was HBG working for MI6?
- 5.7 HBG working "on behalf of" OPCW
- 5.8 HBG's companies: Secure Bio and Secure Bio Forensics
- 6 The pushback: the scientists and the generals
- 7 Hersh's story: the generals
- 8 Sources
British operation of Syrian opposition media
The Guardian reported in May 2016 that the UK government was outsourcing the running of media operations for the Syrian opposition. The contract documents seen by the Guardian were reported to be dated November 2014, but an earlier contract is mentioned. The Guardian states that the effort to manage Syrian opposition media dates back to the aftermath of the failure to get the House of Commons to vote for war in August 2013.
Through its Conflict and Stability Fund the government is spending £2.4m on private contractors working from Istanbul to deliver “strategic communications and media operations support to the Syrian moderate armed opposition”
Contractors hired by the Foreign Office but overseen by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) produce videos, photos, military reports, radio broadcasts, print products and social media posts branded with the logos of fighting groups, and effectively run a press office for opposition fighters.
The contract to support the moderate armed opposition was briefly held by Regester Larkin, an international communications consultancy, where it was headed up by a former lieutenant colonel in the British army who had also worked as a strategic communications specialist at the MoD. He set up a company called Innovative Communications & Strategies, or InCoStrat, which took over the contract from November 2014, a Regester Larkin spokeswoman told the Guardian.
A report by Rania Khalek in December 2016 described how an unnamed reporter had been offered $17000/month to work for this operation. The redacted emails are dated June 2016, and the contractor offering the job states that they are one of "three partners" of the UK government on "media surrounding the Syrian conflict". This implies that InCoStrat is not the only contractor.
Regester Larkin was acquired by Deloitte in December 2016. It was described as a "crisis, issues and reputation management consultancy", so running information warfare ops isn't exactly its core business. None of the six current partners have a military background. It's surprising that a consultancy specializing in "reputation management" would get involved in something so obviously disreputable and likely to blow up in their faces. It's not surprising that they divested themselves of the contract after a short time.
InCoStrat isn't registered at UK Companies House. The "former lieutenant-colonel" has been identified as Paul Tilley in a series of tweets on the account EmpireExposed on 6 Oct 2016. Tilley's Linked-In page gives his base as Istanbul, and lists his most recent achievements:-
January 2017 - current. Refining the work developed in InCostrat to provide a more tailored product to both the public and private sector. July 2013-December 2016- Founder and COO of InCoStrat. Developed and managed the company for over two years building to a peak of over 80 staff working in five countries providing strategic communications and local insight in hard to reach areas that are in conflict or emerging from it. • 2012-current. Developed and Project managed several multi-million dollar media and communications projects that are at the leading edge of UK and US foreign and security policy objectives in the Middle East"
The dates "2012-current" suggest that UK government operation of Syrian opposition media dates back further than the outsourcing contract described in the Guardian article. An operation with "over 80 staff" implies a much larger annual turnover than the £2.4 million mentioned in the Guardian, so the Conflict and Stability Fund is probably not the only source of funding.
Tilley's Linked-in page states that he is founder and COO of Innovative Communication and Strategies LLC. A Linked-in page for Michael Flood lists him as co-founder, based in Washington DC. InCoStrat is described on a company listings site as
a small, fairly new organization in the business consulting services industry located in Washington, DC. It opened its doors in 2014 and now has an estimated $72,000 in yearly revenue and 1 employee.
Incostrat's website describes its activities as follows:-
We are a communications and media consultancy that provides a customised end-to-end service for government and private clients: we specialise in strategic campaign planning, narrative development, message distribution and feedback generation in support of policymaking
We operate in challenging environments, communicating with hard-to-reach populations, including in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Pakistan. We also have extensive experience in North and West Africa
We work with a range of issues including: political and military strategic communications, counter-extremism, counter-terrorism, post-conflict recovery, conflict mitigation, stabilisation, reconstruction and development
The UK government contract of £2.4 million and the 80 staff described by Tilley don't match the description of this business as having one employee and annual turnover of $72000. Wikipedia describes an LLC as a "business structure that combines the pass-through taxation of a partnership or sole proprietorship with the limited liability of a corporation." Incostrat's address is given as 106 Quincy Pl NE, Washington, District of Columbia 20002-2145. This terraced house in a residential street is also the address of a local air-conditioning contractor.
Tilley's Linked-In page states that he is also the founder of Innovation and Insight FZE ( iN2- Comms), based in Istanbul. The activities of iN2-Comms are described with in words identical to the description on InCoStrat's website. An article behind a paywall is headlined "Syrian rebels’ British flack bounces back with In2-Comms". From their Linked-In pages, another UK national at In2-Comms is Kate Henson (Director of Leadership Consulting and Innovation).
The EmpireExposed tweets note the parallels between the Paul Tilley / InCoStrat operation and the James Le Mesurier / White Helmets operation: "Both men attended Sandhurst, received Royal 'honours' and formed offshoot companies in late 2014 (InCoStrat & Mayday Rescue)." To this we can add the Hamish de Bretton-Gordon / Secure Bio operation, described below. Pmr9 (talk) 16:16, 19 February 2017 (UTC)
- Small addition: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, maybe containing the seeds of the current one and the SNHR, was founded in the UK in 2009. IIRC. --Caustic Logic (talk) 13:13, 20 February 2017 (UTC)
- Syrian Network for Human Rights Ltd was incorporated as a company in the UK in May 2015 with Dr Wael Aleji as sole director and an address near Reading. He is also sole director of another company Syrian Centre for Foreign Relations founded in July 2013. Both companies appear to be dormant - that is they never went live. Dr Aleji has written a Guardian article in 2015 which states that he "works for" the Syrian Network for Human Rights. If he has sole control of the company, it's perhaps not correct to describe it as a "network" and it's also not clear why the company was set up if no money was ever passed through it. Is someone else paying for the website? SOHR is not listed on Companies House, so presumably wasn't incorporated. Pmr9 (talk) 01:44, 21 February 2017 (UTC)
British MI6 operation
- moved from Category talk:Chemical Weapons#British MI6 operation --CE (talk) 01:40, 9 January 2017 (UTC)
Brief comments: what I'm trying to do here is to lay out and organize the information that is available, with a few comments to help make sense of it. When the story breaks in the MSM, as I think it will, this page will be a useful reference source. I think it's now clear that the leaks to the British press about collecting samples for Porton Down, the UK government's letters to the UN and official announcements about alleged chemical attacks in Syria, and HBG's role both as coordinator of sample collection and as independent commentator all belong under the main heading of "British MI6 operation". Pmr9 (talk) 20:32, 30 January 2017 (UTC)
Some details of how the operation supposedly began were given in a WSJ article on 23 August 2013.
When reports began to surface last year of chemical-weapons attacks, the Saudis, who have close ties to rebel factions, played an important early role in collecting evidence, Arab diplomats said. This past winter, the Saudis flew to the U.K. a Syrian who was suspected of having been exposed to a chemical agent, Arab and European diplomats said. Tests performed in Britain showed the Syrian had been exposed to sarin gas. French and British intelligence agents saw the evidence as credible and stepped up efforts to track other exposures in the chaotic war zone. A spokeswoman for Britain's foreign office declined to comment. U.S. intelligence analysts, particularly those at the Pentagon, were skeptical of those initial results, officials said. Officials said they couldn't rule out the possibility that the rebels might be planting evidence to try to draw the West into the conflict.
A turning point in U.K. views on weapons use in Syria came this spring. Physiological samples collected in Syria -- including from Utaybah on March 19 and Sheikh Maqsood on April 13 -- were brought to the U.K. laboratory [Porton Down] for testing. The material tested positive for sarin, Arab and European diplomats said.
There's at least a hint in this article that efforts to collect CW samples from Syria were already in place by late 2012, as they were "stepped up". The soil samples from Khan-al-Assal have become physiological samples from Oteybah, following the official line of the UK government maintained from 20 May onwards. The exposure of a Syrian in winter 2012-13 was presumably used as evidence for the use of sarin in the alleged CW incident on 23 December 2012 in Homs. It's odd that this incident wasn't publicized at the time - maybe it was an accident to people handling the sarin.
Collection of samples from alleged CW incidents in March/April 2013
- MI6 tests smuggled Syria soil for nerve agent This report by Tom Coghlan and Michael Evans is the first press report of the MI6 operation to collect CW samples.
Government scientists at Porton Down are examining a soil sample smuggled out of Syria after a suspected nerve gas attack on rebels in the country's civil war. The sample was obtained in a covert mission involving MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service. Experts at the Ministry of Defence's chemical research establishment in Wiltshire are testing the soil for traces of sarin nerve agent. Syrian rebels claim that they have been attacked with chemical weapons by the Assad regime's forces but have failed to produce any proof. US defence officials are trying to gather evidence and the UN has announced its own investigation into the alleged chemical attack near Aleppo on Tuesday.
Note that this report, and the accompanying photo, imply that the samples are from the Khan-al-Assal attack on 19 March. Later press reports and government statements imply that the samples are from Oteybah near Damascus, where (after the first reports from Khan-al-Assal attack indicated a rebel attack on a Syrian army post) the opposition alleged a CW attack on rebel positions on the same day as the Khan-al-Assal attack Pmr9 (talk) 21:19, 9 January 2017 (UTC)
I did not know British agents were operating in Syria:
- Chemical weapons used in Syria: the first evidence – The Times, April 13 2013 (Original source)
- Forensic evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria has been found for the first time in a soil sample smuggled out of the country in a secret British operation.
- Defence sources, who declined to be named, said yesterday that conclusive proof that “some kind of chemical weapon” had been fired in Syria had been established by scientists at the Ministry of Defence’s chemical and biological research establishment at Porton Down in Wiltshire.
- The discovery, which had not been made public, will put pressure on the United States to consider punitive action against President Assad. The White House warned in December that any use of chemical weapons would be viewed in Washington as a "red-line" issue.
- The soil sample is thought to have been taken from an area close to Damascus, where there had been fierce fighting between pro-regime forces and rebels.
- The Porton Down experts established beyond doubt that the traces related to chemical weapons rather than, for example, substances used to control riots. They could not tell whether Mr Assad's forces, or rebels, had fired them. The scientists were unable to ascertain whether the findings indicated widespread use. "There have been some reports that it was just a strong riot-control agent but this is not the case — it's something else, although it can't definitively be said to be sarin nerve agent," one source said.
- The British mission to smuggle out the soil sample was revealed by The Times last month. The Ministry of Defence would not confirm the Porton Down finding.
Additional text added so the above quote is now the complete text of the first six paragraphs. Note that although this is reported to be the same sample as that obtained in March, the location is now "near Damascus" i.e. Oteybah rather than Khan-al-Assal. Pmr9 (talk) 17:35, 22 January 2017 (UTC)
- British scientists 'find evidence of Syrian chemical attack' – The Telegraph, April 12 2013 11.45 BST
- The tests at Porton Down reportedly concluded that the chemical traces were from a weapon rather than gas sometimes used by the Syrian security forces to put down protests.
- The sample was reportedly smuggled out of Syria in a mission involving MI6 last month...
- It was not clear whether the sample was from Aleppo, Syria's largest city, where more than 20 people were alleged to have been killed in a chemical attack last month.
Sentence above added. The Telegraph report makes clear that the original report was by Michael Evans in the Times, which must have been on 12 April. The Telegraph version, which must have been copied from the original Times article states that it was "not clear" whether the sample was from Khan-al-Assal. The other reports below, dated 13 to 14 April, and presumably copied from the updated version, give the site as near Damascus i.e. Oteybah. This suggests that the original Times report on 12 April was altered on 13 April to replace Aleppo with Damascus. But they all agree at this stage that the sample was soil, not physiological. Pmr9 (talk) 17:35, 22 January 2017 (UTC)
- UK ‘confirms’ use of chemical weapons in Syria after secret MI6 op – report – RT, April 13, 2013
- The UK Ministry of Defense has claimed that chemical weapons were used in the Syrian conflict. Forensic evidence was collected after scientists analyzed soil smuggled out of the country in a secret British operation, the Times reported.
- The sample was reportedly extracted from a neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus in March by MI6 agents operating within Syria, the Australian reported at the time.
- Arutz Sheva, 4/14/2013 UK Finds Proof of Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria – Arutz Sheva, 4/14/2013
- UK says that chemical weapons were used in the Syrian conflict, after scientists analyzed soil smuggled out of the country.
- The sample, said to be taken from a neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus, was delivered to the UK Ministry of Defense’s chemical and biological research establishment at Porton Down in Wiltshire, where it was identified as containing traces of “some kind of chemical weapon.”
- Syria chemical weapons: MPs demand evidence of sarin use by Assad - The Telegraph, 22 April 2013
- Central to the claims of chemical weapons use are positive tests for sarin both by the Pentagon and Ministry of Defence scientists at Porton Down. The American tests are understood to have been carried out on samples of hair and blood from those affected, while those at Porton Down were on soil samples. However, while scientists are said to have confidence in the findings, the quantities involved are "microscopic".
- The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague) Hansard, 20 May 2013
- There is a growing body of limited but persuasive information showing that the regime used—and continues to use—chemical weapons. We have physiological samples from inside Syria that have shown the use of sarin, although they do not indicate the scale of that use. Our assessment is that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is very likely to have been by the regime. We have no evidence to date of opposition use.
So by 20 May the soil samples have become "physiological samples", like the ones obtained by the Americans. An FCO spokesman confirms this to the Guardian on 4 June.
- The Foreign Office confirmed that "physiological samples" collected inside the country had tested positive for sarin after the Guardian learned of the results from other sources. "We have obtained physiological samples from inside Syria which have been tested at the Porton Down facility, and they tested positive for sarin," an FCO spokesman said.
- The FCO would not confirm where or when the samples were collected, but British evidence of chemical attacks passed to the UN cites incidents in Homs in December, Aleppo and Adra, near Damascus, in March, and in Darayya, also near Damascus, and Saraqib, near Aleppo, in April.
On 14 June 2013 Cameron gave a press conference from which the transcript was published 
- There is credible evidence of multiple attacks using chemical weapons in Syria, including the use of the abhorrent agent Sarin. We have tested physiological samples at Porton Down. These include samples from Utaybah on the 19th March, and from Sheikh Maqsood on 13th April. We believe that the scale of use is sanctioned and ordered by the Assad regime. We haven’t seen any credible reporting of chemical weapons use by the Syrian opposition. However we assess that elements affiliated to Al Qaeda in the region have attempted to acquire chemical weapons for probable use in Syria. That is the picture as described to me by the Joint Intelligence Committee and I always choose my words on this subject very carefully because of the issues there have been in the past, but I think it is right that the Americans have said what they have said and I wanted to back that up with the information and the involvement that we’ve had in that assessment.
So now it's definitely Oteybah, and physiological samples. But they had told the UN in April that it was Aleppo, and soil samples. As the Oteybah emergency room videos were uploaded not much more than an hour after the Khan-al-Assal attack, the two incidents must have been coordinated. So it wasn't logical to blame the regime for Oteybah without a plausible explanation for how the regime could have been responsible for Khan-al-Assal. Pmr9 (talk) 19:07, 22 January 2017 (UTC) Pmr9 (talk) 09:02, 9 February 2017 (UTC)
Britain, France claim Syria used chemical weapons - Washington Post, 18 April 2013
Britain and France have informed the United Nations that there is credible evidence that Syria has used chemical weapons on more than one occasion since December, according to senior diplomats and officials briefed on the accounts. In letters to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the two European powers said soil samples, witness interviews and opposition sources support charges that nerve agents were used in and around the cities of Aleppo, Homs and possibly Damascus, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Syria crisis: UN to study soil samples for proof of sarin gas 24 April 2013, Guardian
- It is understood that as well as visiting refugee camps and potentially taking hair and other biological samples from survivors of alleged chemical attacks, UN investigators will also analyse soil samples in the possession of British and French intelligence agencies
- British officials are adamant that the source of the sarin was the government and that the exposure of Syrian army troops in the town of Khan al-Asal on March 19, as claimed by Damascus, was the result of "friendly fire", a government shell that had gone astray, rather than a rebel attack.
This article also gives more detail of the reluctance of Obama and Chuck Hagel to be drawn in, and their scepticism about the UK "evidence". It looks as if the MI6 operation was directed primarily at drawing the US government into an attack on Syria. This contrasts with the situation in the run-up to the Iraq war, where the US government had already decided to attack and MI6's role was to provide the "evidence" (Niger uranium hoax) that the Bush administration wanted but couldn't get its own intelligence agencies to sign off on.
Porton Down's annual report for 2013 confirms that they analysed clothing and soil samples, and appears to confirm that these were from incidents before the Ghouta attack. There is no mention of the "physiological samples" referred to by Cameron and Hague
- In summer 2013, it was suspected that chemical weapons had been used in Syria. DSTL’s world-class Chemical, Biological and Radiological (CBR) capability helped to provide evidence to UK and international Governments of the first use of chemical weapons in 25 years. Our scientists analysed clothing and soil samples from affected areas, and worked closely with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to provide S&T advice on CBR materials ahead of the OPCW inspections.
Collection of samples from Ghouta
[http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10292317/Syria-crisis-UK-had-secret-sarin-samples-before-MPs-voted.html Syria crisis: UK had secret sarin samples before MPs voted British scientists were examining material tainted with sarin from the site of the Damascus ] - Telegraph, 6 Sep 2013
Sources close to the government efforts to establish the use of chemical weapons in Syria said the contaminated clothing and other material collected in the east Ghouta suburb proved that sarin had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds in the area. The method of collection was described as "robust" with the collection of the samples being recorded with devices that registered the global positioning satellite (GPS) coordinates of the site and other "metadata" on the circumstances of the operation. The material is believed to have passed directly to British territory on Cyprus from where it was transported to the Defence Science Technology Laboratory government at Porton Down. David Cameron, the prime minister, revealed the samples had tested positive at the G20 summit and Downing St officials said the samples were obtained separately from the US and France, which have also said that sarin weapons were used in the August 21 attack.
"There is a strong chain of evidence that brought this information to the UK but unfortunately the results came too late for the Prime Minister to strengthen the intelligence case," the source said.
The source quoted is likely to be Hamish de Bretton-Gordon who is quoted by name later in the article commenting on the rockets The emphasis on collection method and chain of custody suggests that the samples were collected by HBG's network. This operation, from which results came "too late", appears to be separate from the operation reported by Hersh, in which he stated that samples from Ghouta obtained by the Russians were provided "very early" to Porton Down.
The [www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/.../A-HRC-25-65_en.doc report] of the UN Human Rights council] on 12 Feb 2014 asserted that
The evidence available concerning the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on 21 August indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary to manipulate safely large amount of chemical agents. Concerning the incident in Khan Al-Assal on 19 March, the chemical agents used in that attack bore the same unique hallmarks as those used in Al-Ghouta.
Only two labs had environmental samples from both incidents and could have determined that the chemical profiles of the sarin used in Khan-al-Assal and Ghouta matched: Porton Down and the Military Science Centre of the Russian Ministry of Defence. The UNHRC's source is likely to be the UK government, as a Russian government source would have emphasized that the sarin was low quality and not military grade.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon's role in collecting samples for MI6
In a comment on the SicSemperTyrannis blog, David Habakkuk, a retired television producer and historian of intelligence services, reveals an interesting discovery:-
"Also of interest are contributions to the ‘Brown Moses Blog’ by a former British Army CBRN expert called Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon. From his entry on the ‘Military Speakers’ website, and other material, it seems likely that he was instrumental in providing ‘environmental’ samples from incidents prior to Ghouta in which sarin was used to Porton Down. This has quite large implications. (See http://www.militaryspeakers.co.uk/speakers/hamish-de-bretton-gordon-obe/"
It's clear that Bretton-Gordon (HBG) had a key role in the MI6 operation to collect samples for Porton Down that was reported in the Times and Telegraph during April 2013.
Another comment in the same thread by Martin Jerrett is of interest:-
"H de B Gordon, you mentioned, is more open and has been funded by UK government since 2012 at least to develop a network of people in Syria to work on collecting samples among other tasks. "
Jerrett is an Arabic speaker who has had a string of short-term jobs with UK NGOs working in the Arab world. In 2012 he was coordinator of the Syria Development Network funded by the Asfari Foundation (also funds the Syria Campaign), so he's likely to know HBG professionally and to be simply repeating in good faith what HBG has told him. The accounts filed at UK Companies House by HBG's now defunct start-up companies (SecureBio founded in 2011, SecureBio Forensics founded in 2012) support Jerrett's statement that some entity was funding HBG "since 2012 at least", but indicate that the source of this funding was concealed behind nominee directors who made "loans" that were never repaid. If this was MI6, they were remarkably prescient in anticipating before any reports of alleged CW use in Syria that they would need to "develop a network of people in Syria to work on collecting samples".
The first reports in the media suggesting that the Syrian government might use chemical weapons in the civil war appeared in July 2012. These reports are summarized at http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/syria-1.htm
On 12 July 2012, news reports suggested that Syrian authorities might be in the process of moving elements of their chemical weapons stockpile away from conflict areas to improve their security. This also raised fears that the weapons might be being deployed. On 13 July 2012, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little told reporters there were no indications that Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles have become less secure and that the US assessment, that the Syrian government continued to exercise control over the arsenal, remained unchanged.
On 18 July 2012, former Syrian Ambassador Nawaf Fares told the BBC that he believed that Assad regime could be pushed to use chemical weapons and that there were unconfirmed reports that such weapons had already been used in Homs.
On 23 July 2012, Syria offered a tacit admission of their chemical weapon capability, when they said that they would not use such weapons "would never be used against civilians or against the Syrian people" during the crisis for any reason. However, the government spokesman did say that Syria reserved the right to use the weapons against foreign aggressors. Given that Syria continued to maintain that opposition fighters were "terrorist gangs" and full of foreigners, Western powers and the UN warned Syria of grave consequences if they decided to use their chemical weapons stockpile to suppress the rebellion.
As discussed below, the funding mechanism for HBG to collect samples appears to have been set up in April 2012, when Secure Bio went live with a split of equity that presumably corresponded to an injection of capital, and Secure Bio Forensics was incorporated as a separate company.
In another comment on the same thread DH notes a comment by HBG on the Brown Moses site that makes clear he was present with Ian Pannell at the site of the alleged chemical attack in Saraqeb (29 April), reported on the BBC on 16 May.
‘I covered the Sarin attack with the BBC’s Ian Pannell and concluded without doubt, that the Regime was responsible, and we didn’t have any detailed chemical analysis kit with us.’
But the BBC report presents HBG as an independent expert who was not at the scene. Readers of Robert Stuart's blog will be familiar with the evidence of fabrication in Ian Pannell's reporting of the alleged napalm attack in Urm-al-Kabra on 26 August for the BBC. His report was first broadcast on 29 August during the House of Commons debate, but too late to shift the vote
So this ties the MI6 operation in 2013 with a funding scheme that began a year earlier, and with a related infowar operation involving the BBC. It's clear from the press reports and HBG's statements that he provided Porton Down with environmental samples within a few days of the Khan-al-Assal sarin attack on 19 March 2013. These were at first described as being from Khan-al-Assal, but later as being from the alleged attack in Oteybah on the same day. Some time around mid-May 2013 someone seems to have realized that the chemical profile of the environmental samples (which the Russians reported as kitchen sarin with no stabilizers) would give the game away. Subsequent government statements refer to physiological samples (which can establish sarin exposure but don't reveal anything about how it was made). Pmr9 (talk) 00:30, 9 January 2017 (UTC)
More information about HBG's network is in this report by Ruth Sherlock in the Telegraph on 29 April 2014
- "Dr Ahmad”, whose proper name The Telegraph will not reveal for his own protection, was responsible for collecting the samples.
- A first response medic working in rebel-held Aleppo, often treating the victims of air strikes and barrel bombs loaded with TNT explosive that fall on the city day and night, Dr Ahmad first took an interest in chemical weapons during an attack on the city’s Khan al-Assal district in March last year. “There was chaos the hospitals. Doctors became contaminated treating the wounded. People were so afraid and didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I studied the process of decontamination and medical treatments on the internet.” Later in the year, the doctor was part of a group of Syrian medics trained by western chemical weapons experts, including Hamish De Bretton-Gordon from Secure Bio, a UK-based consultancy, in how to react in a chemical attack and the procedure for collecting samples in the aftermath.
- Receiving the samples from his former pupil, Mr de Bretton-Gordon said: “Dr Ahmad’s was a perfectly executed collection of this sort of material. The samples were kept along the rules that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body, require and they were presented in perfect condition that we may test them.” Once in Turkey, the testing process began. Mr de Bretton-Gordon analysed the material out of doors, staying upwind as it was likely to still be toxic. Dressed in a chemical suit, with a protective respiratory hood nearby should the wind change and blow gasses from the samples into his face, he set up the experiment.
- The sample from the April 11 attack in Kafr Zita yielded the strongest results. It tested strongly positive for both chlorine and ammonia. The mini-WARN detector gave a reading of 0.3 parts per million (ppm) for chlorine and 178 ppm for ammonia. As Iain Thomson, a technical expert from the UK company Secure Bio, explained, 0.5ppm is the maximum that a human can withstand for short term exposure to chlorine and 300ppm is a lethal dose of ammonia.
This last statement is on the video of a later report (and I think the voice is HBG, not Thomson), so it's not just a journalist getting numbers mixed up. They're clearly winging it: 1 ppm is the maximum allowable occupational exposure to chlorine, and 300 ppm of ammonia for half an hour would cause mild chest symptoms. HBG implies that he is collecting the samples to meet OPCW requirements, so it's possible that this was the route by which samples were provided to OPCW for its investigations of alleged chlorine attacks in 2014 and 2015.
On 19 September 2014 another Telegraph report has "Dr Ahmad" collecting samples for HBG. Could be Dr Ahmad al-Dbis of Aleppo, now associated with UOSSM and reporting an alleged chemical attack in ISIS-controlled territory on 16 December 2016 Pmr9 (talk) 09:11, 26 January 2017 (UTC)
It is my understanding that the SyAAF does not operate at night. Night bombing only started with the RuAF. This means the reference to 'barrel bombs day and night' by Dr Ahmad is clearly an exaggeration if not a downright lie. Also, the number of barrel bombs claimed dropped - hundreds per day - exceeds the SyAAF capability to deliver them by one or two orders of magnitude.
As an aside, it's also my understanding the SyAAF pilot cadre is exclusively Sunni career pilots - mostly in their 40s and 50s. This has created significant problems replacing ones that have been killed as there is no upcoming stream of trained pilots to replace them. --Charles Wood (talk) 04:51, 10 February 2017 (UTC)
HBG's comments on the Sheikh Maqsood incident
In this podcast dated 1 July 2014 from Wilton Park (an NGO funded by the UK Foreign Office), HBG states (starting about 7'20") that "in March last year there was a reported sarin attack in Sheikh al-Maqsood and I helped the Times - chap called Anthony Loyd who very sadly got shot two weeks ago - to cover this story and tried to get samples to the UK for analysis." He also confirms that he was present later with Ian Pannell in Saraqeb and says "we tried to get samples from that and couldn't - that subsequently proved positive for sarin".
Several interesting points:
1. As in his Guardian article in April 2015, HBG has incorrectly given the date of the Sheikh Maqsood attack as March 2013 and does not mention the collection of samples from the 19 March attacks. The mention of Loyd makes it clear that he's not simply saying "Sheikh al-Maqsood" when he means "Khan al-Assal". Loyd's report in the Times on (updated 26 April, but may have been posted earlier) was based on an interview with someone purporting to be Yasser Yunis, on whose home the sarin-filled riot control grenade had allegedly been dropped on 13 April killing his wife and two sons. However the VDC reported that Yasser had been killed in the attack. An examination of Loyd's bylines shows that at this time he was a full-time propagandist for the Syrian opposition, though he appears to have had a change of heart after they kidnapped him in 2014 and shot him in the leg to prevent him escaping.
2. He states that the munition used in both Sheikh Maqsood and Saraqeb was a barrel dropped from a helicopter, though on 27 July 2013 he had taken part in a detailed discussion on Brown Moses of the riot control canisters that were alleged to have been the munitions used at these sites (see below).
3. He contradicts his earlier statements that environmental samples were obtained from Saraqeb, and appears to refer to the positive blood test obtained in the French lab.
- “Atropine is the antidote to nerve agent poisoning, so it’s used widely [to treat poisoning] in the UK and the US. It’s the recognized antidote,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE, a chemical weapons expert and the founder and COO of London-based SecureBio. The British Foreign Security William Hague mentioned in the House of Commons on Monday that they had very strong evidence that chemical weapons were being used in Syria. On Sunday, we saw a number of reports that those three people were killed in Aleppo. We were sent a load of photos, a load of stuff. The symptoms that were described would be similar to nerve agent poisoning, and the use of atropine would have been an effective method to treat these people.”
- He said that though certainty was impossible, the likely answer was that improvised chemical weapons had been used, and that they are possibly being used by both sides — “by the regime to show that the opposition are using chemical weapons, and by the opposition to show that the regime is using them. Obviously if the regime is using them, then a red line is crossed and things are changed.”
- Improvised chemical weapons are a term for chemical phosphates, a key component to pesticides that have the same biological structure as nerve agents. “I think that a lot of these events have been organic phosphates or pesticides which have been blown up,” de Bretton-Gordon said, adding that “thousands” of people die around the world from these each year.
Why is he talking about organophosphate pesticides? This was four days after Michael Evans had been briefed that the samples supplied to Porton Down from the 19 March incidents showed "something else although it can't definitively be said to be sarin nerve agent". As HBG supplied these samples, he's presumably been told something of the results. The Russians were later to report that their analyses of what was presumably the same batch of sarin, obtained from the impact site at Khan-al-Assal, showed low concentrations of sarin produced under "cottage industry" conditions and containing DIFP (diisopropyl fluorophosphate). DIFP is an organophosphate much less toxic than sarin, widely used as a pesticide. It sounds as if Porton Down found this also. HBG isn't sure how to spin this - he even suggests a possible opposition false flag.
So at this stage I think we can infer that Porton Down had obtained similar findings to the Russian lab, and that HBG had been told some of these findings. The only difference is that at this stage Porton Down is still not reporting a positive test for sarin: they might have reasons for withholding such a result if they don't trust MI6 or HBG.
HBG's reference to a statement by William Hague in the Commons "on Monday" (i.e. 15 April 2013) is incorrect - no record of this in Hansard. He may be referring to a letter sent to the UNSG about this time  Pmr9 (talk) 21:38, 22 January 2017 (UTC)
HBG interview with PRI on 14 June 2013
In this interview, which from the context appears to be on 14 June 2013, HBG indicates that the only samples that he has "seen" are environmental samples, and that the sites from which these were collected include Saraqeb, where he has told us that he was present with Ian Pannell. Pmr9 (talk) 22:09, 22 January 2017 (UTC)
- Werman: And talk about the samples. What kind of samples are you referring to?
- Bretton-Gordon: Well certainly the ones I've seen have been soil samples and masonry collected from the likes of Aleppo and Saraqib and Damascus. I think there have also been some clothing samples. And it's also been widely reported that blood and hair samples have been taken off refugees and people that have escaped from those areas.
HBG intervew on Brown Moses on 27 July 2013
In an interview on discussing the Saraqeb attack posted on the BrownMoses blog HBG again suggests that the sarin was low quality.
- Sarin would normally be delivered by air dropped munitions or artillery shells, causing mass casualties i.e. Halabja. However, it is pretty clear that samples from Saraqeb have tested positive for Sarin, so there would appear to be very small amounts of Sarin contained in the canisters, probably of a low quality. This would account for the relatively few casualties. It is certainly not textbook delivery but has presumably achieved the effect which the perpetrator wanted – confusion and derision amongst the International Community.
HBG appears to suggest that the use in Sheikh Maqsood and Assad of riot control grenade canisters as chemical munitions was a devilish plot by Assad to confuse and discredit Eliot Higgins, who had been posting about them. But more interestingly, HBG appears to be trying to construct an explanation for why the regime is using low-quality sarin. Pmr9 (talk) 01:21, 24 January 2017 (UTC)
HBG's comments on the UN report on 14 December 2013
- The UN/OPCW also looked at Khan al-Assal and Saraqeb and concluded that Sarin was used in both events. I covered the Sarin attack with the BBC’s Ian Pannell and concluded without doubt, that the Regime was responsible, and we didn’t have any detailed chemical analysis kit with us. But the CW was tipped out of a helicopter, without doubt, and the Opposition certainly did not posses helos and the Regime did. It was apparent to me from the symptoms I saw and talking to those around that this was a Sarin attack. The UN/OPCW had the same and better evidence, and could, mandate aside, also have attributed blame. The Khan al-Assal attack is different to the others, as it could be concluded that the Opposition is responsible. UN/OPCW conclude that Sarin was used mainly from evidence provided by the Russians and that the victims were Syrian soldiers. It could be the Opposition – AQ certain claim to be in the CW market – they [Opposition] could have acquired small amounts of Sarin, the Regime recently stated that they had lost some [Sarin] from Aleppo Airport and the Syrian Army soldiers were victims. It could also have been the Regime, who are probably not beyond killing their own people to gain a tactical advantage. It could have been fratricide, which is always possible, and likely; experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan bear this up, and the highly complex battlefield of the Syrian conflict make this also a possible explanation.
As noted by David Habakkuk, this statement makes clear that HBG and Pannell were on a joint operation. But he also repeats the suggestion he first made on 17 April that the opposition may has been the perpetrators of some of the earliest incidents, specifically in Khan-al-Assal was an opposition attack, and reiterates this at the end of the article:-
- It’s import because we know the Regime is responsible for Ghouta, and those responsible must face justice in time, and if the Opposition is responsible for Khan al-Assal then we all need to be on our guard; because if the Opposition have Sarin, so does AQ and ISIS and this would now be a global threat which we all need to be resilient against.
HBG article on 28 April 2015
- Chemical weapons first appeared in the Syrian conflict at Sheikh Maqsoud in March 2013, and that was when I first became involved in trying to collect evidence of their use. There are still some people who dispute that chemical weapons were or are used in Syria, and more who do not believe Assad is to blame. However, as an expert with 27 years’ experience in this field, having been to Syria a number of times and analysed samples from these attacks, I have no doubt that chemical weapons are being used, and that the Assad regime is responsible. Samples from Sheikh Maqsoud and Saraqeb in May 2013 did eventually find their way to French and UK government laboratories and tested positive for the nerve agent sarin, with David Cameron saying as much in the summer of 2013.
So by 2015 HBG has forgotten the incidents in Khan-al-Assal and Uteybah on 19 March 2013 and his role in collecting samples that were reported to be from one of them. Instead he states that Sheikh Maqsood, wrongly dated as March, was the first incident.
We can reasonably conclude that the results on the soil samples supplied to Porton Down around 20 March, purportedly from Khan-al-Assal or Uteybah, were awkward enough that HBG and whoever he was working for wanted to erase them from the record. Pmr9 (talk) 00:59, 24 January 2017 (UTC)
- I'll suggest that by March he might have meant Khan al-Assal, and just got the names mixed up. And forgot Ateibah. Then he puts the same attack (or name) in May, along with Saraqeb (which was almost in May). Here he might refer to the one in Sheikh Maqsoud on April 13, but then, wouldn't he notice he just used the same name for two different places? Sort of a mess - is he being hard to understand on purpose, so as to be hard to clearly debunk? Anyway, it would be a somewhat suspect omission, in line with erasing/fuzzing away the actual events and findings from March 19. --Caustic Logic (talk) 09:46, 24 January 2017 (UTC)
- I don't think it's plausible that HBG could have forgotten that the first CW attacks were in Khan-al-Assal and Oteybah (we'd better standardize the spelling sometime) after his key role in collecting the samples, and the detailed comments he made during 2013 in his other role as an independent expert. He's not just another journalist, but has made multiple visits to opposition-controlled areas of Syria. A point that no one made at the time was the that the timing of Khan-al-Assal attack and the video uploads from Uteybah incident indicate that both operations were coordinated to within a few minutes. Pmr9 (talk) 22:17, 24 January 2017 (UTC)
- I agree - if he really fails to mention it, that's a sign of glossing over more than hazy memory (although it does seem a it hazy anyway). I meant maybe he did mention it, the Aleppo part, just mixing up the name with another area of Aleppo with K and S sounds in the name, and calls Khan al-Assal Sheikh Maqsoud, attack in March. But then, he doesn't mention Ateibah. But then he mentions Sheikh Maqsoud again in May, suggesting maybe he meant to name two different places. So to me it's unclear that he's really glossing over or forgetting it, other than the Damascus portion, for some reason. (translit, I'll revisit on the page) --Caustic Logic (talk) 09:20, 25 January 2017 (UTC)
- I don't think it's plausible that HBG could have forgotten that the first CW attacks were in Khan-al-Assal and Oteybah (we'd better standardize the spelling sometime) after his key role in collecting the samples, and the detailed comments he made during 2013 in his other role as an independent expert. He's not just another journalist, but has made multiple visits to opposition-controlled areas of Syria. A point that no one made at the time was the that the timing of Khan-al-Assal attack and the video uploads from Uteybah incident indicate that both operations were coordinated to within a few minutes. Pmr9 (talk) 22:17, 24 January 2017 (UTC)
In 2013 HBG was even prepared to consider the possibility of an opposition false flag in Khan-al-Assal, and to warn that opposition possession of sarin was a "global threat". In 2015 the incident and the global threat has disappeared down the memory hole, even though the threat of jihadi attacks in Europe causing mass casualties has materialized. The reason may be that Hersh's reports have made clear to those behind the CW operation that a solid trail of forensic evidence exists that links Ghouta to Khan-al-Assal and establishes at the very least their collusion with the Ghouta massacre.
Was HBG working for MI6?
HBG entries are under British MI6; I don't think we should be claiming that. (For one thing, we do not know; there are also slander laws which may apply). HBG has an official biography, for example here. This biography appears plausible, and his work may well be done in the public domain. It's noted that the private company mentioned, is under liquidation in 2015. --Resup (talk) 02:18, 25 January 2017 (UTC)
- "Under British MI6?" Not sure what you mean. Pmr9 says above it's clear he had a role in collecting samples for MI6, suggesting he works with them (or is arguably an "agent of"). I suppose that's contestable, but saying it's clear is a subjective thing, and it seems most likely anyway. Agreed we should be careful about these things, for intellectual rigor besides legal reasons. If we are, cool. If not, then I agree we should. --Caustic Logic (talk) 09:15, 25 January 2017 (UTC)
- HBG's official biography on the Military Speakers site states that he worked "to smuggle chemical samples out of Syria for verification in UK and France." HBG's comments on many occasions confirm that he was collecting CW samples in Syria for Porton Down during 2013. British media reported in 2013 that samples for Porton Down were being smuggled out of Syria in an MI6 operation. It's reasonable to infer that the MI6 operation and HBG's activities were one and the same. This is consistent with evidence of covert funding of HBG's companies through nominee directors, which I'll cover in detail later. There's nothing libellous about suggesting this: HBG was well qualified to undertake this task on behalf of his country, it was an appropriate activity for MI6 to undertake, and in travelling through rebel-held areas HBG was taking considerable personal risk. What I've done above is to compare all the available reports, including HBG's own comments, and UK government reports to the UN and to Parliament. This comparison suggests that they had something to hide: specifically that the reports from Porton Down in April 2013 showed low-quality sarin consistent with an opposition false flag. We note that HBG on at least two occasions suggests this in relation to the Khan-al-Assal attack. This implies that the House of Commons was misled by the JIC's statement on 29 August 2013 that there was "no evidence of an opposition CW capability" and therefore "no alternative to a regime attack scenario". This is contempt of Parliament, a crime against the constitution. Pmr9 (talk) 09:41, 25 January 2017 (UTC)
On 21 August 2013 HBG gave what appears to be a fair and balanced opinion to CBS News
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a British expert in chemical and biological weapons, told CBSNews.com on Wednesday that, based on the reported death tolls and the available video evidence -- which he stressed he could not authenticate independently -- it appeared that a weapon of mass destruction like Sarin gas was probably involved. In many of the smaller-scale attacks across Syria, de Bretton-Gordon has said small quantities of Sarin, or far weaker organophosphate compounds, could have been to blame, and it is feasible that poorly-trained rebel forces could have been behind such attacks. "Sarin is 4,000-times more powerful than organophosphates," he explained, suggesting that if the toxic gas was used Wednesday on a large scale, it was "very unlikely" that opposition fighters could have been behind the attacks, as they "just don't have access to that level of chemical weapons and the delivery means" needed to disperse them so widely.
Of course we know now that sarin need not have been used on a large scale, given the evidence that most of the deaths were massacred captives, but HBG's opinion that the rebels couldn't have been behind Ghouta was reasonable given the information available at the time. However he again gives his opinion that the rebels could have been behind the earlier small-scale attacks. The JIC letter on 29 August states that
We have assessed previously that the Syrian regime used lethal CW on 14 occasions from 2012. This judgement was made with the highest possible level of certainty following an exhaustive review by the Joint Intelligence Organisation of intelligence reports plus diplomatic and open sources.
So the JIC asserted that "judgement was made with the highest possible level of certainty" that the regime was behind the earlier CW attacks, even though HBG, their man on the ground, had stated that rebels could have carried them out. Of course the JIC knew that their case for war would have collapsed if there were any suggestion that the rebels could have been behind earlier attacks using sarin.
HBG working "on behalf of" OPCW
On 15 March 2016 HBG gave a seminar at University College London from which a brief description was posted online.
This seminar was given by former Army officer, Mr. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon. Hamish is currently a chemical weapons expert to NGOs working in Syria and Iraq. His seminar topic was the use of chemical weapons by ISIL and Assad.
Since the Syrian conflict started, Hamish has been deployed to the conflict area a number of times, where on behalf of OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapon) he has helped set up a CBRNE task force. Additionally, he helps run 32 hospitals and clinics across Syria, where he has trained doctors how to treat chlorine casualties and how to collect evidence that can be further used in a court of justice. His efforts in Syria also include training civilians how to protect themselves against chemical weapons.
Hamish shared his experience on sampling and analysis of chemical warfare agents in Syria. He explained that sampling in war zones can be a challenging task due to various factors such as a violent environment, limited amount of time that can be spent on the scene, uncontrolled scene and limited equipment available.
Finally, Hamish covered different chemical weapons that he has encountered in the Syrian conflict zone, such as chlorine and sulfur mustard. Chlorine, a “choking agent” that has been used for the first time on a large scale in WW1, has been used in Syria in a series of attacks in April 2014. Sulfur mustard, a “blistering” agent, has been used in eight attacks on Kurdish forces from Northern Iraq just in the last two weeks of February 2016, causing more than 200 casualties.
From this we learn that HBG was setting up a task force "on behalf of" OPCW at the same time that he was apparently working for MI6 and his companies were receiving covert funding. We can reasonably infer that he and his network were a key source of the "evidence" provided to the OPCW and JIM reports on the alleged chlorine attacks in 2014. This is consistent with what he told the Telegraph about his role in training "Dr Ahmad" (quoted above). The implications are obvious.
If HBG, or his companies, had some kind of contract or collaboration with OPCW, even if it was just a consultancy, why wasn't this publicized at the time by Secure Bio, to impress investors and customers? This suggests that the companies weren't real businesses but just a front to make HBG appear as an independent consultant. Pmr9 (talk) 12:31, 29 January 2017 (UTC)
[https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/27/syria-safe-zones-refugees-turkey-russia-un From this article] we learn that HBG is now an adviser to the French-based UOSSM, which has recently alleged a chemical attack by Russian jets in an ISIS-held area  Pmr9 (talk) 19:04, 8 February 2017 (UTC)
HBG's companies: Secure Bio and Secure Bio Forensics
Secure Bio was incorporated on 29 June 2011 in Manchester, three months before HBG retired from the army. It looks as if the first injection of capital into the company was on 10 April 2012, when shares were allotted. Further allotment of shares, presumably corresponding to injections of capital, were made in April 2013 and April 2014. The other director (apart from HBG) was Andrew Duckworth who appears to be just a nominee director (45 other directorships) with no relevant expertise (chartered surveyor). Nominee directors are typically used to hide the real control and funding of a company. Company formation agents will usually have a list of such people who can be trusted to do what they're told with other people's money, even when there is no formal contract between the nominee director and whoever is really behind the company. "Loans" that are never repaid are commonly used to hide funding.
There are no accounts for Secure Bio made up to later than end of December 2013. These are "total exemption small company accounts" so very little information is given. The accounts from 2012 to 2013 show a progressive increase in unsecured debt, ending with £730k of unsecured debt and £15k of assets when liquidation began in June 2015. Most of this debt was £358k of "Directors' Loans": Andrew Duckworth was owed £305k and HBG was owed £58k. It appears that HBG moved to Avon Protection in October 2014. "Trade and Expense" creditors were owed £275k: this includes £108k of debt to John Townsend, an accountant. It's not clear how such a small company could have run up £108k of unpaid bills from an accountant: maybe there were some complicated arrangements to be made.
Secure Bio Forensics was incorporated on 27 April 2012, and the only other director was Andrew Duckworth who was sole shareholder. The address was Griffin Court, 201 Chapel Street, Manchester, M3 5EQ which looks like a placeholder address for dummy/shell companies (about 300 at this address). It never had any other address. The balance sheet showed liabilities of just £1 at winding-up. It looks as if this company never did anything.
Summary comments: It looks as if these companies didn't really go live until April 2012, when there was an injection of capital and a split of shares in Secure Bio, and Secure Bio Forensics was set up as a separate entity. It's possible that Secure Bio Forensics was intended as the vehicle for funding the collection of samples in Syria, but later it was decided to provide this funding some other way. Stories in the media that Assad had used or was about to use CW began in July 2012, leading to Obama's "red line" declaration in August 2012. It appears that the whole operation was transferred to Avon in October 2014, but the company wasn't put into liquidation until eight months later.
HBG had only 25% of the equity in Secure Bio, so most of the funding must have been provided by others. The administration of the company appears to have been chaotic - accounts were filed late leading to notice of intention to strike off the register, and the final collapse left traders and tax authorities unpaid. This can't have been a happy outcome for the directors: it's surprising that they weren't disqualified for trading while insolvent. My impression of all this is that the company never did anything much apart from running a twitter feed and producing a few reports, and that the "impressive list of global blue chip clients" never existed. I don't think it's plausible that the setup of a network to collect samples in Syria could have been channelled through the company, and it's more likely that the company was just to provide cover for HBG as an independent commentator while the activities in Syria were funded by some other means. Pmr9 (talk) 13:48, 31 January 2017 (UTC)
The pushback: the scientists and the generals
- When I created this on your behalf, I wasn't aware of how specific it would get. So if you want a more specific page just for this stuff, go to a URL in your browser like http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/[the name of your prefered subpage] and create the page, copy over the stuff, clean up (or ask for it to be done). Thanks for your input. --CE (talk) 23:47, 24 January 2017 (UTC)
Brief note on the science
Since the 1990s analytical chemistry has been transformed by wide use of mass spectrometry, in which chemical compounds are converted to ions and the mass/charge ratio of these ions is measured. Mass spectrometry is usually combined with gas chromatography, which separates compounds by their retention time when passed through a column filled with polymer. The combination of retention time and mass/charge ratio gives each compound a unique "signature". When GC/MS is used to detect CW agents in environmental samples, it gives a complete chemical profile of the sample, including impurities. The most sensitive methods can detect these impurities at concentrations of less than one part per billion. In physiological samples, GC/MS is used to detect adducts of sarin or its breakdown products with blood proteins, usually albumin or butylrycholinesterase (BChE). These tests can detect sarin several weeks after exposure, but don't reveal anything about the chemical profile of the sarin.
The TNO study on using environmental samples for attribution studies
Annex 2 of the report of the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board meeting in September 2012 includes the report of the Temporary Working Group on Sampling and Analysis chaired by Dr Robin Black, head of the detection lab at Porton Down.
Pages 22-23 describe a study in the TNO lab that demonstrated the feasibility of using environmental samples for attribution studies. Sarin was one of the three CW agents studied. A summary was presented to the full Scientific Advisory Board. The reference to "an improvised laboratory" makes it clear that they have non-state actors in mind. So everyone on the SAB was aware that the environmental samples collected in Syria in 2013 would provide a forensic trail to how the sarin had been produced and who had produced it.
AGENDA ITEM EIGHT – Chemical forensics (attribution) Chemical profiling of chemical warfare agents for forensic purposes.
25. Daan Noort of the TNO Health, Security and Safety Laboratory, Rijswijk, Netherlands, presented on a collaborative project, between TNO and The Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI), on attribution studies of chemical warfare agents. The goal of this project is to assist forensic investigations in attributing an agent found at the scene of an incident to a particular source. Key questions are: (a) can the synthetic route be deduced from the composition of the by- products in the CW sample? (b) can a correlation be made between chemical profiles of crude samples, found in an improvised laboratory and at the site of the crime? (c) what is the stability of the chemical profile, over time, on various matrices and under various conditions?
26. Studies with VX were reported. VX was synthesised according to three different methods, but with no purification of intermediates or end-products. Analysis was performed with GC-MS and DART. The conclusions were: (a) Chemical profiles of crude VX samples remain more or less intact upon prolonged storage, and after spiking in/on various matrices. (b) Correlation of chemical composition of specific batches (crime scene vs laboratory) should be feasible. (c) Chemical profiles of crude VX samples are indicative for a particular synthetic route. Similar results were obtained for sulfur mustard and sarin. It was noted that small changes in the synthesis protocol might have a large impact on the chemical profile of the end product.
The Russian lab
Russia's OPCW-designated lab for detection of CW agents is the Laboratory for Chemical and Analytical Control in the Military Research Centre of the Russian Ministry of Defence. The lead scientist at the lab was Professor Igor Rybalchenko, who had served on the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board with Robin Black since 2008. Rybalchenko and his colleagues clearly have high regard for Robin Black: in a 2009 paper they cited his "pioneering work", perhaps hoping that he would be the reviewer of their manuscript. In a 2009 article Rybalchenko is described as a senior scientific adviser to the Russian government, in connection with the destruction of the former Soviet chemical arsenal in specially-built facilities for which the US government provided most of the funding under the Nunn-Lugar program.
- The results of the analysis clearly indicate that the ordnance used in Khan al-Assal was not industrially manufactured and was filled with sarin. The sarin technical specifications prove that it was not industrially manufactured either. The absence of chemical stabilizers in the samples of the detected toxic agents indicates their relatively recent production.
- Churkin made further comments on video answering questions, including those on Western investigations.
- Churkin says that the results of US, UK and French analyses of earlier incidents were shared with Russia but "our experts were not impressed" - the concentrations were very low [though that could not apply to the result reported by Le Monde from the Saraqeb incident]. It sounds as if the only test results shared with the Russians were on physiological samples: so there was no chance for the Russians to report on whether Porton Down's results from the 19 March incidents matched their own. If Black and Rybalchenko had already communicated, this would have had to be kept secret to protect Black. Pmr9 (talk) 19:06, 10 February 2017 (UTC)
Statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 4 September 2013:-
- shell and soil samples contained nerve agents – sarin gas and diisopropylfluorophosphate – not synthesized in an industrial environment, which was used by Western states for producing chemical weapons during World War II.
- We highlight that the Russian report is extremely specific. It is a scientific and technical document containing about 100 pages with many tables and diagrams of spectral analysis of the samples.
- Our report on the Aleppo incident of March 19 is available to all the members of the UN Security Council, and I think it is even available to the general public. It is a very professional report, and we have no doubt that the sarin gas used in the March 19 attack near Aleppo was homemade. Also, we have intelligence that the chemical weapon used in the infamous August 21 incident was sarin gas of roughly the same origin as the chemical used on March 19, only in a higher concentration. We sent this data to our US partners and the UN Secretariat.
Transcript of Churkin's remarks on 16 December 2013 at the UN
- the Syrian government asked Russia to conduct an investigation [into the Khan-al-Assal attack] by Russian experts. They arrived on the spot, gathered samples and examined them in Russia, in an OPCW-certified laboratory. A comprehensive report was prepared and submitted to the UN SG and our P-5 Security Council colleagues. Sellstrom got acquainted with this report and even traveled to Moscow to discuss it with Russian experts. In his report of December 12 Sellstrom does not refute our conclusions which are the following: on March 19 "home-made" sarin was used near Aleppo, the projectile that was used for sarin delivery was also a cottage industry product.
- Besides, as our experts concluded, sarin used on August 21 was of approximately the same type as the one used on March 19, though of a slightly better quality. It means that over a few months opposition chemists somewhat improved the quality of their product.
The Russian report appears to be suggesting that diisopropyl fluorophosphate (DFP) might have been intentionally synthesized as an alternative to sarin.
Robin Black's 2016 review of the history of CW agents provides a possible explanation for this: UK and US chemists were less successful in developing a nerve agent during WWII. The primary candidate was DFP, studied by Saunders and colleagues at Cambridge University. DFP had toxicity approximately one fifth to one tenth that of sarin, with volatility closer to soman. Its only advantage over sarin was ease of synthesis.
If a "cottage industry" operation could only manage to synthesize sarin at something like 5% concentration but could easily synthesize DFP at tenfold higher concentration, and the objective was to generate something that would test positive for sarin but also cause casualties, it might make sense to add DFP to a very low-quality sarin preparation. This appears to have been the Russian lab's interpretation of what they found. However the material would have had to contain at least some sarin, or it wouldn't implicate the regime.
[Note: from asking an organic chemist, I understand that DFP can be produced from the same raw ingredients as sarin, but only if the ingredients are added in reverse order. Unlikely that this would happen through simple incompetence: if DFP wasn't synthesized deliberately one possible explanation is that Nusra's chemist was a captive working under duress who deliberately sabotaged the synthesis to send a message that something odd was going on. ]
The Russian report into Khan-al-Assal was apparently widely shared. Lavrov seemed to think it was freely available. It would be really helpful to have this as a basis for further enquiries into the cover-up of Porton Down's results on the same batch. I can't find it in an English-language search, but maybe it's somewhere on a Russian server. Maybe someone who knows Russian can search government websites, or ask the Ministry of Defence's press office. Pmr9 (talk) 18:57, 8 February 2017 (UTC)
- Can see Churkin announcing report but not the report itself; will look further later (lots of work at the moment). It may be not placed in public domain or else will be in English by now; RU MOD site does not seem to have things that technical. Will look further late... To communicate with RU MOD/gov, one needs to be a physical-domain journalist/person oneself (with contact details etc); not that much issue with language... This issue probably had some resolution before they were getting desperate to go public; if so, won't be public...--Resup (talk) 19:40, 8 February 2017 (UTC)
- Bio Rybalchenko 1,2, 3;
- Some publications & affiliation 1,2
- One of affiliations, 27 Научный центр МО РФ--27th scientific centre RU MOD, possibly this, but not explicitly to do with chemistry.
- 2012 publication lists US and Canadian-made mass spectroscopy equipment: Ultimate 3000 -Dionex; QTrap 3200-Sciex and US software Analyst 5.0 (link & purpose, unsure; maybe data visualization if it's this). And cites Black again, 4 on the citation list ...
- Publications are related to detection of chems in general, but unable to find directly relevant publication on Syrian chems ...
Hersh's story: the generals
Hersh's original story in the LRB has been updated in subsequent interviews with Democracynow and Telesur. It's clear that one of his sources is Dempsey or someone very close to him. Another is a "senior defense intelligence official" now retired, and another is a UN official likely to be Mokhtar Lamani.
The most recent version of Hersh's story is as follows.
A collaboration was established between three generals who had supposedly got to know each other professionally as tank commanders in Germany during the Cold War: Martin Dempsey, then the CJCS, Sir Peter Wall, then the head of the British army, and a Russian who can only be Valery Gerasimov, chief of staff of the Russian Armed Forces. Russian military intelligence obtained environmental samples of the sarin used in the Ghouta incident. Some of this material was supplied to Wall, who took it to Porton Down for analysis. Wall communicated the results of this analysis to Dempsey. The results showed that the sarin was "kitchen sarin" without stabilizers, and did not match what was known of Syrian military stocks. Dempsey then visited Obama to inform him of this, and to warn him that he would testify to Congress on what he had told Obama. This forced Obama to call off the attack that had been planned to start on 2 September, the official line being that he had decided to seek Congressional approval. Subsequently, when Syria's sarin binaries were destroyed on board the MV Cape Ray, a ship fitted out by US Army engineers for destruction of CW agents, the US was able to confirm that the chemical profile of the sarin binaries in Syrian military stocks did not match that used in Ghouta.
Several points of interest:-
1. In the original article, Porton Down's role is represented as not much more than that of lab technicians: it was supposedly US defence intelligence who deduced that the chemical profile did not match Syrian military stocks.
- After the first reported uses of chemical weapons in Syria last year, American and allied intelligence agencies ‘made an effort to find the answer as to what if anything, was used – and its source’, the former intelligence official said. ‘We use data exchanged as part of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The DIA’s baseline consisted of knowing the composition of each batch of Soviet-manufactured chemical weapons. But we didn’t know which batches the Assad government currently had in its arsenal. Within days of the Damascus incident we asked a source in the Syrian government to give us a list of the batches the government currently had. This is why we could confirm the difference so quickly.’
This version isn't plausible: the scientists at Porton Down would have been much better qualified than the DIA to interpret the results of the analysis. Any information they required about the synthetic pathway and stabilizers used in the Syrian military programme could have been supplied by the Russians, who could have obtained it from the Syrian government. Some of this information, crucially the Syrian governments efforts to procure trimethyl phosphite during the 1980s, was already in the public domain. In a later interview, Hersh gives a more plausible version of the story in which "the Brits" already knew that the sarin was not military-grade
- And so, the Brits came to us with samples of sarin, and they were very clear there was a real problem with these samples, because they did not reflect what the Brits know and we know, the Russians knew, everybody knew, is inside the Syrian arsenal. They have—professionals armies have additives to sarin that make it more persistent, easier to use. The amateur stuff, they call it kitchen sarin, sort of a cold phrase. You can make sarin very easily with a couple of inert chemicals, but the sarin you make isn’t very—isn’t as lethal as a professional military-grade sarin and doesn’t have certain additives. So, you can actually calibrate what’s in it. They came to us, very early, within six, eight days, 10 days, of the August 21, last year’s terrible incident
2. The story about how the Russian samples reached Porton Down changes between versions. In the original article, Wall is not mentioned and the samples were passed to "British military intelligence". In the Telesur interview, Hersh says "he" gave the samples to Peter Wall (then corrects "he" to "they") and that Wall took the samples to Porton Down. This implies that Wall took a considerable personal risk: he would have had to meet with a Russian diplomat to collect the samples and take them in his car.
3. The only reference to analysis of samples from earlier alleged CW attacks is this passage:-
- The process hadn’t worked as smoothly in the spring, the former intelligence official said, because the studies done by Western intelligence ‘were inconclusive as to the type of gas it was. The word “sarin” didn’t come up. There was a great deal of discussion about this, but since no one could conclude what gas it was, you could not say that Assad had crossed the president’s red line.’
This is clearly false. This, taken together with the earlier version in which it is the DIA who work out that the results do not show Syrian military-grade sarin, suggests that Hersh's sources are trying to cover up the role of Porton Down, most likely to protect them from retribution.
4. For the samples to have been collected from Ghouta by the Russians and passed to Porton Down in time for the results to be used to stop a US-led attack, a plan including Gerasimov, Dempsey, Wall and probably Porton Down must have been drawn up before the incident, most likely earlier in the summer when it would have been obvious to them that a new false flag incident was likely. Pmr9 (talk) 19:53, 9 February 2017 (UTC)
The relationship between Gerasimov and Dempsey was confirmed by Dempsey himself in an address to Irish officers in 2015.
*The continent is in a period of high risk, the chairman said, because of the potential for miscalculation. He said he tries to keep in touch with his Russian counterpart Army Col. Gen. Valery Gerasimov. “I’ve actually suggested to him that we not end our careers as we began them,” Dempsey said. As a young armored cavalry officer, the chairman served in West Germany at the same time Gerasimov was a tank commander in East Germany.
It's clear that something unexpected happened on the afternoon on Friday 30 August that caused Obama to call off the attack less than 24 hours before it was planned to start http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/12/18/hagel-the-white-house-tried-to-destroy-me/
The Wall Street Journal reported: Five Navy destroyers were in the eastern Mediterranean, four poised to launch scores of Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria, according to military officials. Officers said they expected launch orders from the president at between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. Eastern Time on Saturday.
All press accounts agree on the following timeline for 30 August:-
5 pm (some accounts say 6 pm) Obama walks in Rose Garden for 45 min with McDonough
7 pm: Obama calls meeting of White House national security staff in his office (Hagel and Kerry not present) to tell them the attack is off.
9 pm Obama phones Hagel and Kerry separately, to tell them the attack is off.
The following morning a meeting of the full National Security Council, with Kerry and Dempsey present, was held followed by a press conference to announce the decision to postpone the attack.
A report posted by Wayne Madsen on 1 September stated that Dempsey had made a secret visit to the White House to force Obama to call off the attack. This was reported to be independently confirmed two days later by Andrew Kreig, an attorney and investigative journalist, who appears to be a more reliable source.
Wayne Madsen's reporting record indicates that he is often a conduit for stories originating with Russian intelligence: though these stories may be disinformation, they frequently include accurate side information. So the content and the source of this story corroborate not only the assertion that Dempsey forced Obama to call off the attack, but also confirm that the Russians knew what Dempsey was doing.
On Tuesday 2 September Dempsey, together with Kerry and Hagel, testified at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria. The NYT reported: As for General Dempsey, who has made clear his skepticism about military action in lengthy letters to Congress, he appeared to want to disappear behind his medals and ribbons. Looking down, offering monosyllabic answers, and dispensing with an opening statement, the general left little doubt that he was simply carrying out orders.
In a PBS documentary broadcast in May 2015, the story has changed, and the walk in the Rose Garden with McDonough is moved to the following morning. Dempsey is quoted as part of this altered version: It was a Friday night, and I got a call from the president of the United States. And he said to me, “I am considering an alternative course of action.” And he wanted me overnight to consider whether a delay would in any way affect our ability to be effective with our military options.
Hersh's story that the chemical profile of the Ghouta sarin showed it to be kitchen sarin without stabilizers is corroborated by the limited information available in the OPCW reports and assembled by sasa wawa on the WhoGhouta blog: the sarin contained no stabilizers, contained ethyl groups indicating impure low-quality reagents, and contained hexafluorophosphate indicating that the synthesis started with elemental phosphorus or phosphorus trichloride and that intermediate reaction products were not purified at each step. Syria's sarin synthesis is known to have started from trimethyl phosphite. Syria procured hundreds of tonness of trimethyl phosphite from the UK and India in the 1980s, and still held 60 tonnes in stock in November 2013, when they declared their stockpile to OPCW.
Attempts at rebuttal were summarized by Eliot Higgins in a post on 9 April
One criticism was that it was implausible that Porton Down and the US/UK military would have trusted the integrity of samples provided by the Russians. This is not hard to explain. If the Russian lab report on Khan-al-Assal made available to permanent UNSC members in June had been passed to Porton Down for expert review, Porton Down would have been able to compare their own results on the sample from the 19 March attacks with the Russian findings. If their results agreed, this would have confirmed the integrity of the Russian samples.
A more interesting question, not asked by Hersh's critics, is: why did the Russians trust Porton Down to report their findings accurately?
Higgins also points to Dan Kaszeta's attempted rebuttal of WhoGhouta, in which he argued that Syria could have been producing low-quality sarin without stabilizers for battlefield use, and to Coghlin's tweet described below that "MOD sources; no doubts expressed by Porton Down on quality of sarin found in the soil sample". Of course these two propositions contradict each other.
On 8 April 2014 Tom Coghlan, the Times journalist who had first reported the "MI6 operation" to collect samples on 22 March 2013, attempted to rebut Hersh by reporting an official denial from Porton Down. David Habakkuk has summarized the subsequent exchange of tweets:
"The initial ‘tweet’ from Coghlan was sent on the morning of 8 April 2014, the day following the interview on ‘Democracy Now!’ in which Hersh made this claim. It read: '@michaeldweiss @Brown_Moses Hersh’s claim that Porton Down found it to be “Kitchen Sarin” is completely untrue. We’ve just checked.’
Then the journalist Ilhan Tanir – who had recently interviewed Hersh, and used the ‘Twitter’ name ‘@WashingtonPoint’ asked Coghlan whether Porton Down had ‘sent any statement’. Coghlan responded: ‘@WashingtonPoint @michaeldweiss @Brown_Moses We think the S. Hersh story is a non-story. For now that’s about it from us.’
However, not long after, Coghlan had second thoughts, and attempted to produce some evidence for his claim in a new ‘tweet’: ‘@WashingtonPoint @michaeldweiss @Brown_Moses ‘MOD sources: no doubts expressed by Porton Down on quality of sarin found in the soil sample’. This was followed up by the claim that ‘MoD’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory spokesman said absolute confidence that the sarin analysed was from Syrian regime stocks.’
The following day, Gareth Porter responded: ‘The press office of MoD’s DSTL says it did NOT say sarin samples came fm Syrian regime stocks – only that many tested positive.’
Obviously – to adapt Patrick Armstrong’s ‘QED’ – if Hersh had been wrong about the Porton Down tests, Coghlan could have found a spokesman from the laboratory to say so. Moreover, if they had in fact decisively established the guilt of the Syrian Government, the MSM on both sides of the Atlantic – with the ‘Times’ in the lead – would have been trumpeting the fact to the skies. So, inadvertently, Coghlan provided confirmation that one of Hersh’s most significant – and in some ways puzzling – claims was true.
The sequence of tweets can be seen at https://twitter.com/TomCoghlan/status/453570964023169024?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw https://twitter.com/navsteva/status/453602766133665793 https://twitter.com/tomcoghlan/status/453590367204835328
A review of the history of chemical warfare by Robin Black in 2016 stated simply: "the use of sarin was confirmed in the internal conflict in Syria, although the UN investigative mission did not identify the perpetrators".
- Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013 (Ake Sellstro:m, Head of mission). Posted on a Russian non-proliferation org site (pircenter.org)
- Comment by the Information and Press Department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding the investigations into the use of chemical weapons in Syria (Engl.), 4 Sept. 2013
- - the warfare used was not regular Syrian army ammunition but was an artisan-type similar (in type and parameters) to the unguided rocket projectiles produced in the north of Syria by the so-called "Bashair An-Nasr" gang;
- - hexogen was used as an explosive, which is not part of the regular Syrian army ammunition;
- - shell and soil samples contained nerve agents – sarin gas and diisopropylfluorophosphate – not synthesized in an industrial environment, which was used by Western states for producing chemical weapons during World War II.
- (report itself again mentioned but not published; laboratory exact name/details not provided)...
- Black RM. An Overview of Biological Markers of Exposure to Chemical Warfare Agents, Journal of Analytical Toxicology, Vol. 32, January/February 2008 http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.849.5079&rep=rep1&type=pdf,
- Black R. Chapter 1: Development, Historical Use and Properties of Chemical Warfare Agents. In: Chemical Warfare Toxicology: Volume 1: Fundamental Aspects, 2016, 1, pp. 1-28. http://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/chapterhtml/2016/bk9781849739696-00001?isbn=978-1-84973-969-6
- Roland Dumas: "The British prepared for war in Syria 2 years before the eruption of the crisis", published Jun 18, 2013
- It was speculated in 'alternatively challenged media' that Dumas is not revealing the French role: "Dumas is a retired French foreign minister who is obliged to use discretion when revealing secrets which could affect French foreign policy. That is why he made the statement ‘I am French, that doesn’t interest me’. He could not reveal France’s role in the British plan as he would be exposing himself to prosecution for revealing state secrets"--Resup (talk) 16:47, 19 February 2017 (UTC)