On the 21st of August 2013 a series of chemical attacks occurred in the Ghouta district. A United Nations (UN) team were already in Syria investigating alleged use of chemical weapons in other areas of Syria, and have since been redirected to investigate the attacks in the Ghouta district.
Footage of the Syrian Chemical attacks
Areas in which deaths occurred (not all of which are impact zones; injured were taken to field hospitals; Jobar was directly hit. Our sources tell us that one rocket hit Sakba/Saqba) – Ghouta district east of Damascus. Irbin, Jobar, Ein Tarma and Zamalka. Also Muadhamiya further west. The New York Times has prepared a useful map on this link.
The first report of the attacks was posted on social media at 2:45am. This was followed by the second post at 2:47am. Most of the footage takes place in darkness. Videos from outside hospitals are illuminated by vehicle headlights. The footage is largely consistent with reports of the attacks starting in the early hours before dawn.
From all available footage we were able to count a death toll of 367 at medical stations or morgues around the affected zones (NCF interns have worked round the clock to count a death toll of 367 from footage. We believe we have watched every video, counted the dead people in them, and then tried to make sure the same bodies weren't filmed twice. But it is possible we may have missed some casualties). Victims included men, women and children. This must be regarded as a minimum figure but on past experience of monitoring mass killings in Syria we would normally expect most of the dead to be documented on video (citizen journalists are very active in the Local Coordination Committees). Actual deaths are rarely more than 20% greater than the video record (though this was an unprecedented situation. Activists simply said there was not time to keep up with documenting the dead. They have never dealt with these numbers. An NCF source asked one why there was no footage of burials and the reply was “our cameraman was dead”.) The "United Revolutionary Medical Office in Eastern Ghouta" records 1302 deaths with specific locations for the clusters of deaths and states that this does not include "dead people without IDs". Clearly that would be the approximate highest possible figure though the committee offers no supporting evidence for this higher figure. We are happy to send you a copy of their report should you wish to see it.
What was used
No visible wounds are apparent in the footage, and there is little blood (though two small children had significant bleeding from the nose). The only discernible bandaging is that used after injections of antidotes.
Symptoms are varied. This is likely because the victims shown are at different stages of exposure to the toxins. It might also suggest that a mixture of agents have been used.
Most of the symptoms seen in the footage imply the use of an organophosphate nerve agent. These types of agents tend to take effect very quickly when someone is exposed to them severely. Most of them, except sarin, have a moderate or high persistency. The footage shows the speed of the effects of the agents but then their lack of persistency. The nerve agent that fits this profile best is sarin (possibly old stocks of sarin - sarin decays swiftly if not stored properly - see this interesting link).
Most frequent symptoms: Convulsions; trembling; muscular spasms (possibly followed by paralysis of some muscles); difficulty breathing; fainting (eyewitness accounts claim); foaming at the mouth and nose; paleness; vomiting; mental confusion; constricted pupils. (Allegedly at more advanced stages emptying of the bowels, which medics said was generally followed by death).
Other symptoms were more unusual. One video showed two young girls and a boy apparently suffering the effects of the gas with yellowed skin on their faces and around their eyes.
Many of those left alive display surprised and vacant expressions.
A number of videos also claim to show people who have died from asphyxiation. Some younger victims displayed blue lips and blue extremities (hands and feet), which would have resulted from this asphyxiation.
The treatment given included atropine and hydrocortisone. Atropine appears to have been used extensively, and supplies were reported to have run low. The drug can alleviate symptoms including difficulty breathing and secretions from the mouth and nose, but does not assist the convulsions and spasms.
Footage showed those that were brought in alive being doused with hoses and buckets of water. Many of the victims at medical stations had had their clothes removed. Oxygen cylinders and respirators were also seen to be used to ease breathing. Resources were clearly stretched thinly.
Of the doctors and helpers treating the victims, some were wearing gloves and masks but most were not. This could indicate that the chemical agents used did not have a persistent effect, or simply to a lack of available protective gear. Most nerve agents remain active in clothing for up to half an hour. (However, several field hospitals reported that medical workers had come down with symptoms after treating victims - unconfirmed reports state that at least one died).
The picture below shows one of the rockets that opposition groups are alleging was used in the attack (Activists at the Damascus media center claim that at least ten fell, including seven in Eastern Ghouta):
It is sourced to this Local Coordination Committee facebook page:
A similar weapon reappears in a video of a protest two days later on the 23rd of August. The video below shows civilians hoisting the rocket claimed to have delivered the chemical weapons. If this indeed was a rocket used for chemical weapons, the fact that they could do this without being affected suggests that it was not a persistent agent.
The next video below claims to show the launch of a rocket which was targeted at Ghouta.
Eye-witnesses claimed that the attack took place after the neighbourhood was targeted with conventional heavy weaponry, which they say is a near-daily occurrence. In this instance it could have increased the casualty count, as civilians took shelter in basements. Eyewitness reports claim that that they were targeted by both rockets and mortars whilst they were asleep. Footage shows dead animals (apparently asphyxiated) around the sites of the impact of the missiles.
NOTE HOWEVER that most eyewitness sources contradict opposition reports that missiles were used to deliver the weapons and indicate that artillery shelling was the mechanism used. The forthcoming report of the UN inspectors may be helpful in regard to this question.
The Syrian Government has as of yet still not signed on to the Chemical Weapons Convention. There is an acute need to promote the Chemical Weapons Convention in the Middle East today. There are only eight countries in the whole world which have either not signed and / or not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. They are:
They should all be brought on board urgently.
The al-Nusra Front also has chemical weapons: Syria’s main chemical weapons base, though there are others nearby, was at the Safira base just to the East of Aleppo.
The Free Syrian Army destroyed the Safira base on 29th November 2012. The artillery base was utterly demolished but the nearby air defence base was fought over for some time. Safira was a sprawling military complex. However, the Islamist group Al Nusra joined the fight and by mid February 2013 the entire town had fallen into rebel hands.
On 29 May seven members of al-Nusra were arrested by Turkish authorities near Adana, in possession of two kilos of sarin gas. The Turkish authorities claimed that the al-Nusra members were planning an attack in Adana on 30 May, presumably to implicate the Syrian government and draw the Turks into the Syrian war. Subsequently the Turkish authorities switched their ground and denied that the chemical agent found was sarin but refused to say what it in fact was.
According to the Foreign Policy magazine the USA is basing some of their decision making on an intelligence tape of a phone call between an official from the Syrian Ministry of Defence, and the head of a chemical weapons unit. Foreign Policy states that answers were demanded over a nerve agent strike. However, the panicked phone call to Syria's chemical weapons department demanding answers shortly after the attack could equally be regarded as suggesting Syria's armed forces were not responsible.
It is NCF’s conclusion that the chemical weapon that best fits the evidence available is sarin gas. With the UN investigation team already in Syria, it should be possible for them to determine whether the attacks were delivered by missile (definite Syrian Government culpability) or by mortar (Probable Jebhat al-Nusra culpability) or by some other means.
The UN weapon inspectors must be given time to establish the facts of the matter. The NCF would advise the US government to wait and re-examine the issue afresh when more evidence is made available by the UN weapon inspection team.
Also, please note Secretary Kerry's smoking gun report. The four page "evidence document" is available on the White House website.
President Barack Obama called Syria's chemical weapons attack 'a challenge to the world' and said he is considering a 'limited, narrow act' against the country's regime. 'We're not considering any open-ended commitment,' Obama said. 'We're not considering any boots on the ground approach. I have not made any decisions.'
Links to footage
This is a compilation of videos made by an independent source showing victims, reports and images of the attacks.
This is a link to the Youtube playlist compiled by user ‘Brown Moses’ showing footage of victims, doctors interviews and rockets being launched.
Link to President Obama’s statement on crossing the red line with the use of chemical weapons. International Business Times UK; 21stAugust 2012
FOOTNOTE: Fairly credible NCF military sources in Syria indicate that on 20th August a number of FSA (a figure of 25 was recorded by one source) from the suburb which was subsequently attacked surrendered to the government and that the surrender of the balance was being negotiated, however Al Nusra reinforcements were about to move into the area. Those killed in the subsequent attack included almost all of the remaining FSA fighters in the district.