Russian diplomacy has dramatically changed the trajectory of the Western response to the Syria crisis and put the Kremlin at the center of international negotiations to control Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. But the Russian government’s insistence that chemical weapons were used by rebel forces now places it on the fringes of a serious debate over what to do next to end the atrocities in that embattled country.
In his op-ed for the New York Times, President Vladimir Putin made the case for pursuing diplomacy over military strikes in Syria. He also wrote that there is “every reason to believe” the attack was carried out by opposition forces to provoke a Western military intervention.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has continued to claim that the “obscure case of the August 21” attack was “clearly fabricated.” Last week in Damascus, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov announced that Russia would be analyzing new “evidence” from the Syrian government that exonerates their forces for the attack.
Syrian opposition forces are indeed responsible for serious crimes in their conduct of war, including attacks against civilians, summary executions, kidnappings, torture, and other abuses. They include extremist Islamist elements that should be of real concern. But they are not responsible for the August 21 chemical weapons attack, and a review of the evidence demonstrates that.
The United Nations inspection team remains the only independent group to have accessed the site of the attacks. When U.S. military strikes against Syria appeared imminent, Russian diplomats urged the world to wait for the U.N. inspectors’ report. But now that the report points clearly to Syrian government responsibility for the attack, the same officials are dismissing it as “politicized,” ”biased,” and “one-sided.”
U.N. inspectors were able to visit sites and interview victims and eyewitnesses, but it was not within their mandate to state explicitly who they thought was responsible. But they have provided substantial evidence of Syrian government responsibility, and that evidence is backed up by a 21-page research report by Human Rights Watch, an independent, non-governmental organization.
“Russian diplomats often cite ‘experts’ who are not experts at all. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has relied upon a ‘nun from a local [Syrian] convent…’” – Carroll Bogert, Human Rights Watch
We analyzed witness accounts of the rocket attacks, information on the likely source of the attacks, the physical remnants of the weapon systems used, and the medical symptoms exhibited by the victims as documented by medical staff. Using this information, Human Rights Watch’s expert arms team, specialized in the identification of weapons and munitions used in conflicts around the world, made detailed reconstructions of the weapons used, and consulted internationally respected experts to analyze the symptoms shown by those sickened in the attack.
Human Rights Watch is headquartered in New York, but a visit to our website at hrw.org will easily show that we are often vehement critics of U.S. foreign policy and have more than a 30-year track record of documenting and criticizing U.S. government violations of human rights at home. Contrary to some Russian media reports, we have not taken a position favoring U.S. military strikes in Syria. But we have published dozens of reports, briefing papers, and extended press releases in the two and a half years since the Arab Uprisings spread to Syria, beginning as a protest movement against the authoritarian government and now morphing into a devastating civil war. We have reported on violations of international humanitarian law by both sides
Everyone agrees that the August 21 attacks took place at two sites 16 kilometers apart. They were caused by surface-to-surface rockets, not on-the-ground explosions.
The U.N. inspectors, as well as Human Rights Watch, identified two systems that launched the rockets carrying Sarin into Ghouta. Both systems are known to be in the arsenal of the Syrian armed forces. One system launches 330mm rockets – most likely Syrian-produced – from truck-mounted launchers, each rocket carrying canisters of 50 to 60 liters of Sarin, while the second uses Soviet-produced 140mm rockets with a smaller Sarin warhead. These launching systems and their rockets have never been seen in rebel hands.
“…information used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq turned out to be wrong. That does not mean the U.S. government is necessarily wrong when it accuses the Syrian government of the [August 21 chemical] attacks.” – Carroll Bogert
Meanwhile, the amount of Sarin used in the attack – many hundreds of kilograms, according to Human Rights Watch’s calculations – also indicates government responsibility for the attack. Opposition forces have never been known to be in possession of such significant amounts of Sarin, if any.
Some members of the Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra have been indicted in Turkey for trying to acquire chemicals with the intent to produce Sarin. That is indeed a worrying development, but irrelevant to the question of responsibility for the August 21 attack, which involved hundreds of liters of military-grade Sarin, not small quantities of home-made Sarin. This was not a chemical attack cooked up by opposition forces in some underground kitchen.
In appendix 5 of the U.N. report, after describing the two rocket systems used in the attack, the inspectors go one step further and actually reveal the trajectory of some of the rockets. Using standard field investigative techniques, examining the debris field and impact area where the rockets struck, the report provides precise azimuths, or angular measurements, that allow us to work out the actual trajectory of the rockets.
The two attack locations are located 16 kilometers apart. According to declassified reference guides, the 140mm artillery rocket launched into Moadamiya (described by the U.N. as “impact site number 1”) has a minimum range of 3.8 kilometers and a maximum range of 9.8 kilometers. Meanwhile, a well-known military base of the Republican Guard’s 104th Brigade is approximately 9.5 kilometers from Moadamiya.
We don’t know the firing range for the second type of rocket used, the 330mm rocket that hit Ein Tarma (impact site number 4). But that site is 9.6 kilometers away from the main Republican Guard base in Damascus, well within range of most rocket systems.
Meanwhile, what is the evidence that opposition forces are responsible for the attack? Russian diplomats have called into question the timing of the posted videos of the attacks. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Aleksandr Lukashevich has said opposition activists uploaded the first YouTube videos of the victims on August 20, one day before the “so-called attack.” What he overlooked is that all videos uploaded on YouTube are date-stamped for Pacific Standard Time, 10 hours behind Syria. So any video uploaded before 10 am Syrian time would have been date-stamped August 20. And the attacks occurred in the the early hours of August 21.
Russian diplomats often cite “experts” who are not expert at all. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has relied upon a “nun from a local convent,” Mother Agnès-Mariam de la-Croix of the St. James Monastery in Qara, Syria. She has previously spread false stories seeking to deflect blame from the government for earlier crimes, such as the Houla massacre, which has been investigated by several independent observers (including the U.N. Commission of Inquiry and Human Rights Watch). But Mother Agnès does not have direct knowledge of the Ghouta attack. Her convent is located some 100 kilometers from the attack sites. She does not have military expertise and has not visited the site or examined the remains.
Lavrov has also cited 12 retired officers from the U.S. Defense Department who claimed the Ghouta attack was fabricated. Their group has advanced the theory that “some canisters containing chemical agents were brought into a suburb of Damascus, where they were then opened.” But Sarin is not a “gas” contained in canisters that can accidentally explode or be immediately dispersed. In its natural state, Sarin is a liquid, which must be vaporized to function effectively as a chemical weapon agent (of course, exposure to liquid Sarin would be deadly as well, but the vaporized Sarin is dispersed over a larger area). These retired officers also reject the notion that rockets were used in the attack, but they provide no evidence, simply quoting “the most reliable intelligence sources.” That can hardly trump the report by the independent U.N. team that visited the site.
A good deal of “evidence” is clearly fabricated. For example, a series of grainy short videos suddenly appeared on the day of the release of the U.N. report, from a new account that had not uploaded such videos before (we monitor all such accounts closely). It claimed to show Islamist fighters from Liwa al-Islam firing the very rockets identified by Human Rights Watch and the U.N. experts. The videos bear all the hallmarks of an amateur attempt to deflect responsibility from the Syrian government: the rockets are conveniently draped with Islamist flags and emblems identifying the Liwa al-Islam group, something not seen in other videos circulated by the group. Most significantly, the weapon filmed in the videos isn’t associated with the chemical weapons attack: it is a D-30 howitzer, which is not a weapon capable of firing 140mm or 330mm rockets.
The United States and its intelligence agencies suffer from a serious credibility gap when it comes to reporting on weapons of mass destruction, thanks to the false and misleading claims made in 2003 regarding the extent of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction programs. That information, used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, turned out to be wrong.
That does not mean the U.S. government is necessarily wrong when it accuses the Syrian government of these attacks. The evidence must be examined carefully and weighed. Russian diplomacy at this critical moment must be conducted on the basis of verified evidence.
Energetic and fact-based Russian diplomacy could contribute positively to the Syria crisis. The first step would be to recognize that Syrian government forces carried out the chemical weapons attacks of August 21 and refocus international efforts to ensure that chemical weapons stocks are put under international control and destroyed.
Russia should also call for accountability for the perpetrators. A chemical weapons attack is a war crime and may be a crime against humanity, and such serious crimes should never go unpunished. Russia should insist on the U.N. Security Council referring Syria to the International Criminal Court.
The ICC would have the authority to investigate serious crimes by both sides. Given the overwhelming evidence of government responsibility, Russia should not have a shred of doubt about who committed the August 21 attack. But if it still does, why not let international legal authorities assign the blame?
The views expressed in this Insight are the author’s own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you’d like to share your opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. If you are a Middle East expert or analyst associated with an established academic institution, think tank or non-governmental organization, we invite you to contribute your perspectives on events and issues about or relevant to the region. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for an Insight post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your institutional blog.
Carroll Bogert is deputy executive director for external relations at Human Rights Watch.