On August 21st, some 500 to 1,300 people in eastern Damascus suffocated to death, many as they fled for safety or slept in their beds. This single event has run like an electric shock through the international community unlike any other before, painting the impression of an escalation in the conflict (but not really) and beckoning the international community over a rubicon they dug with their own hands. There is a lot of confusion surrounding the details and even the validity of this event as all the focus snaps to the inevitable bumbling response. al-Assad outright denies the use of any chemical weapons, Russia and skeptics call it a false-flag, and America and Israel claim to have out-of-the-park proof that it was a strike ordered by the government. There is fair reason to not trust the claims of either side, but independent of their claims, local reporting and international observers have pieced together a picture that very clearly indicts the Syrian army in Damascus with the chemical attack on Zemalka and the surrounding suburbs.
Brown Moses is one of those international observers. Through his blog he has been tracking much of the weapons and munitions used in the Syrian conflict through YouTube videos and reports posted by rebels, army soldiers, and civilians caught in the middle. By simply observing the everyday tools of war and the leftovers of battles and bombings scattered throughout a multitude of different online sources, he has been able to accurately track the ebb and flow of the conflict, from the introduction of cluster bombs to the importation of new weapons. His most recent post detailed two videos showing a munition discovered by locals and examined by UN officials which appears to be linked to the chemical attack. With help from people at Allen Vanguard and Human Rights Watch, and by comparing markings and the base of the munition to diagrams, he determined that the munition is most likely a Soviet-era 140mm M14 Artillery Rocket (see the post for in-depth examination). The most important detail to glean from matching the munition in the video to the diagram is the size. The main launcher used with a 140mm rocket is the Soviet-made BM-14 multiple rocket launcher, which the Syrian army has in its collection along with its larger BM-21 Grad cousin. But more specifically, the 140mm rocket can be loaded with a certain chemical warhead, another relic of the Soviet era, capable of delivering up to 2.2kg of Sarin gas. It is generally accepted that Syria has and produces its own chemical weapons while also being one of the six states that has not signed Chemical Weapons Convention which outlaws their production, stockpiling, and use.
While the munition in the videos could have been loaded with a chemical warhead, how do we know it was? It’s rather simple. Discovering the bottom half of a rocket like that is fairly unique, as when a rocket is normally loaded with high explosives and shot at a location, it will inevitably explode and leave only pieces of scrap as evidence. A used rocket with no warhead indicates separation but no explosion. This would coincide with eyewitness testimonies from Zemalka, who reported hearing incoming rockets but no following explosions:
Abu Omar says another burst of rockets landed around 3am. But they were unlike other explosions that had regularly peppered the area for the last year as regime forces tried to dislodge rebel groups and the communities that backed them from their stronghold less than seven miles from the heart of Damascus.
“You could hear the sound of the rocket in the air but you could not hear any sound of explosion.” And they caused no visible damage to any buildings. The smell became overpowering.
“Around 2 after midnight we felt three rockets hit the area. They didn’t have loud explosions but more like the normal mortar attacks.
“We went down to check and we started smelling a strange smell. Then the men started shouting ‘It’s a chemical attack!’
As noted earlier, the most likely delivery for a 140mm rocket would be a BM-14, which astute observers would note only has an effective range of close to 10km. That means the rockets would have had to have come from an army-secured location behind the front lines with access to a chemical weapon stockpile. That’s where Mount Qasioun comes in. The mountain dominates the north-western corner of Damascus and is the largest military complex in the country, housing the 4th Armored Brigade, the Republican Guard, and special forces units, while acting as a stronghold since the start of the civil war. It is also the site of the Jamraya research center, which has reportedly produced and stored chemical weapons since the 1980s. The Israelis have twice bombed the site since January, their first excursions into Syrian airspace since 2007, the latest being on May 5th when a massive explosion rocked the mountainside and sparked rumors over the use of depleted uranium. The Israelis’ stated reasoning for the bombings was to stop the shipping of weapons to Hezbollah in nearby Lebanon, as Mt. Qasioun sits close to the border with the country. In a sad twist, Mt. Qasioun is also the cited Biblical location where Cain murdered Abel, and is commonly given the nickname ‘the Cave of Blood’. Its central role in this attack only seems to live up to its reputation.
An overview of the region. (A) Jamraya research center (B) Republican Guard Base (C) Zemalka suburb
Mt. Qasioun puts the capability and resources for such an attack into the hands of the Syrian army, providing them a safe camp to both set up vulnerable artillery pieces and handle chemical munitions without the risk of them falling into the wrong hands. Barring that, other questions remain. Could rebel forces in Damascus have shelled their own people in a flagrant effort to draw in foreign intervention? And why would al-Assad/the Syrian Army make such a bold push with chemical weapons now?
Concerning the rebels, it appears that the elements still fighting in Damascus would simply not have the means to make such an attack. Unlike the Islamist and rebel groups on the front lines in northern Homs or Aleppo, which have full access to various technicals, captured military vehicles, and stationary weaponry, as well as a more stable front to launch artillery from, the groups left in Damascus are stuck with a guerrilla approach, relaying on light arms and rocket launchers, quick attacks, and moving unseen. As recently as May reporters from Le Monde were embedded with rebels in the Jobar suburb, also in east Damascus near Zemalka. Their report shows how the rebels move, using tunnels blown through the walls of apartments and shops to avoid the heavy armor presence of the Syrian military. In their current state, rebels in Damascus are effectively unable to field equipment like the BM-14, relying more on the mobility of mortars and RPGs to combat the heavy armor presence in the city.
The report also extensively details the targeted use of chemical weapons against rebels on the frontlines, as al-Assad has been using small amounts of chemical weapons to push back rebel fighters. That makes the shelling of the Zemalka, Jobar, and Ein Tarma suburbs less of a single event or sudden escalation and more like the gradual push into the interior pockets of the rebel stronghold it appears to be, with the August 21st attack being the first to hit into the areas where civilians lived and had not already fled. It could also point to a more lethal chemical used, intended to take out more people located in dense urban conditions.
The UN inspectors in Syria intend to take fourteen days, with possible extensions, to check various sites of reported chemical attacks and then test any samples taken in their labs. And even then, as Jay Carney was quick to point out, the UN’s mandate is not to establish culpability, only whether a chemical attack took place. The evidence for that is overwhelming from the YouTube content alone, but their results will help work towards sealing what types of agents were used and who would have access to such sophisticated chemicals.
That does not mean intervention, whether through cruise missiles, no-fly zone, or boots on the ground, is the path to take. As Hans Blix said, “the political dynamics are running ahead of due process.”, and we’re bound to only see more ruin for better or for worse. There are very little ways to bomb the Syrian people out of this, and diplomacy has long since failed. There simply is no good option when it comes to Syria right now, every choice involving more suffering with little assurance that anything stable will come out of it. The country has effectively been split into three regions, with no lack of hard-feelings between each of them, and the conflict itself has crawled to a standstill with borders drawn, just another incentive for interventionist hawks looking to seize the moment. At the very least, you can read Joshua Foust’s post busting up the various points for attacking Syria and revel in all the ways we’ve screwed ourselves. And after that, maybe have a drink and hang on to your preferred news feed, because this one is going to get bumpy.