September 17, 2013

Probably final Syria chem thought

What's really interesting about the Syrian chem attack, analytically speaking, is that it's one of those rare situations where the two of the most reliable intuitive principles we have are completely at odds. The Cui Bono assessment of this is that the Syrian government would have to be incredibly stupid or reckless to attack their own people this way. The Occam's Razor hypothesis points now, entirely at their having done so.

Posted by BruceR at 02:22 PM

Syria attacks: also note the quantity required

HRW's Peter Bouckert raises another good point:

The rocket systems identified by the UN as used in the attack – truck-launched 330mm rockets with around 50 to 60 liters of Sarin, as well as 140mm Soviet-produced rockets carrying a smaller Sarin-filled warhead – are both known to be in the arsenal of the Syrian armed forces. They have never been seen in rebel hands. The amount of Sarin used in the attack – hundreds of kilograms, according to Human Rights Watch’s calculations – also indicates government responsibility for the attack, as opposition forces have never been known to be in possession of such significant amounts of Sarin.

Assume that only the two 330mm rockets the UN inspectors saw were involved. That would still be 100+ litres of sarin in those two rockets alone, not counting the BM-14s or any other munitions involved (estimates have actually suggested 20 or more munitions were used in this one attack). By comparison, the Aum Shinrikyo cult used a total of 5 litres in the Tokyo subway attacks, the only successful deployment of sarin in history by anyone other than Saddam's Iraq. (The Japanese cult released a similar amount in their previous 1994 Matsumoto attack, killing eight.) There is no question the apparatus required for the production here would have been significant. Interestingly, although sarin will kill you, no question, if a drop lands on unprotected skin, when distributed in the air, whether in Syria, Iraq or Japan, it takes roughly a litre of distribution per fatality. Sarin is not the deadliest chemical weapon out there; that honour probably belongs to VX, which the Syrians also have in smaller amounts, which is about 10 times as deadly, and persists longer in the environment (unlike Sarin, which sunlight rapidly degrades).

Note also that the production or transport of Sarin or its schedule 1 precursor chemicals is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which both Russia and Iran have signed, and that sarin's shelf life is about the same as milk -- months.

Posted by BruceR at 12:49 PM

September 16, 2013

Just two other points on the Syria attack

Updating entry below with 2 addenda:

1) The fact the two trajectories we have seem to converge may be coincidental, or maybe not. The high ground north and west of Damascus is held firmly by the Syrian government's Praetorians, the 4th Armored and Republican Guard Divisions, the best troops the government has left. That the rockets in question were launched from that area is telling in and of itself over how accountable the senior leadership would have been. If your key military supporters are the active party, you're either in the know or you've lost control: there's not really a third option. There is also some evidence of another launch point farther to the northeast along that same mountain ridge. Evidence of multiple simultaneous launch points in different divisional and brigade areas of operation would be an indication of higher level control or authorization of the attack, due to the coordination involved. If they were all in one unit's area you could write it off to a rogue commander perhaps, but here, maybe not so much.

2) Also note, these are tactical munitions. All unguided artillery rockets of around 10,000m range, probably directly controlled by their divisional commanders. The larger guided missiles that Syria has are not yet in play here. At the time, there was an interesting Turkish news story, saying the attack had been made by troops of 4th Armoured Division along with 155th Missile Brigade, the linchpin unit of the Syrians' strategic rocket force. The difference is the former is a ground unit, but the latter exists solely to counter-attack Israel in a standup fight, and has weapons with the range and accuracy to do it, some of them undoubtedly chemical in nature.

That story came out around the same time as the highly amusing piece of phone intercept evidence indicating government culpability where a Syrian defence official called the 155th in a panic after the attack demanding to know why they'd fired chemical missiles and an officer told him to come down and count them if he didn't believe they hadn't. The munition evidence recovered so far would seem to indicate the 155th officer was right. These weren't his.

But then, they wouldn't need to be. The attackers were trying to hit a Damascus suburb (not even really picky which one, at that), 10 km away, the same ones they shell with conventional artillery every other night, no strategic missiles or inertial guidance required. Even if successful, the effect achieved would have been purely tactical... depopulate and dehouse the hostile suburban populations south and east of the city... and the tactical commander for the defence of Damascus evidently felt or was told chemical weapons would help with that objective. Which makes it even more baffling why the Assad regime would need to go this far, now. It simply doesn't seem worth it, unless of course things in Damascus seemed far more desperate to them than they did to us.

Posted by BruceR at 11:35 PM

Syria attacks: since I still believe in fighting stupidity still, occasionally

State_Department_map_of_Gouta_chemical_attack_w_arrows.jpgWhat today's UN report on the Syrian Aug. 21 sarin attack states, and which they are prohibited from their mandate from pointing out in very clear terms, is that all the evidence points to this being a government attack. So for instance, the two measurable trajectories on the artillery rocket munitions used that the inspectors could make both point back to government-controlled areas. They are careful to point out there is clear evidence these were actual impacts too, rather than just being dropped there, and both associated with chemical attack symptoms in people who lived nearby. The graphic here shows the actual bearings the report gives (215 degrees and 105 degrees) with arrows exactly 5 miles long, pointing away from their likely points of origin, superimposed on a previous US State Department graphic showing the areas of control of the two sides fighting in Damascus. Pink is the government controlled zone. Note, that these aren't the only munitions, just the only ones that could have their trajectories assessed, that both are artillery types in the government's arsenal, and range estimates in these things are extremely approximate: all you have really have here to go on is direction. Still, the chances of this being some kind of attack by someone outside the Syrian government, already slim, basically have to drop to zero now, assuming you trust the UN's facts as presented. I'd say, "do I need to draw a map?" but I guess I just did.

Incredibly, the two rocket paths traced backwards actually converge right on Mount Qasioun, a mountain overlooking Damascus which the Syrian government has heavily fortified. You may remember Mount Qasioun... back in May Israeli jets blew up a huge quantity of "advanced surface-to-surface rockets" on the mountain they alleged were about to be transferred by the Syrian government to Hezbollah. The same mountain is also the location of the government's secretive Jamraya military research center, long rumoured to be central to the Syrian government's chemical weapons program.

The report also gives strong evidence that the attack on the Southwest suburb near the airport was by 2 or more 140mm artillery rockets of a known chemical-capable type, generally fired from a BM-14 launcher. The rocket that was fired into the eastern suburb is of 330mm calibre, a huge thing not previously seen outside of Syria, which some are calling the "bicycle pump" or the "UMLACA", meant to be fired out of a single-rocket tube from the back of a truck, the same launcher used for the Iranian-supplied Falaq-2 artillery rocket. Neither of the rebels' improvised artillery systems, the so called "Hell" spigot cannon or their improvised rocket-assisted mortar (IRAM), are consistent with what's seen in today's report.

For more analysis, the best blog source on this one at the moment is probably Brown Moses.

As for institutions like Reuters, via the Globe and Mail, articles like this one just show the usual reportorial, "I need a he-said-she-said" laziness in the face of factual evidence: "It is not immediately clear whether any of the details in the report suggested culpability." Come on guys, if I could get out the equivalent of a high school protractor, you could have, too. Google Earth does bearings now, and everything.

(As for the "maybe the rebels/Obama did it" false-flaggers, I really hope they stop now. The idea it could be rogue elements in the Syrian government, yeah that was always plausible, maybe still is even... but some of the other, crazier stuff out there had the preponderance of evidence against it weeks ago, and this is just cake-icing. You're embarrassing yourselves, people.

Syrian government forces attacked their own people with sarin gas last month, period, probably at least twice -- those Aug. 5 allegations which showed very similar munition profiles to the Aug. 21 attack certainly need to be assumed to be true, now, as well -- ... That fact in itself is not particularly surprising, and no one here is saying it means anyone needs to bomb anyone right now, but it is still as established a fact now as you're likely to get anywhere in the news today.)

Posted by BruceR at 04:30 PM

That basically sums it up right there

Space Channel in Canada on Sundays is running all the Doctor Who eps, 10 at a time, running up to the 50th anniversary. It's been a fun couple of Sundays. I forgot how much "The Parting of the Ways" among others, can still move me, and how one particular scene always encapsulated for me both the new series, and a lot of my own internal monologues over all all the years this website's been around.

Oh yes; 5 years ago last week I had started work in Kandahar. I guess this is pretty much all I have to say about that right now.

JACKIE: Listen to me. God knows I have hated that man, but right now, I love him and do you know why? Because he did the right thing. He sent you back to me.
ROSE: But what do I do every day, mum? What do I do? Get up, catch the bus, go to work, come back home, eat chips and go to bed? Is that it?
MICKEY: It's what the rest of us do.
ROSE: But I can't!
MICKEY: Why, because you're better than us?
ROSE: No, I didn't mean that. But it was. It was a better life. And I don't mean all the travelling and seeing aliens and spaceships and things. That don't matter. The Doctor showed me a better way of living your life. You know he showed you too. That you don't just give up. You don't just let things happen. You make a stand. You say no.

Posted by BruceR at 10:20 AM