More field work is needed and the Syrian President said in an interview on the 17th that UN inspectors have been invited back to Syria.
Syria: Keeping the Debate Honest
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The report of the UN Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic has been out now for a few days. The report concludes:
That chemical weapons have been used … on a relatively large scale. Based on the small number of samples taken, not all of which tested positive for a CW agent, and the small number of sites – five – an assessment of “large scale” is unwarranted let alone supported in any way.
It also identifies the agent used – sarin – and the delivery system 140mm and 330mm rockets. It further says that trajectories for two of the five examined sights are calculable. We will show this is in fact not possible.
It does not attempt to assign blame for the attacks (up to five munitions were involved). However, the US, Great Britain and France immediately claimed the report indicates the regime carried out the attacks. In fact it does no such thing. We have given the report a cursory read, and have read several sections many times to extract precise detail and nuance. Our read and comments from others (included at the end) suggest a more thoughtful analysis is required.
The report is unbelievably amateurish. After reading and re-reading several times, we cannot construct a simple table of the apparent five sites examined. We document the description in the sequence provided using the section and paragraph numbers in the report.
II.6 The team visited three locations, Moadamiyah, Ein Tarma, and Zamalka.
Appendix 5, page 22 mentions five impact sites but only identifies two by number, Moadamiyah (1) and Ein Tarma (4). On page 19, the Zamalka/Ein Tarma findings are presented. We assume from various pieces that Ein Tarma is number 4
Appendix 5 discusses munitions found at these three sites. We examine their site analyses below.
The Moadamiyah Site
Report page 18, Appendix 5. The examination found:
- The site had been well traveled by other individuals both before and during the investigation. Fragments and other possible evidence have been clearly handled/moved prior to the arrival of the investigation team. In other words, the site had been contaminated to an unknowable degree.
- The rocket motor without the warhead was found in a small crater in a courtyard. There was no indication of blast damage around the crater and the warhead was not present.
- Investigators inferred a trajectory from damage to a nearby “fence/trellis” and that the rocket had struck the second floor corner of an adjacent apartment building. No intact identifiable munitions fragments were located at the second location.
- The munition was a 140mm rocket.
Considering that the rocket ricocheted off of a building before hitting the ground and at some point had been separated from its warhead means it is impossible to calculate a launch trajectory.
The Zamalka/Ein Tarma Sites
Report page 19, Appendix 5. Here two sites are discussed. Of the first:
- The rocket found by the sub-team on the roof penetrated a cinder-block wall and a rebar containing concrete floor before coming to rest in a room below. The suspected warhead casing was found in front of the first wall.We’re somewhat confused how a rocket can both be found on a roof and on the floor inside a building.
- The same site contamination applies here.
- The warhead casing was not damaged by kinetic impact.
- The munition was a 140mm rocket.
We are puzzled in both of the above cases by the fact the warhead was not attached to the rocket motor on impact. One might posit an altimeter-based arming mechanism that would explode the warhead, but why detach it from the rocket motor? Giving the high velocity of the rocket and the different time to target determined by trajectory, it is hard to believed any chemical or mechanically timed fuse would be used. We leave its implication to a munitions expert to figure out but it should be examined.
Site Number Four
Two short paragraphs at the end of Appendix 5, page 23 simply describe a 330mm rocket embedded in the dirt with an azimuth measurement of 105 degrees. Reference is made to a “warhead” on page 25.
Appendix 6 lists the date and time of samples taken at two locations, Moadamiyah and Zamalka/Ein Tarma, but no other identifying features. Appendix 7 is a table listing the chemical analysis of 42 samples done by two certified labs. The date of the sample is given and a sample code. There is no reliable way of correlating the data in the two tables in Appendices 6 and 7 – see our concluding remarks – and the impact site analysis.
Conclusion: Send ‘em back to School
In short, a report that the lives of hundreds of thousands could hang on is atrocious for these reasons:
- It is impossible to construct an accurate identification of sites investigated. Only three are mentioned and although two are referenced by number, one is not. Two sites appear not to be discussed at all.
- The table (Appendix 6) that contains the site sampling details cannot be correlated to specific sites with confidence and cannot be correlated to the chemical analyses.
- Appendix 6 lists 30 samples taken on Aug. 28th and 29th. Appendix 7 analyses 12 samples taken on Aug. 25 (all of which showed no CW contamination), 13 taken on the 26th, and 17 taken on the 28th and 29th.
- There is significant difference between the findings of the two labs on the presence of CW agents and degradation products in the samples. Of the 30 samples taken from the 26th to the 29th, the labs differed on the presence of the CW agent in 8 cases, or 27%, and on the degradation products in15 cases or 50%. We would comment that this is not related to the quality of report writing or its conclusions since no party that we are aware of disputes the notion that chemical weapons were used.
- The inference of trajectory at site number one simply cannot be made. Case in point: the angle of incidence at the location of the first rocket contact is unknowable. The inference at the second site we suspect is fundamentally unreliable.
- The report describes the munitions as those fired from multiple tube rocket launchers. Under “Observations …” on page 19 the report states the teams identified the same type of munition at both sites (Zamalka/Ein Tarma). We thought we had tied the 330mm rocket to Ein Tarma. But this suggests it is a 140mm rocket. In any case, we have at most two rockets that could have been fired from the same launcher. A 330mm rocket would have more range and a different launcher from a 124mm rocket.
If you can piece together a coherent picture of five sites by name, location, munition found, a list of the samples taken, detailed observations and chemical analysis of any chemical residues detected by sample, please send it to us.
NightWatch has two good comments on the munition and trajectory issue which we reproduce here.
Syria: Special note. The UN inspectors judged that one of the two rockets they examined was an M14 140mm rocket, which is fired from a BM-14 multiple rocket launcher. NightWatch checked the web today to try to determine whether the Syrian Arab Army still fields or keeps in inventory or storage BM-14s. The BM-14 is a an old system, a variation of the Soviet World War II BM-13 towed or truck-mounted, 16-round Katyusha multiple rocket launcher.
One reason for the search is that this weapon system is more than 70 years old and was replaced in most Soviet-equipped armies decades ago. Usually it was replaced by the BM-21 122-mm multiple rocket launcher. Syria can make these rockets.
A second reason for the search is that the BM-14 is an area saturation weapon. An army rocket unit usually would not fire it singly or in small numbers for a tactical mission. Each salvo should launch at least 16 rockets.
Global Security posts to the web detailed inventories of military equipment fielded by most national armies, including that of the Syrian army. Its charts show the Syrian army fields large numbers of BM-21s, but no BM-14s. They also show no rocket launcher that fires a rocket with a diameter of 330-mm. The UN inspectors found parts of such a rocket, but could not match it to any systems they knew. Our search found that Iran’s Fajr-5 333-mm rocket is the closest in diameter, but it is 18 feet long.
Global Security’s information might be incomplete and the numbers are estimates. However, the site has proven to be a reliable source of detailed military information. Its list of the types of major items of equipment that the Syrian army fields is reliable. The list does not include the BM-14.
The question for Feedback is where did the M-14 rocket come from? Who is still using this system in Syria? Does Syria still have stocks of long outdated rockets? Did the opposition capture any?
Special comment: Human Rights Watch published a useful report with a map that showed range rings for what its author considers the likely firing ranges and location for the two rockets examined by the UN inspectors. The location was determined by back tracking the trajectory from the information provided in the UN report.
This report and map have received extensive news coverage because the commentary concludes that they implicate Syrian army units at a large Syrian army base. It includes a Republican Guard unit and an armored division. Some news outlets have cited this as conclusive proof that only Syrian units could have fired the rockets.
It is a useful and elementary thing to do with the UN information about the rockets. It is far from conclusive because so many assumptions have to be made in such an analysis and need to be stated up front, as assumptions.
Old hands at detailed military intelligence have done this kind of analysis hundreds of times over decades, on multiple continents and in multiple crises, but not usually from buried rocket bodies. Back tracking over distances measured in miles from the orientation of a buried rocket body requires even more assumptions. A threshold one is that the impact areas were not disturbed.
The UN inspectors said the impact areas had been traveled; people were seen carrying and handling pieces of munitions. These are buzz words for a contaminated scene and deception. The inspectors dutifully reported what they found and measured, but provided no assurance that the rocket bodies had not been moved, twisted or handled.
Another assumption is that the rockets flew true. Back tracking a trajectory from a buried rocket body that was fired from a multiple rocket launcher in a saturation attack is tricky because the rockets are unguided and are supposed to scatter. Compounding this problem is that the inspectors examined two different rocket bodies, one 140-mm in diameter and the other 330-mm.
That is important information for many reasons, including that the two would not have the same range, payload or impact. The inspectors said one of the rocket bodies they examined resembled an M14 rocket which is fired from the BM-14 16-tube rocket launcher. The map rings in the Human Rights Watch report were drawn using known BM-14 minimum and maximum ranges.
The UN report does not constitute proof that a BM-14 weapon was used, with its known range and characteristics. It only indicates that a rocket body like an M14 was examined.
Al Jazeera published on 17 September a video of a rocket manufacturing workshop run by the Free Syrian Army. It contains computer driven lathes. The video narrator said he was told the shop produces three kinds of rockets used by rebel forces, one of which has the same range as the BM 14 launcher. The shop makes the rocket bodies and motors, the warheads and the detonators. This is circumstantial, but relevant.
The back tracked trajectories were drawn to meet at the large Syrian Army base, but that assumes only M14 rockets were fired; the trajectory information is accurate and, critically, the Syrian army still uses BM14s. No one has explained the presence of the 330-mm diameter rocket plate. Open source information indicates the Syrian army does not have BM14s or rockets that are 330-mm in diameter.
There are other pitfalls in this kind of analysis, including examination of the influence of terrain, weather and other external factors. A major problem is that it satisfices. It has cognitive allure because it provides a quick, neat, seemingly comprehensive and easily understood solution.
That nurtures premature cognitive closure, which means the analyst prematurely stops his search for evidence. Contrary leads are not followed and additional, necessary corroborative leads that might nuance or alter the conclusions are ignored. Contradictory evidence is not given the weight or mental energy that is applied to the solution that satisfices. Other cognitive problems characteristic of bias follow.
In a more complete analysis, the next essential steps before presenting it to a senior official would be to determine the rocket launching capabilities of the suspect Syrian Army units; locate the rocket launcher units; locate the suspect chemical warfare depots or supply vehicles; identify likely firing sites on the base and look for signs that troops recently handled chemical weapons. There have been a sufficient number of Syrian army defectors that the answers should be easily available, probably from men who served in the suspect units.
Those appreciations might be followed by a search for likely firing sites from other locations. At least one range ring on the map overlaps an area identified as rebel-controlled, but with different azimuths.
The result of this is that there remain many open questions and all judgments about who fired are probabilities judgments. More field work is needed and the Syrian President said in an interview on the 17th that UN inspectors have been invited back to Syria.