A History of Sarin Use in the Syrian Conflict

In the course of the Syrian conflict there have been multiple allegations related to the use of Sarin as a chemical weapon. While the events of April 4th 2017 in Khan Sheikhoun and August 21st 2013 in Damascus are what most people are familiar with, Sarin has been used as a chemical weapon in Syria on multiple occasions, often virtually unnoticed.

This has created a false perception that events like the April 4 and August 21st Sarin attacks are the only time Sarin has been used in Syria. This misperception is often combined with the belief that chemical weapon attacks as a whole are rare events in Syria, when in fact dozens, if not hundreds, of attacks have been alleged over the last 5 years of the conflict. The vast majority of these attacks involve allegations of the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon, with the OPCW-UN Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) confirming the use of chlorine as a chemical weapons by Syrian government forces, but what is often under appreciated is the number of Sarin attacks, the progression of the use of Sarin in attack, and their relationship to each other.

While there’s no exhaustive list of chemical attacks in Syria a number of individuals and organisations have attempted to produce as complete a list as possible. When compiling a list of this type there are a number of challenges, in particular the reliability of sources. Although there have been dozens of chemical attacks alleged in Syria, only a handful have been investigated by international bodies. Therefore, for the most part, reports are based on claims and documentation by local activists, defectors, and investigations by journalists. While this article attempts to review the use of Sarin in the Syrian conflict it is possible there are more attacks that occurred where Sarin was used, but the attack was too poorly documented to identify the use of Sarin.

The First Signs of Sarin?

Data from various sources, including declassified material from French intelligence, a timeline from the Arms Control Association, and The Havard Sussex Program on Chemical and Biological Weapons, points to 2012 as the year there were first allegations of chemical weapon use in Syria, with one of the first allegations of use of Sarin being a December 23rd 2012 incident in the Khaldiyeh and Bayada neighborhoods of Homs. Several videos posted online showed the victims of the attack (playlist), with one video published with English subtitles:

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Local activists quoted by Al Jazeera on December 24th stated “We don’t know what this gas is, but medics are saying it’s something similar to sarin gas.”, with Al Jazeera later citing a “former scientist for the Syrian chemical weapons programme” who claimed Sarin was used to halt advances by rebel forces in a  number of towns, including “Homs’ al-Khalidiyeh district”, and that a “diluted mix of sarin and isopropyl alcohol was likely used in December 2012”

However, the claims of Sarin use were also made alongside claims that another chemical agent was used in the attack, known as “Agent-15” or “BZ“. The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) interviewed witnesses and victims of the attack, and described the “probable” use of BZ:

“The Gas effects started [a] few seconds after the area was shelled. Right after the shelling, patients described seeing white gas with odor, then they had severe shortness of breath, loss of vision, inability to speak, flushed face, dizziness, paralysis, nausea and vomiting, and increased respiratory secretions. Doctors who treated patients said that patients had pinpoint pupils and bronchospasm. Patients were treated in a field hospital. Gas masks were not available.”

In January 2013, Foreign Policy published details of a cable cable, signed by the U.S. consul general in Istanbul, Scott Frederic Kilner, and sent to the State Department, detailing the consulate’s investigation into reports of chemical weapon used in Syria. This included interviews with activists, doctors, and defectors, including Mustafa al-Sheikh, a high-level defector, and key official in Syria’s WMD program. Foreign Policy reported that an Obama administration official stated that “We can’t definitely say 100 percent, but Syrian contacts made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on Dec. 23”.

The day after the Foreign Policy report was published, White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement: “The reporting we have seen from media sources regarding alleged chemical weapons incidents in Syria has not been consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons program.”

While the exact nature of the chemical agent remains unclear, the results of its use were between 5-7 reported deaths, and 50-100 injured, according to doctor’s contacted by Foreign Policy, and reports by SAMS published by the US-based Humanitarian Resource Institute.

Khan Al Assal

On the morning of March 19th 2013 reports were published by the Syrian news agency SANA accusing rebel groups of attacking the town of Khan Al Assal, west of Aleppo city, with chemical weapons. Initial reports from state media claimed the attack launched from rebel held Kafr Dael, 5km north of Khan al Assal, killed “25 people and wounded dozens”, with a Reuters reporting describing what he encountered at hospitals treating the victims:

A Reuters photographer said victims he had visited in Aleppo hospitals were suffering breathing problems and that people had said they could smell chlorine after the attack.

“I saw mostly women and children,” said the photographer, who cannot be named for his own safety.

He quoted victims at the University of Aleppo hospital and the al-Rajaa hospital as saying people were dying in the streets and in their houses.

In addition to the civilian victims, various sources claimed soldiers had been victims of the attack, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claiming in initial reports that 16 soldiers were among the dead. Footage of the victims receiving treatment was published by SANA and broadcast by international media:

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The response of the Syrian opposition was to alleged forces loyal to the Syrian government were responsible for the attack:

“The Aleppo Media Center, affiliated with the rebels, said there were cases of “suffocation and poison” among civilians in Khan al-Assal after a surface-to-surface missile was fired at the area. It said in a statement the cases were “most likely” caused by regime forces’ use of “poisonous gases.”

An activist in Aleppo province who identified himself as Yassin Abu Raed, not his real name, confirmed the attack and said there were at least 40 cases of suffocation in the area and several deaths. But he said no details were available as casualties were being taken to a government controlled area in Aleppo.

Abu Raed declined to give his real name because of security concerns.

He said it did not make sense for the rebels to fire a chemical weapon at an area they had recently seized, and accused the government instead.

“Why would the Free Syrian Army bomb themselves with a chemical weapon?” he asked.”

Russia supported the Syrian government allegations, while the United States denied rebel groups had used chemical weapons. On March 20th, the Syrian government contacted the UN Secretary General, requesting “a specialized, impartial and independent mission” to investigate Khan al-Assal, with other member states requesting an investigation of all chemical incidents reported in Syria. By March 26th, the Secretary General had appointed Professor Åke Sellström to head the United Nations fact-finding mission to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Meanwhile, both sides continued to accuse each other of being responsible for the attack. The Daily Telegraph cited a senior source close to the Syrian Army, who claimed “that a home-made locally-manufactured rocket was fired, containing a form of chlorine known as CL17,” and that a “home-made rocket was fired at a military checkpoint situated at the entrance to the town”. It went on to claim:

“The military source who spoke to Channel 4 News confirmed that artillery reports from the Syrian Army suggest a small rocket was fired from the vicinity of Al-Bab, a district close to Aleppo that is controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra – a jihadist group said to be linked with al-Qaeda and deemed a “terrorist organisation” by the US.”

This contradicted earlier claims made by Syrian government officials that the attack had been launched from Kafr Dael, 5km north of Khan al Assal. The report also referred to the presence of a chlorine factory in Aleppo, which Time reported had been captured by Jabhat al-Nusra. The smell of chlorine reported by victims of the attack was highlight in the Time report:

“Survivors and witnesses of what was being described by the government news agency as a chemical attack said they smelled something like chlorine. And as the owner of Syria’s only chlorine-gas manufacturing plant, Sabbagh knew that if chlorine was involved, it most likely came from his factory.”

Syrian Prime Minister Wael Nader al-Halqi provided a different version of events, claiming that Sarin was “manufactured in Turkey and funneled to the terrorists”. Other sources claimed 80mm mortars filled with chemical agents were used, not home-made rockets, and were fired from Kafr Dael, not al-Bab or a “military checkpoint situated at the entrance to the town.”

To add to the confusion, the Russian government shared a lengthy report with the UN in July detailing their investigation into the attack. While this report has never been made public, the Russian government did make some of the conclusions of the report public.

They claimed the “Basha’ir al-Nasr” brigade affiliated with the Free Syrian Army launched a “Basha’ir-3” unguided projectile at Khan al-Assal, which they claimed was filled with Sarin. This information, and samples gathered by the Russians, were provided to the UN and investigation into chemical attacks into Syria.

In December 2013 the report by the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, set up in the wake of the Khan al-Assal attack, detailed the mission’s conclusions on the attack. Despite alternative scenarios presented by various parties in the period between the launch and the attack the mission report confirmed the original Syrian government allegation:

“armed terrorist groups had fired a rocket from the Kfar De’il area towards Khan Al Asal in the Aleppo governorate. According to the letter, the rocket had travelled approximately 5 kilometers and fell 300 meters away from a Syrian Arab Republic army position. Following its impact, a thick cloud of smoke had left unconscious anyone who had inhaled it.”

There was no mention of 80mm mortars or an attack from al-Bab or a military checkpoint on the entrance of the town, and the conclusion of the mission report was:

“The United Nations Mission collected credible information that corroborates the allegations that chemical weapons were used in Khan Al Asal on 19 March 2013 against soldiers and civilians. However, the release of chemical weapons at the alleged site could not be independently verified in the absence of primary information on delivery systems and of environmental and biomedical samples collected and analysed under the chain of custody.”

The chemical agent believed to have been used, according to the mission report, was “an organophosphorous compound”, with “no other suggestions as to the cause of the intoxication”. This would exclude the use of chlorine as the chemical agent used in the attack, despite earlier claims to the contrary.

The appendices of the report contained more details of the investigation, including images illustrating the locations in question:

The Khan Al Asal area west of Aleppo is indicated in red. This figure also illustrates the location of the Kfar De’il area, as well as some hospitals and some military installations (as per the UN report)

The impact point (upper yellow pin) can be noted south of the Aleppo-Idlib road. The location of an interviewed witness is illustrated as the lower yellow pin north of the M 45 road. As indicated by the two red pins, most victims were, according to the witness located south of the Aleppo-Idlib road and west from the release point (as per the UN report)

This section provides more details of the attack provided by witnesses, such as witnesses described “a yellowish-green mist in the air and a pungent and strong sulfur-like smell” after the impact of the munition. With regards to the munition, the UN mission report made the type of munition used no more clearer:

ΩΩ”The United Nations Mission received contradicting information as to how chemical weapon agents were delivered in the Khan Al Asal incident. Witness statements collected by the UNHRC Commission of Inquiry, provided to the United Nations Mission, supported the position by the Syrian Arab Republic that a rocket was fired from the neighborhood. However, according to other witness statements to the UNHRC Commission of Inquiry, an overflying aircraft had dropped an aerial bomb filled with Sarin.

The United Nations Mission was not able to collect any primary information or any “untouched” artifacts relevant to the incident and necessary for an independent verification of the information gathered.”

The uncertainty about the type of munition was inconsistent with the claims made by the Russian government, who were able to specify the type of munition used, and the rebel group that built it. As the Russian report has never been made public it has been impossible to examine those claims in detail.

The report also referred to analysis of samples by the Russian government which detected Sarin:

“The United Nations Mission received from the Government of the Russian Federation its report of the results of the analysis of samples obtained from Khan Al Asal from 23 to 25 March 2013, which identified Sarin and Sarin degradation products on metal fragments and in soil samples taken at the site of the incident.

The analysis of the samples was conducted by a laboratory that has established an internationally recognized quality assurance system and performs successfully in the OPCW inter-laboratory proficiency tests. However, after the evaluation of the report, the United Nations Mission could not independently verify the information contained therein, and could not confirm the chain of custody for the sampling and the transport of the samples.”

The Syrian government failed to provide any biomedical samples from the victims taken at the time of the attack, and the mission concluded samples they were able to gather 5 months. While the symptoms would have been consistent with Sarin exposure, the UN mission was unable to confirm the use of Sarin, hence the conclusion “an organophosphorous compound” was used in the attack.

Some of those seeking to blame opposition groups for the Khan al-Assal have cited an interview with Carla Del Ponte, a leading member of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, who was reported to have said there was “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof” that opposition groups had used Sarin. Following the interview, the commission stressed that they had not reach “conclusive findings”, and their later reports would bear that out.

The 7th Report of Commission of Inquiry on Syria – A/HRC/25/65, from the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, published several months after the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic report contained more information regarding the Khan al-Assal attack, along with other attacks that had taken place in the meantime. The report confirmed the use of Sarin, referring to the August 21st 2013 Sarin attack in Damscus:

“The evidence available concerning the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on 21 August indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary to manipulate safely large amount of chemical agents. Concerning the incident in Khan Al-Assal on 19 March, the chemical agents used in that attack bore the same unique hallmarks as those used in Al-Ghouta.”

The report concluded that in “no incident was the commission’s evidentiary threshold met with regard to the perpetrator.”

Small Scale Sarin

Following the Khan al-Assal attack allegations of chemical weapons attacks continued. The French National Evaluation on the April 4th 2017 Khan Sheikhoun Sarin attack included an annex document listing alleged chemical attacks in Syria from 2012 to 2017, and it includes 15 chemical attacks in the period between the date of the Khan al Assal attack (March 19th 2013) and the start of August 2013. Throughout the French document a number of attacks are highlighted in red, indicating the “Use of sarin proven by France through the collection of biomedical and/or environmental samples Attack attributed to the Syrian regime”, with three of those falling in the period between March 19th 2013 and the start of August 2013.

These attacks are of particular interest as information gathered about the attacks were the strongest indication yet that the Syrian government had deployed Sarin in the conflict, and would have implications in the understanding of future Sarin attacks.

In May 2013, Le Monde published an article, Chemical warfare in Syria, where journalists investigated reports of chemical weapon attacks in Damascus against opposition groups. Local fighters described the use of a device by government forces that they said were linked to these attacks:

“In the northern part of Jobar, which was struck by a similar attack, General Abu Mohammad Al-Kurdi, commander of the Free Syrian Army’s first division (which groups five brigades), said that his men saw government soldiers leave their positions just before other men ‘wearing chemical protection suits’ surged forward and set ‘little bombs, like mines’ on the ground that began giving off a chemical product. The general asserted that his men had killed three of these technicians. Where are the protection suits seized from the dead? Nobody knows… The soldiers who came under attack that night said there had been a terrible panic, with men fleeing to to the rear. There are no civilians or independent sources to confirm or deny this account: no one is left in Jobar apart from the men fighting on the neighborhood’s various fronts.”

Le Monde’s photographer even witnesses one of these attacks:

“On April 13, the day of a chemical attack on a zone of the Jobar front, Le Monde’s photographer was with rebels who have been waging war out of ruined buildings. He saw them start to cough before donning their gas masks, apparently without haste although in fact they were already exposed. Men crouched down, gasping for breath and vomiting. They had to flee the area at once. Le Monde’s photographer suffered blurred vision and and respiratory difficulties for four days. And yet, on that particular day, the heaviest concentrations of gas were used not there but in a nearby area.”

When the Le Monde team left Syria May they took with them samples from victims, which were tested in France, leading the French government to announce they could confirm Sarin has been used in Jobar between April 12th and 14th, stating that there was the “presence of sarin residue in blood and urine samples taken from six victims”. France was also confident in the chain of custody, stating they had “the entire chain, from the time the attack took place to the time when people were killed, and the time we took the samples, and the time we had them analysed.” Further blood, urine, hair and cloth samples provided by Le Monde were tested, leading to the conclusion that 13 victims were exposed to Sarin.

While witnesses in the Le Monde investigation described multiple types of munitions being used to deliver the chemical agents used in Damascus, the other two Sarin attacks that took place in this period were linked by the unusual method of delivery.

On the night of April 13th 2013 a chemical attack was reported in the Kurdish Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood of Aleppo. The attack was described by Mohammed Aly Sergie on Twitter:

“Canisters with a phosphorous type chemical, causing Sarin-like symptoms, were dropped on a home in Sheikh Maqsood on April 13 around 2 a.m. Some survivors said the canisters were dropped from a helicopter, but others didn’t hear rotors. Doctors don’t know what the chemicals were. Two children died in the attack, and their mother died later on the way to a hospital in Atme, Idlib. More than a dozen people were exposed. Survivors from Sheikh Maqsood all gave the same story today. Syria’s war is tiptoeing into the chemicals weapons phase.”

The Syrian Network for Human Rights also published details of the attack:

“Helicopter belonging to Syrian Government’s Air Force (who is owned by only Syrian Government) dropped two poison gas bombs on Sheikh Maksoud – North of Aleppo ( Kurdish majority). the bombs are metal cans fairly like conservers with plastic cans inside contains toxic materials turn into gases, it also featured with safety valves.
These bombs led to 5 victims, including two infants, more than 12 injuries cause on inhaling the poisonous gas , transferred to Afrin for treatment.”

Very little footage exists from the attack, but one video shows both the victims and the impact site:

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What stands out in particular about this attack is the type of munitions used, and the method of delivery. There appears to be the remains of two munitions at the impact site. One, a blown apart cylinder:

Remains of a munition at the scene of the Sheikh Magsoud Sarin attack

The other munition recovered from the scene was a white grenade:

A white grenade photographed at the scene of the Sheikh Magsoud attack (source)

Also recovered from the scene were two grenade levers, almost certainly from the two munitions photographed at the scene:

Grendade levers photographed at the scene of the Sheikh Magsoud attack (source)

Based on the claims of eyewitnesses these devices were dropped from a helicopter, and this extremely unusual method of delivery would be used in an attack two weeks later in the town of Saraqib.

Unlike the Sheikh Magsoud attack, the Saraqib attack was investigated by a number of organisations, including the BBC, French intelligence, and the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic. The reports, and open source evidence, shows a consistent version of events, with a helicopter flying across Saraqib, dropping three packages onto the town:

Maps showing the impact sites of chemical munitions in Saraqib from the UN report (left, source) and French National Evaluation (right, source)

Victims of the attack were taken to the local hospital, where they were treated for organophosphorous exposure. One victim, a 52-year-old woman, died, and her body was taken to Turkey where 12 samples were taken from different organs and tested. These tests confirmed the use of Sarin in the attack, as reported by the UN mission.

In addition to the UN mission’s investigation, the French National evaluation released after the April 4th 2017 Khan Sheikhuon Sarin attack contained details of the Saraqib attack. France had acquired an intact munition that was used in the attack, still filled with its payload:

Munition recovered from the Saraqib attack, along with its x-ray (source)

The French National evaluation described the contents of the munition:

“The chemical analyses carried out showed that it contained a solid and liquid mix of approximately 100ml of sarin at an estimated purity of 60%. Hexamine, DF and a secondary product, DIMP, were also identified. Modelling, on the basis of the crater’s characteristics, confirmed with a very high level of confidence that it was dropped from the air.”

The French National evaluation annex also highlights both these incidents as the “Use of sarin proven by France through the collection of biomedical and/or environmental samples”.

As with Sheikh Maqsoud, the devices had been dropped from helicopters, with the UN mission report providing more details of how the munitions were used:

“Allegedly tear gas and chemical weapon munitions were used in parallel. The core of the device allegedly used was a cinder block (building material of cement) with round holes. These holes could, allegedly, serve to “secure” small hand grenades from exploding. As the cinder block hit the ground, the handles of the grenades would become activated and discharged. Some of the hand grenade–type munitions allegedly contained tear gas, whereas other grenades were filled with Sarin.”

The shattered remains of what is likely the cinder block described can be seen in this video from one of the impact sites in Saraqib:

This would also explain the presence of white-grey powder at the impact site in Sheikh Magsoud, as seen below:

The impact site of the Sheikh Magsoud attack (source)

In addition, a white grenade, identical to the one seen at the scene of the Sheikh Maqsoud attack, was recovered from one of the Saraqib impact sites:

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Based on the use of helicopters in the attacks it’s extremely unlikely opposition forces would have been responsible, as they were not known to control any operable helicopters.

Volcanoes in Damascus

Following the Saraqib and Sheikh Maqsoud attacks reports of chemical attacks continued on a regular basis, and on August 21st 2013 a massive Sarin attack was reported in the city of Damascus. In the immediate aftermath of the attack dozens of videos were posted online, showing a chemical attack well beyond the scale of anything seen in the Syrian conflict before. Reports stated attacks had occurred in multiple locations, with hundreds killed and injured, with some estimates in the initial aftermath of the attacking being close to 2000 dead.

The initial reaction from the Syrian government was to call the allegations of a chemical attack in Damascus “baseless“:

“The source stressed that the reports circulated by the TV channels of al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya and Sky News among other channels which are involved in the shedding of the Syrians’ blood and supporting terrorism are completely baseless.

The source said the aim behind broadcasting such reports and news is to attempt to divert the UN chemical weapons investigation commission away from carrying out its duties.”

However, as open source evidence and investigations by the UN mission would clearly show, the claims were anything but baseless. In September 2013 the UN mission reported on their investigation of the attack, confirming Sarin was used in the attack. The report stated samples collected by the mission provided clear and convincing evidence surface-to-surface rockets containing Sarin were used in the Damascus districts of Ein Tarma, Moadamiyah, and Zamalka, which was consistent with open source evidence.

However, the mission was not tasked with identifying the perpetrators, so that question remained open, leading to a range of claims and theories about who was responsible for the attack. It would be impossible to cover every theory and allegation at length, especially as they range from the sensible to insane, but there are some aspects of the attack worth looking at in detail, as they relate to other Sarin attacks in Syria

The rockets used in the attack were of particular interest, with two type of chemical rockets used in the attack. In the Moadamiyah attack a type of rocket known as an M14 140mm artillery rocket was used, a type of rocket confirmed to be in the Syrian governments inventory by a Human Rights Watch investigation, and filmed by locals after the attacks.