The recent article by Seymour Hersh called “The Red Line and the Rat Line” in the London Review of Books is a continuation of his previous work in this area. Although he weaves an interesting tale of intrigue, Mr. Hersh is still long on supposition and hearsay and short on actual facts. Unlike the early days after the August 21st chemical attacks in East Ghouta, we now have some interesting information at our disposal.
Mr. Hersh completely ignores the fact that the large majority of evidence clearly points to the Assad regime, not to Turkey or non-state actors. The weapon system used for the bulk of the East Ghouta chemical attack has repeatedly been noted to be used by the Syrian military, and has not been seen in rebel hands. A huge amount of information is available now on these so-called Volcano rockets, well summarized by Eliot Higgins. Excellent work on geolocation and bearing analysis of the rockets for the Zamalka attack, a Damascus suburb west of East Ghouta, also clearly point to launch sites from government-held terrain on August 21.
The Sarin used in the attacks points toward the regime as well. Physical evidence found by the UN/OPCW mission at the scene of the rocket attacks is revealing. When combined with the Assad regime’s later admissions and declarations of its chemical weapons program, the evidence is condemning.
The Assad regime’s chemical weapons program, for instance, makes Sarin through what is known as a binary method, and samples collected from the field are consistent with this. The Syrian program uses hexamine, a chemical component hitherto unseen in the world’s chemical weapons programs. Field samples from Syria, tested by two accredited OPCW laboratories, are replete with traces of hexamine. Syria had freely and voluntarily claimed at an earlier date 80 tons of hexamine in its OPCW declaration to the UN/OPCW inspectors. As I have stated elsewhere, hexamine in the field plus hexamine in the declaration plus hexamine admitted to in the Syrian formula adds up to a high probability of regime culpability in the East Ghouta attacks. Not that you would know from reading Hersh’s articles. Sarin is Sarin, rockets are rockets, and the technical details are less important than a single, anonymous source in Washington.
The article also either ignores or misunderstands other important technical details. Much is made of a sample of Sarin provided by Russian intelligence. Even under the best of circumstances, can we count on Russian intelligence services to have probity and objectivity, given Russia’s record of obfuscation on the issue of the Sarin attacks? After all, Russian state media has been ruthless in pursuing alternative narratives in this case. Hersh also makes much of matching samples of Sarin. By its very definition, all Sarin, binary or otherwise, is made by a batch process and not a continuous production process. Even with the best, highest grade of stockpile-quality US Sarin, there were differences between batches even though millions were spent to have a standardized product. Consistency was hard to achieve. Certainly, Iraq could not produce consistent batches. With binary Sarin, the differences can be particularly pronounced, as the product is typically made in much smaller quantities at a time. The Sarin from the first pouring from the mixing vessel can be much different than the last one. Given these differences, the ubiquitous presence of an additive, hexamine, is ever more pronounced. None of these important facts are mentioned in Mr. Hersh’s report.
Another issue is Hersh’s reference to an alleged Jabhat al-Nusra operation to develop chemical weapons. For all I know, Nusra may really want to acquire chemical weapons, but the evidence is a shopping list of precursor chemicals, in the tens of kilograms and 2 kilograms of alleged Sarin. The list could be legitimate. But a list can be faked by anyone with a printer, and the alleged Sarin later proved to be antifreeze/engine coolant.
There is also a huge gap between 2 kilograms of antifreeze and a shopping list and the 400+ kilograms of Sarin that would be needed for the East Ghouta chemical attacks. You just don’t knock up a ton of Sarin in a kitchen. It is a very expensive and dangerous process that took industrial states with technical know-how a long time to master. The Aum Shinrikyo cult, a Japanese terror-designated group infamous for launching a Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in the 1980s, built a factory at great expense only to be able to produce 7 kilograms or so of Sarin in single batches. It should also be noted it takes about 9 kilograms of basic precursors to make 1 kilogram of Sarin, so tens of kilograms on a shopping list are vastly insufficient amounts needed for the attacks last August.
But of all Hersh’s claims, his biggest evidentiary pitfall is in the Turkish Sarin hypothesis. Somehow, Hersh would have us all believe that there is a large factory somewhere in Turkey, a member of NATO and signatory to the OPCW. A factory of the necessary size to make tons of short-shelf life binary Sarin would be huge, at least similar in scale to the UK’s pilot plant that once stood in Nancekuke, Cornwall. It would have many employees, a supply chain of controlled and prohibited chemicals, and a waste stream that would be noticed. Where is this factory? Let us have an OPCW challenge inspection.
More importantly, would Turkey risk the international opprobrium to produce a weapon that, after all, has only limited actual tactical use? Somehow, this Sarin was produced, using a secret hexamine acid reduction process hitherto unknown to the world, and only mastered by Syria’s chemical weapons program. It was put into rockets that are exact copies of Syrian ones, down to the paint and bolts. The Sarin-filled rockets were smuggled via the “rat line” into Syria to Damascus, without a single one being caught. And quickly, I should add, due to the short shelf life of binary Sarin. Then they were supposed to be fired onto rebel areas from government positions without the Syrian regime knowing about it? It defies belief.
Finally, we get to the biggest deficit of all. Seymour Hersh seems unencumbered by the fact that the Assad regime confessed to having a chemical weapons research, development, and production program. Which is the more likely scenario? The Turkish-produced Sarin tale, which relies on a very dubious “inside source” in Washington and no accompanying physical evidence? Or the idea that the Assad regime, using a chemical warfare agent made according to a formula they confessed to, used rockets in their own inventory to attack from their own positions against rebel-held territory? History will tell us, eventually. But one of these tales is sounding more probable than the other.
Dan Kaszeta is a former US Army and US Secret Service specialist on chemical, biological, and radiological defense, now working as an independent consultant based in London.