A Munitions Expert Weighs in on Last Month's Chemical Attacks in Damascus
Bodies lined up after a chemical attack in Ghouta.
Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime currently stands accused of committing one of the worst war crimes of the 21st century: dropping sarin nerve gas on the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus last month. The body of evidence against the regime is large and compelling, but—much like 9/11 truthers sharing links to HD torrents of Zeitgeist—people are still passing around misinformation like it's gospel truth.
The debate will likely rage on for years in the armchair analyst community, regardless of whether military action is taken or not. But, for now, I thought it best to contact independent munitions expert Eliot Higgins, a.k.a. Brown Moses, who, since the conflict began, has been investigating and verifying evidence of crimes on both sides of the conflict at his blog. Eliot isn't operating on the ground in Syria. In fact, he's operating from his house in Leicestershire and if he has an armchair, I don't doubt that he's operated from it before. But where he differs from your average lonely keyboard warrior is that he's incredibly well respected among journalists and weapons experts for his forensic ability to identify munitions found on Syria's battlefields. He has written for Foreign Policy and the New York Times, and been interviewed by Channel 4 News, CNN, and the Guardian. Typically, he's billed as someone who's used the internet and social media to become an "accidental arms expert."
Eliot has put forward a particularly convincing case linking the regime to the sarin attacks, which corroborates firmly with the information gathered by NGOs and the intelligence agencies of the US, UK, France, and Germany. I spoke to him to find out more about his research.
A suspected delivery device of sarin gas.
VICE: Hi, Eliot. Can you tell me how you came to know so much about munitions?
Eliot Higgins: I'm self-taught, first using resources available online, then by talking to a lot of arms specialists and learning as I went. I'd look at a video, see something new and then learn as much about it as possible. There are huge amounts of information about the Soviet weaponry used by the Syrian government and opposition online.
You have presented a lot of evidence that firmly suggests the Syrian government is behind the recent sarin attacks. Can you talk me through your conclusions?
The one thing you expect to find after a chemical attack is the remains of the munitions used. Unlike conventional munitions, the warheads on these weapons don't explode, but disperse the chemical agent using different methods—for example, a small dispersal charge that pops it open. So instead of being blown into tiny pieces, you should find the remains of the munitions used.
In the case of the attacks in Damascus, there are two different types of munitions that have been found by activists. The first is an M14 140mm-artillery rocket fired by the Soviet BM14 multiple rocket launcher. One warhead type for these munitions carries 2.2 kilograms of sarin, and the remains of the munitions recorded by activists were in very good condition, suggesting this might have been the warhead used.
What's far more interesting is the second type of munitions, several of which have been filmed at the August 21 attacks, as well as previous alleged chemical attacks. These munitions are unique to the conflict; the many arms and chemical weapons specialists I've spoken to do not recognize it as appearing anywhere else in the world.
By piecing together the evidence I've gathered, we've learned a number of things. I call these UMLACAs—unidentified munitions linked to alleged chemical attacks—and there are actually two types of UMLACAs, a high explosive type and another type loaded with an unknown substance that only appears at the sites of alleged chemical attacks.
Another suspected delivery device of sarin gas.
And these munitions appear to only be in the possession of the regime?
All the evidence I've seen has linked them to the regime. We have photos and videos of them being fired by the regime, multiple videos from activists where they claim the regime fired them and no evidence at all that the Syrian opposition has these munitions. One thing to consider is that these things are about ten to 11.5 feet long, incredibly heavy, and require large launchers to fire—not something that's easy to transport or hide.
What about evidence suggesting that these weapons were fired from regime-held areas to opposition-held areas?
Well, one thing I was able to do with one of the munitions is find the exact location of it using satellite maps, videos, and photographs, and that indicated it came from the north, the location of major government military bases. There's also a video showing one being launched from a government area from a previous attack:
The missile launchers you talk about are Iranian made. Have you, at any point in the last two years of studying the conflict, seen those particular models or the munitions they carry in the possession of anyone in this conflict besides the Syrian army?
No. The only time I've seen those munitions and rocket launchers are with the Syrian army, or after they've been fired at the opposition.
Have you ever come across any evidence that the rebels have been using chemical weapons or are in possession of them?
None. There have been claims by various parties—some "coulds" and "maybes"—but actual evidence? None I've seen. And believe me, if I saw actual evidence I'd blog it so fast my fingers would set on fire.
Have you checked your findings with other independent munitions experts?
Yes. I've spoken to a number of chemical weapons and arms specialists. These munitions appear to be unique to the conflict and unique to the Syrian government. They've been quite a mystery; we've been trying to piece together what they are using with photos and videos. CSI: YouTube, if you will.
With all the evidence that has been gathered so far, why do you think there are still people saying "there is no evidence"?
Simply because people aren't looking at the evidence, which is why I've been working so hard to put it all together on my blog.
Why do you think people are refusing to look at the available evidence and instead trusting speculation?
I think people have become very distrustful of the US and UK governments after Iraq. People were betrayed and this is the natural reaction. I get the feeling that people on the internet are so wound up on conspiracy theories that they don't know what to believe. I’m constantly told the opposition are faking videos. People can only come up with a handful of examples in about 500,000 videos, yet many still insist every video they see is faked, even if they can't explain why. It's one thing to wrap a bandage around someone’s head to pretend that they're injured; it's another to fake a massive chemical attack.
What do you think is the appropriate course of action from the international community?
If the UN results say it's a chemical weapon attack and no one can come up with any evidence that it was the opposition, I think the only course of action is a military response. However, I think it's important to see the response to the chemical attack as a separate thing to military intervention. If you want military intervention, it's a whole different ball game to a few days or weeks of strikes in response to the chemical weapons attack.
A mother and father mourn their child, killed by sarin.
What impact do you think Western airstrikes will have on Assad's military capabilities?
It depends on the scale and what they hit. It's pretty hard to predict anything at this stage. A limited strike might just focus on a chemical-weapon-related area, which might stop future chemical attacks, but not really change anything on the ground for the opposition. If, on the other hand, they took out the air force, it would make a huge difference. Even destroying the transport helicopter fleet would be important, as it would make isolated bases holding out against the opposition even more isolated, as they rely on airdrops from helicopters for supplies.
Do you think these strikes will change the course of the war?
Sixty days of airstrikes could. I assume they'll target the air defence network first, including the air force, then a variety of military targets. Even with that, the conflict could go on for years. But we'll have to wait to see the damage they are going to do.
Can you think of any motive behind the regime using these weapons on a Damascus suburb while chemical weapons inspectors were in the country?
There are plenty of theories, but it could have just been a fuck up. Previous attacks linked to these munitions have been on sparsely populated frontlines with not so many casualties. This time, they landed in an overpopulated area filled with refugees—a perfect storm for maximum casualties.
It seems like there were too many rounds fired across quite a wide area to suggest it was a fuck up.
Yeah, it could have been a commander going off the reservation, so to speak.
What about the theory that the rebels accidentally gassed themselves?
I don't think there's any reliable evidence for that. My question for that would be, how could one incident affect such a wide geographical area and miss locations in between those areas?
Thanks for talking to me, Eliot.
Follow Oz on Twitter: @OzKaterji
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