Two munitions have been linked to the attack, the M14 140mm artillery rocket, and a munition I've previously referred to as the UMLACA (Unidentified Munition Linked to Alleged Chemical Attacks).
|M14 140mm artillery rocket|
As with the M14, there's no evidence the Syrian opposition has access to, or have used, the UMLACA.
Since January 2013, a number of photographs and videos of these munitions have been published by opposition activists, who have consistently claimed these were fired by government forces. The first video, posted from Daraya, Damascus on January 4th 2013, doesn't even link the munition to a chemical attack, and through the last 3 weeks of investigations on the munition, I've established there are at least two types of this munition; the type linked to the August 21st attack and other alleged chemical attacks, and a high explosive type, which I examine in this post.
It's important to note that the UMLACA has also been recorded at the scene of at least one other chemical attack, including one in Adra, Damascus, on August 5th, which I detail here. Another video, from June 11th, also filmed in Adra, shows the remains of an UMLACA that's described as a "chemical rocket", although it's not specified which alleged chemical attack it was linked to. Considering the new information presented in today's UN report, it seems worth re-examining some of the earlier allegations of chemical attacks in Syria.
One thing that must be stressed, is that the UMLACA is a munition that's never been seen in any other conflict, and it's origins are somewhat of a mystery. This has led some people to claim the munition could have been constructed by the opposition, and one popular video shows what's claimed to be a chemical munition being used by the opposition, with some even claimed it's the UMLACA, even though it's clearly a totally different design
The above video is what's known as a "Hell Cannon", a popular mortar type weapon used by the Syrian opposition. I've gone into more details about the Hell Cannon, and why it's not a chemical weapon, as some people have claimed, here, but there is one other aspect of it I want to explore in relation to the UMLACAs.
As I've said before, some people have claimed the UMLACA could be a DIY munition manufactured by the opposition, but by examining the construction of both the Hell Cannon and the UMLACA I think it's clear there's a very significant difference in the quality and complexity of construction.
When the Hell Cannon first appeared in May 2013, it was accompanied by a release of a promotional video showing the construction of the weapon, shown below
In this video we can see the most complex part of the system is the launching platform, with the munition itself being not much more than a gas cylinder welded onto a metal pole, with fins added. The gas cylinder warhead is then filled with fertilizer based explosive, and fitted with a simple impact fuze. The launching platform is pretty simple, just a mortar tube with the rest of the construction desgined to give it stability. The following video, published on August 5th, shows ammunition for the Hell Cannon being produced
The design has had a slight improvement, with extendable tail fins added, and large numbers of the munitions being produced. If these were all chemical weapons then it's pretty clear someone would have noticed by now, and this really demonstrates how basic the design of these munitions are, something that's reflected in pretty much all the munitions produced by the opposition.
Over the past three weeks I've been collecting detailed photographs of the UMLACA, trying to make sense of how it's put together, and how it works. What's become clear is the UMLACA is far much more than just a barrel on a rocket. Human Rights Watch's report on August 21st included a diagram of the UMLACA I helped produce, shown below
There's a lot of details that point to this being more sophisticated that the gas cylinders on a stick, for example, way in which the warhead appears to be designed to come apart. There's clues to this in the various videos and photographs of the remains of the munition. The following images are taken from 4 different UMLACAs, showing the remains of the outer shell of the warhead
You'll note that they've consistently split in exactly the same way, right down the length of the warhead, apparently pre-weakened to break open that way. Another example is the rocket itself, as the below video of the high explosive variant of the UMLACA demonstrates, the housing for the rocket, which the tail fins are attached to, has been manufactured separately, and tightly fitted over the rocket, with fixtures added to the end so it can firmly attach to the base of the warhead (40 seconds onwards)
These are just a couple of examples of the design quality of the munition, demonstrating this is something that's beyond anything the opposition has manufactured themselves, strongly indicating this is something that's been manufactured by the Syrian military, or one of it's allies. More examination of the construction of the munition can be found here.
There's also a number of videos and images showing what appears to be there munitions, or variants, being used by government forces. This first video shows what appears to be a larger version of the same munition being loaded into a launcher, and launched
This video claims to show one of the munitions launched from the government controlled Qadam railway station in Damascus
The below screenshots of the video clearly shows the profile of the rocket matching the unusual profile of the UMLACA
This image appears to show an UMLACA loaded into what arms expert Nic Jenzen-Jones has described as an Iranian Falaq-2 type launcher, with the same launching vehicle photographed in November 2012
It was also possible to find the precise location of one of the munitions fired, and deduce it was fired from the north, the same direction as the 155th brigade missile base, and related sites (detailed here).
This is the evidence that the Syrian government was capable of the attack, and had a history of using the munitions linked to the attack. As for evidence of Syrian opposition responsibility, that appears rather thin on the ground. You have claims the attacks were faked, the victims being Alawite hostages from Latakia, that were somehow driven through hundreds of miles of contested and government controlled territory to Damascus. There's claims that this was some sort of accident involving Saudi supplied chemical weapons, which fails to explain how one incident could effect two separate areas. Other claims centre around the opposition having sarin, based off reports in Turkey in May, where it was reported Jabhat al-Nusra members were arrested with sarin. The "sarin" was later reported to be anti-freeze, and only this week some of the members are being prosecuted for trying to make sarin, having only a shopping list of ingredients, rather than actual sarin. It seems to me, that compared to the evidence of government responsibility for the attacks, the evidence of opposition responsibility seems very poor.
More posted on the subject of the August 21st attacks can be found here, and other posts on chemical weapons and Syria, including extremely informative interviews with chemical weapon specialists, can be found here.
You can contact the author on Twitter @brown_moses or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.