Syria — A Commentary on the Khan Shaykhun Chemical Attack Intelligence

“This distinguishes this case (Salisbury) from that in Syria, where it could be determined that the sarin used in Khan Sheikhun most probably came from Syrian army stocks due to contamination in the investigated warfare agents and by means of comparative samples.”

Stefan Mogl — Former Spiez Lab (OPCW) Scientist

High quality photograph of the crater identified in the White House report as the source of the sarin attack. The dispenser looks like a 122 mm pipe like that used in the manufacture of artillery rockets. Notice a fractured seam that was created by the brittle failure of the metal skin when the pipe was suddenly crushed inward from above.

France has assessed that the Syrian armed forces and security services perpetrated a chemical attack using sarin against civilians in Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017. Let us try to understand the ‘evidence’ behind this assessment. Follow us on Twitter: Intel_Today

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French Intel — Technical analysis

On April 26 2017, Jean-Marc Ayrault — then Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development — spoke following the restricted meeting of the Defense Council at the Elysée.

Ayrault presented the French national evaluation providing evidence of the use of sarin gas and the Syrian regime’s responsibility in the chemical attack carried out on April 4 2017 in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria. The French report claims that:

(1) Environmental samples collected on the site reveal the presence of Sarin. (The report does not say how these samples were obtained by the French government.) Moreover, an analysis of the blood sample from one victim definitely indicates exposure to sarin. (The sample was taken in Syria on April 4 2017.)

(2) The analysis of the samples also reveal the presence of other chemicals: DF (methylphosphonyl difluoride), DIMP (diisopropyl methylphosphonate) which formed during synthesis of sarin from isopropanol and hexamine.

(3) In a previous declassified national report in 2013, the French Intelligence services laid out their knowledge of the Syrian chemical weapons programme and chemical attacks perpetrated by the regime. They noted that sarin was principally used in binary form: a mixture of methylphosphonyl difluoride (DF), a key precursor in the manufacture of sarin, and isopropanol produced just before use.

(4) France has observed since 2014 Syrian attempts to acquire dozens of tonnes of isopropanol.

(5) According to the intelligence obtained by the French services, the process of synthesizing sarin, developed by the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) and employed by the Syrian armed forces and security services, involves the use of hexamine as a stabilizer.

Based on this overall evaluation — and on reliable and consistent intelligence collected by their Services — France has assessed that the Syrian armed forces and security services perpetrated a chemical attack using sarin against civilians in Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017.

UN — Confirmation from the OPCW

Let us assume that the samples are genuine. Of course, this could be debated. In sciences, one is allowed to doubt anything, but preferably one thing at the time.

The organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has concluded that isopropanol was used in the manufactured of the Sarin used in the Khan Shaykhun attack of April 2017. (Letter dated 26 October 2017 from the Secretary-General addressed to the President of the Security Council)

“Environmental samples were collected in Khan Shaykhun both from inside the crater and from its surroundings. The results of the analysis carried out by OPCW designated laboratories confirm the presence of sarin and some of its known degradation products.

Moreover, the results confirm that sarin was produced by the binary route, in which DF is combined with isopropanol (iPrOH) in the presence of hexamine.”

So, we hear the same story. Basically, the sarin agent used at Khan Shaykhun was produced by the binary route, in which DF is combined with isopropanol in the presence of hexamine.

Ok. But why is that regarded as ‘evidence’ against the Syrian regime? Before addressing this issue, let us take a detour to Salisbury, UK. Here, another agent — known as Novichok — was used to poison a former Russian double agent as well as his daughter. The samples were analysed by a Swiss laboratory.

The Swiss

The Spiez Laboratory is the Swiss institute for the protection of the population against nuclear, biological and chemical threats and dangers.

It is part of the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sports and is located in Spiez. The lab is one of the five permanent authorized OPCW labs in the world. [Wikipedia]

The lab spokesperson has declined to provide any comments regarding Lavrov’s allegations regarding the Salisbury incident.

“Again, as a designated Lab of the OPCW we cannot independently comment on this. What we can publicly say is in the article of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung: «Kein Zweifel am Nowitschok-Resultat»

Interestingly, we learn from this article why it is not possible to determine that the Novichok agent — allegedly used in Salisbury — was manufactured in Russia.

At the same time, we learn how the Spiez scientists — including Stefan Mogl — were able to conclude that the Sarin used in the 2016 attack in Kahn Shaykhun was part of the Syrian military arsenal.

Basically, the origin is inferred by the presence of previously known ‘contaminants’ contained in the chemical samples.

“Little is known about the method of preparation of the Novichok poisons, so that no conclusions can be drawn about the country of origin or even the responsible laboratory.

This distinguishes this case from that in Syria, where it could be determined that the sarin used in Khan Sheikhun most probably came from Syrian army stocks due to contamination in the investigated warfare agents and by means of comparative samples.”

Now, we are getting somewhere! But before we can comment on the facts, and how they were used as ‘evidence’, we must review a bit of chemistry.

Manufacturing Sarin — Binary route and stabilizer

The production of Sarin can be accomplished by a number of different production paths.

According to Dan Kaszeta, all of the production paths end with either hydrogen chloride (HCl) or hydrogen fluoride (HF) as a by-product.

The second to-last step of all of the production pathways is one of two reactions:

1 mol DF + 1 mol Isopropyl Alcohol = 1 mol Sarin + 1 mol HF

1 mol DF + 1 mol DC + 2 mols Isopropyl Alcohol = 2 mols Sarin + 2 mols HCl

In either case, the resulting acid is bad for a number of reasons. In order to solve these issues, some ‘amines’ are added to the mix as acid reducers and anti-corrosion additives.

Numerous amines have been experimented with in nerve agent production such as, among others, Tributylamine, Triethylamine, Isopropyl amine, and allegedly… Hexamine.

And experts believe that only the Syrian Military have chosen Hexamine as a stabilizer.

Although, I do not believe that this is proven — indeed, some scientists even claimed it cannot be done — I will, for now, go along with this hypothesis as there seems to be reasonable circumstantial evidence to make the case.

Evaluating the ‘Evidence’ & Rating its ‘Probative Value’

We are now in a position to understand why the OPCW scientists determined that the sarin used in Khan Sheikhun ‘most probably’ came from Syrian army stocks.

The OPCW scientist have confirmed that the sarin — used at Khan Shaykhun on April 4 2017 — was produced by the binary route, in which DF is combined with isopropanol in the presence of hexamine.

According to the French Intelligence, this process of synthesizing sarin was uniquely developed by the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) and employed by the Syrian armed forces and security services.

It is important to keep in mind that scientists do not — because they cannot — attribute the origin of the sarin agent.

It is the comparison of their scientific analysis  with data collected by Intelligence Services that allows for such attribution of responsibility.

The scientific work is almost certainly correct but the conclusion will rest on several factors, including the authenticity of the samples and the value of the Intelligence.

In any case, you now have all the ‘evidence’ and you can evaluate its probative value. What do you think?

A short comment on Isopropanol

The UN ‘Comtrade database’ shows that since 2014, an estimated 1.28 thousand tons of propanol and isopropanol (Both propanol and isopropanol are registered under the same code) were exported by various countries to Syria, including Switzerland.

In these circumstances, it is not clear why the French report emphasizes the fact that  Syria has attempted to acquire a few dozen tons of isopropanol since 2014?

REFERENCES

Chemical Attack in Syria – National Evaluation presented by Jean-Marc Ayrault following the Defense Council Meeting (26 April 2017) — France Diplomatie

Amines and Sarin – Hexamine, Isopropylamine, and the Rest… — Belingat

Isopropyl alcohol — Wikipedia

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Syria — A Commentary on the Khan Shaykhun Chemical Attack Intelligence

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