NYTimes Finally Finds Concern Over Impunity for War Crimes, But Only Assad’s War Crimes

Despite the fact that the US has never faced prosecution for its illegal invasion of Iraq or for the many documented acts of rendition and torture in the Great War on Terror, the New York Times this morning found it possible to rail against the injustice of impunity for war crimes. But only after jumping on the bandwagon to convict Bashar al-Assad’s government of a war crime for which definitive proof has not yet been developed. Here is their hand-wringing:

The repercussions have elevated the 30-month-old Syrian conflict into a global political crisis that is testing the limits of impunity over the use of chemical weapons.

The Times goes on to present the evidence from the UN analysis in the most unflattering light toward Assad. Nowhere in the report do we get discussion of the fact that the UN inspectors were not at the attack site until five to eight days after the attack. Even more importantly, the Times completely elides any reference to the cautionary note in the report that “potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated“.

The most damning accusations in the Times article rely on material outside the UN report (pdf). The report does not disclose any findings on the quality of the sarin found in the analysis, but that did not stop the “diplomats” who are eager to assign blame:

Both the British and American ambassadors to the United Nations also told reporters that the report’s lead author, Dr. Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist who joined Mr. Ban in the Security Council briefing, had told members that quality of the sarin used in the attack was high.

“This was no cottage-industry use of chemical weapons,” said Britain’s ambassador, Sir Mark Lyall Grant. He said the type of munitions and trajectories had confirmed, “in our view, that there is no remaining doubt that it was the regime that used chemical weapons.”

Much attention has been given to the analysis of munitions found by the inspectors. The smaller of the two types described, the M14 or 140 mm rocket (which reportedly can carry about two liters of sarin), is typically launched by a towed launcher such as the one pictured here on Wikipedia. The larger type, a previously undescribed 330 mm rocket (which could carry over 50 liters of sarin) would be launched from a much larger vehicle, presumably the type usually seen mounted on the back of a large truck. Multiple sources state that the various Syrian rebel groups have not been documented to have launchers of these types.

Much also has been made of the triangulation of the two flight paths that the UN inspectors described, since the paths cross at a known Syrian military site. There is a huge problem, however, in using this information by itself to state conclusively that the flight paths prove that Syrian forces, under orders from Assad, fired the chemical weapons. From the way that the UN report is written, it is impossible to determine whether the two rockets for which these flight paths were determined actually tested positive for sarin, or if they even were tested at all. That is very important, since we know that Syrian forces continued to attack the Ghouta area during the time between the chemical attack and when the UN inspectors were allowed to do their work. In fact, we know that conventional shelling was carried out from the very base the ballistics analysis points to:

The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, also reported several air raids on the suburbs, and added that President Bashar Assad’s forces were shelling eastern Ghouta from the Qasioun mountain overlooking Damascus.

The analysis by Casual Observer, which he posted in this tweet and this close-up identifying Qasioun matches the information in the previously linked diagram from the Times and allows us to confirm that conventional artillery from the Qasioun base was known to have been fired at the chemical attack zone in the time between the chemical attack and the UN inspection.

At most, the ballistics analysis provides circumstantial evidence that supports the allegations that the Qasioun base was the source of at least some of the shelling where the chemical attack took place. The insecure nature of the site, coupled with the UN report being silent on whether there were positive sarin tests on the two rockets for which flight path analysis was carried out, prevents any conclusion that the sarin originated from the Syrian military base. And that’s before even getting to the question of whether Assad himself gave a command to fire chemical weapons.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
21 replies
  1. Casual Observer says:

    Yep, I assumed that some of the positive testing for sarin was from the two valid impact sites (sloppy on my part). And maybe there is positive testing there–but you’re right that the report doesn’t clearly specify that any of the impact debris from sites 1 or 4 was tested, and if so what the results were. Ideally the positives need to be directly from weapons parts, as we should suspect that sarin was widespread in the general area at time of the attack, and that non-chem weapons would be exposed at that time (less so for weapons falling *after* the attack on subsequent days). Surely the investigators can (and absolutely should) produce much more specific provenience on their tests. If they can, it still does not represent a “smoking gun”–but it does present better data.

  2. rg says:

    @Casual Observer: When I saw your link to the triangulated tracking of the missiles, I wondered how that image was established. As the ambiguities develop, I’m reminded of the observation of the evidence being collected around the policy.

  3. Casual Observer says:

    @rg: The UN report provided reciprocal azimuths for two of the impact sites. They had some degree of confidence that these were reliable. These were simply plotted using google earth. “Triangulation” is actually not a good term here–the azimuths were simply extended out to see where they went–they need not have intersected. That they intersected was interesting. That they intersected within a military base was more interesting.

  4. Bay State Librul says:


    If your were an oddsmaker, what would be the percentage that Assad was
    doing his dirty work 90%, 50% 10%?

    Do you want 100%?

  5. bevin says:

    Bay state librul, this isn’t a game. But the evidence, including this report from the UN inspectors and Ban Ki Moon, is very thin. It is certainly less than a decent jury would require and probably less than a sensible prosecutor would be comfortable with.
    If people want to attack Syria, let them say so.

    Don’t confuse the issue by pretending either that the motivation behind an attack is disgust at the use of chemical weapons- which is almost funny in view of what the United States has done to and with Iraq in the recent past- or a passion for justice. There is something very American about such a passion being so strong that it leads to the casting aside of formalities, such as the testing of real evidence, and moves directly to the execution stage.

    But, to get back to your question, I’d say the odds against Assad’s forces being responsible are about 7/2. The odds against Prince Bandar being responsible are close to even money, say 5/4.

  6. SpanishInquisition says:

    @Bay State Librul: What does it matter? Obama was supposed to bring a different worldview rather than perpetuating regime change. Yet here Obama goes finding excuses to embrace-and-extend the Bush view. Libya got a regime change on the mere pretense of theoretical attack based on R2P. Now with Syria there’s actually 100,000 people who have died, so what does it matter what they died of? Without any sort of consitency there’s ever-changing reasons why a regime change is in order in some ME country.

  7. Jim White says:

    @Bay State Librul: Notice that I break proof of responsibility into two pieces that are not yet proved. For the first one, that CW laced rockets were indeed fired from the Syrian military base identified by the line of flight, I would put that around even money compared to sarin being smeared around on already existing conventional rockets.

    The second, and more important one, is key. Marcy reminds us frequently that Idriss (who defected from the Syrian military a year or so ago) claims to still have people loyal to him within the Syrian military. That complicates things greatly with regard to who could have been the source of any order to fire the CW rockets. And further keep in mind that some versions of the SIGINT we intercepted right after the weapons were fired sound as though commanders on the ground were confused and furious the weapons had been used. So for me, this question is so far up in the air that I wouldn’t speculate on odds either way. I will need very firm evidence for either side to be blamed when it comes to issuing the order to deploy the sarin.

    All of this though is just theorizing to fill in the gaping holes where we don’t have reliable evidence.

  8. SpanishInquisition says:

    @Casual Observer: Actually that isn’t enlighening. The assumption the UN made was that those spots had been undisturbed (a conclusory statement without any proof) after a week, but it would be extremely low technology and extremely cheap to go and change the azimuth…just someone with a shovel, a ruler and told what degree to make the rocket point. If this was a criminal prosecution, I think this evidence would be turned into swiss cheese. Not to mention that the type of rockets used could have been captured by the rebels…all it would take is using a piece of captured military equipment on one end and someone with a shovel on the other end.

  9. Casual Observer says:

    @SpanishInquisition: Sorry it wasn’t enlightening. The UN team was on the ground and discuss why they think the azimuth data are good. They didn’t just assume that it was good. I’m assuming the UN team wasn’t fooled and was working in good faith–but either of those could be false assumptions.

    Anyway, we shouldn’t be surprised that some of these projectiles might accurately reveal that the base was the (or a) point of origin, given that multiple reports say that’s where some of Assad’s artillery is. What is key, as Jim states above, is to link strong positive sarin tests to shells/rockets with good provenience and sound ballistic data.

  10. Bay State Librul says:


    I know it’s not a game and I know it’s not a legal court battle with your comment about a jury.
    It’s a question whether you believe that Assad did it.
    I happen to believe that he did (my opinion).
    Syria and Russia will use this point about “who shot Joe” to delay and twist the report.
    My level of confidence is 95%
    Will we spending the next two years figuring it out.
    Time is of the essence

  11. SpanishInquisition says:

    @Casual Observer: “They didn’t just assume that it was good. I’m assuming the UN team wasn’t fooled and was working in good faith–but either of those could be false assumptions.”

    First I’m sorry for the way I phrased that.

    You are assuming they didn’t assume. The UN report itself says the sites they looked at they only had a limited amount of time, they sites were travelled and any/all the sites could have been manipulated:
    “During the time spent at these locations, individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated.”
    Those who did the investigation can’t vouch for the integrity of the sites they looked at and specfically said the evidence could have been manipulated.

  12. CTuttle says:

    Jim, did you see Robert Parry’s article… Murky Clues from UN’s Syria Report

    This part stood out…

    The UN inspectors also revealed how dependent they were on Syrian rebels for access to the areas of the alleged chemical attacks and to witnesses, with one rebel commander even asked to take “custody” of the UN inspection.

    “An elaborate information exchange took place between UNOJSR [the UN team] and key representatives of the opposition. The information gathered through these exchanges would be used to formulate an action plan for the upcoming visit, which became very critical to the success of the mission,” the UN report said.

    “A leader of the local opposition forces who was deemed prominent in the area to be visited by the Mission, was identified and requested to take ‘custody’ of the Mission. The point of contact within the opposition was used to ensure the security and movement of the Mission, to facilitate the access to the most critical cases/witnesses to be interviewed and sampled by the Mission and to control patients and crowd in order for the Mission to focus on its main activities.”

  13. Casual Observer says:

    @SpanishInquisition: Elsewhere in the report, pages 22 and 23, they’re saying things like: “This projectile…remained dug in, undisturbed until investigated.”

    Again, they’re not just assuming it’s all good. They briefly discuss context at each site, and they clearly think they’re getting reasonably good in-situ information at each.

    It’s obviously not perfect, but I don’t see how it can be ignored either.

  14. fatster says:

    Two relevant items from this afternoon’s news:

    Israel wants Assad gone:

    Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is putting together “use of force authorization against Iranian regime.” http://thehill.com/blogs/global-affairs/middle-east-north-africa/322835-graham-preparing-use-of-force-authorization-against-iran#ixzz2fCEaOg7S

    PS: And this one from McClatchy: “UN calculations of poison rockets’ paths implicate Syrian guard unit”.

  15. Independent Analysis says:

    The U.N. investigators make clear in their report that their primary mission was to determine if CW agents were deployed in the area on the date indicated, and if so, what agents were used. The investigation appears to have been competent and to have determined with reasonable surety that CW agents were deployed and that the principle agent was Saron. The investigators appear to have only incidentally investigated in regard to who might have deployed the agents. This was reasonable in view of the obstacles to investigation of responsibility, among which we are able to recognize the shortness of time provided/permitted, the control exerted over the investigators and their investigating, which appear to have included being conducted to sites and shown examples (not being able/allowed to explore to find for themselves), the areas shown showing indications of manipulations (of the areas at least) and perhaps being discouraged from exploring (purpose cannot be definitely assigned to sniping, but sniping at a target the size of a bus that apparently misses the bus suggests a ‘herding’ purpose). Of particular interest in reviewing the report for indications of potential responsibility and integrity of evidences were the notes of warheads being found separate from the rochet-motors where the ordnance was simple and small, not likely to utilize ewparating or multiple warheads, and the report in one case of a rocket’s remnants having apparently pierced cinderblock and then reinforced concrete and apparently showing little damage.

    The problem is that with investigation being confined by the indicated kinds of investigation restrictions and imposed conditions it is virtually impossible for the investigation to establish any kind of a real and certain conclusion. More, the imposition of such conditions and restrictions introduces a suggestion, if not a suspicion, of manipulation, which weights to the disadvantage of the side responsible for the imposing. Were the sites provided for the investigatos to inspect stage-managed? Doctored? Salted? The more the restriction and manipulation of the investigators and investigation, the more likely the answer will be yes.

    In the incident case the frequency, volume and vehemence of the asserting by non-investigators, politicians, pundits, public-relations employees (spokesmen and such), together with the early beginnings of the “p-r barrage” suggests an increase in probability that the side responsibe for the barrage is mounting the barrage to bolster a weak case, make a case, or pre-cover to obscure.

    From reading the incidental references and avoidances of concluding in the report my anticipation is that in the end either no definite ascription of blame will be assigned, or an ascription at least biasing to suggest the rebels more likely to have introduced the CW agents will result. I anticipae that the case U.S. officials want to make will ultimately depend on politics, not on facts, if it is, or if it can be, made.

  16. fatster says:

    @CTuttle: Aloha back, CTuttle! Miss interacting with all of you, too. Happy to see you, though.

    I left you something of interest (or I thought so), a few good (aren’t they all?) Jim White articles back. I’ll see if I can find it.

  17. fatster says:

    @CTuttle: Here it is (it was on the Lavrov-Kerry article Jim wrote). Interesting background info: “Georgia has regularly ranked among the top world states in terms of per capita U.S. aid.” $3.37bn between FY 1991-2010. $85.5m in FY 2012 and requested $620m for FY 2014. “U.S. Security Assistance” , including US troops training, begins on p. 30.

  18. fatster says:

    @CTuttle: Well, if “Officials” said it, you know where to place your bets. Interesting stuff, good background info. Oh, the games they do play! Many thnx for your link! :)

    PS Think I’ll start keeping a little bibliography on this subject. Interesting.

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