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Working Thread: UN Chemical Weapon Report on Syria Released

The UN has finally released its report (pdf) on the analysis of both human and environmental samples relating to the chemical weapon attack in the Ghouta area of Syria on August 21. The report finds unequivocal evidence of sarin in blood, urine and environmental samples.

A total of 36 primary victims and first responders who were exposed were interviewed. Sixteen of them were from Moadamiyah and twenty were from Zamalka. Seventy eight percent of them lost consciousness, 61% had difficulty breathing and 42% had blurred vision. Thirty four of the thirty six had blood samples taken (two refused) and 15 showing the most severe symptoms submitted urine samples. The materials were sent to two separate laboratories for analysis:

Medical test results

 

Rockets that could have delivered the chemical agent were found at some sites. At least one was capable of carrying up to 50 liters of liquid. Schematic of intact rocket:

Intact rocket schematic

 

The engine end was exposed at the impact site:

Rocket engine

 

The warhead:

50 liter warhead

But of course, these inspections came on August 26 in Moadamiyah and August 28 and 29 in Zamalka, so 5 to 8 days passed between the attack and the analysis. The key point to keep in mind when considering the rocket evidence is this:

Manipulation

People had plenty of time to move things around before the UN inspectors came onto the site. The possibility that evidence has been manipulated cannot be ruled out.

My first impressions from the report are that it is without question that the people interviewed and who submitted samples were indeed exposed to sarin. How it was delivered is another question entirely. Rockets were found in the vicinity where people were exposed and environmental samples, including from the rockets themselves, showed evidence of sarin, but it is impossible to conclude the rockets definitely delivered the sarin. It is impossible to rule out sarin being put onto the rocket debris after impact.

I’ve only skimmed the report, please consider this a working thread and share any findings in comments.

Did Kerry’s “Impossible” Diplomatic Demand Just Get Met? Update: Now Possible?

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Okay, this is breaking very rapidly and could turn out to be nothing, but it is amazing and would even be hilarious if it weren’t for the huge number of innocent lives that are at stake. As we learn from the New York Times this morning, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is making one last push for diplomacy in the face of an Obama administration that is determined to carry out military strikes against Syria:

The appalling suffering in Syria “cries out for international action,” Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Monday in a speech in Geneva. Employing chemical weapons was “one of the gravest crimes that can be committed” and their use in Syria “seems to be in little doubt,” even if the circumstances and the party responsible remained to be clarified, Ms. Pillay said.

While the United States is calling for a limited punitive strike to punish the Syrian government, Ms. Pillay warned that “a military response or the continued supply of arms risk igniting a regional conflagration, possibly resulting in many more deaths and even more widespread misery.”

Ms. Pillay chastised the international community for being “late, very late” in acting to stop the violence in Syria that has killed more than 100,000 people. “This is no time for powerful states to continue to disagree on the way forward or for geopolitical interests to override the legal and moral obligation to save lives by bringing this conflict to an end,” she said.

In a rational world, one would expect the chief diplomat from the United States to be somewhat chastised by such strong language and to voice a new commitment to finding a peaceful solution to the problem. But this is the Obama administration we are talking about, and so John Kerry instead chose to make a statement that appears to mock calls for diplomacy. He states conditions which Syria could meet in order to avoid an attack but then immediately follows by stating that it would be impossible for Syria to meet those conditions:

When asked by a reporter whether there was anything Assad’s government could do or offer to stop any attack, Kerry said:

“Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week – turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting (of it) but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done.”

Oh my. That is cold and beyond cynical. But it appears that Syria may well be calling Kerry’s bluff:

Wow. If the twitter account from which this came is real and if the offer is real, Kerry and the rest of the Obama administration will be facing a real conundrum. Kerry’s flip identification of an “impossible” condition which Syria could meet to avoid an attack may well have done the impossible. Stay tuned. Today could be very interesting.

Update: Twitter consensus is developing around the Brahimi twitter account being fake. There are also suggestions the State Department is doing some “walking back” of Kerry’s cynical statement.

Update: And as noted by commenter Erich Kuerschner, the twitter account has now been suspended. Even though the account was fake, it did a wonderful job of pointing out the horrible cynicism of Kerry’s “diplomacy”. What if Syria does offer up its chemical weapons? How is it Kerry’s job to pronounce that such a process is “impossible”?

Yet Another Update: It would appear that Putin appreciates the beauty of calling Kerry’s bluff:

 

And that’s AP (unless they’ve been hacked again…)

Update: New York TImes:

Syria’s foreign minister says his country welcomes Russia’s proposal for it to place its chemical weapons under international control and then dismantle them quickly to avert United States strikes.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Report From James “Least Untruthful” Clapper

It is a time pregnant with possibilities as the world awaits release of the US report on chemical weapon use in Syria. Today’s Washington Post informs us that we may see the report as soon as tomorrow:

The Obama administration believes that U.S. intelligence has established how Syrian government forces stored, assembled and launched the chemical weapons allegedly used in last week’s attack outside Damascus, according to U.S. officials.

The administration is planning to release evidence, possibly as soon as Thursday, that it will say proves that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad bears responsibility for what U.S. officials have called an “undeniable” chemical attack that killed hundreds on the outskirts of the Syrian capital.

The report, being compiled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is one of the final steps that the administration is taking before President Obama makes a decision on a U.S. military strike against Syria, which now appears all but inevitable.

Wait. What?

Marcy already mused on all the talking heads focusing on how a US response to Assad using chemical weapons on Syrian citizens is all about our “credibility“. If the US response is so tied up with credibility, how on earth can it be that the person charged with compiling the report on which we will base military action is the man whose obituary will be obliged to mention his admission that he lied to Congress, but that we should excuse the lies because he gave the “least untruthful” version possible? That is how the US will convince the world that, unlike when we lied about Iraq having WMD’s before we invaded, this time we aren’t lying about Assad?

Note also that Marcy mentioned yesterday that the US, through John Kerry, tried to prevent the UN carrying out its own investigation into the chemical weapon evidence. That move undercuts US efforts at credibility since outside, independent confirmation of findings would be a huge step in providing assurance that the US is being truthful.

The UN effort continues today, with the delegation of inspectors visiting a different Damascus suburb than the one they visited on Monday. (See the map in this BBC article for the sites at which chemical weapons were accused of being used in the attack.)

We get a bit of information from AP on how the UN team is operating:

The U.N. chemical weapons experts conducted their first field testing in the western Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh on Monday. They collected samples and testimony after a treacherous journey through government and rebel-held territory. Their convoy was hit by snipers but members of the team were unharmed.

The ability of the UN team to interview victims (which is presumably how they got “testimony”) and then to take their own samples is a key part of making their work believable. Both environmental samples at the sites of attack and biological samples from the victims play a role in identifying whether and what chemical agents were used. See this informative piece from FAS on descriptions of symptoms that the investigators would be looking for when interviewing victims.

When Clapper finally releases the US report, one of the most important aspects in that report will be the provenance of any samples the US subjected to chemical analysis. We don’t have acknowledged “boots on the ground” in Syria, so how did the US get samples? What certifications, if any, are there on chain of custody documentation on those samples? As with most other accounts of the chemical attack, the AP article linked above mentions that Doctors Without Borders has documented the number of dead and injured from the attack. Samples and documentation coming from them would be seen as having a much greater level of independence than samples provided by the rebel groups that control the territory where the attacks are said to have taken place.

Even though their main website has been taken down, reportedly by the Syrian Electronic Army, the New York Times is continuing its reporting on the situation in Syria. An article published yesterday afternoon provides some useful background information on the ability of modern forensic methods to detect chemical agent use long after the fact: Read more

ICRC President Visits Obama, Brennan, Hagel Regarding “International Humanitarian Law”

ICRC President Peter Maurer (Wikimedia Commons)

ICRC President Peter Maurer (Wikimedia Commons)

Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, yesterday completed four days of meetings with US officials in Washington. According to the blog site for the ICRC, Maurer met with President Barack Obama, senior members of Congress and a number of high-ranking government figures, including “Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, and Deputy Attorney General James Cole.”

It is perhaps not surprising that since there is a widespread hunger strike at Guantanamo (and since the ICRC visited Guantanamo earlier this month), detention issues were high on the list of topics for the meetings:

A focus of Mr Maurer’s visit was detention-related matters. “The United States, including its Congress, must urgently find a way to resolve all pending humanitarian, legal and policy issues relating to the detention of persons held at Guantanamo Bay, including those deemed to no longer represent a threat that justifies their continued detention there,” said Mr Maurer.

But Guantanamo was not the only topic. It comes as a welcome development to me that Maurer would widen the scope of discussion with key figures such as Obama, Brennan and Hagel to remind them of their duties under international humanitarian law:

“We enjoy a robust and multi-faceted dialogue with the United States, and my visit was an opportunity to discuss issues and contexts of mutual concern such as Syria and Afghanistan,” said Mr Maurer. “The United States values the mandate, positions and input of the ICRC and I am confident that this interaction will continue to bring concrete results, notably in terms of implementation of and respect for international humanitarian law in current and future battlefields.”

Especially when it comes to Obama and Brennan, it is striking that this statement can be construed as saying that the US needs to implement international humanitarian laws and to respect them. Although not stated outright, it is impossible to come to any other conclusion than to believe that the ICRC now believes that the US does not abide by international humanitarian law. I would think that the US practice of targeted killings, which is viewed by the UN as an issue for international law (and where the UN has called “double tap” drone strikes war crimes) would likely have been a topic for Maurer when talking with Brennan, who has played a key role in ordering drone strikes.

Sadly, I don’t share the ICRC’s optimism regarding our government’s respect for the “mandate, positions and input of the ICRC”. We need look no further than the sad news out of Guantanamo yesterday where it now appears that hundreds of thousands of confidential files and communications belonging to Guantanamo defense lawyers have been provided to the prosecution. In addition, a number of key files seem to have disappeared. From Carol Rosenberg: Read more

UN Notes That Ending Torture Requires Accountability. Too Bad They Are Talking About Afghanistan.

Back in October of 2011, I wrote about a report prepared by the UN (pdf) in which it was found that torture is widespread in detention facilities administered by Afghanistan. The primary point of my post was that the US, and especially JSOC, had no credibility in their denials of responsibility for torture in Afghan prisons because the entire Afghan detention system had been established and its personnel trained by JSOC.

The US response to that report was not a huge surprise. It consisted of a doubling down on the one thing ISAF claims as its savior–training. After all, it is training of the ANSF that is intended to provide cover for the eventual withdrawal of combat forces by the end of next year, so why can’t training save the detention system, too?  A follow-up report was issued yesterday (pdf), and it serves as a complete slap-down to the US response.

The report finds that this training approach was a dismal failure, as torture has not abated:

Using internationally accepted methodology, standards and best practices, UNAMA’s detention observation from October 2011 to October 2012 found that despite Government and international efforts to address torture and ill-treatment of conflict related detainees, torture persists and remains a serious concern in numerous detention facilities across Afghanistan.

UNAMA found sufficiently credible and reliable evidence that more than half of 635 detainees interviewed (326 detainees) experienced torture and ill-treatment in numerous facilities of the Afghan National Police (ANP), National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan Local Police (ALP) between October 2011 and October 2012 This finding is similar to UNAMA’s findings for October 2010-11 which determined that almost half of the detainees interviewed who had been held in NDS facilities and one third of detainees interviewed who had been held in ANP facilities experienced torture or ill-treatment at the hands of ANP or NDS officials.

And here is the UN concluding in the report that training alone won’t stop torture. Instead, real accountability is what is needed:

Similar to previous findings, UNAMA found a persistent lack of accountability for perpetrators of torture with few investigations and no prosecutions or loss of jobs for those responsible for torture or ill-treatment. The findings in this report highlight that torture cannot be addressed by training, inspections and directives alone but requires sound accountability measures to stop and prevent its use. Without effective deterrents and disincentives to use torture, including a robust, independent investigation process or criminal prosecutions, Afghan officials have no incentive to stop torture. A way forward is clear.

This seems like a particularly important message to take into consideration on the day that Barack Obama is involved in the pomp and circumstance of starting his second term in office. He gained the support of many progressives during the Democratic primaries in 2008 by issuing a strong call for torture accountability and then famously turned his back on it by expressing his desire to “look forward, not backward”. With this report, the UN shows the moral bankruptcy of such an approach and seems in fact to even be taunting him with the final “A way forward is clear.”

Warrick Promotes Neocon Framing of Newest Iran Sanctions

Despite crippling smog in Tehran that may well derive from sanctions aimed at refined gasoline and the UN noting several months ago that US sanctions against Iran “appear to be affecting humanitarian operations in the country”, Joby Warrick chose to frame the newest round of US sanctions against Iran in language provided directly by the neocon “think tank” Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Warrick does briefly note in his opening paragraphs that the sanctions against Iran have its “economy already reeling”,  but he doesn’t dwell on the impact to Iranian citizens of that reeling economy. Instead, he moves directly into neocon “think” with this passage (and Warrick doesn’t even get the group’s name correct):

While some previous U.S. sanctions targeted individuals and firms linked to Iran’s nuclear industry, the new policies are closer to a true trade embargo, designed to systematically attack and undercut Iran’s major financial pillars and threaten the country with economic collapse, the officials say.

“This is effectively blacklisting whole sectors of the Iranian economy,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy[sic], a think tank. “The goal is to create a chilling effect on all nonhumanitarian commercial trade with Iran.”

By broadening the focus to entire industries, the new effort is intended to make it harder for Iran to evade sanctions through front operations, a time-honored practice in the Islamic republic, said Dubowitz, author of several studies on sanctions policy. “It was a game of whack-a-mole that the United States could never win,” he said.

Dubowitz’s framing casts those crafty Iranians as creating a game of “whack-a-mole” as they try to evade the sanctions, which he whitewashes as being aimed at “chilling all nonhumanitarian aid”. No less an authority than the UN, in a report titled “Situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran” and dated August 22, 2012, demonstrates that Dubowitz’s characterization of the sanctions is a lie, since even before this newest round, there are humanitarian effects from the sanctions:

The sanctions also appear to be affecting humanitarian operations in the country. Even companies that have obtained the requisite licence to import food and medicine are facing difficulties in finding third-country banks to process the transactions. Owing to payment problems, several medical companies have stopped exporting medicines to the Islamic Republic of Iran, leading to a reported shortage of drugs used in the treatment of various illnesses, including cancer, heart and respiratory conditions, thalassemia and multiple sclerosis.

Despite Dubowitz’s attempt to paint the sanctions as merely economic, we learned last fall that the severe impact on Iran’s economy has been devastating to its citizens.  More from the UN report: Read more

One By Land If None By Sea?

Iran is claiming once again to have captured a US drone. The YouTube above consists of a boring eleven minutes broadcast by PressTV of Iranian military types doing a poor impression of Vanna White running their hands over what is claimed to be a US ScanEagle drone. If true, this would be the second drone captured by Iran in just over a year. Early last December, Iran first claimed to have shot down and then changed their wording to claiming to have “brought” down a much larger RQ-170 Sentinel drone, prompting the question of whether Iran managed to hack the drone.

There has been considerable additional drone action of late regarding Iran, with Iran firing on a Predator drone in November over the Gulf (perhaps in Iranian airspace, perhaps not). Iran then said later in November that they were reporting the US to the UN for violating Iranian airspace at least 8 times during October, presumably with drones.

Interestingly, it appears that Iran is claiming once again to have hacked this drone. From Fars News Agency:

Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi announced that his forces hunted a US Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) over the Persian Gulf after the drone violated the country’s airspace.

The UAV which had conducted several reconnaissance flights over the Persian Gulf general zone in the past few days was caught and brought under control by air defense units and control systems of the IRGC Navy.

We are now in the denial phase of the US response to this incident. The next bit in the Fars News article sets it up:

The IRGC navy commander announced that the haunted [sic] UAV was a ScanEagle drone, adding that “such drones are usually launched from large warships.”

Seizing on this bit, the US has quickly trotted out a US Navy spokesman to say that all ScanEagles are accounted for and none are missing. This same article also suggests that other countries in the region have ScanEagles and posits that Iran may have salvaged a ScanEagle that went down in the Gulf long ago.

[Heh. I missed the Fars typo saying the drone was “haunted” instead of “hunted” on my first several readings. That puts an entirely different spin on the situation…]

Interstingly, at the end,  the AP article does get around to pointing out that the US eventually changed its story on the RQ-170 [and see the update below the fold]: Read more

More Damage from Panetta’s Vaccine Ruse: UN Doctor on Polio Vaccine Drive Shot; Hundreds of Thousands Denied Polio Vaccine

As one of only three countries in the world where polio is still endemic, Pakistan launched a three day vaccination drive yesterday with a target of vaccinating the 318,000 children in North and South Waziristan who have not received their vaccinations. Across all of Pakistan, the goal is to vaccinate 34 million children under the age of five. The drive is being held despite a push by the Taliban to prevent vaccinations in tribal areas. The Taliban’s ban on vaccinations is aimed at stopping US drone strikes in the tribal areas and is in response to the vaccination ruse by the CIA.  Dr. Shakeel Afridi pretended to be doling out hepatitis vaccines in a failed attempt to retrieve DNA samples for the CIA from the bin Laden compound when it was under surveillance prior to the attack that killed Osama bin Laden. Today, a UN doctor and his driver were wounded when a shooter opened fire on them in Karachi. The doctor was reported to be working on the vaccine program.

Dawn reported yesterday that a jirga was convened today in the tribal areas to try to find a solution to the Taliban’s vaccine ban. That article gives good background information on the ban:

Although a nationwide anti-polio campaign was launched on Monday, the authorities were yet to convince the Taliban shura on the importance of getting children of North and South Waziristan vaccinated against the debilitating disease.

/snip/

Commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who leads the powerful Taliban Shura, had banned the anti-polio drive in North Waziristan on June 16 and said that children would not take polio drops unless the government stopped drone strikes in the area.

He was followed by Commander Mullah Nazir in South Waziristan and other militant commanders in FRs D.I. Khan and Kohat.

In South Waziristan, the ban is much stricter because it prohibits vaccination against all eight childhood diseases, including polio.

“We have asked health workers to be careful and don’t put their lives at risk,” the official said, adding that they were waiting for the government’s response.

However, the Taliban ban is not the only barrier to vaccines:

He [the official quoted above] said the military operation in Orakzai and Khyber agencies was one of the factors which deprived children of the much needed vaccines.

Just the two tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan account for a large number of unvaccinated children: Read more

JSOC Denial of Ignoring Torture in Afghan Prisons Not Credible–They Trained Afghan Military Police

Brig. Gen. Saffiullah, Afghan National Army Military Police Brigade commander, proudly displays his certificate from Robert Harward, left, on April 5, 2010. (Air Force photo)

Yesterday, the Washington Post finally caught up to where Marcy was over two weeks ago and discussed the UN report “Treatment of Conflict-Related Detainees in Afghan Custody” (pdf).  I’d like to move beyond the primary findings of the report, that torture is widespread in Afghan detention facilities and that the US continued bringing prisoners to these facilities long after other nations discontinued the practice due to concerns over reports of torture, and to examine US denials of knowledge regarding the torture.

First, to set the stage from the Post article:

Department 124 was long sealed off from the outside world; the ICRC, the United Nations and other organizations concerned with human rights were barred by Afghan officials from monitoring conditions there.

But American officials frequently went inside, according to Afghan officials and others familiar with the site. U.S. Special Operations troops brought detainees there, and CIA officials met with Department 124’s leadership on a weekly basis, reviewed their interrogation reports and used the intelligence gleaned from interrogations to inform their operations, the officials said.

And now the denial I’m most interested in:

One U.S. official in Kabul said the CIA officers and Special Operations troops would not have ignored torture. “Not in the post-Abu Ghraib era,” the official said. “All American entities out there are hyper-aware of these allegations and would report them up the chain.”

We will dismiss the CIA denial out of hand: documentation of CIA torture practices and the CIA’s attempts to have DOJ provide legal cover for them now fills many books. However, JSOC involvement in torture is less well-documented despite the fact that JSOC torture played a central, but under-reported, role in David Petraeus’ COIN strategy as implemented in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Petraeus’ primary operative in implementing the torture strategy in both countries was Stanley McChrystal. Read more