Additional Assessment of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism Seventh Report
The Russian Federation strongly condemns any use of chemical weapons (CW) by anyone anywhere. It deems important to identify those responsible and bring them to justice. That is exactly why Russia supported the resolution 2235 establishing the JIM two years ago and became its co-sponsor as well. Furthermore the JIM and the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) being in coordination with each other were expected to provide for absolutely fair and highly professional investigation in order to positively and persuasively identify those responsible in CW crimes. Unfortunately these expectations were in vain.
A highly disturbing message came just more than a year ago when the JIM presented a report putting all the blame for three incidents of CW use on the Syrian Government. One of these incidents involves a pure fiction scenario. During the night the high-flying military helicopter allegedly dropped a chlorine filled barrel exactly into the ventilation shaft of the residential building with barrel diameter matching the size of a shaft almost perfectly. The very report considered such an eventuality as “improbable”. When presenting this report to the Security Council the former head of the JIM called this scenario “fantastic”. Nonetheless Damascus was held responsible. And now, whenever an opportunity presents itself, many keep repeating that “fair and highly professional” JIM has unconditionally found the Syrian authorities guilty on three occasions, including the aforementioned one. We have repeatedly asked both our Western colleagues and the JIM leadership about the mathematical probability of such a scenario: one in a million or one in ten million? Each time our partners refused to answer this question, referring to their poor knowledge of mathematics. They do not seem to worry at all about the fact that the JIM verdict contradicts the laws of physics and ballistics.
The systemic weaknesses in the work of JIM were fully exposed during the Khan Shaykhun investigation. In April immediately after this tragic incident Russia has submitted for OPCW Executive Council consideration a draft decision prompting an immediate dispatch of international experts to Khan Shaykhun and the “Shayrat” airbase, where sarin used in Khan Shaykhun was allegedly stored. However this draft decision was unanimously blocked by the Western group of countries under flimsy pretexts. As it became evident later, both the FFM and the JIM have “gotten the message” from W estern countries and have flatly refused to visit both the site and the airbase. The FFM referred to the lack of necessary security arrangements. However, later it turned out to be untrue. Director of the UN Department for Safety and Security informed the Security Council on October 4, 2017 that in reality safety guarantees were duly received from the local field commanders but the OPCW Mission declined to use that opportunity and chose to conduct investigation remotely. This is a blatant attempt to mislead the international community. The FFM has also refused to visit the airbase claiming it is beyond its mandate and belongs to the JIM competence.
Then something similar happened to the JIM. Following our insistent calls to verify the presence or absence of sarin at “Shayrat” airbase it has stated that it is beyond its mandate and belongs to the FFM competence. Thus, both bodies responsible for conducting the investigation pointed at each other and evaded their responsibilities. After all the JIM did visit the airbase but flatly refused to take samples despite the presence of experienced OPCW chemists and the access to the necessary equipment. All of this strongly resembles an outright sabotage.
Russia did not demand from these two bodies anything beyond their mandates or the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention. In particular, we insisted that every method and resource available under this Convention is to be used during the course of the investigation including sampling, witnesses interviews and evidence collection right on the site. These seemed to be very basic requests especially when facing such an important and delicate task of identifying the responsible for the CW related crime. However, in accordance with established bad practices all of our appeals and calls remained ignored and the investigation was conducted remotely – mostly in New York and the Hague offices as well as on the territory of Syria’s neighboring state.
All this has affected the quality of investigation that turned out to be extremely low. It suffices to say that the FFM broke the basic principle of the “chain of custody” which in Russian has the meaning of a strict order of actions to ensure the integrity of evidence. This principle, which is enshrined in the CWC and in the OPCW documents, implies that representatives of the OPCW must collect samples themselves and ensure their integrity during transportation to a OPCW certified laboratory where analysis is to take place. In fact, however, the FFM received these samples from the Syrian opposition on the territory of a neighboring country. The same concerns the witnesses that were interviewed first by the FFM and then by the JIM: no proof has been provided that these individuals were indeed present at Khan Shaykhun in the morning of April 4 this year. Thus it is extremely difficult to rely on their testimonies. Such an approach taken by the FFM and the JIM can in no way be described as professional. As a result, the so-called evidence base that they collected is absolutely unreliable. That is why nearly every page of the report contains such words as “probably”, “possibly”, “presumably” etc. Such language is absolutely inappropriate for a report that claims to be substantial and thorough. It would have been more honest to report to the UN Security Council that under the current conditions the JIM is incapable to conduct a full-fledged investigation.
There have been other “miracles” during the investigation. It turned out, for example, that for some reason the OPCW Mission believed that its task was limited to establishing whether or not the chemical weapons had been used. The rest seemed to be beyond its concern. Such interpretation of the mandate fundamentally contradicts the relevant decisions of the OPCW Executive Council which were fully endorsed by the Security Council in para. 5 of its resolution 2209. In fact, according to these decisions the FFM mandate is to “examine all available information related to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria”. The FFM has actually refused to do this. That is why it refused to visit the “Shayrat” airbase, and that is why it has been incapable of collecting all relevant and reliable information in the scene of event. All this happened because the FFM believed that it had the right to calibrate its mandate contrary to the decisions of the policy-making organs.
Another example. Under the CWC the Syrian side has the full right to request and receive part of the samples collected on its territory at the site of alleged use of chemical weapons. But the OPCW Technical Secretariat has yet to respond to the relevant request of Damascus – it only promises to do so, and not even to the full extent. This is a direct violation of the provisions of the Convention. Examples like that are numerous.
Moving on to the analysis of the Seventh report of the JIM, we are forced to acknowledge that it ended up being superficial, unprofessional and amateurish. Let’s provide a vivid example of this. One of the episodes investigated by the JIM is the incident in Umm-Hawsh where a sulfur mustard agent (HD) was used. This investigation was initiated by the Syrian and Russian parties which brought it to the attention of the OPCW. Russian military personnel visited the site of the incident and found an unexploded handcrafted munition with HD which was then handed over to the OPCW for study and analysis. Based on this analysis the JIM made a conclusion that HD indeed was used in the course of clashes between ISIL and other armed groups opposing it. The JIM decided to lay responsibility for this crime on ISIL on the sole grounds that the other groups had never been seen using HD before. Such argumentation is simply striking and gives no credit to the JIM’s level of professionalism.
As for Khan Shaykhun, the evidence for the alleged responsibility of Damascus for the incident is provided in the form of three main sections. First – the information related to the scenario that a sarin-filled aerial bomb was dropped from a Syrian Air Force plane passing by Khan Shaykhun. Second – the analysis of photo and video materials from the site of the incident, mainly those related to the crater left from the explosion. Third – the analysis of the chemical compound of sarin, traces of which were left at the site of the crime. Russian experts from the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Industry and Trade, the Russian National Authority for the CWC implementation, have reviewed each of these statements and arrived to the following conclusions.
1. The Syrian aircraft Su-22 can carry out bombing in conditions of visual observation of the target, that is, from a height of not more than 4000 meters. In this case, aiming of an unguided aircraft ammunition is done by maneuvering the aircraft to point it strictly onto the target.
2. The actual lines of the SAAF aircraft on April 4, 2017, from 6 hours 37 minutes to 6 hours 46 minutes local time, which were monitored by the airspace of the coalition forces. Paragraph 30 of the JIM report states that, after reviewing the submitted materials and examining the testimonies, the JIM concluded that the aircraft did not approach Khan Shaykhun at a distance of less than 5 km.
3. In the case of a bombing run from a horizontal flight at the speed of 800-1000 km/h at altitudes up to 4000 meters the distance between the bomb drop point and the target range from 1000 m to a maximum of 5800 meters. At the speed of 800 km/h and altitude of 3500 meters the maximum drop distance from the target is 5400 meters. However, after the drop the plane continues its movement and even after a side maneuver it would have passed over or near the target since its turning ability would have been 3-9 km. But the plane was not observed closer than 5 km from the village of Khan Shaykhun. Moreover, when a plane manoeuvres, taking lists and gaining altitude, it requires a thrust margin and, consequently, racing the engine up to afterburning. Those modes of engine’s operation entail loud sounds, making them impossible to go unnoticed. If the bombing run is performed from a dive angle of up to 60 degrees the plane still has to pass over the target when exiting the dive, which does not correspond to the flight tracks on 4 April 2017.
4. It is not mentioned anywhere in the report that a bomb fin has been found, which could evidently prove that the crater was left by an aerial bomb. It is common knowledge that even after the detonation of high-explosive or massive fragmentation aerial bombs the fin can always be found at or near the impact location.
Thus, there is no evidence that a chemical aerial bomb was dropped in Khan Shaykhun by Syrian Air Force SU-22 jet that was at least at the 5 km distance from Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017 at 6:30-7:00 a.m. The plane did not have technical capabilities to drop an aerial bomb at Khan Shaykhun. The graphics to prove this conclusion may be found in the Annex.
Hence, the judgement of guilty that the JIM so easily passed against Damascus has turned out to be inconsistent. This blunder seems to have happened because the JIM staff and its leadership favoured the aerial bomb dropping version from the very beginning. At the same time the JIM totally ignored the version that the incident in Khan Shaykhun could have been staged. The justification was simply ridiculous – allegedly the JIM had not found witnesses who could see the militants of local terrorist groups preparing and initiating the explosion on the surface. Such arguments cannot be seriously accepted, can they? It is clear that no one would conduct such a provocation in the presence of witnesses. Such things are usually done secretly.
The analysis of photo and video materials conducted independently by the Russian experts showed that the JIM had wrongfully treated so lightly the scenario of another staged event in Khan Shaykhun that entailed such tragic consequences.
In fact, the destructive impact of a blast of an ordnance set off in the ground or in the rock is characterized by the n explosion factor which represents the relation of radius r (half of the width) of the crater to the line of the least resistance h (fig.1).
A steel ordnance creates three sheafs of fragments during explosion; the front head – 20% of debris, the body sides – about 70% of debris and the bottom part – about 10%. When the ordnance is set off in static conditions, the dispersion of the fragments has the appearance comparable to that shown on fig.2.
When an ordnance is exploded on the impact trajectory, the velocity obtained by the fragments from the explosive device is combined with the velocity of the ordnance during the explosion as a result of which the side sheafs of debris will obtain certain inclination in the line of the ordnance trajectory (fig.3). The inclination of the side sheafs and, therefore, the angle of debris dispersion in that sheaf significantly depend on the speed of the ordnance at the time of explosion since the initial speed of debris is approximately constant and varies from 500 to 1000 m/sec.
The aerial bomb on impact has a great kinetic energy equal to:
Example. The kinetic energy at the impact of an aerial bomb M4000 (350 kg) at the velocity of VBC = 277 m/sec is equal to
E=(350*2772)/2*9,81 = 1 368 764,016 kgm
The energy acquired by the aerial bomb during its drop when impacting the obstacle is dispersed in the following manner: one part of its energy is spent to work on the impact and another to deform the aerial bomb.
The amount of work spent on hitting and destroying the obstacle and the body of the aerial bomb can be disregarded due to its low value and considered that all kinetic energy of the bomb is spent on deforming the obstacle and the body of the aerial bomb.
Correlation between efficiency spent on deformation of the obstacle and the efficiency spent on deformation of the air bomb’s hull mostly depend on the strength of the casing. If the casing is strong enough to sustain the load of the explosion without residual deformation, the energy spent on its deformation is close to zero and almost all the kinetic energy of the bomb would be spent on the deformation of the obstacle (target). Sufficient strength of the aerial bomb casing was achieved with the use of high-grade steels and increased of the wall thickness.
The trajectory of the air bomb travel inside the soil is distinctive and depends on many factors which can not be pre-calculated. Usually an air bomb moving inside the soil deviated from the direction of the tangent to the point of incidence. Even when the axis of the bomb’s movement was congruent to its direction inside the soil, the resistance of the soil affecting the bottom part of the bomb was a bit stronger than the resistance affecting the top of it. This resulted in a new constituent of the overall resistance force – ‘P’ at the right angle to the trajectory of the penetration of an air bomb (see fig.4).
The point of application of this force was located ahead of the center of gravity, which resulted in upwards lift of the bomb’s axis.
The practice shows that deviation of the bomb’s trajectory curvature of the trajectory of a bomb in a solid homogeneous ground is less than in soft one. An unexploded aerial bomb at the initial phase of its movement inside the ground was heading straightforward with a minor angle to the vertical plane. At the final phase an aerial bomb would make a sharp turn and come to rest in a horizontal position or with its slightly elevated front section. In very rare cases, air bombs stopped in the ground in an upright position with the head down. When running into obstacles in the ground as well as in a stratified soil an aerial bomb had frequently changed the direction of its movement.
For practical purposes the bomb penetration depth into the ground h (fig.5) which equals vertical projected path L is of great significance.
The extent of a bomb penetration depth is affected by weight, its maximum diameter, shape and hardness of the case, as well as impact velocity, angle of impact and characteristics of the damaged surroundings. The greater the weight is and the less the diameter is, all other conditions being equal, the greater the penetration is.
The kinetic energy is proportional to squared velocity. It is natural that an air bomb with a high kinetic energy will do substantial damage and penetrate deeper into the obstacle.
The amplitude of the angle between an air bomb and an obstacle ΘBC (figure 6) determines the projected path of the vertical penetration, i.e. the depth of penetration h. The greater the angle ΘBC is, the greater the h value will be. At a vertical drop of an air bomb (ΘBC = 90º) the depth of penetration will reach the greatest value.
In practice, the depth of an air bomb penetration to the obstacle is most often determined by a formula, which was established based on the experiments on the Berezan Island in 1908 and called the Engineer or Berezan formula:
A1 coefficient is equal to 1,3.
Chart.1 shows Kn coefficient variable by type of barriers.
An impact channel can serve as the evidence of an unexploded aerial bomb (UXB) in the soil. The impact channel diameter can show an approximate nominal weight of an UXB.
Chart 2 shows medium diameters of impact channels, possible nominal weight of the UXB and depth of its penetration.
In some cases an aerial bomb could be found at a greater or lesser depth, which significantly differs from that, indicated in the chart 2.
Impact channels in soil could be left not only by UXB. For instance, embedment in soil and detonation of an incendiary aerial bomb of nominal weight of 50 kg and more does not create crater due to insufficient explosive effect, but leaves in soil similar impact channels as unexploded aerial bombs.
From the above follows that:
- Form of crater caused by explosion of an ammunition in Khan Shaykhun has almost squared shape, what means that the ammunition at the moment of explosion was in the static position (spread of burn marks on the asphalt also confirms this).
- The edges of the crater are not turned outwards (there are no traces of displaced soil), which points to the munition located on the asphalt surface at the moment of its explosion.
- There are no characteristic traces of an aerial bomb’s penetration into the asphalt.
CONCLUSION: you can see in the photo the crater caused by some ammunition (an improvised explosive device) of a regular rectangular shape containing explosives with a TNT equivalence of 10-12 kg, that had been put on the asphalt surface, remained static, and then being exploded.
In this regard the JIM’s conclusion that an aerial bomb was used in Khan Shaykhun is untenable.
The JIM in its report operates also with results of chemical analysis, that were made by unnamed laboratories accredited by the OPCW. At the same time there is no specific information in the JIM’s report about expert conclusions and the results of chemical analysis.
While the presence of sarin or its precursors in the samples from Khan Shaykhun is unquestionable, a number of circumstances related to this fact is strange and need refutation.
The JIM alleges that “the sarin identified in the samples taken from Khan Shaykhun was found to have most likely been made with a precursor (DF) from the original stockpile of the Syrian Arab Republic” (paragraph 93 (h)).
According to the Russian experts this conclusion is untenable. It is based on the results of analysis of the DF samples that were taken by the OPCW from the former stockpiles of Syria. According to an unnamed laboratory, commissioned by the JIM for this analysis (paragraph 83), the DF samples contained some impurities (PF6-) including isopropyl phosphates (paragraphs 85-88). According to information of the FFM (document S/1510/2017) the same impurities were found by one of the four commissioned laboratories in the two environmental samples taken from the crater. According to the Russian experts, this is not sufficient for attribution of these markers to the category of unique (paragraph 90) and characteristic exclusively of Syrian binary technology of sarin production.
Phosphorus hexafluoride (PF6-) cannot be a self-maintained compound but exists as an acid or its salt with metals or with tertiary amines. The report doesn't contain data in what form it was discovered, with what method it was identified and its percentage in samples. In paragraphs 85-87, it is mentioned that phosphorus hexafluoride (PF6-) can be produced using hydrogen fluoride and cannot be produced using another widely used fluorinating agent which is not mentioned in the report. It is well known that phosphorus hexafluoride is produced by fluorination of phosphorus chloroanhydrides also using fluorides of alkali metals and compounds of hydrogen fluoride with tertiary amines to obtain DF. The use of these technologies doesn't require a high degree of competence and sophisticated production technology.
The presence of other markers (isopropyl phosphorofluoridates and isopropyl phosphates), whose quantity is not indicated either, was linked with the presence of phosphorus oxychloride in the samples of Syrian DF. Phosphorus oxychloride may be present as a by-product in the production of sarin obtained by other methods.
Based on the foregoing, attribution of phosphorus hexafluoride, isopropyl phosphorofluoridates and isopropyl phosphates to a category of unique markers characteristic exclusively of Syrian binary technology of producing sarin is baseless.
There is a statement in paragraph 84 that “the results of the analysis of the environmental samples collected in Khan Shaykhun confirm that sarin was produced by the binary route” with reference to the materials of the FFM. In such materials this information was absent.
Apart from that, a real possibility exists that the DF (methylphosphonic acid difluoroanhydride) and sarin were deliberately synthesized using the allegedly Syrian formulas which are well-known both to the OPCW and beyond that international structure to be utilised as a means of a provocation designed to compromise the Syrian government.
As for the JIM’s conclusion about the presence of sarin in the crater ten days after the incident that was linked to the use of the said toxic agent through the drop of the chemical aerial bomb, in the view of the Russian experts it is inconsistent. Such conclusions do not rule out the possibility of other scenarios, for instance release of given amount of sarin by means of explosion of a container with sarin on the ground. One is perplexed by the fact that despite the discussion on the kind of explosive that resulted in the release of sarin (para 61) during the investigation, no chemical analysis of the samples taken from the crater and handed over to the FFM with a view to determining the presence of residual explosive and its identification has been carried out.
Please also take note of the videos and pictures showing people without protective gear for breathing organs and skin made in the first hours after the examined incident. This fact points at the absence of sarin in the crater because at the explosion of chemical munition up to 30% of the toxic agent would contaminate the ground at the impact point and generate a deadly concentration around the crater, whereas miosis is caused by the concentration of only 0,0005 mg/l.
Taken into account the aforementioned, the JIM’s conclusion about the Syrian authorities’ involvement in the production and use of sarin in Khan Shaykhun is unsubstantiated.
Eventually, the report failed to present conclusive evidence either regarding the means of delivery, type of munition or the means of dispersion of sarin given the fact that the emphasis was made exactly on the corroboration of the use of binary sarin by a standard ordnance.
In such a case, the end product, sarin, forms directly in the body of an ordnance for which the latter needs to contain a special device to mix the components (a motor equipped mixer). No indications of its presence or witness accounts thereof were given (a standard mechanism of a Syrian chemical aerial bomb includes a mixing device, a motor with a mixer which would necessarily have to be present at the incident site).
The second related issue is the establishment of the origin of sarin that was dispersed in Khan Shaykhun. This is the focus of 10 paragraphs of the report (paras 81-91).
By doing so, the JIM report makes the first attempt to carry out the so-called attributive analysis.
After the Syrian side had handed over the information on the methods of synthesis of the “Syrian” sarin to the OPCW and the latter had retained the samples selected from the Syrian stockpiles before they were destroyed on the US specialized ship “Cape Ray”, a wide spectrum of opportunities emerged to carry out laboratory tests with an aim to determine all specific admixtures, the so-called markers of the chemicals, with regard to the stockpiles of Syria.
That's exactly how the JIM proceeded by ordering a special laboratory research for purposes of the investigation of the sarin incident in Khan Shaykhun. This research, which had been conducted in a highly professional manner, discovered the admixture that remains after the synthesis of Syrian binary sarin from DF (methylphosphonic acid difluoroanhydride).
Unfortunately, the report does not provide information regarding the admixture presence at each stage. However, there are reasons to believe that this micro-admixture is phosphorus hexafluoride (PF6-) which was detected by high sensitive equipment and became a certain marker and a link to connect the initial and final products (DF and binary sarin of the Syrian origin) – something that made it possible to correlate the chemical substance used in Khan Shaykhun and the DF stocks declared by Syria.
However, the investigation did not include the establishment of the probability of the presence of this micro-admixture in the DF under any other process where the DF is used as a basic component for the production of sarin. Perhaps, this micro-admixture was indeed present but had been never paid attention to. Another question is whether this marker maintains or is present in the process of obtaining sarin by traditional means or it is common only for the Syrian stocks of DF.
Unfortunately, these questions will most likely go unanswered because other countries that used to have DF stocks as a component to make binary sarin, had destroyed it already and did not keep samples that couldn’t be used to conduct such a research.
A probable makeshift production of sarin used in Khan Shaykhun was not considered at all in the report. It is not clear from the report either what samples were taken as a basis for the conclusions. Did the JIM receive the results of the samples analysis by the FFM and the Syrian Arab Republic, as well as by France, the United Kingdom, the United States and Turkey?
The Russian experts studied the results of the samples analysis made in particular by France and concluded that one cannot exclude the possibility that sarin used in Khan Shaykhun had been produced in an artisanal way. The French side analyzed 4 environmental samples and 2 biomedical samples (blood plasma). The analysis of environmental samples has established in three cases the presence of a chemical substance (sodium hexafluorophosphate) which can indicate an artisanal (non industrial) production of sarin.
To sum up, the conclusions and arguments of the JIM do not hold up against any criticism. It should also be added that the JIM, as the report testifies, has done literally nothing to implement the counter-terrorism tasks, outlined in its mandate when extended by UNSCR 2319 in November, 2016. It seems that the JIM just did not find time to engage in the fight against chemical terrorism: all efforts were spent to confirm the alleged scenario of a Syrian sarin aerial bomb.
Nevertheless, we would also like to note one positive point in the report. For the first time the JIM was brave enough to recognize that the photos and videos taken by the notorious “White Helmets” at the site of the incident and designed to provoke a wave of international outrage against Damascus, were cooked up in a most primitive way. The rescue workers from this organization presumably known to be humanitarian but in fact closely connected to terrorists from Al Nusrah Front, just overacted by making evident the staged nature of their actions to seemingly assist the victims and decontaminate the incident site.
At the same time, the report completely ignores an extremely important circumstance. We would like to recall, that during one of the UN Security Council meetings last April the US Permanent Representative had demonstrated the heartbreaking photos of Syrian children allegedly killed by sarin poisoning. According to the US media reports, those photos played a key role in Washington’s decision to launch a missile strike on “Shayrat” air base. However, the photos clearly show the dilated pupils of children, while they should be contracted to a point size under sarin exposure. We urged both the FFM and the JIM to explain this contradiction, but no answer was given.
We would like to draw attention to another point in the report. It indicates that in 57 out of 247 cases the injured had arrived in medical institutions to seek assistance even before the incident actually occurred. And this fact is duly recorded. The JIM preferred to dismiss this blatant fact, explaining it by the chaos prevailing in Khan Shaykhun and its outskirts on the day when the chemical incident took place. Mistakes related to the registration of injured could occur in one, two or even a few cases, but not in each of the four cases. This has happened in 57 cases out of 247. It seems that the scale of these inconsistencies is indicative of the orchestrated character of these events, when a poor preparation of the provocation resulted in numerous failures. According to medical documents, some of the injured had oddly managed to seek help in a hospital located 125 km from Khan Shaykhun even before the incident. Comments seem to be superfluous.
One last point. As follows from the report, the above-mentioned “White Helmets” had signaled the possible use of chemical weapons even before the Syrian planes took off from the “Shayrat” air base. It is pertinent to ask where this surprising awareness comes from. It gives something to think about.
In conclusion, we would like to emphasize that the Russian experts are trying to operate with concrete facts and arguments, while their opponents usually avoid a substantive discussion and respond with slogans blaming Russia for allegedly undermining the authority and reputation of the JIM and the FFM. The answer is simple. Indeed, Russia is concerned about the reputation of these mechanisms, trying to help them to overcome the systemic failures and shortcomings in their work, that prevent us from assessing the results of their work with respect and trust. These mechanisms are involved in a highly important and serious endeavor, and, therefore, must be on par with the tasks assigned to them. Their conclusions must be flawless. However, this has not been the case so far.