Sy Hersh’s Chemical Misfire

What the legendary reporter gets wrong about Syria's sarin attacks.

Photo: JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, published an article over the weekend that calls into question who really launched the chemical weapons attack that brought the United States to the brink of war in Syria. In particular, Hersh focuses on the munitions used in the Aug. 21 sarin strike, widely blamed on Bashar al-Assad’s regime. He raises doubts about whether the Syrian government would have used the munitions, which he claims were likely improvised and manufactured at a local machine shop; he asks whether they had the range to reach their targets from a distant military base; and he wonders aloud whether it could have been al Qaeda-affiliated rebels who carried out the attack.

But Hersh is apparently unaware that there’s a growing body of evidence that answers these questions. Much of that evidence comes from the Syrian military itself — and it very strongly suggests that it was Assad’s cronies, not the rebels, who carried out the Aug. 21 attack.

Since the attack, myself and others have been studying the vast amount of open-source information posted online on sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, which has provided many more pieces of evidence about what happened in the Damascus suburbs that day. This information not only answers many of the questions Hersh’s article raises, but has also provided a much greater understanding of other events in the Syrian conflict.

Origin of the munitions

Two munitions were linked to the Aug. 21 sarin attack: a Soviet M14 140 mm artillery rocket with a sarin warhead and a previously unknown munition that appeared at multiple locations. Since the sarin attack, eight separate examples of the previously unknown type of munition have been filmed and photographed in the Jobar, Zamalka, and Ein Tarma suburbs of Damascus, an example of which is shown below.

Other evidence gathered since the attack has provided a greater understanding of this munition, and the attack. From this evidence it has been possible to establish the following:

  • The munitions are used by Syrian government forces and are known as “Volcanoes.”
  • The term “Volcano” is also used for a smaller improvised rocket used by pro-government forces.
  • The type of Volcano used in the Aug. 21 attack comes in three known types: A chemical and explosive type are both launched from a two-barrel launcher, while a large explosive type is launched from a single-barrel launcher.

The explosive type has been used since November 2012, while the first known instance of the chemical type being used was June 2013.

The Aug. 21 sarin attack was not the first time these munitions appeared at the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack. Three Volcanoes were recorded at the scene in Adra, Damascus, on Aug. 5, and video evidence showed the munition, along with animals dying from the effect of the Volcanoes’ payload.

Any time the origin of any type of the Volcano munitions has been described in these videos, they have always been claimed by both sides to have originated from Syrian government forces. That raises the question of what system was used to launch these munitions, and recently the Syrian government forces themselves have provided the best possible evidence to show this.

The following videos demonstrate the two platforms used to launch Volcano rockets. The first video was posted on the official YouTube channel of the Syrian government’s National Defense Force, a pro-regime militia, and the second shows a launcher flying the National Defense Force flag.


Although these are recent videos, there is evidence of the two-barrel launcher being used in the government-controlled Mezzeh air base back in December 2012, with eight videos showing launches of the Volcanoes or the launchers themselves. The below video clearly shows one of the launchers inside Mezzeh air base being covered for storage.

What this tells us is the Syrian government has been using the explosive type of Volcano rocket in Damascus for at least a year, and there’s evidence that the chemical type was used before the Aug. 21 sarin attack. There is no evidence of Syrian rebel forces ever using this type of munition — and only Syrian government forces have ever been shown using them.

Range and point of origin of the attack

Theodore Postol, a professor of technology and national security at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Hersh that the Volcano is “something you could produce in a modestly capable machine shop” — in other words, a weapon the rebels could make. Postol also stated that various organizations’ flight path analysis of the Aug. 21 Volcanoes, which put the point of origin of the munitions at a Syrian military base more than nine kilometers away from the impact locations, were “totally nuts.” Postol’s analysis, Hersh wrote, had “demonstrated that the range of the improvised rockets was ‘unlikely’ to be more than two kilometres.”

All of this is presented as an argument that perhaps the Syrian government wasn’t responsible for the Aug. 21 sarin attack, despite the claims of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration. But during my ongoing discussions with Postol’s colleague, Richard M. Lloyd, Lloyd has told me he believes the evidence collected so far would suggest the Volcano has a range of at least 2 to 2.5 kilometers. It’s worth noting that some examples of the larger Volcano rocket have been recorded with a basic nose cone, which increase the range of the munition by more than one kilometer.

This range means that the munition certainly could have originated from regime-held territory. In June 2013, Syrian government forces began “Operation Qaboun,” in which they began to establish control of a region between the suburbs of Qaboun and Jobar. This map, produced by Storyful, uses light-blue markers to show the impact locations of chemical munitions on Aug. 21 that were reported by local co-ordination committees; the geo-located positions of two chemical munitions are shown as red flame symbols. All of these locations are within 2.5 kilometers of the area where Operation Qaboun was taking place, meaning that it could have been a feasible staging place for the strike. Thus, the area where Operation Qaboun was taking place could have been a possible launching point for the Aug. 21 sarin attack, despite the short range of the Volcano rockets.

We have some understanding of the level of control of that area by government forces thanks to the Russian-language ANNA News, which has had a number of reporters embedded with Syrian government forces and has produced 22 videos from June to Aug. 20 covering Operation Qaboun. Much of the area was under government control, even though it was in firing range of opposition forces, but videos from the operation rarely show government forces coming under anything more dangerous than occasional sniper fire. Even when government forces
are in one location for a long time, there are no apparent attempts by opposition forces to target the area with heavy weapons.

This means that the Syrian military spent three months before Aug. 21 capturing territory for the purpose of then using it to launch attacks to capture the areas that were attacked with chemical weapons on Aug. 21. This would suggest that rather than being a random attack, the Aug. 21 attacks were part of an ongoing military operation in the area.

Furthermore, we know not only that the Syrian government had the type of munitions used in the Aug. 21 attack, but that these munitions were in a position where they could have launched the sarin strike. The footage below shows what appears to be a Volcano rocket launch on Aug. 24.

These launchers appear to have originated from an area described as the Syrian military’s special forces headquarters. Assuming the Volcanoes have a two-kilometer range, that means they could reach as far as Jobar, one of the sites of the Aug. 21 sarin attack. In fact, videos from Jobar on the same day claim to show damage and impact from surface-to-surface rockets, including this video showing what’s claimed to be the impact of two surface-to-surface rockets.

Sarin production

Hersh also discusses the possibility that the sarin was produced by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda-affiliated group that’s fighting Assad.

I asked chemical weapons specialist Dan Kaszeta for his opinion on that. He compared the possibility of Jabhat al-Nusra using chemical weapons to another terrorist attack involving sarin: the 1996 gassing of the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult.

“The 1994 to 1996 Japanese experience tells us that even a very large and sophisticated effort comprising many millions of dollars, a dedicated large facility, and a lot of skilled labor results only in liters of sarin, not tons,” Kaszeta said. “Even if the Aug. 21 attack is limited to the eight Volcano rockets that we seem to be talking about, we’re looking at an industrial effort two orders of magnitude larger than the Aum Shinrikyo effort. This is a nontrivial and very costly undertaking, and I highly doubt whether any of the possible nonstate actors involved here have the factory to have produced it. Where is this factory? Where is the waste stream? Where are the dozens of skilled people — not just one al Qaeda member — needed to produce this amount of material?”

He went on to add: “We have to apply a simple logic test here. Who is more likely to have done the deed? The regime, which has confessed to CW [chemical weapon] production facilities and has declared a stockpile of precursors that match the Aug. 21 chemistry very well?… Or persons unknown, with their alleged mystery factory, with no actual location, no trace of either supply chain or waste stream, no known employees, and far better things to do with the required amount of money?”

While Hersh rightly expresses concern about the way in which the U.S. government’s narrative of the Aug. 21 was built, significant information can be gathered from open sources about this conflict — information that he appears to be lacking. In the future, open-source information may become even more important for understanding hard-to-access conflict zones, and learning how to use it effectively should become a key skill for any investigative journalist.

Eliot Higgins writes for the Brown Moses Blog, which covers the military hardware and tactics used in the Arab revolts. Follow him on Twitter: @Brown_Moses.