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Syria’s Chemical War Continued Even as the West Threatened Retaliation

When it became clear that Syrian troops had killed large numbers of civilians with nerve gas on Aug. 21, their commanders screamed at them to call off the attack, according to U.S. intelligence intercepts. Yet the chemical warfare continued in Syria for several days after the attack that nearly dragged the United States into a ...

AFP / Getty Images
AFP / Getty Images

When it became clear that Syrian troops had killed large numbers of civilians with nerve gas on Aug. 21, their commanders screamed at them to call off the attack, according to U.S. intelligence intercepts. Yet the chemical warfare continued in Syria for several days after the attack that nearly dragged the United States into a war there.

That’s one of many surprising findings from a U.N. investigation into chemical weapons in Syria, which concludes that chemical weapons have been used at least five times in the country’s ongoing conflict — and at least twice since the Aug. 21 nerve gas strike in the Damascus suburbs that Washington claimed killed as many at 1,400 people.

But what’s particularly confusing is that it was Bashar al-Assad’s supporters, and not his opponents, who claimed publicly that chemical weapons were used in the towns of Jobar on Aug. 24 and Ashrafiah Sahnaya on Aug. 25.

The timing of the attacks is also odd. On the same day that Syrian soldiers may have been exposed to poisonous gas in Jobar, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s office issued a release saying that he and President Barack Obama were "both gravely concerned by the attack that took place in Damascus on Wednesday and the increasing signs that this was a significant chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian regime against its own people…. [S]ignificant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response from the international community."

In other words, as the war drums for a Western strike on Syria began to beat, there were probably two more chemical attacks in the country. But who launched them?

The Assad regime’s claims of additional chemical attacks by rebel forces were brushed off in the aftermath of a slaughter that produced dozens of videos of dead children, stacked like cordwood. Now it appears Syria’s assertions may have been true, though evidence of chemical weapons use by opposition forces remains far from proven. And the report concedes that the U.N. investigators were not able to establish a clear chain of custody linking any possible perpetrators to the crimes.

The report asserts that "the United Nations mission collected evidence consistent with the probable use of chemical weapons in Jobar on 24 August 2013 on a relatively small scale against soldiers." The team also claims to have collected evidence that "chemical weapons were used in Ashrafiah Sahnaya on 25 August 2013 on a small scale against soldiers." In Jobar, blood samples recovered by the Syrian government, and "authenticated" by the United Nations, tested positive for signatures of sarin.

The report, however, acknowledges that its investigation was inconclusive, citing its inability in Jobar to secure "primary information on the delivery system(s) and environmental samples collected and analyzed under the chain of custody." The U.N., it noted, "could not establish the link between victims, the alleged event and the alleged site." The report also asserted that the crime scene in Jobar was compromised "by visits of representatives of the Syrian Government who had reportedly moved the remnants of two explosive devices alleged to be the munitions used in the incident." The U.N. mission later examined those explosive fragments at a government storage site.

The long-anticipated U.N. investigation — which was authored by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom — provided no new conclusive evidence about who was responsible for the attacks. (An earlier report, however, provided strong circumstantial evidence that the Assad regime launched the Aug. 21 strike.) This new, 82-page report states simply: "The United Nations mission concludes that chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic."

Yet the report could add fuel to a debate over Syria’s chemical weapons that was already burning hot. Last weekend, the controversial investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote an article strongly suggesting that it was the rebels, not the Syrian government, who launched the Aug. 21 attacks. The report was roundly criticized for mischaracterizing the munitions used in the strike.

The U.N. teams’ findings are unlikely to alter the course of international efforts to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. While Damascus has refused to admit it used chemical weapons, it has acknowledged that it possesses an unconventional arsenal, including nerve gas. Under a pact brokered by the United States and Russia, Syria is undertaking the destruction of that program under international supervision.

Still, the report helps flesh out the details about the introduction of chemical weapons into the Syrian battlefield. The report examines seven out of 16 alleged incidents of chemical weapons use, saying there was insufficient evidence in eight of the cases to justify further investigation.

The U.N. report also examines a March 19 incident in the town of Khan Al Asal. The Syrian government claimed that rebels used nerve agent in an attack against Army troops; but Britain and France countered that the Syrian troops were exposed in a friendly fire incident involving a government rocket attack. Today’s report is unlikely to settle the matter. It states that the U.N. mission "collected credible information that corroborates the allegations that chemical weapons were used in Khan Al Asal on 19 March 2013 against soldiers and civilians. However, the release of chemical weapons at the alleged site could not be independently verified in the absence of primary information about delivery systems and of environmental and biomedical samples collected and analyzed under the chain of custody."

At the time of the incident, Khan Al Asal was under the control of Syrian forces, but was engaged in ongoing shelling with opposition forces in areas surrounding the village. At about 7 a.m., a munition landed "near a living quarter approximately 300 meters from a military checkpoint," sending nearly 150 people, including Syrian troops, to six nearby hospitals for treatment. "The munition released gas on its impact. The air stood still and witnesses described a yellowish-green mist in the air and a pungent and strong sulfur-like smell."

Sellstrom’s effort to reach definite conclusions about any of the incidents was hampered by ongoing fighting, which limited his team’s access to sites where chemical weapons were used, and conflicting testimony.

In Khan Al Asal, Sellstrom said that his team, which did not visit the site, "received contradictory information as to how chemical weapons agents were delivered." Sellstrom said his team was also unable to corroborate the findings of a Russian investigation, which concluded that sarin had been detected in soil samples and metal fragments.

The report also found that chemical weapons had been used on April 29 in the towns of Saraqeb, near Idlib.

After receiving the report, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon thanked Sellstrom and his team for "their important and courageous work. They have carried out their tasks with the highest degree of professionalism, and did so in the face of many dangers."

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Noah Shachtman is Foreign Policy's executive editor of news, directing the magazine's coverage of breaking events in international security, intelligence, and global affairs. A Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, he's reported from Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq, and Russia. He's written about technology and defense for the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Slate, Salon, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, among others.

Previously, Shachtman was a contributing editor at Wired magazine, where he co-founded and edited its national security blog, Danger Room. The site took home the Online Journalism Award for best beat reporting in 2007, and a 2012 National Magazine Award for reporting in digital media.

Shachtman has spoken before audiences at West Point, the Army Command and General Staff College, the Aspen Security Forum, the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, Harvard Law School, and National Defense University. The offices of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, and the Director of National Intelligence have all asked him to contribute to discussions on cyber security and emerging threats. The Associated Press, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, PBS, ABC News, and NPR have looked to him to provide insight on military developments.

In 2003, Shachtman founded, which quickly emerged as one of the web's leading resources on military hardware. The site was later sold to During his tenure at Wired, he patrolled with Marines in the heart of Afghanistan's opium country, embedded with a Baghdad bomb squad, pored over the biggest investigation in FBI history, exposed technical glitches in the U.S. drone program, snuck into the Los Alamos nuclear lab, profiled Silicon Valley gurus and Russian cybersecurity savants, and underwent experiments by Pentagon-funded scientists at Stanford.

Before turning to journalism, Shachtman worked as a professional bass player, book editor, and campaign staffer on Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. A graduate of Georgetown University and a former student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Shachtman lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Elizabeth, and their sons, Leo and Giovanni. Twitter: @NoahShachtman