Post #166: Chemical Warfare in Syria: The Question of Responsibility (Part 2)


The Arguments of Supporters of Syria’s Claims

Some readers may be inclined to believe the Syrian and Russian claims regarding the April 4 chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, perhaps because of arguments presented by two longtime critics of US foreign policy: former MIT professor Theodore Postol and Scott Ritter, who gained international attention when he challenged the George W. Bush administration’s false allegations on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. I must point out that Postol’s views have been roundly debunked by experts who have spent their careers dealing with chemical weapons. (See the footnote in Part 1 of this post concerning these experts.)

Postol, who is not a chemical weapons (CW) expert, argues that the attack could only have come from a ground-based weapon and that the source of the sarin “was either tampered with or staged” ( He had previously exonerated the Assad regime of responsibility for the 2013 attacks on Ghouta ( But CW experts consider that he is entirely mistaken and has failed to pay attention to all the available evidence. The major mistake is the postulation of an IED (improvised explosive device) placed on top of a rocket filled with sarin and detonated lying on the ground. His explanation that the source is a 122mm tube that was crushed implies it was the container for sarin.  It could also be the spent body of a 122mm rocket warhead completely ruptured by a burster.

A second problem is Postol’s discussion of multiple plumes. Experts point out that the munition was an air-launched 122 mm CW rocket, for which a Russian dispenser system exists and is in use with Syrian SU-22 aircraft. That of course undercuts Postol’s entire construction. Since he chose not to suggest a ground-launched rocket, positing the detonation of a munition lying on the ground is the only way that he can suggest the possibility of a source other than the Syrian government being responsible. Then he concocts the superimposed explosive lying on top of the munition on the ground. Postol claims that it is necessary to make that postulation because of the particular damage of the rocket lying in a shallow crater in the middle of a roadway in Khan Sheikhoun. But a photograph I have seen of the same size rocket fired in the normal matter after detonation in another combat zone shows the same kind of deformation. (See photos below from Human Rights Watch.)

Scott Ritter’s commentary (“Wag the Dog,” also takes issue with the official US charge against Syria.  Despite the visual images of several high explosive bomb bursts together with a separate apparent gas plume, no one has shown a ground image of what were the targets of the HE blasts, and there is no evidence of the Syrians bombing any building containing chemicals. Ritter refers to a white phosphorus-chlorine mix allegedly produced and  used by anti-Syrian government forces. Ritter’s claim that samples of this mixture were sent to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for analysis is a fabrication. He also refers to a the capture of a facility in Aleppo that produced rockets for such a mix, but that claim has not been verified.

Ritter also misrepresents the reasons behind President Obama’s decision in 2013 not to authorize a military strike on Syria in response for Assad’s defiance of Obama’s “red line.”  Ritter claims that Obama “asked for, and received, a wide-range of military options from his national security team targeting the regime of President Assad; only the intervention of James Clapper, and the doubts that existed about the veracity of the intelligence linking the Ghouta chemical attack to the Syrian government, held Obama back from giving the green light for the bombing to begin.”  The intervention by Clapper was revealed in a lengthy interview with Jeffrey Goldberg that was published in The Atlantic ( What Goldberg states is that Clapper believed that the intelligence was “robust” but “not a ‘slam dunk.’”  That assessment is probably fair given that less was known then than now (at that point the UN investigation hadn’t been completed).  Ritter doesn’t mention the “robust” element of Clapper’s assessment.  Nor does he mention that Clapper’s assessment of the intelligence was only one part of Obama’s decision which, as Goldberg states, included the unpopularity in Congress of a retaliatory strike, the vote against military action in Britain’s parliament, and lack of support from other US allies, the presence of a UN team in Syria, doubt that air strikes would materially change the situation in Syria, and Obama’s reluctance to extend his executive authority. For Ritter to present Clapper’s view as the only factor is dishonest.

Background Documents

 The following discussion and documentary links were provided by Milton Leitenberg.


The materials listed below do not include multiple reports by the OPCW and the UN Secretary-General that were concerned with the destruction of all the Syrian chemical weapon agents, weapons, and infrastructure that the Syrian government had declared.  The OPCW officially stated in 2016 that the Syrian declaration was incomplete. It should also be noted that because of Russia’s demand in the UN Security Council, the remit of the UNSG-OPCW investigation into the August 2013 Ghouta attack restricted the investigating team from identifying the party that it considered responsible for the sarin attack. Nevertheless, it is universally understood that by the time the investigative team had completed its investigation it was certain that the Syrian government was the responsible party for the use of sarin in Ghouta.


United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, 2013: Final UN Secretary General report.pdf

Human Rights Watch, “Attacks on Ghouta,” Sept. 2013: Syria_cw0913_web_0.pdf

Igor Sutyagin. Assessing Chemical Weapons Use in Syria. London: Royal United Services Institute, 2013.

UN materials from the Joint Investigative Mechanism and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.  This joint mission was established by unanimous vote of the UN Security Council in August 2015.

The OPCW final assessment of July 2016:

The UN JIM-OPCW report of August 2016 (Security Council doc. S/2016/738), based on investigations of allegations of chemical warfare use in 2014 and 2015. (The report found that the Syrian government in three instances out of nine investigated was solely responsible for carrying out chemical warfare [chlorine and mustard gas]. One instance was attributed to ISIS; evidence was insufficient regarding the remaining two.)


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