FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

U.N. Probe Chief Doubtful on Syria Sarin Exposure Claims

by

The head of the U.N. team that investigated the Aug. 21, 2013 Sarin attack in the Damascus suburbs, Ake Sellstrom, is doubtful about the number of victims of the attack reported immediately after the event.

Sellstrom has suggested that many people who claimed to have been seriously affected by Sarin merely imagined that they had suffered significant exposure to the chemical.

Despite the paucity of the most fundamental indicator of exposure to Sarin, 31 of the 36 were found to have a trace of Sarin in their blood samples.

Underlying Sellstrom’s doubts are data on symptoms from a sample of people who said they were severely affected by the Sarin attack. The data, published in the September report, appear to belie the claims of Sarin intoxication by those in the sample, according to experts who have analysed them.

Sellstrom expressed his doubts in an interview with Gwyn Winfield, the editor of the CBRNe World Magazine, that was published in the February issue.

“If you take the figures from Tokyo, you can compare how many died versus those that were intoxicated,” said Sellstrom. But in the case of Syrian attack, he said, “[W]hile we could conclude that it was big, we couldn’t do the same for how many died or were affected.”

He expressed doubt that many of the alleged survivors of the attack had been exposed to Sarin. “You can get many symptoms from other items in a war,” Sellstrom said, “[P]hosphorous smoke, tear gas, many of those devices on the battlefield will affect the lungs, eyes and give you respiratory problems.”

Then Sellstrom added, “Also in any theater of war, people will claim they are intoxicated. We saw it in Palestine, Afghanistan and everywhere else.”

Now a project manager at the European CBRNE Centre in Umea, Sellstrom did not respond to e-mail requests from IPS for comment on this article by deadline.

However, his remarks to CBRNe were evidently influenced strongly by the team’s experience in gathering data on several dozen alleged victims who claimed to have been among the most heavily exposed to Sarin on Aug. 21.

Sellstrom explained to Winfield that the investigating team had sought the help of the opposition in the area where the attack took place to identify as many as 80 survivors of the Sarin attack.

“We thought that if they can gather 80 people who were affected but still surviving, that it [would be] clearly indicative that a major event had taken place,” he said.

Sellstrom revealed in the interview that the team had chosen 40 people from the original 80 identified as survivors by the opposition. Those 36 people described themselves as having had very serious exposure to Sarin.

Thirty of the 36 reported rocket strikes either on or near their homes. The remaining six said they had gone to a point of impact to help those suffering from the attack.

The U.N. report provided detailed statistics on the symptoms reported by the 36 individuals and concluded the data were “consistent with organophosphate intoxication”. But chemical weapons specialists have identified serious contradictions in the data that appear to indicate the contrary.

Twenty-eight of the 36 victims – nearly four-fifths of the sample – said they had experienced loss of consciousness, according to the Sep. 16 U.N. report. The second most frequent symptom was difficulty breathing, which was reported by 22 of the 36, followed by blurred vision, which was suffered by 15 of them. But only five of the 36 reported miosis, or constricted pupils.

That fact is an indication that the exposure to Sarin was actually minimal or nonexistent for 31 of the 36, or 86 percent of the sample. Miosis is the most basic and reliable indicator of nerve gas poisoning, according to chemical weapons literature and specialists who analysed the report.

As little as four mg of Sarin per cubic metre for just two minutes would have triggered that physiological response, according to an Apr. 17 email from UK-based American chemical weapons specialist Dan Kaszeta in April. A 2002 article in the journal Critical Care Medicine put the minimum exposure necessary to cause miosis at one mg of Sarin per cubic metre for three minutes.

Yet miosis was the least prevalent symptom among those people claiming to have been very seriously exposed to Sarin in Syria.

Dr. Abbas Faroutan, an Iranian physician who treated Iranian victims of Iraqi nerve gas attacks, noted that the data were “not logical”.

Seven of the 36 people identified as victims told investigators they had lost a combined total of 39 members of their immediate families who were killed in buildings they said were either points of impact of the rockets or only 20 metres (64 feet) away. However, only one of the seven exhibited the constriction of pupils and only one reported nausea and vomiting.

Despite the paucity of the most fundamental indicator of exposure to Sarin, 31 of the 36 were found to have a trace of Sarin in their blood samples.

That seeming contradiction is explained by the fact that even exposure to an amount of Sarin too small to cause any symptoms would be detected in the blood using an extremely sensitive method called fluoride reactivation, according to Kaszeta.

The U.N. team found that six of the people who claimed serious exposure to Sarin had no trace of Sarin in their blood at all, indicating that they had in fact experienced no exposure to Sarin at all.

Kaszeta said he had concluded that the people interviewed and evaluated by the UN “didn’t have serious exposure” to nerve gas.

The indication that the overwhelming majority in the sample had very little or no exposure to Sarin was particularly significant, because those in the sample had been chosen by local opposition authorities as being among the most serious affected survivors. The data suggest that the Syrian opposition and its external supporters had vastly exaggerated the scope and severity of the attack.

In an apparent reference to the questionable data on symptoms collected on the 36 alleged survivors, Sellstrom told Winfield the investigators “need to be better at differential diagnostics on the intoxication, better medical markers.”

Selstrom also expressed doubt about the numbers of victims said to have been treated at local hospitals. The U.N. investigators visited two of the three hospitals in the Damascus suburbs that had treated victims of the attack and had provided figures for the numbers of victims they had treated.

“[T]he figures they provided of people who passed through them was just not possible,” said Sellstrom. “It is impossible that they could have turned over the amount of people they claim they did.”

Sellstrom did not refer to the total number of victims claimed by hospital administrators, but Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) issued a statement Aug. 24 that three hospitals near the area of the attack had reported to MSF that they “received approximately 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours on the morning of Wednesday, August 21, 2013”. MSF said 355 had died.

Sellstrom repeated his doubts about the total number of victims of Sarin intoxication and the numbers of patients said to have been treated in hospitals in a Mar. 11 interview with the website “Syria in Crisis” affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The head of the Syria investigation had also investigated the use of chemical weapons by Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war for the U.N. He had been Chief Inspector for UNSCOM, the U.N. Commission on Iraq’s compliance with the ban on weapons of mass destruction, and head of its successor, UNMOVIC.

He has apparently questioned the larger narrative of Syrian government culpability for the attack as well. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal after the release of the December U.N. investigation report, Sellstrom said he believes both sides in the Syrian conflict had the “opportunity” and the “capability” to “carry out chemical weapons attacks.”

Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. His new book Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, will be published this month.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

More articles by:
June 28, 2016
Jonathan Cook
The Neoliberal Prison: Brexit Hysteria and the Liberal Mind
Paul Street
Bernie, Bakken, and Electoral Delusion: Letting Rich Guys Ruin Iowa and the World
Anthony DiMaggio
Fatally Flawed: the Bi-Partisan Travesty of American Health Care Reform
Mike King
The “Free State of Jones” in Trump’s America: Freedom Beyond White Imagination
Antonis Vradis
Stop Shedding Tears for the EU Monster: Brexit, the View From the Peloponnese
Omar Kassem
The End of the Atlantic Project: Slamming the Brakes on the Neoliberal Order
Binoy Kampmark
Brexit and the Neoliberal Revolt Against Jeremy Corbyn
Ruth Hopkins
Save Bear Butte: Mecca of the Lakota
Celestino Gusmao
Time to End Impunity for Suharto’s Crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste
Thomas Knapp
SCOTUS: Amply Serving Law Enforcement’s Interests versus Society’s
Manuel E. Yepe
Capitalism is the Opposite of Democracy
Winslow Myers
Up Against the Wall
Chris Ernesto
Bernie’s “Political Revolution” = Vote for Clinton and the Neocons
Stephanie Van Hook
The Time for Silence is Over
Ajamu Nangwaya
Toronto’s Bathhouse Raids: Racialized, Queer Solidarity and Police Violence
June 27, 2016
Robin Hahnel
Brexit: Establishment Freak Out
James Bradley
Omar’s Motive
Gregory Wilpert – Michael Hudson
How Western Military Interventions Shaped the Brexit Vote
Leonard Peltier
41 Years Since Jumping Bull (But 500 Years of Trauma)
Rev. William Alberts
Orlando: the Latest Victim of Radicalizing American Imperialism
Patrick Cockburn
Brexiteers Have Much in Common With Arab Spring Protesters
Franklin Lamb
How 100 Syrians, 200 Russians and 11 Dogs Out-Witted ISIS and Saved Palmyra
John Grant
Omar Mateen: The Answers are All Around Us
Dean Baker
In the Wake of Brexit Will the EU Finally Turn Away From Austerity?
Ralph Nader
The IRS and the Self-Minimization of Congressman Jason Chaffetz
Johan Galtung
Goodbye UK, Goodbye Great Britain: What Next?
Martha Pskowski
Detained in Dilley: Deportation and Asylum in Texas
Binoy Kampmark
Headaches of Empire: Brexit’s Effect on the United States
Dave Lindorff
Honest Election System Needed to Defeat Ruling Elite
Louisa Willcox
Delisting Grizzly Bears to Save the Endangered Species Act?
Jason Holland
The Tragedy of Nothing
Jeffrey St. Clair
Revolution Reconsidered: a Fragment (Guest Starring Bernard Sanders in the Role of Robespierre)
Weekend Edition
June 24, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
A Blow for Peace and Democracy: Why the British Said No to Europe
Pepe Escobar
Goodbye to All That: Why the UK Left the EU
Michael Hudson
Revolts of the Debtors: From Socrates to Ibn Khaldun
Andrew Levine
Summer Spectaculars: Prelude to a Tea Party?
Kshama Sawant
Beyond Bernie: Still Not With Her
Mike Whitney
¡Basta Ya, Brussels! British Voters Reject EU Corporate Slavestate
Tariq Ali
Panic in the House: Brexit as Revolt Against the Political Establishment
Paul Street
Miranda, Obama, and Hamilton: an Orwellian Ménage à Trois for the Neoliberal Age
Ellen Brown
The War on Weed is Winding Down, But Will Monsanto Emerge the Winner?
Gary Leupp
Why God Created the Two-Party System
Conn Hallinan
Brexit Vote: a Very British Affair (But Spain May Rock the Continent)
Ruth Fowler
England, My England
Jeffrey St. Clair
Lines Written on the Occasion of Bernie Sanders’ Announcement of His Intention to Vote for Hillary Clinton
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail