Murky Clues from UN’s Syria Report

Exclusive: The focus of the Syrian crisis has shifted to diplomatic moves for eliminating the government’s chemical weapons stockpile, but the whodunit over the Aug. 21 gas attack outside Damascus remains to be solved after a UN report offered a murky account of what happened, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

A United Nations field report about the Aug. 21 chemical weapons assault in Syria suggests a more limited area of attack than an earlier U.S. government report claimed and reveals that some inspected sites showed signs of possible manipulation of evidence.

Though the mainstream U.S. news media and some non-governmental organizations highlighted the UN findings that tended to bolster the U.S. government’s case against the Syrian government, a close reading of the 38-page report reveals contradictions to that conclusion.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

For instance, the UN inspectors found surprisingly little evidence of Sarin gas at the first neighborhood that they visited on Aug. 26, Moadamiyah, south of Damascus. Of the 13 environmental samples collected that day, none tested positive for chemical weapons and the two laboratories used by the inspectors had conflicting results regarding chemical residue that can be left behind by degraded Sarin.

By contrast, tests for Sarin were more clearly positive from samples taken two and three days later on Aug. 28-29 in the eastern suburban area of Zamalka/Ein Tarma. There, Lab One found Sarin in 11 of 17 samples and Lab Two found Sarin in all 17 samples.

Though the UN report concludes that Sarin was present in Moadamiyah despite the failure to identify actual chemical-warfare agents the report does not explain why the Aug. 26 samples in Moadamiyah would test so negatively when the Aug. 28-29 samples in Zamalka/Ein Tarma would test much more positively.

One would have thought that the earlier samples would test more strongly than later samples after two or three more days of exposure to sun and other elements. An obvious explanation would be that the release of Sarin was concentrated in the eastern suburb and that the spotty residue detected in the south came from other factors, such as false positives for secondary chemicals especially from Lab Two.

If the Aug. 21 attack centered on Zamalka/Ein Tarma as the UN results suggest, that could indicate a much less expansive use of chemical weapons than a U.S. government white paper claimed. The alleged breadth of the attack served as a primary argument for blaming the Syrian government given its greater military capabilities than the rebels.

That point was driven home by President Barack Obama in his nationally televised address on Sept. 10 when he asserted that 11 neighborhoods had come under chemical bombardment on Aug. 21. [See’s “Obama Still Withholds Syria Evidence.”]

However, even the U.S. “Government Assessment” on the attack, issued on Aug. 30, suggested that the initial reports of about a dozen targets around Damascus may have been exaggerated. A footnote contained in a White House-released map of the supposed locations of the attack read:

“Reports of chemical attacks originating from some locations may reflect the movement of patients exposed in one neighborhood to field hospitals and medical facilities in the surrounding area. They may also reflect confusion and panic triggered by the ongoing artillery and rocket barrage, and reports of chemical use in other neighborhoods.”

In other words, victims from one location could have rushed to clinics in other neighborhoods, creating the impression of a more widespread attack than actually occurred. That possibility would seem to be underscored by the divergent findings of the UN inspectors when they took soil and other environmental samples from the southern and eastern areas and got strikingly different results.

Reliant on Rebels

The UN inspectors also revealed how dependent they were on Syrian rebels for access to the areas of the alleged chemical attacks and to witnesses, with one rebel commander even asked to take “custody” of the UN inspection.

“An elaborate information exchange took place between UNOJSR [the UN team] and key representatives of the opposition. The information gathered through these exchanges would be used to formulate an action plan for the upcoming visit, which became very critical to the success of the mission,” the UN report said.

“A leader of the local opposition forces who was deemed prominent in the area to be visited by the Mission, was identified and requested to take ‘custody’ of the Mission. The point of contact within the opposition was used to ensure the security and movement of the Mission, to facilitate the access to the most critical cases/witnesses to be interviewed and sampled by the Mission and to control patients and crowd in order for the Mission to focus on its main activities.”

While at the suspected attack sites, the inspectors also detected signs that evidence had apparently been “moved” and “possibly manipulated.” Regarding the Moadamiyah area, the UN reported noted, “Fragments [of rockets] and other possible evidence have clearly been handled/moved prior to the arrival of the investigative team.”

In the Zamalka/Ein Tarma neighborhood, where a crudely made missile apparently delivered the poison gas, the inspectors stated that “the locations have been well traveled by other individuals prior to the arrival of the Mission. During the time spent at these locations, individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated.”

The UN inspectors did not draw any conclusion from their research as to whether Syrian government forces or the rebels were responsible for the hundreds of civilian deaths that resulted from the apparent use of Sarin gas. However, major U.S. news outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, concluded that the findings implicated the Syrian government.

Those accounts cited weapons “experts” as asserting that the type of missiles used and the supposed sophistication of the Sarin were beyond the known capabilities of the rebels. The articles also said the rough calculations by the UN inspectors of the likely missile trajectories suggested that the launches occurred in government-controlled areas with the missiles landing in areas where the rebels dominate.

These mainstream U.S. news reports did not cite the cautionary comments contained in the UN report about possible tampering with evidence, nor did they take into account the conflicting lab results in Moadamiyah compared with Zamalka/Ein Tarma. [For more on rebel capabilities, see’s “Do Syrian Rebels Have Sarin?“]

Conventional Wisdom

Though the U.S. conventional wisdom seems to be solidifying around Syrian government guilt, there still remain troubling questions.

One is why would the Syrian regime having invited UN inspectors in on Aug. 18 to inspect suspected chemical attack sites elsewhere in Syria, cases that the government blamed on the rebels then launch a major chemical-weapons attack around Damascus, knowing that such an assault would divert the UN’s attention and invite U.S. military intervention, something sought by the rebels, not the government.

Granted, during bitter warfare, military units can undertake outrageous actions without consideration of the consequences. Think, for example, of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison or U.S. soldiers desecrating Korans in Afghanistan. But the Syrian government would seem to have had a lot to lose and little to gain by ordering a widespread chemical-weapons attack just as UN inspectors were arriving.

The refusal of the U.S. government to release any verifiable evidence to establish the Syrian regime’s guilt is another curious element of this mystery. If the U.S. evidence supposedly including intercepts of Syrian government communications was conclusive enough to justify military strikes, why couldn’t at least some of it be shared with the American people?

Why did President Obama leave out one of the key pieces of supposed proof from the Aug. 30 “Government Assessment” when he gave his Sept. 10 speech, the claim that a “senior” Syrian official had been overheard admitting guilt? Instead, Obama simply stated, with unaccustomed vagueness, that Syrian officials had “reviewed results of the attack,” phrasing that suggests neither innocence nor guilt?

In past cases like this, the decision to drop high-profile allegations from later presentations has been an indication that they are no longer trusted. For instance, in a 2003 speech to the UN Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell refused to repeat President George W. Bush’s assertion about Iraq trying to obtain uranium from Africa because U.S. intelligence had repudiated the claim, though that retreat was not spelled out to the American people.

And, where does the U.S. intelligence community stand on these allegations? It’s curious that the Aug. 30 white paper was issued by the White House press office as a “Government Assessment,” when such a report would normally come from the Director of National Intelligence and be labeled an assessment of the U.S. intelligence agencies. A traditional assessment would also include footnotes indicating where there were differences of opinion about the data.

I was told by one intelligence source on Monday night that there continues to be skepticism among intelligence analysts about the White House claims and conclusions being drawn from the UN report. So, as U.S. pundits and pols cite the UN report as confirming Syrian government guilt, the remaining skeptics might still want to press the Obama administration to release the evidence that it claims to possess if it really wants to solve the mystery.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

21 comments for “Murky Clues from UN’s Syria Report

  1. Fadi Gholam
    September 22, 2013 at 21:51

    Since Obama announced that the Chemical was used in 11 areas, and reports came out from syria, that the victemswere being moved from one cityto other clinicsin other cities, it is a proof by itself that some one trying to frame the Syrian Government and make people believe what Obama said was right, and that would have gave him the supportto strike Syria, orif he did without approval he wouldno t look too bad. To me OBAMA looks like he is beinguse d by the Elite to take over the last country standing against Israel,and or make Obama lose his credability and not go down in history as a Peace maker who stoodup for the Eliteand the war machine, and who fixed the economies of the world.

  2. sasa wawa
    September 20, 2013 at 20:48

    I analyzed the UN and US reports and reported these flaws and many more here:

    Corrections and other feedback will be greatly appreciated (please comment at the blog).


  3. Geoffrey Young
    September 20, 2013 at 08:44

    Here’s the letter I emailed to the NYT yesterday (9/19/13). I wonder if they’ll publish it, because it undermines their (and Human Rights Watch’s) pet theory about 2 intersecting trajectories:

    To the Editor of the New York Times:

    A September 17 news article by C.J. Chivers stated, “Details buried in the United Nations report on the Syrian chemical weapons attack point directly at elite military formations loyal to President Bashar al-Assad…”

    However, the UN report contains little evidence that a chemical weapons attack occurred at all in the neighborhood of Muadamiya, southwest of Damascus. No sarin was found in any of the environmental samples taken from Muadamiya.

    Only four detailed interviews were conducted with symptomatic people in Muadamiya (24 in Ain Tarma). Only one person in Muadamiya underwent a detailed interview about what occurred there on August 21. Several sarin-exposed people could have been transported to Muadamiya before the UN team began taking biomedical samples.

    If there was only one flight path, the attack on Ain Tarma could have originated in disputed territory near the Old City. The rebels could have done it.

  4. Paul Mueth
    September 19, 2013 at 23:24

    FAE fuel air explosives could explain deaths without Sarin, sometimes
    called asphyxiation bombs ( consume all O2 in a district)
    called mini nuke if deployed expertly like US did in
    Shock and Awe. Massive concussion makes it useful in clearing minefields,
    Setting off bombs on the ground. . . Not expert myself
    But curious why this isn’t discussed.
    Here’s description of one of US’s favorite FAE

    CBU-72 Fuel Air Explosive

    This cluster bomb is different from all the others. It’s an extremely destructive incendiary bomb, rather than a shrapnel bomb, sometimes compared to a mini-nuke.

    It’s used to detonate minefields, to destroy aircraft parked in the open – and also to burn the occupants alive in armored vehicles, and to burn alive or suffocate people taking shelter in bunkers or over demolished city areas where people may be hiding in basements and rubble.

    The bomb is made up of three separate bomblets dispensing an aerosol fuel cloud across the target area. As the fuel cloud descends to the ground it is ignited by an embedded detonator to produce what the U.S. military calls “an impressive explosion,” which sucks out all the oxygen over an extended area.

    The rapidly expanding wave front due to overpressure flattens all objects and burns all people alive within close proximity of the epicenter of the aerosol fuel cloud. It also produces “debilitating damage” well beyond the flattened area from oxygen deprivation.

    Fuel air bombs also can be used as asphyxiation weapons, without being exploded, but this is in violation of international treaties.

  5. Option A
    September 19, 2013 at 01:25

    I can’t believe that the key simple facts are missed by UN Inspectors.
    The 330mm rocket or 360-370mm varients described as found in the report at sites 1 & 4 (Ein Tarma) if launched from the in service Syrian equipment have a MINIMUM range of 25kms, if they land (fall) prior to this, they don’t function. Ein Tarma is 7 kms from Point of (proposed) origin on Mt Qasioun (4 Div HQ) and Al Mowadameyah is 10kms. This fact means that the rockets had to fired from improvised platforms (ie: the ground) and could not be accurately targeted. This is a deliberate TTP of rebels (read insugents) used in Iraq and Afghanistan for years. The whole attack was a come on by the rebels to get the US to take out the Gov’t. Cunning, but stupid.

    • F. G. Sanford
      September 19, 2013 at 12:47

      I hope I’m not the only one reading this comment. My opinion: too many survivors for a genuine tactical gas attack.

  6. Gary Sellars
    September 18, 2013 at 22:30

    Looking over the UN report, its clear that while the rocket recovered at Zamalka (carrying 50+ litres of sarin) was clearly a CW munition, it was not an industrially manufactured weapon but an improvised product of backyard industry, ie the sort of weapon that the SAA does not use but that the rebels would be able to produce.

    Conversely, while the Moadamiyah rocket booster is clearly a Russian-made artillery rocket, the rocket was clearly old (shows signs of rust) and the CW canister was not found and other then at the immediate impact site, the area tested negative for sarin (unlike Zamalka where the evidence was overwhelming). This is consistent with rebels capturing artillery rockets from a SAA stockpile and modifying to carry an improvised CW warhead.

    Despite the predictable war agitprop from the US/UK/France and Arab League warmongers, I would judge that the UN report supports Syrian/Russian version of events, ie a false-flag attack by the rebels timed to cooincide with a upsurge in fighting to make it look as though the attack originated from the Syrian government forces.

  7. ben Noweizer
    September 18, 2013 at 15:19

    Incredible, a criminal regime with 40 years of bloody records added to 14 know times use of gazes, 211 scud missiles used against their own civilians, thousands of TNT barrels randomly thrown from helicopters over cities, 7.6 million displaced and 2.8 refugees in 3 countries, people buried alive for refusing to say that GOD real name is Assad!! 8 month of peaceful demonstration confronted with deadly responses, then we read from Parry and the rest such non sense analyses and responses! you guys must be leaving on the moon.

    • Bandolero
      September 18, 2013 at 16:29

      @ben Noweizer
      Your narrative doesn’t stand the scruitiny of facts.

      “Incredible, a criminal regime with 40 years of bloody records…”

      Following your narrative, I probably should assume that the Lavon affair was a Syrian false flag as well as the USS Liberty attack and the killing of Ahmed Bouchiki was the work of Syrian intelligence people as well as they killed Imad Mughniyah, general Muhammad Suleiman, scores of Iranian scientists, Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh and so on and on – is it that what you want to believe me?

      “14 know times use of gazes”
      If you have evidence to back up this claim, please show it. Regretably, the UN inspectors were not able to investigate the well documented incident in Khan Al-Assal and two other incidents because they were distracted by a suspicious event on August 21st.

      “211 scud missiles used against their own civilians”
      When I looked at claims of SCUD missiles most of these events looked more like they were caused by blown-up rebel IED workshops.

      “thousands of TNT barrels randomly thrown from helicopters over cities”

      As I have looked into these claims I did neither find thousands nor did I find TNT barrels used randomly. What I saw, was that heavily armed terrorists were attacked with TNT barrels as a less violent alternative to 250 kg bombs.

      “7.6 million displaced and 2.8 refugees in 3 countries”

      I tend to think that the refugees and displaced are the result of a US backed attempt of regime change in Syria to weaken the Iran-led “axis of resistance.”

      “people buried alive for refusing to say that GOD real name is Assad!”

      I saw this video, too, and saw terrorists in sandals posing as Syrian soldiers brutally murdering innocent people just to blame the crime on the government.

      “8 month of peaceful demonstration confronted with deadly responses”

      This is a bold lie. There were plenty of demonstrations that weren’t peaceful. Some allegedly “peaceful demonstrators” killed on the very first day of protests in March 2011 already half a dozen of Syrian police men. A month later jihadis started to commit deadly raids on security forces leaving many dozens of security forces dead. And in April 2011 journalists saw armed Al-Qaeda-type jihadis crossing the border from Lebanon into Syria, the same type of jihadi snipers who fired later on peaceful demonstrators to blame it on the giovernment and make peaceful demonstrations a bit more spicy. In April 2013 the “rebels” celebrated their two-year-anniversary of a successful raid on a bus near Tartous leaving a dozen Syrian soldiers dead.

      If you’re interested in the other side of the story, just switch your TV to some other channels – Russian, Syrian or Iran for example.

      • ben Noweizer
        September 23, 2013 at 14:24

        Thank you Mr. Bondelero !! your very last paragraph says it all.

        Turn to the criminal Media centers, wow! its evident that you’re hiding behind a false name. For your distorted and falsified info you provided bear in mind that I am A Syrian Christian that had to pay 12,000$ to be able to get my family officially out of Damascus airport run by the al-Assad forces as usual.

        Not you nor your beloved media is going to show me or teach me how my motherland was run the past 40 years. The levon affair and the rest are irrelevant to this case as they are not related to the Syrian – Assad case.

        U got a problem with Isreal & the USA fine get after them, keep your pens and ideas off Syria as you are not better than the Zionist.
        And sure Assad is one of their closest allies as being proven the past two years.

        • Bandolero
          September 23, 2013 at 21:42

          ben Noweizer
          “Turn to the criminal Media centers, wow!”

          When you just label media centers that doesn’t support your opinion as “criminal” it doesn’t say anything about these media, but a lot about your own extremist world view.

          And, of course, when those allegedly “criminal” media center just happen to be those, which weren’t peddling false propaganda claims to start a criminal and devastating war of aggression on Iraq, than it saya just more so.

  8. Jim Hannan
    September 18, 2013 at 13:54

    Good article. I too wonder why there has been absolutely no evidence offered to the American people about the attack. Why haven’t they released transcripts/voice logs of the supposed intercepted communications. From reports, there were interceptions by both the Israelis and the Germans. Are they the same conversations or different ones? Who actually gave the order? We are told that Unit 450 in Syria is in control of the chemical weapons, all members of the Allawite sect. Did the intercepted communications come from someone in this unit?
    We were told that there were satellite images of the attacks. Why haven’t the satellite images been shared with the American people. We almost launched a military strike on another country. Surely we deserve to see the evidence.
    The most amazing thing to me is the fatality count. Per the French, it was around 300 deaths. Yet the American intelligence assessment states it was 1429. We have learned that this exact number comes from American intelligence agents watching youtube videos and counting up the number of supposed dead bodies shown in the videos. My sense is that the American team thought that if we used the lower number, we wouldn’t be able to gin up enough outrage.

  9. Bandolero
    September 18, 2013 at 10:15

    In this article the results of the analysis of the environmental samples are presented as graphics with the strikingly different results marked in red:

    No CW agent was found in environment samples from Moadamiyah

    It may help to make quick readers understand this crucial point of contradiction in the UN report.

  10. Lisa Johnson
    September 18, 2013 at 08:00

    This is just proof that in order to start to get to the truth you need to backtrack and go back to the original source (in this case the UN Report), read it thoroughly, and then compare the original to the interpretations of it. Many times key caveats are left out and that alters what was originally said and the context in which it is said. Thank you, Mr. Parry.

  11. Gary Sellars
    September 18, 2013 at 05:29

    I’m astounded, nay shocked! The US corporate main-stream media has opted to ignore facts that contradict the US case for war? Sounds like a reply of Panama, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq (again), Georgia and Libya….

  12. Jon Shafer
    September 18, 2013 at 02:40

    Portion of letters sent to Wash Post, NY Times, USA Today…

    While Washington struggles to excuse its lack of conclusive proof of the Assad Regime’s use of chemical weapons, Consortium News has reported, “an Italian journalist and a Belgian teacher who were just freed after months of captivity at the hands of Syrian rebels reported that they overheard the rebels claiming responsibility for the Aug. 21 chemical attack.” And this is just one of several reports contrary to our pathetic government’s hurling of propaganda in every direction to twist the truth around.

    But even putting all of Washington’s sinister deceptions aside, let’s get back to chemical weapons themselves. That Assad may have them, fair enough. Then let the UN inspectors who, by the way, the Assad government requested — not the U.S. — do their job.

    So fine, let’s rid Syria of chemical weapons. And, while we’re at it, let us rid the rebels we help arm of chemical weapons, which the U.S. through the CIA is reported to be now providing them. After all, we helped Saddam gas and murder Iranians and Kurds in 1988. We dumped phosphorus on Iraq in 2004. And dumped depleted uranium all over Iraq in 2003 that caused an epidemic of death and birth defects since. We unleashed agent orange in Vietnam, leaving in its wake destruction and health casualties there, and our own U.S. troops exposed to it. And let’s not forget Israel used white phosphorus on Palestine, 2008-09.

    Now, what about our own chemical and biological weapons? Inasmuch as the White House, the Pentagon and others are so damned concerned about the threat of chemical or other weapons, then why not start right here — in America? Let’s shut down and destroy the Army Biological Warfare laboratories at Ft. Detrick, Md. And any others like it. After all, the Army tested chemicals on poor black neighborhoods in St. Louis in the 1950’s. I have an old separate report that Ft. Detrick scientists were the ones who artificially developed the AIDs virus and “tested”, once again, in Africa and poor black neighborhoods and gay communities in America in the 1960’s.

    It seems our liars in government are more interested in “saving face” by falsely placing blame, than salvaging anything resembling the truth and restoring the democratic principles they have violated in their oaths to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution of the United States.

  13. incontinent reader
    September 17, 2013 at 19:50

    Great article Bob. Thanks for keeping such close watch on this, and with such detail. You have been giving a clinic to the mainstream media like the The NY Times which has been shamelessly biased in its reporting of the Syrian crisis. Their most recent article on the UN report only further eroded their credibility.

  14. F. G. Sanford
    September 17, 2013 at 17:25

    Faced with repudiation by Congress, the only viable strategy by which to preserve the kinetic option was to postpone the vote. Diplomatic alternatives are merely a part of the strategic continuum, not the end game. Weapons inspections will doubtless serve several purposes. Only a fool would believe that intelligence gathering isn’t one of them. All this serves to keep the proverbial “foot in the door”. Nobody folds with a full house. Once the weapons stockpiles have been located, the only real deterrent becomes lack of a good excuse. Lurking somewhere in the details is the devil that might provide one. Why should anyone assume the game is over? Horrifying the jury with inflammatory references to the crime scene is an old prosecutor’s trick. Guilty or not, the strategy serves to vilify the accused. Some sources are already canvassing the Syrian refugee camps and reporting solid support for U.S. intervention. It takes time to build a good case. In the meantime, nobody is paying attention to financial scandals, mortgage foreclosures, unemployment or domestic discontent. Pretty soon, we’ll have our own refugee camps…but don’t count on the media to ask them about foreign policy. I’m pretty sure we know where they’d stand on foreign intervention.

  15. Henry Norr
    September 17, 2013 at 14:52

    Thanks for continuing to pay close attention to the supposed evidence offered by the US government and now the UN. It strikes me, though, that you – like not only the mainstream media, but also other progressive skeptics – are still operating within a simple binary framework: either the Syrian government or the rebels fired the chemical weapons. This framework completely ignores a third alternative: that the weapons were fired by someone who was part of the Syrian army but was, knowingly or not, acting at the behest of someone else, someone who wanted to provoke international intervention – perhaps some element among the rebels, perhaps the Saudi Prince Bandar, perhaps the Mossad, who knows. Such a scenario would explain the evidence, such as it is, that the Aug. 21 attack came from the government side, even though it was manifestly not in the Assad regime’s interest.

    • school
      September 18, 2013 at 19:30

      Borat, you are comparing circumstantial evidence that Assad used chemical weapons with something known, that Israel uses chemical weapons against Palestinians? What except for bias could cause you to make this comment?

  16. Morton Kurzweil
    September 17, 2013 at 14:36

    The younger brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Maher al-Assad has been named by Fox and CBS as the enforcer working independently of Bashar, with or without his knowledge. There is no source for conformation.
    The admission that Syria has stockpiles of poison gas and the change in attitude by Putin are more significant than the diplomatic game of confirmation. There would be a replay of Iraq neocon dementia without such cooperation between the U.S. and Russia . The U.N. is impotent without their agreement and the acquiescence of China.

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