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How to Decode a Syrian Chemical Weapons Claim

An unofficial club of weapons experts looks for clues.
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Still from a video that Syrian rebel forces claim is government soldiers firing rockets filled with chemical payloads. (PHOTO: YOUTUBE)

Still from a video that Syrian rebel forces claim is government soldiers firing rockets filled with chemical payloads. (PHOTO: YOUTUBE)

For the past few years a loose group of munitions experts, comprised of security scholars, a few journalists, and some informed people who read their websites, has been engaged in the dirty detective work of tracking the weapons circulating through post-Arab Spring conflicts. Among the key members of the conversation is an Australian analyst named N.R. Jenzen-Jones, who runs a blog on the subject called The Rogue Adventurer.

This week, Jenzen-Jones posted his thoughts on a video that Syrian rebel forces claim is government soldiers firing rockets filled with chemical payloads, rather than explosives. The forensic approach to the intensely sensitive issue—rather than a geopolitical or legal reading—is useful because it helps us understand what it really means to "use chemical weapons." For example, on several occasions, the government of Bashar al Assad has claimed rebel forces used the gas, if in fact any was used, to provoke the U.S. and others to provide aid. Jenzen-Jones' technical look at the actual weapons in question, and what it really takes to deliver such an attack, could go a long way to understanding whether those claims could be even remotely true.

Jenzen-Jones looked at the following nine-minute video of what appears to be missiles being loaded and launched. The video has been viewed about 67,000 times on YouTube:

Here's Jenzen-Jones' reading:

The video, which was announced on the ‘Darya Revolution’ Facebook page, claims to show the launch of a rocket with a CW payload from Mezzeh Military Airport, on the Western edge of Damascus, towards Eastern Ghouta. The rocket in the video is a strong match for the type of munitions documented in Daraya, Khaladiya, Yabroud, Adra, Eastern Ghouta, and Zamalka. ...

The video shows several men around the launch site wearing red berets, which is apparently typical of the uniform worn by the Syrian Republican Guard. This is consistent with reports from Israeli sources that rockets containing chemical agents were fired by the 155th Brigade, 4th Armoured Division, which is closely aligned with the Republican Guard. Both units are commanded by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad. The 155th Brigade’s base is believed to be close to Mezzeh airport.

That's scary, but still very, very far from conclusive, and Jenzen-Jones later acknowledges so. The key forensic detail for Jenzen-Jones' version of the story is the length of the rockets in the video. He believes them to be a variant of an Iranian rocket, built to a length typically used for carrying a chemical or liquid payload, not an explosive:

The launcher seen in the video appears to be an Iranian Falaq-2 model, or copy. These are seen in one, two, three, and four-tube configurations, and have been seen fitted to both military and civilian type trucks and semi-trailers. These may have been acquired from Iran, or may be a copy of the Iranian design. Falaq-2 type launchers are known to be in use with government forces in Syria already, having been reported towards the end of last year. Typically, the Falaq-2 launcher is used in conjunction with a 333mm FL2-A rocket of 1820mm in length, carrying a high explosive (HE) warhead – considerably shorter than the unidentified munition in question, which appears to be at the very least 2800mm (and possibly upwards of 3000mm) in length.

Another possibility is these longer rockets are carrying fuel or other explosive liquids (called "FAE" and "HE"). Those, while terrible, terrible things, are still basically bombs, not chemical weapons or "CW." One of the rockets in the video does appear to be such a fuel-based explosive, not a chemical payload:

It is possible that these munitions are not CW delivery devices at all, and are designed to carry a fuel-air explosive (FAE) or HE payload. FAE rockets of similar construction can be seen in the US Surface-Launched Unit, Fuel-Air Explosive (SLUFAE) and Israeli CARPET rockets. It is also a possibility that the munitions were produced in several variants, including a CW variant, or that certain rockets were converted to carry a CW payload at some point after manufacture. FAE or HE weapons could, with varying degrees of difficulty, be converted to deliver a liquid CW payload by replacing the payload of the munition with a chemical agent. A yellow band, seen on one of the munitions (image below), may indicate a different fill type. The warhead in question appears to contain a powdered substance which is more likely to be a HE fill.

Why do we care about the details of the rockets, if the issue is the possible use of the gas inside? It's true that the Rogue Adventurer finds its audience principally in military and arms control circles. But the kind of analysis Jenzen-Jones has undertaken here does give us at least some window into the kinds of technical questions the U.N. teams in Syria and the security advisors in Washington and other capitals are asking this week.