Even four months after the event, and three after its publication, Human Rights Watch’s ‘Death by Chemicals’ report remains one of the better documented cases made by parties who blame the Assad government for causing a major loss of life in Khan Sheikhoun. However, despite a series of very grand claims and an apparently rigorous methodology a closer reading of the report shows their evidence to be dubiously sourced, very limited, self-contradictory and far from impartial. In short, it is a dodgy dossier and should not be taken seriously.
Unlike it seems many of the people who have cited it, I have taken the time to read HRW’s recent ‘Death By Chemicals’ report in full (hereafter DbC). In this piece I’ll walk you through the pages dedicated to the alleged April 4th Khan Sheikhoun attack to show you the ‘quality’ of evidence that they (and our credulous media) seem to find persuasive.
As we shall see, a sceptical reader would not have had to have any prior knowledge of the situation in Syria to reject HRW’s case as completely unproven.
For a short explanation of why I decided to do this, and for a summary of the flaws in the report, see my earlier post here:
A quick note for those who wonder why we should be sceptical.
I’m sure that some of you who have been following the situation in Syria will be wondering why it should surprise anyone that HRW have produced heavily biased material, but for those who may be surprised to hear that HRW may not be entirely honest brokers, please read these articles on the, furiously spinning, revolving door that operates between them and the US government:
And regarding a bit of ‘previous’ in Syria:
You can view or download the HRW report here:
HRW’s Khan Sheikhoun Hypotheses.
Throughout their report, HRW make it abundantly clear what they think happened in Khan Sheikhoun on the morning of April 4th. That a Syria aircraft flew over the town twice, dropped a chemical bomb on its first pass and three or for conventional bombs on a second pass less than ten minutes later. The nerve agent allegedly released by the bomb in the first attack was likely sarin and caused a large number of casualties, including over a eighty fatalities.
The walkthrough will be split into five sections, following the order in which HRW ‘discuss’ them while presenting us with their version of events:
· Nature of the Attack — that it was an air-dropped chemical-bomb released by a Syrian jet.
· Medical Symptoms — that they were consistent with a nerve agent — most likely sarin.
· Specific Munitions — that it was a chemical bomb and a Russian one too.
· Casualties and Death Toll — that there were lots of them.
· Alternative Accounts — that there are only two and that neither is supported by the evidence.
Below I will walk you through HRW’s Khan Sheikhoun ( KS) evidence, quoting it in full. This will make this report rather long I’m afraid, but as you will see, almost every paragraph in the report raises questions about HRW’s interpretation of events in one way or another.
The walkthrough starts on page 22 of the report, where they first introduce evidence from their witnesses regarding the ‘first attack’ involving the an air-dropped chemical bomb.
Air Dropped Bomb (p22–25).
HRW set out their stall by implying that they have accounts from several witnesses confirming their version of events:
“Local residents told Human Rights Watch that they heard or saw a warplane fly over Khan Sheikhoun early in the morning on April 4. Several witnesses said that the warplane flew over the town twice, dropping a chemical bomb the first time and explosive bombs the second time.” (p.22).
As we progress through the report we will find HRW making similar claims about numerous, several, or many witnesses supporting such-and-such a piece of evidence, let’s see how they support this first assertion:
“Ahmad al-Helou, who was tending the fields that morning, told Human Rights Watch that he looked up when he saw a shadow on the ground and saw a plane fly towards Khan Sheikhoun from the east. Al-Helou said that because of his high vantage point he saw the plane drop a bomb and the bomb falling until it hit the ground. The bomb fell in front of the bakery, he said. Al-Helou said that he did not hear an explosion, but that he saw the bomb kick up yellowish smoke that spread in the prevailing wind.”
As we will see, al-Helou is HRW’s ONLY eye-witness who reported seeing a bomb being dropped from a plane so it’s worth taking a little time to consider his testimony carefully.
The attack took place soon after sunrise so the shadow of the speeding warplane would have been very far in advance of the plane and likely hardly visible at all. His testimony suggests he was looking down, but was still able to see the shadow and look up to see the plane arriving from the east — this, and later evidence placing the ‘bomb’ site to the west of the bakery — places al-Helou to the west of the town and therefore looking directly into the sunrise. HRW may have probed him regarding how confident he could be of what he thinks he witnessed,, but, apparently satisfied, they continue:
“Other witnesses gave similar accounts. Ismail Raslan, a Syria Civil Defense member who lived about 100 meters from the bakery, told Human Rights Watch that he heard a warplane fly over some time after 6:30 a.m. He told Human Rights Watch: “I heard the wind and the roar from a bomb falling, but there was no explosion, just a thump. I thought that it either fell far away or failed to explode. I looked out from the balcony and was surprised to see white dust in the air.”
So the first of HRW’s other witnesses did not actually see a plane drop the bomb and in fact did not report seeing a plane at all, which makes calling it a ‘similar account’ something of a stretch. This witness, the first of HRW’s White Helmets, is also a little confused — how could he be close enough to hear the wind and the roar of the bomb, but also consider it a possibility that the bomb had fallen far away? We also now have white dust, rather than yellow smoke. HRW may or may not have probed him or al-Helou on this slight discrepancy, but in their report they simply move on to their next witness.
“Adham al-Hussein, a local journalist, told Human Rights Watch that he woke up when sentries and the Syria Civil Defense reported over the radio network that a warplane was heading north from the Shayrat airbase in Homs. At 6:37 a.m., he said, he heard the warplane fly over Khan Sheikhoun. He went to the roof of his building where he saw the plane fly away towards the north. Over the radio, one of the sentries said that the warplane had not attacked because there was no explosion, but al-Hussein could see white smoke over the northern neighbourhood. From his roof, al-Hussein filmed the smoke, which he showed to Human Rights Watch.”.
So now we have another witness this time a ‘local journalist’ — and one on the same radio network as the sentries and the White Helmets. Again he did not see the bomb fall, but he states that the plane flew away towards the north — rather than the west as would be expected from al-Helou’s testimony. It’s unfortunate for us that this journalist did not have the foresight to start videoing events prior to the arrival of the plane — the warning about which he claims to have heard — but luckily he was able to film the smoke from this ‘first ‘attack’. Unluckily for us, and for the full investigation of the event, HRW do not present any part of this video or allow us to access it at all. This is hugely significant as from this we could see the size, shape and colour of the cloud, it’s direction of travel in the local weather conditions and make judgements about its potential area of effect. Instead, however, HRW return directly to more testimony from their second witness.
“Raslan, the Syria Civil Defense member, said that he was reporting that there had been no explosion to the civil defense center when he saw a child in the street. “He ran ten meters, then collapsed. He got up, trying to run, but collapsed again,” said Raslan, who then asked the civil defense center to send an ambulance.”
We now have specific testimony of people being affected in some way by the ‘first attack’, but we remain at a grand total of 3 witnesses of a plane dropped chemical bomb, two of whom didn’t see it drop and simply saw dust or smoke. HRW continue:
”A Syria Civil Defense member at the base confirmed that they heard no explosions during the first fly-over, but that a colleague had called for an ambulance: “We got a call from one of our colleagues living in the northern neighborhood who asked us to send ambulances because there were unconscious people on the ground. We were surprised because we had not heard any explosions.” He said that they immediately sent a team to the area.30 Mohammad Juneid, a Syria Civil Defense member who was on the team, confirmed that they were dispatched to the northern neighborhood immediately after the first fly-over.”
So now we’re down to the purely ‘circumstantial’ evidence — from two White Helmets, neither of whom were at the scene and were both an unspecified distance away. We had them responding to reports of unconscious ‘people’ following an quote from someone who allegedly called them having seen just one boy fall over. Their testimony though, is given support by al-Hussein:
“Al-Hussein also said there were radio reports of injured after the first fly-over.””
Keep this in mind as we will be hearing from him again.
That essentially concludes HRW’s evidence for the ‘first attack’ being an air-dropped chemical bomb– their ‘several witnesses’ turn out to comprise of only one eye witness to the bomb falling, who was probably looking directly into the sun and reported yellow smoke, a local journalist and a White Helmet, neither of whom saw the ‘bomb’ fall, but reported white dust or smoke, and two other White Helmets who heard the plane fly over, but didn’t hear any explosions. They have video evidence of the immediate aftermath, but share none of it with us.
However, with ‘case proven’ apparently to their satisfaction, HRW move on to describe a second attack:
“A few minutes after the first attack, and while the Syria Civil Defense team was on its way to the northern neighborhood, a plane flew over Khan Sheikhoun in the same direction, from east to west, wwitnesses said. It is not clear whether it was the same plane. This time, the plane dropped three or four high explosive bombs on the town. Al-Hussein said that the plane dropped two bombs in the northern neighborhood, both to the west of the bakery. These two bombs created loud explosions. The plane then dropped another bomb about one kilometer from the others, near the market area. He filmed plumes of smoke from the three strikes during the second fly-over, which he showed to Human Rights Watch.”
Again HRW start by talking of numerous witnesses supporting their developing narrative, but accompany this with only one example — again from the local journalist al-Hussein. Their numerous witnesses confirm the ‘same’ east-west direction flightpath, but they include only quotes from a witness who has already stated that the plane flew away to the north.
They again state that they have seen the videos taken by this witness of the effects of the bombs, but it seems that he was again unfortunately too slow to react to take footage of the plane itself. HRW do not include any images from these or any way to access them online. This potentially highly significant information is, according to HRW’s references kept safely ‘on file’ (p24). It’s also significant that HRW provide no indication of what their many specialists made of this footage — does it appear to be consistent with three or four bombs? Did they inspect any of the metadata associated with the file (to confirm that it was taken when claimed? Do the plumes look like the effects of the ‘vacuum bombs’ that they describe in the next paragraph?..
“The Syria Civil Defense member said: “The second attack was with three or four vacuum bombs, which we can tell because the explosions were so strong. We’re not sure [if it was three or four bombs] because they fell almost at the same time. They could be heard all over, and shook the city.”
As this statement is unreferenced, we have to assume that this is the same, unnamed White Helmet that HRW have quoted before regarding the calling of ambulances. Again HRW are returning to the same witnesses — which is strange given that apparently they interviewed 32 in total — not to worry though, as HRW continue with a new witness:
“Mohammad Saloum, a local journalist, filmed the immediate aftermath of the second fly-over and posted a video on YouTube showing four smoke columns rising from Khan Sheikhoun.”
At last HRW accompany this evidence with an accessible link to the material itself — this is likely because the extract was taken directly from YouTube anyway. However, whether or not the clip shows 3 or 4 plumes of smoke is, to say the very least, debateable, and again there is no indication of any expert analysis having been applied to this material It is also worth noting here that in one of the pieces that HRW link to elsewhere in the DbC report, a report by Syrians For Truth and Justice, Mohammad Saloum is described as a local ‘activist’ — a rather more loaded term than ‘journalist’ as HRW describe him.
You can watch his video here:
Given that HRW’s three witnesses to the first attack have all said that they saw a lot of white or yellow dust or smoke following the first fly-over — it is strange that Saloum makes no attempt to pan away from the effects of the explosions of the second attack to include the effects of the first, allegedly chemical, bomb. Why he did not bother to do so does not appear to have troubled HRW as they continue with some important sounding information and apparent analysis:
“Through interviews with local residents, and analysis of photographs and video footage posted on the internet and provided by local residents and satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch identified three impact sites in the northern neighborhood: in the middle of a paved road close to the central bakery “Impact Site 1”); the house of the al-Omar family (“Impact Site 2”), about 240 meters southwest; and near Mustafa al-Youssef’s house (“Impact Site 3”), another 100 meters southwest. All three sites are visible on satellite imagery from April 6.”
Yet again we have HRW talking of multiple ‘interviews’, but they provide no accompanying extracts or evidence at all this time. Their location information is all very interesting, but as they do not include a map or any link to the satellite images themselves, the implications are not clear at this stage. You will, however, note that the three impact sites are aligned in a southwesterly orientation from 1 to 3, which is not in full agreement with their previously stated east-west flight paths reported by ‘numerous’ witnesses.
“Information about aircraft movements corroborate claims that a warplane flew over Khan Sheikhoun twice. Human Rights Watch reviewed an audio recording of a sentry message, which said a warplane took off from the Shayrat airbase at 6:26 a.m.35 In addition, the US government released a map that it says plots the flight path of a Syrian warplane that took off from the Shayrat airbase and flew over Khan Sheikhoun at two different times, 6:37 and 6:46 a.m.”
So we have a Syrian plane in the vicinity that flew over the town twice, but the link HRW provide to the US information contains virtually no useful information and is certainly not precise enough to draw any useful conclusions. It looks as if the plane flew from east-to-west, but it is impossible to see whether this was over, or anywhere near, the northern neighbourhoods as claimed.
They do not provide access to the audio recording.
You can try to make sense of the US report here:
Medical Symptoms (p25–28).
With the air-dropped-bomb case proven to their apparent satisfaction, HRW move on to describing the medical symptoms and conditions displayed by the ‘victims’. Again they follow their practice of an initial claim of numerous, this time ‘many’, testimonies followed by extracts taken from only a few.
“Many local residents said that they woke up or became aware of the attacks only when they heard the loud explosions after the second fly-over. Many said they immediately felt sick. A young teacher who lived about 300 meters from the bakery told Human Rights Watch that she woke up from the sound of a loud explosion that blew the windows in her house open:
“It felt like the air had weight. It got harder to breath; tears were running down our faces, and our eyes were burning. My son, who is one year and ten months, was running around. I couldn’t see because of the tears. He was screaming “mom, dad!”37
Fatima Abdel-Latif al-Youssef, who lived about 100 meters west of bakery [sic], said:
“My cousin went to the balcony. She is 16, and she was choking. I tried to help her. We poured water on her but she passed out. My aunt passed out. At that point I also passed out, but I came to later. My uncle’s wife, who lives in the same building, knocked on the door of the apartment. She said, “let me in, help me!” I tried to drag her in, but I couldn’t carry her because I am small and she was heavy. I left her on the floor by the door to go up to the second floor, to get my uncle to come and help me…[He] went down to help her, but he never came back.
Fatima and her cousin, who lived in the same home, said that seven people in the house died during the attack due to chemical exposure, including Fatima’s uncle, Abdul Kareem al-Youssef; his wife; Fatima’s uncle, Yasser al-Youssef; his wife, Sanaa Haj Ali; two of their children Mohamed, 10, and Ammar, 7, and Fatima’s cousin Shaimaa Ibrahim al-Jawhar, 16.
We have a family living 300m away in an unspecified direction feeling sick and suffering from burning eyes and a family living 100m west of the bakery choking and collapsing, but not reporting feeling sick, with only some of the latter dying. It could be that the first family were suffering effects from the ‘standard’ explosive attack — HRW offer us no expert analysis of this possibility at the stage.
From this HRW go directly to a statement from an unnamed doctor who describes another set of symptoms entirely:
“A doctor at a hospital that received many of the injured said that the symptoms included constriction of the pupils, trembling, sweating, extreme respiratory excretions, foaming of the mouth, and pale skin color.”
HRW immediately follow this short list of symptoms with yet another statement implying the agreement of multiple testimonies, but again return to one of the witnesses they have already introduced (remember that they claim to have interviewed 32):
“First responders and people trying to evacuate victims said that many suffered the same symptoms. Raslan, the Syria Civil Defense member who lived near the bakery, said that he eventually lost cconsciousness: “My chest got tight, and I had no breath left. I wanted to stand up but couldn’t. Then I lost consciousness. I did not wake up until 11 hours later in the hospital.”
With apparently so may witnesses reporting the medical effects, it’s surprising that HRW needed to return to Raslan — especially as his testimony conspicuously does not include any of the ‘same’ symptoms as just introduced by their unnamed doctor.
It is also worth noting here that there is no indication of what steps, if any, HRW took to examine how confident Raslan could have been of any of his statements given his own admission that he was unconsious for most of the day.
HRW then introduce a witness we’ve not heard from yet, but who it appears is a relative of Fatima introduced above;
“Abdelaziz al-Youssef, who said he arrived near the bakery to help his relatives five minutes after the attacks, said:
People were trying to flee, moving into basements. But as they walked, they collapsed. And those who came to their help collapsed as well. The gas spread up to 500 or 600 meters. Casualties were not only in the place that was hit. There were martyrs over the entire neighborhood. Those who stayed asleep did not wake up. Those who were in basements suffocated and died. Those who woke up and went out were affected. I swear, those who survived can’t describe what happened. It was like judgment Day — people were collapsing everywhere.”
Which means that we have another witness without a definitive ‘hit’ with the symptoms listed by HRW’s anonymous doctor — with no mention of immediate sickness or streaming eyes either. This witness states that the gas has spread 500m after 5 minutes (roughly 15 after the original attack) — if he was going to help his relative he would have had to travel hundreds of metres through the gas to get ‘near the bakery’ or to his relative Fatima’s house which was 100m away, but miraculously he escaped uninjured while all around him were dying. Apparently unconcerned by this, HRW continue with more from one of their favourite witnesses:
“Seeing that the bombs had hit his neighborhood, al-Helou, the witness who saw the bomb land in front of the bakery, at Impact Site 1, went there to see what had happened:
People had blood and foam coming out of their mouths, and there was a strong smell. The smell was really disgusting, but I am not able to compare it to anything else. We helped one person and then another, but then we passed out as well. I don’t know what happened next. I woke up in the hospital.”
At last we have at least a partial symptom ‘hit’ with those from their unnamed doctor: we have bloody foming at the mouth, but the doctor did not specify blood in the foam. This time though, everything was accompanied by a strong, disgusting smell that so far no one else seems to have noticed (and which, as we shall see, none of the other witnesses report noticing either).. As with Raslan too, given the trauma apparently suffered and lengthy unconsciousness of Mr al-Helou, we might wonder if his judgements of what he recalls from the morning are entirely reliable — certainly the yellow smoke he reported earlier seems to have disappeared. It does not seem to have troubled HRW that al-Helou was rendered unconscious even after taking the time to returned from his high-vantage point in the fields, but Abdelaziz al-Yousef was not affected arriving just five minutes after the second attack. It does seem that the effects of the gas lingered for a while though as HRW continue:
“Members of the Syria Civil Defense team that responded to reports of injured after the first fly-over were also injured. Juneid, one of the team members, said that they started to suspect the use of chemicals when they found a man unconscious in his car on their way towards the bakery, near Impact Site 1. They decided to return to the base to get protective equipment. On the way, they saw a woman in the street: “Blood was coming from her mouth. As I tried to pull her up, I started shaking. I couldn’t see anymore, and then I lost consciousness. I woke up in the civil defense center.”
A civil defense member at the base confirmed: “One of the volunteers called me saying ‘I’m sleepy. I’m losing consciousness. I don’t know what they hit us with.’ And then we lost connection.”45
Which gives us another hit with the bloody mouth symptom, but again no mention of the others symptoms (apart from collapse). HRW have also returned to witnesses we’ve heard from already — both of whom are White Helmets — we’re not getting much closer to HRW’s claimed 32 Khan Sheikhoun interviewees.
Also these, probably at least partially trained, witnesses tell us that they first suspected a chemical attack only when they saw its victims. They make no mention of the white/yellow smoke or dust claimed by HRW’s witnesses of the alleged first attack, or of the gas that Abdelaziz al-Yousef’s testified spread 500m or more. Juneid says that they were returning to base to get protective equipment, but still they stopped on the way back, stopping long enough to themselves become victims of the gas. It is also relevant that HRW have already established that the witnesses were on a call out to tend to people rendered unconscious after a warplane attack that had — as far as they knew — not involved any explosives. If, as HRW would have us believe, pro-government forces routinely use chemical weapons, leaving the site without protective equipment in these circumstances would be rather reckless to say the least.
This heroic/bizarre/reckless/incompetent behaviour concludes HRW’s witness’ testimony as far as the medical symptoms are concerned. HRW now move on to their expert analysis.
Before we get to this however, let’s have a look at HRW’s Methodology to see how they claim to have considered the medical evidence — and who they say did the work:
From their Methodology:
“To corroborate information from witnesses, Human Rights Watch reviewed photos and videos posted online and shared directly by witnesses, in particular to see whether clinical signs and symptoms were consistent with witness statements and exposure to chemicals. Keith Ward, an independent expert on the detection and effects of chemical warfare agents, reviewed and assess information about clinical signs and symptoms witness statements, videos, and photos.” (p.20)
There are no links offered by HRW to the credentials of the ‘independent’ Keith Ward, but we can safely assume that he was the Keith B. Ward who HRW consulted for their 2013 report into the alleged sarin attacks in Ghouta which HRW also claimed were perpetrated by the Assad government. In that report they simply described him as ‘a respected expert’. According to his linkedin profile, Dr Keith Ward from 2005 to 2010 was the Chief of the R&D Section of the Chemical and Biological Division within the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate — so he is likely indeed to be an expert. However, the profile also states that his current position is as a ‘Science Advisor’ in Washington for the ‘Federal Government — a position that cannot be reconciled with HRW’s claim of his independence. .
Dr Ward’s credentials and independence however, are all rather moot as it looks like no such analysis was undertaken — here is how HRW describe their expert analysis it in full:
“Clinical signs and symptoms that witnesses described, especially constricted pupils, indicate exposure to a nerve agent.”
Seriously, that’s it — a single sentence referring to just one specific symptom that only one of their witnesses has mentioned.
There are no end of questions that could be asked here — about the contrasting symptoms, on the ability of some individuals to survive unscathed in the allegedly large gas cloud while performing complex tasks, when others were choking and foaming at the mouth? What are ‘extreme respiratory excretions’? Are the ratios of deaths to injured in line with previous (proven) chemical attacks? How do the described symptoms and videos compare to those listed the DbC Appendix? (In short, they don’t). None of these questions (or many more) appear to have concerned HRW and their experts.
At this point it is also worth noting that this one-sentence ‘corroboration ‘stands in stark, and rather strange, contrast to HRW’s report into the 2013 Ghouta massacre which they elsewhere link to in the DbC report. In the 2013 report they included a relatively lengthy description of the symptoms of the alleged victims which read as follows:
“The videos showed that several of the younger victims exhibited cyanosis, a bluish coloring on their face, especially around their eyes and mouth, which is consistent with suffocation or asphyxiation. The suffocation was likely either caused by excessive secretion of mucus and fluids in the lungs and air passages, or damage to the part of the nervous system that supports breathing, or both. A majority of adult victims in these videos also show signs of excessive secretions of fluids or mucus from the mouth and nose. Several of the patients shown in the videos were experiencing involuntary muscle spasms or convulsions. It is significant that there was no obvious indication of bodily trauma or excessive blood loss”
[From page 17 of the 2013 ‘Attacks On Ghouta’ HRW report:
You will note the distinct differences between these symptoms and those described above. In Khan Sheikhoun we have foaming blood from the mouth, in Ghouta ‘fluids and mucus’ from nose and mouth. More cynically, cyanosis is not mentioned anywhere at all in the 2017 DbC report — either as a symptom displayed by the alleged victims or in the list of symptoms of sarin exposure included in the appendix. That it is not present in the main body is of course explicable as it demonstrably is not present in any of the videos or images in the links HRW provide — that it is omitted from HRW’s 2017 list of sarin symptoms detailed in the DbC Appendix is, however, not so easily explained. How can one of the key symptoms proving sarin in 2013 not now be mentioned at all?
It may be that Dr. Keith Ward produced HRW’s 2017 list of symptoms, but as it is completely unreferenced, it is impossible to say.
[In the 2013 report, HRW saw it as ‘significant’ that there was no indication of bodily trauma in the victims — something again that does not appear to be the case in videos from the KS incident where numerous victims have evidence of traumatic injuries — particularly to their heads and necks. In many cases these injuries appear to have occurred AFTER the victims were taken to the medical facilities. See here if you can bear it:
Rather than address any of these medical questions and contradictions, HRW simply turn immediately to external ‘evidence’ of the use of sarin in the attack:
“Recep Akdag, the Turkish minister of health, said that analysis of blood and urine samples from four victims who received treatment in Turkey showed the presence of isopropyl methylphosphonic acid, a degradation product of sarin.46 Referring to victims of the Khan Sheikhoun attack, the OPCW said that four different OPCW-designated hospitals analyzed bio-medical samples from three victims during their autopsies and from seven individuals undergoing treatment, and that the results indicated exposure to “sarin or a sarin-like substance.”
This is serious indeed, but with no reference to the chain of custody of any of these samples, we cannot draw any real conclusions as to whether they were identified with the KS ‘attack’.
HRW continue with a paragraph that attempts to place the locus of all the victims in the vicinity of the site of their alleged first attack. Yet again it takes the form of an assertion suggesting many witnesses, followed by an example from just one, who is now well known to us:
“Witnesses consistently said that those affected by chemical exposure were in the northern neighborhood and that those exhibiting the strongest symptoms were located near the bakery, or Impact Site 1. This is also consistent with al-Hussein’s account. He said that he saw smoke in the northern neighborhood after the first fly-over. When he heard that people had been injured, he immediately went to help. As he was moving towards the bakery, near Impact Site 1, he helped several people along the way who were shaking, had trouble breathing, and had foam coming from their mouths. About 20 minutes after the first attack, he said, he was around 200 meters from the bakery at Impact Site 1: “It looked like it was winter, there was so much fog. The gas was one or two meters high, all over the place.”
Yet again, HRW introduce ‘evidence’ that asks more questions than it answers. Why has no one else mentioned this ‘fog’ so far? Worse than this, at least for HRW, is that Al-Hussein’s testimony here directly contradicts that which they have included earlier from him.
He was the witness who apparently videoed the effects of the ‘first attack’ (the white smoke that HRW will not let us see). He was also one of the witnesses who HRW provided to support their assertion that there were injuries reported following this first attack (he heard reports of them on the radio prior to the second attack). Finally they have told us that he was able to video the smoke plumes from the second attack (which again HRW do not deign to share with us). Now, however, he states that he went to help immediately he heard that there were injuries — i.e. prior to the second attack which we have already been told he was filming. In doing so he courageously ran into a fog that other witnesseses have failed to mention and without his camera equipment — very curious behaviour for a supposed ‘journalist’. This witness, who HRW have used to corroborate the air-dropped gas-bomb, the timing of the events and the location and extent of the casualties, simply is not credible.
The lack of any photographic or video evidence of the immediate aftermath of HRW’s alleged gas attack is perhaps the most significant reason as to why we must reject their Khan Sheikhoun accusations. To accept their case, we have to believe that at least two self-professed ‘local journalists, al-Hussein and Saloum, despite owning and using video equipment that morning (and in Saloum’s case uploading material to the internet) took no pictures whatsoever of the rescue event. We have to believe that numerous members of the White Helmets — who have had no qualms in the past of shooting and releasing all sorts of harrowing footage of rescue actions in Syria — took no pictures whatsoever of the chaos that we are told was unfolding before them. Not a single one.
[In a later post I will point to a number of other reports from ‘journalists’ and ‘activists’ who also profess to have attended the scene in the immediate aftermath of the alleged attack — to this date not a single one of them has published any pictures of the allegedly chaotic events. This includes a White Helmet who states that he was actually videoing the event when he collapsed unconsious.]
None of these quite blatant contradictions appear to have troubled HRW, or indeed any of the journalists who have cited their report, instead they move on to their description of the specific munitions allegedly deployed.
Before we get back to HRW’s report, let’s take a look at how they profess to have examined the evidence of the bomb that they say was dropped, to see whether they live up to their promises this time:
“Human Rights Watch also obtained photos and videos of remnants of the munitions used in the attacks. Specialists in weapons identification and chemical weapons inside and outside the organization analyzed the remnants. Forensic Architecture, a group specializing in spatial analysis, created a model of a crater related to the Khan Sheikhoun attack from videos and photos, allowing for exact measurement of its size “ (DbC, p.10)
And later in their section on the KS incident they state:
“Human Rights Watch has reviewed dozens of photos and videos of the crater at Impact Site 1 posted online and provided directly to Human Rights Watch by people who took them.” (DbC, p28).
HRW begin their discussion of the crater and the munitions immediately after the last quoted text of al-Hussein’s heroics in the fog:
“Human Rights Watch has reviewed dozens of photos and videos of the crater at Impact Site 1 posted online and provided directly to Human Rights Watch by people who took them. Syria Civil Defense in Idlib posted online some of the first photos of the crater shortly afternoon on April 4.49 Human Rights Watch reviewed the original photos and interviewed the photographer. Based on landmarks visible in the photos and videos, Bellingcat geolocated the crater, showing that it was located near the central bakery in northern Khan Sheikhoun.50 Satellite imagery confirms that a crater appeared in that location between February 21, the date of the most recent available reference image, and April 6, the first available satellite image after the attack. A reverse image search shows that none of the photos were posted online before April 4.” (p.28)
HRW include only ONE of these images in the report — a picture of the crater alone on the front page. Otherwise they offer references only to images uploaded to the Facebook site of the Idlib Syrian Civil Defence (White Helmets) and a discussion from Bellingcat. There are no images at all of the remnants and no discussion as to why there is no debris at all around the crater in the image that they do include.
“These photos and videos show that the crater contained two objects that are likely remnants of the weapon that was used: a twisted thin metal fragment with green paint and a smaller circular metal object. The first photos, taken a few hours after the attack, show the twisted metal remnant sticking up from the crater, but most of the crater is not visible because the photo is taken from a distance. A second set of photos, taken closer to the crater in the early afternoon, show more of the crater, including the circular object.” (p28–29).
It’s not clear which photos HRW are referring to as there are no direct references and no images presented in the report. There are none that match their descriptions in the Bellingcat report they link to on this page — we simply must take their word on this. Even if we are generous enough as to accept this, there is no apparent analysis of the consistency between the two sets of images, or any mention of the possibility that the debris could have been tampered with in the hours after the alleged attacks.
All we have here are just ‘likely’ fragments in photos that HRW do not actually provide, but HRW deem this sufficient evidence to immediately speculate as to what these fragments may be by continuing:
“The Soviet Union produced several types of chemical bombs for warplanes. According to open source materials, two Soviet-produced bombs were specifically designed to deploy sarin: the KhAB-250, which can contain 44.1 kilograms of sarin, and the KhAB-500, which can contain 177.1 kilograms of sarin. The KhAB-250 bomb also has a filler hole in its body through which the sarin is loaded into the bomb prior to use. Open-source reference materials on Syria’s arsenal do not list Soviet-produced chemical bombs, but they are often not complete.
Photos of the KhAB-250 posted on VKontakte, a Russian social media platform, show that the bomb has two green-colored painted bands. Green coloring is widely used on factoryproduced weapons to signify that they are chemical. These green bands appear consistent with the green paint on the remnant in the crater at Impact Site 1, seen in photographs provided to Human Rights Watch. The circular object in these photos appears similar to the cap for the filler hole on the body of a KhAB-250 bomb.51 Human Rights Watch has not found any reference photos of the KhAB-500.” (p29)
HRW have already mentioned these Russian bombs in the introduction to the DbC report and to the section devoted to alleged war-plane dropped incidents, but again more questions are raised than answered. Why, given that HRW have access to specialists from inside and outside their organisation are the conclusions so vague — the colour appears the same? Why is there no expert analysis of the actual dimensions of these objects? Why did they have to rely upon open-source information? Would not any of their specialists have this knowledge — or access to contacts who would? Are these (impressively precise) payloads consistent with the reported effects of the KS ‘attack’? On these, and many other issues, HRW offer no judgement whatsoever.
HRW continue with the speculation:
“In a chemical bomb, an explosive charge busts open the body of the bomb and disperses the chemical as an aerosol cloud, either upon impact or in the air. The ideal explosive charge would be large enough to disperse most of the chemical, but not so large that the heat from the explosion would degrade the chemical. A small explosive charge means that significant remnants of a chemical bomb, including the tail fin, should survive and be found near the impact site. While Human Rights Watch has not seen photos or videos of larger pieces of remnants from the Khan Sheikhoun attack, photos of the two remnants in the crater at Impact Site 1 appear to be consistent with the characteristics of the KhAB-250.”
Again this is extremely tenuous and again we have to take them on trust as the images remain hidden. Furthermore, how can we tell if these pictures are ‘consistent’ with the Soviet bombs if we do not know if they detonate in the air or on impact with the ground — a fact that HRW and their ‘specialists’ do not provide? The obvious question is also raised as to where the other fragments have gone? Given that HRW profess to have inspected ‘dozens’ of images, it’s surprising they found such little evidence. Did they ask any of their 32 witnesses about this? What about the photographer they claim to have interviewed directly?
“The first photos taken of the crater at Impact Site 1 a few hours after the attack also appear to show liquid on the asphalt around the crater. Several witnesses described it as a black, oily substance. Such liquid is consistent with the use of a sarin bomb, as some of the sarin, which is a liquid, will fail to turn into aerosol and vapor” (p29–30)
OK, sarin is a liquid — which HRW see as consistent with the photos (which they do not include), but when deployed by an aerial bomb, possibly detonated in mid-air, would this specific liquid leave a black, oily residue that remains “a few hours after the attack” on a bright sunny day? The DbC Appendix notes that pure sarin is an odourless, colourless liquid — nothing about being black or oily.
[In a recent post Elliott Higgins of the Bellingcat blog, who HRW consider to be a reliable source, goes to some lengths to prove that sarin is a volatile agent that would not be harmful after an hour or two after it was dispersed. Certainly this evidence refutes HRW’s assertions that an oily residue some hours after the dispersal is consistent with sarin. I raised this issue in the comments on the Bellingcat blog, but inexplicably had these removed from their ‘Open Source’ site. (I commented as Adrian D — one of the other commenters, Adam Larson, directly refers to my questions, but my comments have been removed):
HRW conclude their discussion of the munitions evidence with more serious-sounding, but utterly preposterous ‘evidence’ (my emphasis added here):
“Based on photos and videos, Forensic Architecture, an organization specializing in spatial analysis, created a three-dimensional model of the crater. Based on the model, the organization calculated that the crater was about 1.60 centimeters wide and 0.42 centimeters deep. Since there is no public information about how much explosive is contained in the bursting charge for KhAB-250 and KhAB-500 bombs, it is not possible to assess whether the size of the crater is consistent with the use of these bombs. The lack of blast and fragmentation damage on nearby objects as shown in the photos and videos is consistent with the use of a low-blast, non-fragmenting munition like a chemical bomb.”
This is utterly laughable — are HRW really telling us that a crater from a bomb that they maintain led to such chaos was less than an inch wide? Did no one at Forensic Architecture or any of their ‘specialists’ not point out that this could be filled in with about half a level teaspoon of sugar?
On 5th June I contacted Forensic Architecture about this, and to their credit they replied the following day telling me that was a mistake on HRW’s part. The dimensions they included were metres, not centimetres. They told me that they have informed HRW of this mistake. However, as of 8th August, the original, incorrect numbers remain in the online version and the downloadable pdf.
In their Acknowledgments HRW name nine people involved in the authoring and reviewing of this report — not to mention their numerous unnamed ‘specialists’ — it says a great deal about HRW’s reporting standards and of their cheerleaders in the media that this had remained for so long without notice.
Despite their prompt reply to my questions, I’m afraid that we also must question the role of Forensic Architecture here — this is their only contribution throughout the entire report — but it appears that none of their staff bother to read it to see if their work was being reported correctly.
Having gone to the trouble and expense of having the size of the crater expertly modelled, it’s indicative of HRW’s approach that they make no attempt whatsoever to use this information to assess their assertions. These impressively precise measurements could very easily be used to assess the dimensions of the fragments which, at least according to them, appear in the crater. That they do not bother to do this speaks volumes of their approach — they want to give the veneer of technical expertise without following through with any actual analysis.
It’s also worth noting that the images we can see of the crater in the Bellingcat report show no signs of any debris around it or in the area nearby — very strange indeed.
That is it as far as HRW are concerned for their ‘analysis’ of the munitions used — they’ve successfully implicated the Syrians and Russians, but now they move on to considering the death toll.. Before we do, however, it’s worth taking a moment to make a few observations.
Throughout their reporting of the KS incident, HRW provide no new physical or digital evidence at all. Not a single instance of the ‘dozens’ of images that they claim to have inspected. There is only one specific reference given to any of these ‘dozens’ of images and videos — the video from the self-contradicting ‘local journalist’ Adham al-Hussein [HRW reference no. 31] which HRW do not share.
The only accessible KS references are to material already in the public domain– either uploaded to YouTube (ref 34), a ‘Civil Defence’ and ‘Medical Directorate’ Facebook posts (refs 48 and 53), a ‘special report’ by ‘Syrians For Truth and Justice’ (ref 55), and two Bellingcat reports (refs 50 and 52). Once again, there is NO reference to, or allowed access to, any of the ‘dozens’ of images HRW said that they have inspected — or any access to any of the 32 interviews they claim to have conducted.
As is clear from the above walkthrough, HRW have offer NO systematic expert analysis, interpretation or corroboration of ANY of the images they claim to have inspected — published or otherwise — or for any of the other ‘evidence’ they have included. Put simply, their ‘Methodology’ is a lot of hot air.
Death Toll and Casualties (p30–31)
HRW move immediately on to their evidence for the casualties from the KS attack (on page 30):
“Chemical exposure from the attack killed at least 89 people, including 33 children and 19 women, and injured, according to the opposition-run Idlib Health Directorate, which published a list of the names. Human Rights Watch confirmed 35 of them through interviews with local residents and family members of the dead. A few people appear to have died from blast and fragmentation injuries from the attacks during the second flyover. Raslan, the Syria Civil Defense member, said that the attacks with explosive weapons killed his neighbor, the neighbor’s son, and the 15-year-old boy he had tried to help.”
Two Syrian organizations compiled a list of 103 people who had died, but it is not clear from the report whether all died from chemical exposure.55 Local residents, first responders, and medical personnel confirmed that the vast majority of casualties in the morning attacks were killed and injured by chemical exposure.”
So we have a list of names provided by local groups — which HRW have ‘confirmed’ by asking their witnesses — with the one they quote quite familiar to us — it’s that Mr Raslan again. boy, but the boy was
We have no evidence that HRW attempted to cross-reference any of these names with other parties — those who performed the autopsies for instance.
This latest piece of evidence from Ismail Raslan also throws a little doubt on his earlier testimony. He says that he saw the boy fall over after the first ‘attack’ — some time around 6:37am and called for an ambulance. Now we hear that he tried to help the boy, but that the boy was killed by the second attack which took place at 6:47am — less than nine minutes after the aleged first. Even if we (generously) conclude that his ‘help’ went no further than calling the ambulance, this is certainly a lucky escape for Raslan — close enough to see the boy and be effected by the alledged gas, but not so close as to be injured by the fearsome ‘vacuum bombs’. As usual these potential inconsistencies do not concern HRW who continue:
“Many of the dead belonged to the same families. Members of the al-Youssef family said 25 of their family members who lived in houses near Impact Site 1 died due to chemical exposure. Local residents also said that the victims were civilians, and that armed groups did not have any bases in the town, but Human Rights Watch cannot exclude the possibility that some of the victims were members of armed groups.”
We can assume that these names were ‘confirmed’ by two named witnesses from the family who have been introduced already — Abdelaziz al-Yousef, Fatima Abdel-Latif al-Youssef. At this stage though, it is worth introducing another of the al-Youssef family who was given some prominence in HRW’s press conference, but whose testimony is strangely absent from the DbC report,
In the days after the KS incident, the plight of Abdulhamid Al-Yousef was reported widely across the global media and his story figured prominently in HRW’s press conference that accompanied the release of the DbC report. He is the distraught father of twins whose family — along with his beloved wife Dalal, had allegedly been killed in the attack. It is not clear why HRW did not include any of his statements in their report despite one of the authors having travelled to Turkey to speak to him. Adhulhamid is another witness who managed to perform all kinds of heroics before succumbing to the effects of the gas, while others were being rendered unconsious immediately.
Despite having had a great deal of contact with him, it is surprising that in their press conference, HRW use only pictures of his twins that were already in the public domain. They have provided no photographic evidence of him with his beloved wife — the kind of images of victims that might help to add weight to their many demands for international action. To this date, in all the global coverage of Abdulhamid Al-Yousef’s stories, there has never been a single picture published of him with his wife and their twins.
You can see the relevant portion of the press conference from around 12 minutes here:
The lack of physical evidence of the existence of the victims did not appear to concern HRW. They also have not taken any steps to verify the existence of the individuals using the kind of ‘open source’ methods that they proudly state they used with the munitions. There was no attempt made to check for any on-line presence of the victims — on Facebook, Instagram etc. — prior to or after the alleged event.
[This approach is not as farfetched as it may seem. Abdulhamid al-Yousef himself had a Facebook account that was, for a period after the alleged attack, open for external access. What this account showed, was that he, and his brother, were at the very least close associates of armed opponents of the Syrian government, if not members themselves. Rather than a series of images of him with his ‘beloved’ family, the account included numerous photos of him with armed members of Al Nuzra (aka Al Qaeda). That this information became public on May 2nd, just days before the publication of the HRW report may go some way to explain why his testimony was not included in the report itself:
Alternative Explanations (p 31)
HRW conclude their discussion of the KS attack with a consideration of alternative accounts of the events:
“Two theories have been presented to provide an alternative explanation to the allegation that a Syrian government warplane dropped a chemical bomb in Khan Sheikhoun: that an explosive bomb hit a chemical weapons production facility or depot in a warehouse; or that armed groups detonated a chemical weapon on the ground. Human Rights Watch has not found any evidence to support either theory.”
HRW may not have found any evidence to support either theory, but they offer no real indication that they have reasonably tried to find any. The second theory — that the local armed opposition grounds detonated a chemical bomb, is not considered at all.
“Both Russian and Syrian officials have claimed that the chemical exposure occurred because a Syrian airstrike hit an armed group’s weapons depot that contained chemical bombs. On April 7, Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Muallem, said that Syrian forces had not used chemical weapons and that a Syrian airstrike around 11:30 a.m. on April 4 had hit an ammunition depot belonging to an armed group, causing the chemical exposure.
A Russian military official gave a similar account, saying that the airstrike took place between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.58 But there is overwhelming evidence to show that local residents started exhibiting signs and symptoms of chemical exposure several hours earlier, which means that the 11:30 a.m. attacks that Syrian and Russian officials cited cannot explain the chemical exposure.”
This ‘overwhelming evidence’ is, of course, the very thin gruel that which we have been examining above — a series of hugely contradictory statements accompanied by no concurrent corroborative material whatsoever (even from the self-professed journalists). That images were uploaded simultaneously tells us nothing at all about when they were taken, and HRW attempted no forensic analysis of the files that they claim to have been given access to (and they do not themselves publish any not already in the public domain). HRW continue:
“Human Rights Watch also investigated whether the strikes at Impact Sites 2 and 3 could have dispersed the chemical. Local residents who visited the impact sites said that there were no signs that any chemicals had been stored near the sites. Mohammad Saloum, a local journalist who examined Impact Site 2, the house that was struck closest to Impact Site 1, said: “There were three rooms containing pillows and carpets for sleep. There was nothing else inside. It looked like any other house.”
HRW have returned to their tried and tested routine — a suggestion of numerous witnesses followed by an account from just one of their favourites (this time the local journalist who was so busy videoing the plumes of smoke from the conventional bombs that he completely missed the allegedly large cloud of white/yellow gas from HRW’s alleged first attack).
“Satellite imagery shows damage to a warehouse and a grain silo near the bakery, but local residents said they were struck before April 4. Photographs of the warehouse that were taken after the April 4 attack show that large sections of the walls are open, allowing people to see inside. Local residents said that the warehouse had been empty and out of use for months except as a volleyball court. A journalist for the Guardian who visited the warehouse said that he found a volleyball net there, which he filmed.60 Local residents said that they did not know about any chemicals being stored anywhere in the neighborhood. “
This final paragraph completes HRW’s evidence for their view of the events. There is no attempt to assess whether the alleged release of gas could have been performed by the local opposition in an attempt to implicate the Assad government in a war crime. There is no questioning of how journalist from a western mainstream newspaper could get to the scene so quickly and in apparent safety when no other UK paper has been sending anyone to ‘rebel’ held areas of Syria for some years now.
HRW also do not consider the possibility that the alleged number of casualties could have been greatly exaggerated or that those that did occur may have been hostages who were gassed locally or elsewhere. They are well aware that such allegations were made of the 2013 Ghouta incident, as they have attempted in the past to debunk them, why they choose to ignore them now again shows that their approach is very far from impartial.
See, for example, here:
Attentive readers may now have noticed that, aside from some comments about pictures that they do not actually include and some incorrectly reported measurements of a bomb crater, HRW have offered no evidence of the events that took place in Khan Sheikhoun other than statements from the interviews that they claim to have conducted.
In their Methodology, HRW say they interviewed 32 witnesses, but in their text they include statements from just 11, choosing to return to a few favourites again and again. Of these favourites, only one (al-Helou, the farmer who allegedly saw the bomb drop) is a ‘civilian’. The others are either White Helmets (Raslan, Juneid & two unnamed) and two local activists/journalists (al-Hussein & Saloum).
They claim to have gone to the effort to interview 8 individuals face-to-face in Turkey, but only refer to one of these in the text (Fatima al-Yousef).
We can only speculate as to why HRW are choosing to hide so much of their interviews from us. Did the majority disagree with their narrative? Were they all to confused and/or affected by the attack to be relied upon? HRW report no protocol under which the interviews were conducted, something far from best practice as far as these kinds of analysis are concerned.
The interviews are not the only evidence that HRW refuses to share with us.
On numerous occasions they report the UN OPCW report that concluded Syrian Government use of chlorine as corroborating their findings, but fail to mention that, despite the headlines, that report found a significant amount of evidence of CW attacks being staged by opposition forces.
They repeatedly state that they (HRW) concluded that the Syrian Government were responsible for the 2013 Ghouta massacre, but despite mentioning the UN report, fail to mention that the OPCW did not come to that conclusion — or that much of the evidence HRW themselves provided has since been shown to be codswallop.
So what exactly is left of the HRW report? It’s the selective and mostly uncorroborated accounts of a number of opposition activists, ‘local journalists’, ‘first responders’ and a smattering of locals all arranged by, or piped through, the usual, hugely partisan sources. It really does not bear scrutiny.