BERLIN -- By midday Aug. 20, the temperature in Damascus had warmed to an uncomfortable 96 degrees, so as the night rapidly cooled – to 78 before midnight, 74 by 2 a.m. and headed toward a pre-dawn 70 – it could have seemed like a blessing.
But the cooling trend had a horrifying effect for residents of the Ghouta area east of the Syrian capital. As the air cooled and became denser, it pushed toward the earth in the early hours of Aug. 21. So when rockets loaded with toxic chemicals started landing, each spilling about 15 gallons of deadly sarin, that downward pressure kept the heavy gas on the ground, allowing it to creep through open windows and pushing it into basements.
That’s only one detail in the 38-page report on the Aug. 21 chemical attack that the United Nations released Monday, but combined with many other details, it helps to paint a far more detailed picture of what happened that night than any of the cursory summaries that have dominated discussion in Congress, the White House and the halls of the British, French and Russian parliaments.
Far from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s claim Aug. 30 that “the U.N. can’t tell us anything that we . . . don’t already know,” the report provides an intricately detailed account of what happened and how it happened, and a scientific look at why it became the tragedy it did.
The report doesn’t assess blame – the technicians from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the World Health Organization weren’t asked to – and it provides no new information on how many people died, a figure that’s ranged widely from France’s estimate of at least 281 to the United States’ unexplained claim of 1,429.
But it does provide what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called “clear and convincing evidence” that chemical weapons were used against a civilian population – a war crime. And it refuted the initial U.S. position that the five-day delay would render the U.N. investigation incapable of finding meaningful evidence.
Among its findings:
– Even five and seven days after the rockets landed in the Damascus suburbs, inspectors identified at least 80 people who were exhibiting signs of chemical poisoning. Those symptoms included constricted pupils, vomiting, dizziness and loss of consciousness.
From those 80, the team selected 36 to study further, taking hair, blood and urine samples. Thirty-nine percent of those were still confused or disoriented when the U.N. team examined them. The blood and urine specimens for “almost all of the survivors assessed by the mission” tested positive for “exposure to sarin.”
– The team hadn’t yet completed its final analysis of what it called “detailed interviews” with survivors. But they all told the same story of “a military attack with shelling, followed by the onset of a common range of symptoms, including shortness of breath, disorientation, rhinorrhea (runny nose), eye irritation, blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, general weakness and eventual loss of consciousness.”
“Those who went to assist described seeing a large number of individuals lying on the ground, many of whom were deceased or unconscious.” Two brothers from Zamalka, one of the affected towns, “reported that of the 40 family members who lived in the same building, they were the only survivors.”