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.”
– Most of the nine nurses and seven physicians the team interviewed were at home when the attack occurred. When these clinicians responded to the attack, they found “a large number of ill or deceased persons lying in the street without external signs of injury.”
– The team made painstaking efforts to document its work. All the interviews were taped, and all the samples were sealed and guarded from the moment of collection to their delivery to the four laboratories in Europe where tests were conducted to determine whether toxic substances were present.
The report provided a detailed listing of the samples, including the date and time each was taken, as well as from where: in one case, a “soil sample taken from one impact point in one house in Moadamiyah”; in another, “a methanol wipe sample taken from the sole of a slipper.”
“Each transfer of material is accompanied by a handover receipt,” the report notes.
– The inspectors also were able to explain how the sarin gas arrived in Ghouta that cool night.
In Moadamiyah, “The team began the investigation of an alleged impact site which was initially located in the backyard terrace of an apartment building.”
There, the team found an impact crater in the stone tiles of the terrace. Near the crater, they found a rocket engine marked with Cyrillic letters. Despite the fact that such lettering could implicate Russia as the supplier, the report makes no such assumptions. Instead, it notes the projectile’s light gray color, and documents the exact size – 630 mm long and 140 mm wide (24.8 by 5.5 inches) – and type, an M14 artillery shell, a non-precision surface to surface rocket.
“The engine had 10 jet nozzles ordered in a circle at the end of the rocket with a metal electrical contact plate in the middle,” the report said.
At one impact site, the team found that a rocket had pierced an awning before hitting the ground. By studying the line that would connect the hole in the awning with the impact crater, the investigators determined the rocket’s bearing – 35 degrees – and its angle of flight. A second impact crater 65 meters away – about 213 feet – had an angle that was 1 degree different from the first, a discovery “fully congruent,” the report said, “with the dispersion pattern commonly associated with rockets launched from a single, multi-barrel, launcher.”
In the case of another shell, a 330 mm rocket, they calculated that it flew east-southeast before landing in the Damascus suburb.
To study the area, the inspection team’s members – who dodged a sniper’s bullets on their first day – had to rely on the protection of both the Syrian government and a Syrian rebel leader. They said they had only a short time to study the sites, because of security concerns.
Still, Secretary-General Ban said the evidence the team had collected provided proof of “the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988. The international community has pledged to prevent any such horror from recurring, yet it has happened again.”
But the closest the report comes to emotion is the final line before the appendices:
“This result leaves us with the deepest concern.”