On July 9th 2013, Russia’s UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin, presented a dossier to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, directly implicating Syrian rebels in a Sarin attack on the town of Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo. The attack reportedly resulted in over two dozen deaths, both military and civilian, and over 100 injuries, with Churkin claiming the report contained “80 pages of photographs, formulas and graphs” to substantiate Russian claims. Not only did Churkin’s report name the specific opposition group allegedly involved—the “Basha’ir al-Nasr” brigade of the Free Syrian Army—but it also stated the exact type of DIY rocket used to deliver the Sarin, that both the munitions and the Sarin were not “industrially manufactured,” that the absence of chemical stabilizers in the samples they examined indicated “their relatively recent production,” and that, as stated in Churkin’s later press statement, “there is every reason to believe that it was the armed opposition fighters who used chemical weapons in Khan al-Assal.”
Using this same detailed information, the Russians also claimed to be able to link the August 21st Sarin attack in Damascus to the opposition on the day of the attack, with Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Aleksandr Lukashevich stating that “a homemade rocket with a poisonous substance that has not been identified yet—one similar to the rocket used by terrorists on March 19th in Khan al-Assal— was fired early on August 21st from a position occupied by the insurgents.”
Since Churkin turned over the dossier to the UN, it’s become increasingly clear that the claims made about the Khan al-Assal attack are dubious. On Wednesday, the UN’s latest report from its independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic confirmed that the chemicals used in Khan al-Assal “bore the same unique hallmarks as those used in Al-Ghouta,” but concluded that “the evidence available concerning the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on 21 August indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military.” [Emphasis added.]
This isn’t the first time a UN report has disagreed with the version of events put forward by the Russians on July 9th. On December 12th 2013 the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic submitted its final report on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The Mission had access to the report submitted by the Russians on July 9th, yet their report on Khan al-Assal was far less certain about the type of munitions used in the attack. Witness statements were unclear as to the origins of the munitions, with some witnesses claiming “an overflying aircraft had dropped an aerial bomb filled with Sarin” while others blamed the rebels. One would have to assume the Russian investigation must have had access to the remains of the rocket, as they were apparently able to state with certainty the type of rocket in their July 9th report, even providing the name of the projectile “Basha’ir-3”—yet having read the Russian’s report, the UN Mission was unable to draw the same conclusion about the type of weapon used.
Since Churkin turned over the dossier to the UN, it's become increasingly clear that the claims made about the Khan al-Assal attack are dubious.
On the day of the August 21st Sarin attack, the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that the rocket used was “one similar to the rocket used by terrorists on March 19 in Khan al-Assal,” but since then, a wealth of information about these rockets has been uncovered. The remains of several rockets used on August 21st have been documented, and they match the design of a rocket developed by the Syrian military known as the “Volcano”. High explosive versions of these rockets have been used by the Syrian military since at least November 2012, and the type linked to the August 21st attack that carried a chemical payload have been documented since the start of 2013, including three examples being documented at the scene of an earlier alleged chemical attack in the town of Adra, Damascus on August 5th, 2013.
In fairness to the Russians, their claim about the Khan al-Assad and Damascus attacks being linked quickly fell by the wayside as they appeared to adopt the latest Internet conspiracy theories as part of their official statements on the August 21st Sarin attack. On August 23rd, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Aleksandr Lukashevich referred to reports “on the Internet” of YouTube videos that were published before the attack took place, something quickly debunked by Storyful and others. By August 25th they had begun to urge against “hurried conclusions,” perhaps realising linking the Khan al-Assal and the August 21st attacks was increasingly becoming an issue in light of their July 9th report and the growing body of evidence linking the munitions used on August 21st to the Syrian military.
For such a detailed report, packed to the brim with “80 pages of photographs, formulas and graphs,” it seems those few people who have had access to the full report have not been convinced by the claims—and as more information on the attack becomes available, it seems one by one the claims in the report are being debunked. As yet, no UN official has made a statement on the content of the report, or on the discrepancy between the UN’s conclusions and Russia’s conclusions. Nor are they able to make the report available without Russia’s consent.
If the Russian’s July 9th report is accurate, then it contains the best possible evidence linking the Syrian opposition to a terrible war crime, maybe even to the August 21st sarin attack. Isn’t it time for the Russian government, who on July 9th were so certain about who to blame for a terrible crime, to finally help clear up the identities of those responsible for the Khan al-Assal Sarin attack, and make the contents of their dossier public?