Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 29, 2019

Theodore Postol: Assad was responsible for deadly chlorine attack in Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 12:03 am

WHAT HAPPENED IN DOUMA? SEARCHING FOR FACTS IN THE FOG OF SYRIA’S PROPAGANDA WAR

That dropping chlorine gas canisters might be a terror weapon and not a “kill” weapon makes sense. Unlike sarin, which is a colorless, odorless liquid that often kills its victims even before they know they’ve been attacked, chlorine, at least as it’s been used in improvised munitions in Syria doesn’t usually kill; its victims can smell, see, and sometimes even hear it coming, and they run as fast as they can in the other direction. Many Syrians living in rebel-held areas, prepped by rebels or aid workers, know that chlorine is denser than air and quickly sinks, which is why it might find its way so easily from the roof down to the basement. The presence of chlorine might also explain something Abo Salah, the Douma Revolution cameraperson, had told me. The apartment attack site is only 150 meters from the huge tunnel I’d seen by the emergency medical ward and close to an entrance to that tunnel. The toxic gases, he said, “leaked to the main medical center via the tunnel, which contained hundreds of families fleeing the shelling.”

The trajectory taken by chlorine gas and its cloying visibility might also explain why, according to Nasser Hanan, most of his family had run back inside the building to their deaths. When I showed videos of the canisters to Theodore Postol in Boston, he was immediately certain that both had been launched from the sky by the Syrian military and that any “brouhaha” from the Russians to the contrary could be safely ignored. Postol, professor emeritus of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy at MIT, is a controversial figure in Syria analysis. Earlier in the conflict his work querying accounts from the OPCW and the UN about the use of sarin in two infamous gas attacks made him deeply unpopular among many Syria analysts, including Higgins, who felt that his analysis wrongly let Assad off the hook for war crimes. Postol, however, has many years of experience analyzing munitions, including the relative efficacy of Saddam Hussein’s SCUD missiles and U.S. Patriot anti-missiles during the first Gulf War. More recently, together with his late colleague Richard Lloyd, he’s devoted considerable attention to the development of improvised munitions in Syria, including chlorine canister bombs. When I showed him the Douma footage, he immediately concurred with the analysis of internet investigators like Higgins, with whom he often ferociously disagrees. The canister, he reckoned, would have weighed around 250 pounds and carried about 120 kilos of chorine. But it landed in an entirely unexpected way. Since the concrete-and-steel-mesh roof wasn’t very strong, the bomb punched a hole in the ceiling. The effect was as if the nose of the canister had been deliberately rammed into the external wall, so as to point gas directly into the room below, creating a gas chamber. That room would have filled with chlorine in one or two minutes. Drawing on Forensic Architecture’s modeling of the building onto which it fell, Postol estimated that the chlorine gas would have poured out into the upper floor at a magnitude several hundred times higher than a lethal dose, its density much greater because the release occurred in an enclosed space. As it made its way down into the two floors below, its density would have decreased, but still would have been much more than enough for a lethal dose.

When it filled the building, the chlorine would have spilled out via open windows and doors and then drifted along the street, like a thick fog, at much lower concentrations. As it sank through the building, the residents hunkered down in the basement would have smelled it too. Many likely ran headfirst onto the street, only to be confronted by a chlorine gas cloud forming all around them. Instinct and training likely kicked in; since chlorine is thicker than air, the instructions they’d been given would have been to head for the roof. Under most circumstances, this would have been excellent advice, like the injunction to workers at the World Trade Center on 9/11 to stay put at their desks, but in this case, it failed the residents of Douma. As they ran back upward through the building, they’d have been rendered unconscious very quickly and dead within minutes. Delivered at that kind of dosage — thousands of milligrams per cubic meter — chlorine could easily have caused the frothing at the mouth, skin burns, and damaged corneas observed by medical workers, as well as the horrible smell and breathing difficulties of which residents complained. It also makes sense of what the motorbike rider had told me: that the whole street had been affected by the foul odor. To panic and terrorize the population was, after all, what this was for.

The murderous result, concluded Postol, was “a very peculiar set of circumstances” and a terrible twist of fate. If the building had had been larger with a firmer roof, the balcony canister would probably not have fallen through; even if it had broken open and begun dispersing its payload, the chlorine would have wafted off into the open air and likely not injured anyone. If the roof had been even weaker and the canister had fallen right through onto the third floor, its valve might not have opened at all, like the one on the bed. But because of the way the canister punctured the concrete, its valve snapped so as to spew the contents directly into the enclosed space below. A lot of stars would have had to align for something like this to happen, just as the former OPCW inspector had said. But in this case, they did.

[Postol no longer holds these views, a clear indication that anything he says had to be taken with a grain of salt.]

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2 Comments »

  1. I like how the guy you once called a water carrier for Assad, and said had no relevant background to be writing about chemical weapons, is now reputable because he says something that fits your narrative.

    Comment by Benjamin — January 4, 2020 @ 4:18 am

  2. I am bemused by your comment. Perhaps you didn’t read to the conclusion:

    “[Postol no longer holds these views, a clear indication that anything he says had to be taken with a grain of salt.]”

    Comment by louisproyect — January 4, 2020 @ 12:59 pm


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