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--  Middle East Dept. --


The Ghouta Sarin Story: Bullbleep Mountain or Veritas Valley?

Episode 1: Getting the Rocket-Dose Right

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[I am eternally indebted to Jon Stewart for the Bullbleep Mountain concept, which is applicable to myriad modern day contexts. At least I think thatís what heís saying. Every time he says it, somebody hits that fu-[bleeeep]-ing bleep button.]

Sometimes there's a man.  An' he's the man for his time and place.  He fits right in there, and I'm talking about Dan Kaszeta here, who self-applies the label one-time "Chemical Officer in the US Army," which is, as I take it, someone who is paid by US taxpayers to figure out how to inflict an agonizing death on as many people as possible if push comes to shove.  Dan is making a name for himself by explaining to those of us who have never had the opportunity, desire, or need to drop sarin on our mortal enemies how to do it. Even those of us who have no mortal enemies find the information morbidly fascinating in the wake of Ghouta, and Dan is becoming the go-to guy on the technical aspects of packaging and delivering sarin, or GB, as it it more commonly called in the Army warfare literature, probably because "GB" is harder to misspell. In his latest effort Dan walks us through some calculations with the aim of coming up with a ball-park figure for how many actual rockets full of sarin had to be delivered to Ghouta on Aug21.2013 in order to get the deadly effect that has been advertised by the insurgents, the MSM, and Obama: to wit, 1429 fatalities. Not 1430. Not 1425. Not approximately 1400. No . . . 1429, precisely. I will examine the origin of that ghastly, ubiquitous figure in a future Bullbleep Mountain/Veritas Valley piece.

Danís piece, titled Managing the Deficit, is a tidy 5 page look at how an Army weapons guy would determine how many rockets would be needed to really screw the maximum number of sleeping people in Ghouta using sarin. (Actually, Danís piece is only about 3.5 pages if you subtract the ads, which seem really out of place in an article like this. These ads are particularly offensive to an academic, and I found myself asking myself: Like, is this a business promotion, a self-promotion, or an attempt to figure out the Ghouta mess? But I guess somebodyís gottaí feed the monkey.)

In addition to being confounded by its commercial aspects, after reading Danís piece I came away more confused than convinced by his calculations. But then I would have to admit to coming away confused just about any time numbers start getting manipulated by people smarter than me, and anybody manipulating numbers is almost, by definition, smarter than me. But I stuck with it because I have to allows how playing with these rocket numbers is an interesting exercise and on the whole probably worthwhile, if for no other reason than to set some outer limits on what is possible. But at the end of the day the piece seems to move the ball up Bullbleep Mountain more than down the field toward Veritas Valley.

Here are a few comments on the particulars of Danís paper, and some of my own numerical monkeying around.

Assuming a sarin-rocket attack took place . . . not so fast.

Dan starts off by asserting that the evidence is clear that a sarin attack tool place in Ghouta on Aug21. This is consistent with his Sep25.2013 interview by Eliot Higgins regarding the findings of the recent UN report, which I have previously dissed as being as helpful as pigeon poop on the pump handle. In the Higgins interview Dan was adamant that a sarin-rocket attack took place.

More specifically, when it came to the 140 mm rocket the UN investigated in W. Ghouta, Dan really dug in, saying the rocket must have carried sarin even without any supporting direct evidence by the UN because he was not able to think of any other reason that would account for sarin-related chemicals DIMP and IMPA being found in other samples at the scene. And thatís really weird. I mean a number of people have come up with other possible reasons Ė the most obvious one being that the insurgents (who set up the entire UN investigation itinerary) planted sarin in the areas they knew the UN investigators would investigate. Of course, Danís entitled to his opinion as well as his own lack of imagination, but anyone who says they canít see the very obvious potential of foul play must at least be living in the shadow of Bullbleep Mountain. And so Dan wades into his sarin-rocket article on the back of the assertion that a massive sarin-rocket attack actually took place in Ghouta on Aug21.

Of course, I canít let this go because I couldnít disagree more. For if by "sarin attack" Dan means "sarin-rocket attack," which is what his article is about, I would argue that not only does the evidence to date fail to support the conclusion that such an attack occurred and killed hundreds or thousands of people, but the current evidence suggests rather convincingly that such a large scale sarin attack Ė by rocket or otherwise Ė did not occur. I have argued previously, for instance, that there are certain unpleasant but clear clinical signs of organophosphate (e.g., sarin) toxicity that are absolutely unavoidable Ė fecal incontinence, urinary incontinence, uncontrollable vomiting. These are biological certainties, and if you look at scores of dead and dying "sarin victims" like the ones weíve been looking at for two months and donít see a fair few of them displaying those signs, then you are not looking at a sarin attack. Thatís just biological reality, plain and simple. Itís not a political statement. Itís not conjecture or hypothesis. If you donít see the clinical signs that we are not seeing, you need to look for other explanations for what went down in Ghouta, and for what the UN reported, and for what is being shown in the vids.

Another obvious argument against an attack of the magnitude claimed by Dan and the insurgents is that we are not seeing 1429 bodies. Not on CNN, not on MSNBC, not on YouTube. Not anywhere. We are not seeing videos of any of the massive burials that would have had to have taken place Ė and Iím not talking jury-rigged burials of the type you see when the enemy has the bodies. Here, the insurgents claimed to have been massacred in their own turf, so they had control of their own bodies and would have given them proper Muslim burials. So whereís the funerals? As Mother Agnes asks: Why didnít we have constant burial announcements from the minarets? We see a couple dozen bodies wrapped in white and thatís pretty much it. As far as I know, the vids show dirt actually falling on just eight bodies, and they are all in the same hole. Where happened to the other 1421?

Logic suggests that if youíre going to video bodies wrapped and waiting for burial, you would hang around long enough to video the burial itself Ė thatís were the real drama is. And the reason Iím raising this point is that if you look closely, a lot of those wrapped bodies have awfully good color and might not even want to be buried quite yet. How is it the insurgents can upload detailed videos of pinpoint pupils and violently thrashing victims and yet the most dramatic evidence of all Ė dead humans being buried Ė is no where to be seen? I mean, there is a video out there getting a lot of traction showing a pile of dead goats in obvious rigor mortis. Is that supposed to convince us that 1429 people died? And I donít know about the goats, but some of the videos of human victims are almost certainly faked. Sometimes it seems you can almost smell a foul wind blowing off of Bullbleep Mountain.

And so, two months into this depressing analysis of what happened, I have altered my original position to the point I am now 180 degrees opposite Dan. No longer do I merely feel that it is not possible to know whether or not a large-scale sarin attack took place in Ghouta; I feel it is almost certain one did not. That is not to say that the SAA didnít lob a sarin-rocket or two into Ghouta, and itís not to say the insurgents didnít. After all, the UN Mission went in there and found bits and pieces of metal with sarin or sarin indicators on them. But again I point out, as others have, that in addition to rockets, an equally likely explanation for the source of the sarin is that sarin was planted by the insurgents in places they knew the UN was going to investigate. I donít know that this is true, and Iím not asserting it as a fact; I am only saying that from what we know, this is as good a guess as sarin-rockets. And as long as one or more alternative as-good-a-guess-as-any exists, skepticism is not just warranted, it is obligatory, at least in Veritas Valley.

But I realize that, even discounting a few obviously fake videos, there are still a lot of dead people in the remaining vids to answer for. And there are blood and urine samples collected by the UN Mission that tested positive for something Ė weíre not told what. So Iím willing to allow that a bunch of people died somewhere and somehow, which is precisely what has got me so upset that I spend waay too much time on this whole issue while my own monkey goes unfed. And Iím willing to allow that a few people may have been intentionally or maliciously intoxicated by sarin. Thatís a near certainty given the blood samples. But what is virtually impossible is that the scores of "victims" Iíve seen on the videos Ė including the Feinstein Package of 13 videos relied on by Congress Ė were victims of sarin. In sum, the preponderance of the evidence Iíve seen is not sufficient to prove any sarin-rocket attack occurred, and certainly is not sufficient to prove that anyone died from such an attack.

And the reason Iím saying all of this is that I want to explain why Iím playing the uber-skeptic and devilís advocate in looking at Danís incredibly interesting article on how many sarin rockets would have been needed to kill 1429 people in Ghouta. It is important to understand that a military-style analysis of the Ghouta event and explaining how military experts would have done the job does not add one iota of evidence, it merely organizes the evidence along one particular hypothesis Ė the hypothesis that there was a sarin-rocket attack. I believe Dan is sort of setting the boundaries from a military perspective as to what was possible in the context of that hypothesis, and he is not arguing what actually happened. And while I am not able to follow his arguments completely, or even his conclusions, he seems to be knocking on the same door as a weapons expert that I am knocking on as a neuropharmacologist: this thing just ainít adding up to a sarin-rocket attack. As he says: 

"I canít make the numbers work and Iíve got a nagging suspicion that something strange is going on here." 

Me, too.

Fatality and casualty numbers.

The truth is, itís two months after the fact and nobody has a clue in hell as to how many casualties there were. In the absence of hard data, Dan takes rumors as to fatalities (200 to 1429) and rumors as to kill:casualty ratios (1:6 to 1:10) and without sourcing those numbers he relies on them to obtain a rumor-based ball-park range of 1200 to 14,290 casualties. By rumor I mean "information" coming from the insurgents, who, of course, benefit politically from inflated numbers. If what Dan is trying to do here is get us to Veritas Valley, Iím not sure thatís possible using numbers from Bullbleep Mountain.

Then there is the problem of how Dan uses the numbers. For, as I understand him, Dan analyzes just an E. Ghouta "target zone" but bases his analysis on fatalities numbers that, so far as I know, relate to the combined fatalities of East Ghouta, West Ghouta, North Ghouta, and South Ghouta Ė anywhere Facebook and YouTubes say there were "victims." It seems to me that what one would want is a number of casualties restricted to the same geographical area one is analyzing. So while I see the need to have a numerical starting point for this analysis, the relevance of these casualty numbers to the actual calculation is lost on me. Below I will attempt to plug numbers into Danís assessment that include both East and West Ghouta.

But Iím rambliní again. Let me get back to sarin-rockets.

The munitions

US VX shells waiting to be destroyed.  Source

All of Danís calculations are based on three US Army tables he provides, which is what makes his article so durn interesting Ė this is the real deal, bona fide Army stuff. Those tables are based on an artillery round called a "M121 155mm projectile," which is a chemical artillery shell that is fired from howitzers (or was). 

M198 (155 mm) towed howitzer

But what we are (presumably) talking about in Ghouta are not artillery shells but crude self-propelled rockets. At least thatís all the UN Mission found evidence for. There was no evidence of a CW artillery attack, so far as Iím aware. There are two crude rockets in the UN report. One associated with W. Ghouta is called a 140 mm and it is a surplus or out-dated Soviet rocket. The other rocket, associated with E. Ghouta, is referred to as a 330 mm rocket and we know next to nothing about it from the UN report. The UN doesnít identify it to any known type of rocket. It looks in the videos to be jury-rigged. The UN calculates itís capacity at an amazing 60 liters, which would convert to 132 pounds in American units Ė and that doesnít include the rocket motor/fuel. That is one fat rocket.

UN diagram of unidentified 330 mm rocket

And thatís all we have, just these two rockets.  And the UN report is entirely vague on how many of each, but they only saw 5 impact sites total, so the number of UN certified rockets in Ghouta couldnít be more than that.

Now, I donít have any experience with home-made rockets or out of date Soviet rockets, or any rockets. And I donít have anywhere near the military experience that Dan does with artillery shells. But I have a real good idea what a bunch of 155 mm artillery shells can do. For a brief period in my checkered "professional" history I was a forward observer in a Marine Corps recon team calling in, among other things, 155mm rounds against Vietnamese people who had been pretty much minding their own business before we got there.  And so I have a feel for how accurate 155mm artillery is and how fast they can be fired. I would estimate that the difference in expected accuracy between a 155mm shell fired from a howitzer and a 130 pound DIY self-propelled rocket would be comparable to the difference in expected accuracy between, say, Phil Michelsonís 9-iron from 150 yards and Barack Obamaís.  In other words, looking at the photos of those allegedly sarin-rockets the UN has published, I would venture to guess you couldnít reliably hit the side of a barn with one . . . not even firing from inside the barn. These things are just thrown out there in some general direction knowing they have to land somewhere and hoping that when they do, someone you donít like will get hurt or killed. The smaller rockets can be fired in bundles from a multi-launcher to saturate an area, but there is no indication at all that that happened in Ghouta. As far as the 132+ pound rockets, it must be totally a matter of Allah-willing for it to hit any specific target at all.

What Iím saying is that, absent some evidence that advanced artillery was used, calculations based on 155mm tables are pretty much irrelevant to the Ghouta situation. If you know you can hit a predetermined target area measuring W meters by L meters, you can calculate the square footage or hectares. Then you can look in the tables and calculate that you need X rounds to cause Z amount of damage in an area that size. But if all you have is crude rockets that might land in this county or might land in the next, then all bets Ė and all calculations based on how many rockets land in a given hectare Ė are off. And while calculations based on 155 mm artillery tables that are applied to crude rockets might look impressive, at the end of the exercise what have you got? Having started with unverified and unverifiable casualty numbers you have started somewhere up the side of Bullbleep Mountain, and having plugged those numbers into Army tables for 155mm CW artillery rounds, you have moved so far up the mountain that Veritas Valley is not even visible in the misty distance.

So one must keep in mind with respect to both Danís numbers and mine, this is really just goofing around to get some sort of feel for whether the extent of damage claimed by Obama and the insurgents is even possible. What these numbers really indicate is what the US Army would have done, or could have done, with unlimited howitzers firing unlimited 155 mm CW shells at Ghouta. Having cranked out those numbers, one assumes the SAA or the insurgents couldnít do any better Ė if killing kids with sarin is properly referred to as "doing better."

The weather on Bullbleep Mountain

Weather conditions for Damascus, Aug21.2013

As I noted in my critique of the Sellstrom Report, those UN guys made a really big deal of the fact that the attack took place in the wee hours of Aug21, according to the insurgents. Sellstrom implied, without actually saying it, that sarin delivered by Assadís rockets would be most effective in the wee hours because the air temperatures were dropping, which means there was an atmospheric inversion, which means the sarin would stay on the ground and kill more people seeking "shelter," which means there must have been a rocket attack, which obviously implies that Assad did it. Which means these UN guys Ė like the NYT, HRW, and Brown Moses guys who bought into this crap Ė are totally circular.

Dan does a bit of the same thing, and like Sellstrom he does not present enough weather data to support his position. For instance, both of them seem to be saying one can deduce the presence of an inversion from nothing more than air temperature at ground level. Here we are, going up on Bullbleep Mountain again.

The weather data for Damascus for the morning of Aug21 are available online at World Weather Online.  Donít take my word; go look at them for yourself. The data Dan reports are considerably different than the data reported by WWO. [Dan cites the World Meterological Organization as his source but does not give a link to the data he relies on. Maybe WMO has data relevant to an inversion occurring in Damascus on Aug21 but if so, I canít find them.] The chart from WWO is given above.

WWO says that between 2am and 5am on Aug21, the wind was 4-5 mph from the west, with gusts to 7-8 mph. Dan says the wind was 10 mph. The temperature according to WWO dropped from 23 C. to 21 C. between 2am and 5am. Even the low temp of 21 C. is considerably warmer than 13 C. to 16.5 C. cited by Dan, and considerably more conducive to increasing the sarin kill-rate, according to Danís Table 2-4 . The humidity is also important and it works in the opposite direction to lower the kill-rate because sarin hydrolyzes more readily in a humid environment. The humidity during the wee hours of Aug21 was not insubstantial: 56%. Dan doesnít factor in the humidity.

But the point Dan and Sellstrom are making is the one that really sounds like something from BM. They claim that judging from the air temps or the time of night, there would have been an atmospheric inversion in progress and therefore the conditions would have been optimal because an inversion pushes the sarin to the ground and holds it there. But neither one presents any data or evidence of such an inversion Ė all they present are air temps. Obviously, one cannot deduce the presence of an inversion merely from dropping air temps or there would be inversions virtually everywhere every night.

And so all this talk about Ghouta weather and inversions seems to me to be irrelevant BM flak. For instance, these neighborhoods are high-rises. The people were asleep. Even if there was an inversion and sarin stayed at or near the ground, that would be a disadvantage as far as killing people sleeping on, say, the fifth floor. Looking at the weather data for Damascus on Aug21, it seems to me that if you wanted to max your kill rate with sarin-rockets, you would have dropped them at 2pm when most people would be out in the open and exposed, and you would have the advantage of the 10 mph wind and low humidity occurring at that time.

So what Iím saying is this whole weather angle Ė without some sort of expert analysis of this specific situation in this specific place on this specific night Ė is not convincing, and is certainly not leading us toward any insight. Maybe if this weather angle were properly developed it would tell us something, but Iím just not seeing what. Even if there was an inversion, that doesnít tell you anything Ė or even imply anything Ė about who, or how or, even, whether sarin was used. As it is, this inversion theory smells like a diversion at best and an attempt to frame Assad by implication at worst.

Target zones

TZ #1 -- Ein Tarma, Kafr Batna, Zamakla.  3.5 km x 4.5 km ~ 1600 Ha.
TZ #2 -- Duma   1km x 1 km ~ 1000 Ha. 

Dan basis his calculations on a "target zone" that is 1.4 km x 0.45 km or 630,000 sq. meters Ė 63 hectares. [Danís areas are in Ha because thatís the unit used in the Army tables.] He somehow derived this target zone from Felim McMahonís work on the Zamalka impact sites in E. Ghouta, but I donít get it and Dan doesnít explain. I have reviewed McMahonís work extensively and I do not see any reference to those measurements or to a target zone. The only measurements I see McMahon making is that there is 140m between two alleged impact sites in Zamalka. So Ė as with the 1429 fatalities Ė I donít have a clue where the 63 Ha comes from, and Iím feeling, quite frankly, data deprived, which is a very common malady in Veritas Valley.  In fact, I don't even know what Dan's term "target zone" means in the context of something as random as a 132 lb. DIY rocket.  Anyone firing off something like that would likely consider the "target zone" to be, say, Zamalka, Allah willing. 

When I go to the website that Dan links to, I find McMahonís excellent work and a link to the map above. I have added boxes marked TZ#1 and TZ#2. These boxes surround the two places in E. Ghouta that McMahon marks as most active in terms of reports of casualties, etc. So if there were any "target zones" in E. Ghouta, these hot spots appear to be to be them. Using Google Earth I have calculated the areas of these two possible target zones. I did that by converting McMahonís map to satellite and determining the street-boundaries of the two hot spots. Then I went to GE and used ruler to get rough linear measurements of the sides of the boxes.

TZ #1 is about 1600 Ha and TZ #2 is about 100 Ha, for 1700 Ha total, compared to 63 Ha calculated by Dan. Again, I emphasize that I am not putting these figures out there as being correct, I am putting them out there because they are the best I can do and because Dan doesnít say how he came by his 63 Ha number.

My estimate of the total combined target zones of 1700 Ha is thus 27x larger than Danís. So, to save time and pencil lead, I simply scale up Danís numbers accordingly. Where Dan uses a target zone of 63 Ha to estimate that on the order of 80 (330 mm) or 2000 (140 mm)rockets would have been required, my estimate based on McMahonís map and 1700 Ha would be 27x that; i.e. 2160 (330 mm rockets) or 54,000 (140 mm rockets). And that is only E. Ghouta. If the target zone in W. Ghouta is of a similar size, then we are talking more than 4000 of the large rockets and 100,000 of the small ones.

That did not happen. I will absolutely guarantee you that no Syrian army (and certainly no insurgent forces) fired off 2000 Ė 54,000 sarin-rockets, much less 4000 Ė 100,000 of them.

Two rockets, maybe.

Ten rocekts, maybe.

2,000? No way.

54,000? Ha, ha, ha . . . and by that I mean, if the actual target zone was 1700 Ha in E. Ghouta, and you use Danís calculations based on rumored fatalities figures plugged into US Army tables for 155 mm artillery, what you get is: LOL.  Donít even consider W. Ghouta.


So you can see why I canít follow Danís arguments and numbers. In truth, I can't see what he provides in this piece other than a pretense for his commercial advertisements. He ends his piece with the same contradictory statement that he begins it with Ė he says, in effect, the numbers donít add up. That is contradictory not with respect to his calculations but in view of his rock-hard assertions to Higgins on Sep25 that a sarin-rocket attack is what killed all those people in Ghouta. And so Iím confused. Doesn't the numbers not adding up add up to there being no sarin-rocket attack?

But Dan comes to one conclusion that even I can get:

"This confirms my suspicions, for a large target zone and a large number of casualties an attack requires a large amount of agent."

Some how, even to a CW layman, that just sounds right Ė obvious as hell, but right.  If nothing else in Dan's article belongs in Veritas Valley, that statement surely has a place here. 



Copyright, Denis O'Brien, 2005-2015 ~ ~ All rights reserved.