A Munitions Expert Weighs in on Last Month’s Chemical Attacks in Damascus
Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime currently stands accused of committing one of the worst war crimes of the 21st century: dropping sarin nerve gas on the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus last month. The body of evidence against the regime is large and compelling, but—much like 9/11 truthers sharing links to HD torrents of Zeitgeist—people are still passing around misinformation like it’s gospel truth.
The debate will likely rage on for years in the armchair analyst community, regardless of whether military action is taken or not. But, for now, I thought it best to contact independent munitions expert Eliot Higgins, AKA Brown Moses, who, since the conflict began, has been investigating and verifying evidence of crimes on both sides of the conflict at his blog. Eliot isn’t operating on the ground in Syria. In fact, he’s operating from his house in Leicestershire and if he has an armchair, I don’t doubt that he’s operated from it before. But where he differs from your average lonely keyboard warrior is that he’s incredibly well respected among journalists and weapons experts for his forensic ability to identify munitions found on Syria’s battlefields. He has written for Foreign Policy and New York Times, and been interviewed by Channel 4 News, CNN, and the Guardian. Typically, he’s billed as someone who’s used the internet and social media to become an “accidental arms expert.”
Eliot has put forward a particularly convincing case linking the regime to the sarin attacks, which corroborates firmly with the information gathered by NGOs and the intelligence agencies of the US, UK, France, and Germany. I spoke to him to find out more about his research.
VICE: Hi, Eliot. Can you tell me how you came to know so much about munitions?
Eliot Higgins: I’m self-taught, first using resources available online, then by talking to a lot of arms specialists and learning as I went. I’d look at a video, see something new and then learn as much about it as possible. There are huge amounts of information about the Soviet weaponry used by the Syrian government and opposition online.
You have presented a lot of evidence that firmly suggests the Syrian government is behind the recent sarin attacks. Can you talk me through your conclusions?
The one thing you expect to find after a chemical attack is the remains of the munitions used. Unlike conventional munitions, the warheads on these weapons don’t explode, but disperse the chemical agent using different methods—for example, a small dispersal charge that pops it open. So instead of being blown into tiny pieces, you should find the remains of the munitions used.
In the case of the attacks in Damascus, there are two different types of munitions that have been found by activists. The first is an M14 140mm artillery rocket fired by the Soviet BM14 multiple rocket launcher. One warhead type for these munitions carries 2.2 kilograms of sarin, and the remains of the munitions recorded by activists were in very good condition, suggesting this might have been the warhead used.
What’s far more interesting is the second type of munitions, several of which have been filmed at the August 21st attacks, as well as previous alleged chemical attacks. These munitions are unique to the conflict; the many arms and chemical weapons specialists I’ve spoken to do not recognize it as appearing anywhere else in the world.