The web has been an invaluable resource to follow the tragic events in Syria. Bloggers have played an incredible and global role in reviewing and sifting through the copious media published on the web by people in Syria. This has greatly enhanced the public and policy makers understanding of the conflict. No one has played a bigger role than British blogger Elliot Higgins and his Brown Moses blog in cataloging the weapons used in the conflict and their origins and effects. This blog attempts to make a tiny contribution to the conversation about the Syrian war by using the work of Mr. Higgins and the Brown Moses blog.
The alleged chemical weapons attack in East Damascus area in the early morning hours of August 21, 2013 has been the focus of world attention. The two most important questions are 1) what happened and 2) who is responsible.
This blog posts adds another possible explanation to the conversation about what happened on August 21 in Damascus and in other places around Syria. My theory is that the attack was made by regime or pro-regime forces (Hezbollah or foreign militia) but was not a designed chemical weapon attack. Instead, pro-regime forces employed rockets intended to cause a thermobaric explosion or a fuel-air explosion, which are different weapons but used interchangeably here for purposes of this post.
The effects of a thermobaric weapon (and fuel air weapons) mimic some of the effects of chemical weapons. Individuals within the blast area can have the air sucked out of their lungs, suffer internal organ damage, including ruptured lungs, and suffocate, among the lethal effects of the weapon. The chemicals used to fuel the explosion are highly toxic and any unexploded chemical disbursed from the rocket can be deadly if inhaled.
These images, from the Brown Moses Blog from YouTube stills, have been associated with the alleged chemical attacks by regime forces in the past, and they were identified in the August 21 attack.
They appear to be non-Chinese and non-Russian rockets. Some have speculated this is because the weapons are manufactured locally. Others have speculated they might be rebel homemade weapons. They all have a unique tail fin design with a ring around the tail of the rocket. They appear to be somewhere in the 90 to 117mm range of size (rocket propellant main section only, excluding the warhead, tail ring and fins, which are much larger).
Most prior videos have only focused on the rocket. However, today we saw videos of the area around the rocket landing site.
There are several things to note in the video. First, the blast hole in the dirt is small and not consistent the an impact from a typical high explosive blast that is contained within the munition. Second, the cameraman and narrator are pointing out the very significant damage to the concrete builidng nearby. The blast has blown off walls three stories in the air. The narrator apparently also says that the field where the rocket struck was filled with plants that were wiped clean by the rocket and the camera shows where the vegetation was sheared at ground level. Elliot Higgins of the Brown Moses Blog tweeted that he didn’t think the damage to the building was related, and noted that he didn’t believe the narrator’s claim that the field used to be filled with plants. Admitedly, the damage seen in the video and described by the narrator would be unlikely with a rocket designed to disburse chemical weapons. Both the outsized damage to the building relative to the size of the rocket, and the removal of all plants, however, would be consistent with a thermobaric or fuel air weapon.
In this video, we see clearly that the narrator is showing that the rocket completely cleared the area of vegetation. One commentator had questioned that crops would be planted at this time of year in Syria, but in this video we can see an adjacent parcel full of growing crops. The narrator is down on the ground with a nice closeup of the damage to the plants. Fuel air explosive are known for their ability to clear vegetation. Human Rights Watch, in its “Backgrounder on Russian Fuel Air Bombs”, writes, “According to one Russian military scientist writing for the Russian military magazine Voyennyye Znaniya (Military Knowledge) . . . “fuel-air explosives are capable…of completely destroying in a given area vegetation and agricultural crops that have been planted.”
It seems highly improbable that a weapon designed to spread a chemical agent to cause death would contain an explosive charge powerful enough to destroy and flatten vegetation in a large blast radius, as well as destroy concrete walls. I’ve reviewed the literature on chemical delivery systems and not seen any chemical weapons designed with close the explosive force that this rocket displays in this video. This makes sense because a large explosion would likely destroy the chemical agent.
The warhead part of the missile did burst and pieces of the warhead, which consists of thin pieces of metal, are lying on the ground in the video. The fuel air explosive then detonated or deflagrated in the air, causing the black soot on the side of the building and creating a pressure wave that knocked down the concrete walls. There was not a large high explosive charge in the rocket. In a fuel air explosion, the rocket contains only a small bursting charge and a ignition charge. The rocket continued down to the ground as the blast and deflagration occurred above it. For further evidence, watch all the videos available on fuel air or thermobaric bomb casings in Syria available on the Brown Moses blog. These videos show that in a fuel air bomb or rocket the rocket or bomb casing is often not destroyed as in a high explosive ordinance.
The next video was taken from Adra on August 5th and shows a very similar rocket. First, we see a dog twitching, presumably consistent with a chemical attack and ingestion of ethylene oxide but also completely consistent with massive internal tissue and organ damage. At :33, the video switches to a view of the road that has been blackened. Some have speculated this is from a chemical liquid, but it appears more consistent with an above ground blast that has blackened the blast area. In the alternative, it could be the fuel from the fuel-air weapons that did not fully ignite and landed in nearby areas.
Add to this reports by experts on chemical weapons that say that while the Aug. 21st attack is consistent in some ways with a chemical attack, in other ways it does not appear to be consistent. Many chemical weapons experts still have many questions about what happened after viewing the videos of the victims. Notably, most reports have noted a smell from the chemical, described in many different ways. Sarin is an odorless gas, but ethylene oxide is not. It is very possible that a fuel air or thermobaric rocket could use a different explosive chemical than ethylene oxide. The reports of smells has caused Western intelligence agencies to hypothesize that the chemical was a mixture of sarin and other chemicals.
On the top is what has been labeled by Elliot Higgins as an Improvised Rocket Assisted Munition (IRAM) that was used by pro-regime forces in Qusair. Brown Moses points out that an FSA commander in Qusair said that they lost the battle because regime forces were “firing Iranian vacuum bombs, which caused whole building to fall down. ” As Brown Moses points out, he was likely referring to these weapons pictured above. Thermobaric and fuel air bombs are often referred to as vacuum bombs.
The tail ring is most important. These rockets share that unusual tail fin and tail ring design as the rockets shown in the August 21st attack. Elliot Higgins and an expert on these weapons also noted the very unusual tail design. The upper part of the rocket also appears to be identical to the rockets from the August 21st attack. In the photo on the right, the tail ring appears thicker but a similar design.
This is a video from the Brown Moses blog of an object reportedly dropped from a helicopter during an alleged chemical attack in Saraqeb. Note the white powder on the ground. This could be a powdered metal, such as powdered aluminum, often used in thermobaric explosives. This powder has been seen elsewhere in Syria. A powdered metal, used in thermobaric explosives, seems most likely.
Fuel air explosives can have similar effects of chemical attacks. The United States Defense Intelligence Agency produced a 1993 study about fuel air weapons. The study says, “the kill mechanism against living targets is unique–and unpleasant…. What kills is the pressure wave, and more importantly, the subsequent rarefaction [vacuum], which ruptures the lungs.… If the fuel deflagrates but does not detonate, victims will be severely burned and will probably also inhale the burning fuel. Since the most common [Fuel Air Explosive] fuels, ethylene oxide and propylene oxide, are highly toxic, undetonated FAE should prove as lethal to personnel caught within the cloud as most chemical agents. (Italics added.) This point cannot be emphasized enough. If the rockets identified by the Brown Moses blog are unexploded or partially exploded fuel air explosives, then the chemicals in the rockets could create a cloud as lethal as most chemical weapons.
Wikipedia and others cite the CIA for the following about fuel air explosives: “The effect of an FAE explosion within confined spaces is immense. Those near the ignition point are obliterated. Those at the fringe are likely to suffer many internal, and thus invisible injuries, including burst eardrums and crushed inner ear organs, severe concussions, ruptured lungs and internal organs, and possibly blindness.” Again, several of these effects are consistent with some of the victims’ injuries seen on videos of the August 21 attack.
The Russian military has been a world leader in the development of fuel air and thermobaric munitions. As Syria and Russia have historically had close military relations, it is logical that they would share military strategies and weapons. In December 1999, Russian troops fighting in Chechnya were alleged to have used chemical weapons. It was later revealed that these weapons were probably fuel-air munitions, also called “aerosol” and “vacuum” bombs by the Chechen rebels.
Here is a quote from the Federation of American Scientists Military Anaysis Network: “In early December 1999 Chechnya accused the Russian military of using an unidentified type of chemical weapon in the assault on Grozny. According to Chechen reports, over 30 people were killed in the attack, which witnesses said produced unusually yellow flames, and more than 200 others suffered various degrees of burns. Although unconfirmed, these reports are suggestive of the incomplete detonation of the fuel aerosol dispersed from a fuel-air explosive. Munitions of this type require precise aerosol dispersal of fuel to ensure proper mixing with atmospheric oxygen, followed by precisely timed firing of a small initiator charge to produce a large explosion. Improper disperal of the fuel aerosol or a mis-timed firing of the initiator could produce a large fireball, but the resulting deflagration would not produce the blast shock wave of the intended explosive detonation. The challenge of reliably producing consistent detonations has limited the application of this type of munition in Western arsenals.” http://www.fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/land/row/tos-1.htm.
The U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has listed approximately 400 chemicals as immediately dangerous to life and health, and ethylene oxide, commonly used as the main chemical in fuel air explosives, is one. When released, liquid ethylene oxide will quickly turn to vapor. (Source: American Chemistry Council). The US National Academy of Sciences has set out the lethal and disabling values for Ethylene Oxide at different time intervals. At the 10 minute interval, Ethylene Oxide is lethal at 360 ppm or 648mg/m3. In one hour of exposure, the lethal level is 200ppm (360mg/m3). It is disabling within 10 minutes at 80ppm(144mg/m3). Disabling is defined as the airborne concentration in which the general population could experience irreversible or other serious, long lasting, adverse health effects, or impaired ability to escape. http://www.americanchemistry.com/ProductsTechnology/Ethylene-Oxide/EO-Product-Stewardship-Manual-3rd-edition/EO-Product-Stewardship-Manual-Personnel-Exposure.PDF.
I made some “back of the envelope” calculations of the size of a lethal cloud of ethylene oxide from an undetonated fuel air explosive. For purposes of this calculation, I will assume that the Syrian regime fuel air rockets shown in the various videos and linked to the alleged attacks contained 100lbs. (45kg) of ethylene oxide, a number which may be too high or too low. I will also assume equal dispersion. Converting 45kg equals 45000000mg. If we assume the rocket did not detonate or deflagerate, and all of the chemical was disbursed, then the ethylene oxide would be lethal over 69,444 m3 (meters cubed). In English measurements, that equals 17 acres. (A reader has pointed out that this would be at a height of 1m. If we assume a cloud 10m height, then we would have a cloud 1 to 2 acres per rocket. However ethylene oxide is heavier than air and sinks.) We know there were multiple rockets. Some news reports have said up to 30 rockets were located. If half did not detonate, that would be 15 rockets. If 25% did not detonate or deflagerate, then 6 rockets could have disbursed a deadly cloud over a densely populated area.
A final point: This is not to say that there could not have been other munitions used in Eastern Damascus on August 21 that contained chemical weapons and were intended as a chemical weapon. The UN is looking at some munitions that I referenced in my post last night that are much more likely in my view to possibly have contained a chemical warfare agent. In my opinion, though, at least some of the types of rockets referenced in this post are intended as fuel air explosives, not chemical warfare weapons.
In summary: From the work of the Brown Moses blog and Elliot Higgins, we know that pro-regime forces in Qusair used similar sized rockets, which have the same very unusual tail design and unusual upper part of the rocket. This strongly points to regime use of the rockets on Aug. 21st. We know that FSA forces described these similar rockets in Qusair as “vacuum bombs” which caused extensive building damage relative to most rockets of the same size. We know that vacuum bombs are another name for thermobaric or fuel air explosives (not the same but used interchangeably here for purposes of this post). There is strong evidence that one of the Aug. 21 rockets caused blast damage that flattened and destroyed nearby vegetation and destroyed concrete walls three stories high, but left no blast crater, which indicated the explosion occurred in the air, instead of upon impact and did not contain high explosives. Thermobaric or fuel air explosives commonly use highly toxic and lethal chemicals to cause the explosion, and inhalation of these chemicals can be lethal and cause the same effects as other chemical weapons. Fuel air weapons that do not explode or only partially detonate can create very large clouds of deadly chemicals. Videos of these rocket’s landing sites appear to show some evidence of powerful explosions and possibly high heat blasts. Splattering of a chemical agent upon rocket impact would be equally consistent, if not more consistent, with a fuel air explosive than a rocket intended for chemical warfare. In all of the chemical attacks, chemical warfare experts have been puzzled by the chemical attacks being less deadly than would be expected for a typical chemical weapon attack. Ethylene Oxide is deadly, but less lethal than sarin.
Ethylene Oxide, commonly used in fuel air explosives, can be deadly if inhaled in high enough concentrations and if inhaled can cause muscle twitching, flushing, headache, diminished hearing, acidosis, vomiting, dizziness, and transient loss of consciousness. It can irritate the skin but is not deadly to the touch. It is less deadly than sarin or other common weaponized chemical weapons.
My intention in this post is not to defend the regime or defend the loss of life in these rocket attacks, but rather to present a theory for consideration by others. I only want the world community to get this right after rigorous analysis. Although Western nations including the US, Great Britain and Israel uses fuel air and thermobaric in warfare, I personally condemn their use in any situation where civilians could be harmed as I equally condemn car bombs that harm civilians.
Edit on August 27th: Two excellent analysis of these same rockets can be found here:
Edit Aug. 28th: Detailed analysis of the thermobaric/fuel air theory for these rockets here:
All of the videos from Elliot Higgins, whose tireless work made this analysis possible: