The Day the World Stood Still

How Assad’s worst chemical weapon attack changed history

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The Day the World Stood Still
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for Newlines

“Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World”
By Joby Warrick. Doubleday, 368 pp., $29.95 (Hardcover)

“We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People”
By Eliot Higgins. Bloomsbury. 229 pp. $30.46 (Hardcover)

“Toxic: A History of Nerve Agents, From Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia”
By Dan Kaszeta. Oxford University Press. 400 pp. $34.95 (Hardcover)

“My Country: A Syrian Memoir”
By Kassem Eid. Bloomsbury. 224 pp. $16.56 (Hardcover)

In the early hours of Aug. 21, 2013, Scott Cairns was struggling to sleep in his room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus. Cairns was part of a United Nations mission headed by the Swedish scientist Åke Sellström to investigate the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. The mission included representatives from the World Health Organization and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). As the head of the OPCW contingent, Cairns had cause to be apprehensive. Samples recovered from the lungs of a woman killed in an attack on Saraqeb four months earlier had confirmed that the regime was using the nerve agent sarin. A year earlier, on Aug. 20, 2012, then-U.S. President Barack Obama had issued a warning, declaring the use of chemical weapons a red line that would trigger a military response. The stakes for the regime were high, and it seemed determined to frustrate the mission.

At 2:30 a.m., Cairns noticed flashes on the hills to the north of Damascus. From his window, he could see an artillery barrage arc over the city and hit targets in the east. The attack went on for an hour. After a pause, at about 5 a.m., the attack resumed, this time hitting the southwest of the city. The bombardment lasted till dawn, and as visibility increased, Cairns observed that smoke from the attack hung low, engulfing the Ghouta neighborhood in the east.

Cairns had just witnessed the biggest chemical attack of the 21st century, the first major use of nerve agents since 1988, when Saddam Hussein killed up to 5,000 Kurds in Halabja with a mix of sarin, tabun, and VX. The first attack had hit the Zamalka and Ein Tarma neighborhoods of Eastern Ghouta, the second targeted Moadamiya, 12 miles to the west. First reports of the chemical attack appeared on social media from Ein Tarma at 2:45 a.m. and from Zamalka at 2:47 a.m. Within hours, hundreds of videos and images had been posted from 12 locations in the two suburbs showing terrified victims struggling to breathe, foaming at the mouth, vomiting, and convulsing.

Photos also emerged of the two types of munitions that were used in the attacks. Eastern Ghouta was hit by the 330mm “Volcano,” a Soviet Grad rocket modified with a chemical canister and stabilizing fins; Moadamiya was hit by the 140mm M-14 Soviet artillery rocket. Later that day, based on data from hospital and medical facilities, the Local Coordination Committees recorded 1,338 deaths; nine days later, a U.S. government assessment would put the death toll at 1,429, including 426 children.

The flashes Cairns had witnessed came from the Republican Guard base on Mount Qasioun, which is less than 2 miles from Syria’s main chemical weapons lab – Institute 3000 of the Scientific Studies and Research Center – located in Jamraya. The same compound also houses Branch 450, where chemical weapons are stored, mixed, and loaded before their deployment. On Aug. 18, U.S. signals and geospatial intelligence had already picked up activity that suggested preparation for a chemical attack. In the aftermath of the attack, the nearly 3,600 patients received at the three main hospitals showed no physical injuries but displayed symptoms consistent with nerve agent exposure – runny noses, labored breathing, constricted pupils, blurred vision, disorientation, nausea, vomiting, debility, and loss of consciousness. German intelligence had meanwhile intercepted a call between a Hezbollah commander and the Iranian Embassy in which the former blamed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for losing his nerve and ordering the chemical attack.

In Washington, Obama convened an urgent meeting of his National Security Council to deliberate a response. The attack was a violation of international norms and a brazen breach of Obama’s red line. At a Situation Room meeting on Aug. 22, it was unanimously agreed that the U.S. should retaliate militarily. But it couldn’t risk action while the U.N. mission was still on the ground. In the following days, Obama and then-U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power failed to persuade U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to pull the inspectors from Damascus. Ban was adamant that they should be allowed to complete their mission. The regime, however, was refusing to let the inspectors in. When Sellström asked the regime’s main interlocutor, Brigadier General Hassan al Sharif, to let them at least speak to the survivors, he refused. “It’s of no use to you,” al Sharif said. “No one is coming out alive.”

While it was stalling the U.N. inspectors, the regime had intensified its bombardment of the gassed neighborhoods. In the 24 hours after the chemical attack, it rained artillery and rocket fire on them at a rate four times higher than in the previous 10 days. The shelling would continue for the next five days. “Whatever evidence Sellström’s team had hoped to collect,” writes the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joby Warrick in “Red Line”, “there would now be less of it.” In anticipation of U.S. airstrikes, the regime had also started moving detainees from several prisons into air bases and military facilities – to be used as human shields.

Much has been written about the use of chemical weapons during the war in Syria, but the accounts are partial. The virtue of Warrick’s book is that it provides a panoramic reconstruction of the chemical attack and its aftermath. We see it from the eyes of survivors, doctors, activists, disarmament experts, diplomats, and policymakers. The book cuts from scenes on the ground in Eastern Ghouta, to the U.N. inspectors in Damascus, to National Security Council meetings in the White House, telling the story with urgency and clarity. It is particularly good on the efforts of doctors and activists who took extraordinary risks to document and preserve evidence of war crimes and international public servants like the Guatemalan diplomat Edmond Mulet, who, as head of the U.N.-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism, defied Russian threats and intimidation to present irrefutable evidence of the regime’s criminality.

Warrick describes the dilemma the White House faced in the days following the attack. The Pentagon had already picked 50 targets, and five Arleigh Burke-class destroyers were positioned in the eastern Mediterranean, ready to strike with Tomahawk cruise missiles. But the regime was stalling, delaying the U.N. mission in the hope of breaking Obama’s momentum. Ironically, this aim was also shared by the U.N. mission chief, Sellström. Two years later, in a TED talk in Umeå, Sweden, he would tell the audience, “That day and the following day they [the U.S., U.K., and France] are very motivated to go to war. Five days later, they will not be as motivated to go to war. The strategy for us was to hang on for five days at least in the country and be the obstacle.”

By that time, the White House saw the U.N. investigation as superfluous. The mission’s remit only allowed it to investigate whether a chemical weapon had been used, not who used it. And no one – not even the regime or Russia – was disputing that a chemical weapon had been used.

But the inspectors had taken considerable risks to be in Damascus, and they were loath to leave without completing their mission. On Aug. 26, when the regime finally allowed them into Moadamiya, they were able to gather environmental and physical samples that would help them identify the nerve agent used in the attack. In Eastern Ghouta, they found rocket fragments that would help them profile the delivery mechanism. More importantly, by aligning two holes that a rocket had made as it pierced through a rooftop and hit a wall, they were able to establish its trajectory.

Days later, independent labs in Sweden and Finland would use the samples gathered by the inspectors to establish that the residue found on the rockets was military-grade sarin. They would also find an unusual substance – hexamine – which is specific to the regime’s method of producing binary sarin. And though this was outside the mission’s remit, its final report would mention that the rocket flight had “an azimuth of 105 degrees, an East/Southeast trajectory,” confirming that it came from the northwest – that is, the direction of Mount Qasioun.

The effort was heroic. The inspectors had braved sniper fire, among other threats, to get to the crime scene and discharged their mission with steely professionalism. The forensic value of the mission is obvious. But its practical implications are less clear. Over seven years later, the U.N. officially still categorizes the event as “disputed.” In his TED talk, Sellström echoed the U.N.’s agnostic judgment, despite what his own mission had established.

The mission’s findings had negligible impact on the war. Indeed, in the following years, the regime escalated its violence with both conventional and unconventional weapons. The delay caused by the mission, however, sabotaged any chance of accountability. The regime’s gambit had paid off: By the time the mission exited Syria, the momentum was lost. The British parliament had voted against action in Syria, and, following a call with Angela Merkel in which the German leader cautioned against action, Obama had lost his nerve. (“It was the first time I saw him look uneasy about acting in Syria,” national security adviser Ben Rhodes would later write.) On Aug. 30, the day the U.S. government released an unclassified summary of intelligence confirming al-Assad’s guilt, Obama surprised many by passing the buck to the Republican-led Congress, thereby guaranteeing there would be no action.

If the price of the mission’s findings was accountability for the victims, was it worth it?

One answer is presented in “We Are Bellingcat,” a book by Eliot Higgins, founder of the eponymous open-source investigations unit that is transforming journalism. The book chronicles the group’s evolution from its humble origins in an unemployed gaming enthusiast’s personal blog to its stratospheric success as an indomitable, open-source investigative enterprise. It does what Bellingcat excels at: It explains in forensic detail the methods it uses to crack the most intractable cases of individual or mass crime. But what makes the book more than just a catalogue of successes is the engaging manner in which Higgins describes the organic and cooperative approach through which its methods evolved. Among Higgins’ earliest triumphs was his investigation into the Aug. 21 chemical attack, one that would earn him a New Yorker profile and the recognition to be able to launch Bellingcat.

On the morning of the attack, Higgins had started analyzing videos and images emerging from Moadamiya and Eastern Ghouta. “Rockets had landed, hitting with a thud but no explosion,” he notes. “The presence of several intact rockets suggested they had not been intended to cause explosive damage.” Soon he came across images of an unusual rocket type that the residents of Eastern Ghouta had found. These were “long, thin, grey, tubular rockets, each around 10 feet long” with tailfins and, tellingly, “an oversized warhead on the front.” Higgins had seen these rockets before in videos from January 2013, posted by pro-regime accounts. This was the “Volcano.” And the ones found in Eastern Ghouta had modifications that provided clues to its likely payload.

“The base of the warhead had two ports, one of which was a screw cap. That meant it could not have been filled with a gas and the port was too small to readily fill with a solid. The most likely content would have been liquid.”

Higgins’ other major finding was confirming the trajectory of the rockets. To do this, he first established the precise location of the impact site by triangulating geographical features from five different images. Having determined the location, he used shadows in the photo to calculate the trajectory of the projectile. Tracing the rocket back on its flightpath, he established its likely launch site: a regime military installation. (Indeed, the rocket trajectories from eastern and western Ghouta intersect over the Republican Guard base on Mount Qasioun.) Higgins had replicated the U.N. mission’s most significant finding without leaving his room.

In “Red Line” Warrick mentions Sellström’s admirable commitment to the “scientific method.” But facts do not have their own compelling force, and procedural imperatives can obscure larger truths. The Sellström mission was invaluable in confirming the use of sarin, but such knowledge is only useful insofar as it serves the cause of justice. Was the aim merely to collect data, or to collect data in the service of accountability and preventing further violations? Because in the latter aim, it decidedly failed. The delay the mission caused allowed al-Assad to get away with mass murder. “But for the ongoing presence of the inspectors,” Power tells Warrick, “we would have struck” – probably by Aug. 25. “There’s no question.”

Mazen al Hamada was among those devastated by Obama’s retreat. He was one of the political prisoners taken to the al-Mazzeh airbase to serve as a human shield. A guard explained the regime’s logic to him: “If they drop their bombs here, they’ll kill all you prisoners. We’ll be rid of you, and we can say that it was the Americans who killed you.” For al Hamada, who had suffered months of torture in the regime’s prison (whose harrowing details are recounted in Sara Afshar’s extraordinary film “Syria’s Disappeared: The Case Against Assad”), this was welcome news. Warrick describes al Hamada’s thinking: “The Americans were coming for al-Assad and the hated regime, perhaps. Inshallah – God willing – they would destroy them both. The fact that he and other inmates might also be destroyed didn’t seem so important.”

Kassem Eid, too, had reasons to welcome airstrikes. The Syrian Palestinian civil society activist was in Moadamiya on Aug. 21. He had barely survived the sarin attack and the subsequent shelling of the hospital where he was being treated. “My Country” is his lyrical account of life in Syria before, during, and after the revolt. In his book, he describes his struggles as a precocious child in the enforced conformism of Syria’s schools, his unease with the country’s sectarian divisions and hierarchies, his youthful rebellion and romances, his first experience of the regime’s arbitrary detention and violence, the exuberant dawn of the revolution, the sense of betrayal after the August attack, his daring escape, his disillusionment as a refugee, and his eventual fall into despair.

Eid was witness to the regime’s heavy-handed response to the revolt: the escalating violence, the starvation sieges, the artillery fire, the airstrikes, and the chemical attack. Eid’s peaceful activism had not protected him from the wrath of the regime’s ubiquitous secret service. But he persisted, using his language skills to translate and share online news about developments in Syria.

On Aug. 31, when Obama took the podium at the White House for a statement on Syria, Eid was watching.

“Ten days ago, the world watched in horror as men, women, and children were massacred in Syria in the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century,” Obama began. The attack was “an assault on human dignity.” And, “after careful deliberation,” Obama announced, “I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets.”

Eid was elated. “When I first heard Obama vow to strike Assad, when he declared in soaring rhetoric that the U.S. would not look away from the atrocities of tyrants, I had shed tears of joy,” he writes.

What Obama said next, however, sealed Syria’s fate.

“I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress,” he said. But Congress was on leave! And in the same speech he had admitted that he had the power “to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.” He went on: “If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? … To armies who carry out genocide?”

It was an exercise in bad faith. Obama was retreating from action but wanted Congress to take the blame. As he’d admit years later, by the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 30, he had already decided against action (a “very proud moment” he’d call it). More egregiously, he dusted off hoary phrases to shift blame onto Syrians themselves. He called the war an expression of “ancient sectarian differences”; he pandered to isolationist impulses and called it “someone else’s war.”

Eid was incredulous but too emotionally invested to abandon hope. That happened after Obama announced a deal with Russia that would allow al-Assad to escape consequences as long as he surrendered his chemical weapons.

“In times of war or natural disaster hope is priceless,” Eid writes. “It can make up for low ammunition, food shortages, stress, fatigue, and almost any physical ailment. Hope is the fuel of hearts and souls. Until the moment Obama announced his deal with Russia, I and my friends had hoped that humankind would come to our aid. Afterwards I gave up on humanity. There is nothing – nothing – worse than feeling the world has forgotten you.”

It was this hopelessness that compelled Eid, an idealistic media activist, to finally pick up a gun.

For someone like Eid, who survived the unusual cruelty of a sarin attack and saw others suffer and succumb, the betrayal was particularly incomprehensible. He describes what his experience of Aug. 21 was like.

“My eyes were burning, my head was throbbing, and my throat was rasping for air. I was suffocating. I tried my best to inhale – once, twice, three times. All I heard was that same horrible scraping sound as my throat blocked. The drumming pain in my head became unbearable. The world began to blur. … Invisible needles stabbed my eyes. A searing pain clawed at my stomach.”

Being on an upper floor likely saved Eid’s life, since sarin is heavier than air. There was death and panic in the building. When he rushed downstairs, he found a scene of greater anguish. “Dozens of men, women, and children were writhing in pain on the ground.”

Then, “out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a large lump lying in the dirt … it was a small boy with his face to the ground. … All I could focus on was the innocent face of this boy stained with grotesque shades of red, yellow, and blue. His eyes returned an empty, glassy stare. White vomit oozed from his mouth, and a grating sound rasped from his throat as he struggled to breathe.”

Eid is among the few who have been exposed to sarin and lived to tell the tale. From the survivors, a picture emerges of what agonies it inflicts on the human body and mind. Timothy Blades, the man who would oversee the operation to safely destroy Syria’s surrendered weapons, describes to Warrick what an accidental exposure did to him. It started with a gushing of his nose. “Then his vision began to narrow, and he felt intense pressure, as though someone had lowered a Volkswagen Beetle onto his chest. Finally came the sensation that Blades calls the ‘dead cat’: extreme nausea coupled with a feeling of something big and rotten stuck inside his abdomen. Blades began gagging into his respirator.”

The science behind this is explained by Dan Kaszeta in his book “Toxic,” the most comprehensive account of the origins and evolution of nerve agents as weapons. “The effects on their vision were a condition called miosis,” Kaszeta writes. Pupils contract, vision blurs, eyes become painfully sensitive to light. As sarin attacks the nervous system, your chest tightens, breathing muscles are paralyzed, you are assailed by nausea, you drool, you lose control over your bodily functions, you suffer violent convulsions, and, eventually, you suffocate to death.

Kaszeta describes the accidental discovery of nerve agents by German scientists while they were experimenting with cheaper methods to produce pesticides. By adding cyanide to organophosphates, they developed a formula that was far more lethal. The military co-opted this invention, and it ultimately took the form of tabun. Further experiments led to the creation of sarin, which was twice as toxic though less persistent – not as useful for area denial but good for killing many people quickly. Neither of these was put to use during World War II, and after Germany’s surrender, its stockpiles and industrial know-how were appropriated by the U.S., Britain, and Russia, who later also produced their own variants (e.g., VX and Novichoks). And while key Nazis like Alois Brunner had fled to Damascus, it was through the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Egypt that this know-how eventually reached Syria.

Kaszeta, a former U.S. Army chemical weapons specialist, tells this story with authority and precision in a deeply researched book that presents science without jargon and history without bias. The inescapable conclusion is that nerve agents are not easy to produce. They require industrial capacity and a large financial commitment; they are dangerous to store and difficult to deploy. This puts to rest the claim promoted by the Syrian regime and its sympathizers that the nerve agent used on Aug. 21 was “kitchen sarin” produced by the rebels themselves.

Toward the end of his TED talk in Umeå, Sellström claimed that his mission had “brought back respect for international law.” Indeed, under Russian pressure, the regime had handed over its prewar stock of chemical weapons and joined the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Sellström and the Obama administration chalked this as success. And the regime was content to grant them the symbolic victory as long as it had no practical effect on its actions. It was not about to give up a tool that was critical to its military logic. Chemical weapons allowed it to flush civilians out of their underground hideouts, making them easy prey for its conventional weapons.

The regime never intended to abide by the CWC’s norms and the SSRC continued to produce chemical weapons in defiance of OPCW monitors. And while it ceased the use of sarin for a few years, it initiated a sustained and aggressive chemical war using cheaper chlorine bombs, launching 227 such attacks from September 2013 to April 2018. In 2017, it even resumed the use of sarin. And though, unlike Obama, his successor retaliated twice, it failed to affect the regime’s behavior because, once lost, deterrence is hard to reestablish without a sustained commitment to punishing every new violation.

The events of August 2013 were seismic, and their effects reverberate well into the present. As of June that year, the U.N. had estimated a death toll in Syria of 93,000. By April 2016, when the U.N. issued its last estimate, the death toll had crossed 400,000 (according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, the true figure was over 470,000), suggesting a clear escalation by a regime conscious of its impunity. This also turned Syria’s steady trickle of refugees into a deluge, eventually leading to the displacement of half the country’s population. Most of these refugees were absorbed by Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, but as some started to head west, it sparked a xenophobic backlash that is still being exploited by the far right. The vacuum, meanwhile, allowed Russia to reassert itself as a global power.

These consequences were not unforeseen, and they should have been part of the decision-making calculus. But they were not factored into the options presented to Obama by either his military or intelligence advisers. Understandably, their advice was based on an assessment of perceived national interest. But such interests, as Power herself had noted in her 2002 book “A Problem from Hell” are narrowly defined and don’t take into account the moral cost and long-term consequences.

But where military restraint after the Iraq fiasco is understandable and necessary, the tendency of intelligence agencies to abide by murky classification protocols and withhold information at critical moments diminishes both their credibility and effectiveness.

Warrick starts his book with the startling revelation that from 1988 until his execution in April 2002, the chief scientist at Institute 3000, the man who pioneered Syria’s binary sarin method, had been on the CIA’s payroll. Sarin is corrosive and notoriously difficult to store. Though the U.S. had created the binary method – keeping its more stable precursors, isopropyl alcohol and methylphosphonyl difluoride, separate until the moment of use – it had never quite mastered it. The Syrian scientist’s innovation was the additive hexamine, which served as an acid scavenger and gave the sarin stability during its deployment. This also gave the sarin a distinctive fingerprint through which its source could be identified (The OPCW would later use this fingerprint to confirm that the sarin used in August matched the one used in the March 2013 attack on Khan al-Assal and the April 4, 2017, attack on Khan Sheikhoun.)

On Aug. 30, when the U.S. released its unclassified case against the regime, it was vague on details. To many people, it recalled events of a decade earlier when the U.S. had made similar claims about Iraq’s chemical weapons program that later turned out to be false. This lack of transparency allowed Russia, the regime, and what Higgins calls the “counterfactual community” to corrupt public discourse with conspiracy theories. In the age of weaponized disinformation, ex-cathedra judgments of the kind issued by the U.S. government had little purchase. All that the regime and its allies had to do to inhibit action was to manufacture doubt.

Then there is the question of politicized intelligence. It was an intelligence failure when, before the Iraq War, CIA director George Tenet exaggerated a weak case as a “slam dunk” to appease the gung-ho boss; it was also an intelligence failure when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper took a slam dunk and presented it as a weak case to indulge the misgivings of his dithering boss.

This is where Higgins’ subtitle, “An Intelligence Agency of the People,” resonates. What has distinguished Bellingcat is the transparency of its methods (Higgins is refreshingly honest about instances where they’ve had to use more dubious means – such as paying a Russian government functionary via the dark web to secure flight records that helped seal the case against the would-be assassins of former Soviet spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia) and its willingness to investigate human rights abusers regardless of identity or ideology. It is because of this transparency that it has been able to draw on the goodwill and cognitive surplus of collaborators all over the globe and shown itself to be far more effective than any state intelligence agency. And unlike state intelligence agencies, which are committed to the interests of a state, this innovation allows for the emergence of an intelligence community committed to the principles of transparency, accountability, and justice – one that would call a slam dunk a slam dunk.

Military-grade sarin is 26 times deadlier than cyanide. It is difficult to imagine the terror a child exposed to its cruelty must experience – the enveloping darkness, the suffocating weight, the overpowering nausea. But to multiply that experience by 426 – the number of children who died on Aug. 21 – is to enter an inhuman realm. Perhaps it’s the lack of imagination that protects the powerful from the awareness of the consequences of their actions (or, in the case of Obama, inaction). The horror that 1,429 people experienced that day was terminal. The survivors, however, had to live with both the pain and the hopelessness. In the 10 days after the attack, it seemed the world was finally paying attention and relief was in sight. After Obama’s speech, hope was extinguished. And as the besieged and battered survivors of the attack receded into despair, the world stood still.

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