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Warning: This site contains images and graphic descriptions of extreme violence and/or its effects. It's not as bad as it could be, but is meant to be shocking. Readers should be 18+ or a mature 17 or so. There is also some foul language occasionally, and potential for general upsetting of comforting conventional wisdom. Please view with discretion.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Fail "Caesar" Part 10: On the Silence From Damascus

Fail "Caesar" Part 10: On the Silence From Damascus
by Adam Larson (aka Caustic Logic)
July 6/7, 2016 
small edits July 10

    Many Caesar-skeptics, including myself, have had to note the Syrian government's lackluster counter-offensive to this move in the information war against their country. Their near-silence is surely taken by many as an acknowledgment of guilt. But vague impressions pale next to my massive research - which can largely be seen in the previous 9 parts of the Fail Caesar series, collected here - and explosive report in the works, entitled Do the Caesar Photos Show Rebel Crimes in Syria?. This work so far suggests, but far from proves, that the photos actually document victims of a horrible terrorist presence in the area of Damascus (Ghouta, Daraya, Dara'a, Douma, etc.)

    I think I can show this, and how the effort to invert these crime back against Syria is one of the more sickening things in recent history. My goal is to turn “Caesar” into another in the tradition of “Nayirah” and “Curveball,” known purveyors of lies used to justify two wars against Syria's neighbor, Iraq. 

    But at this point, I'm not even sure I should publish this report. In some frustration, I speak towards President Assad and his advisers, the Syrian public, etc. and also past them to the global public. I'm speaking in English for the moment ... I may try a formal letter in Arabic next, if needed.

     I realize the physical war is more important than the information war, and of course that the "Assad regime's" explanations fall mainly on deaf ears, or worse. I noticed how Syria's request for UN probe of the rebel chemical attack on Khan Al-Assal in March, 2013 was met by the “world community” - stalling the investigation and threatening to turn it into a war-provoking inspections regime until mid-August, with "inspectors" finally arriving just in time to get sidetracked having to confirm sarin in the Ghouta CW attack instead, thus threatening war against Syria ... and investigators finally did confirm sarin was used in Khan al-Assal, but no one noticed, and along the way, rebels reconquered the town and launched a fresh massacre there, perhaps to silence witnesses or make the evidence inaccessible ahead of the probe (see my long article here).
     So I also understand that sometimes speaking up in search of truth and demanding a fair shake is worse than just ignoring the claims or anyone else' findings or opinions, and slogging on with the physical war. And slogging on, and on.
    There are other issues to balance as well - victim/witness and family safety, public morale, maintaining perceptions of strength, etc. Perhaps that's why, as I've heard around, Syrian officials seem reticent to discuss the issue of the "Caesar torture photos" in more detail. Maybe it's just too painful or could cause a panic, or worse yet some horrible terrorist backlash that gets blamed on Damascus and used as an excuse for war. Or maybe they have some degree of real dirty laundry mixed in with the lies, or it's all their crime after all, or maybe whatever. The reason for the hesitancy isn't known.
    Furthermore, the hesitancy might not even be real; officials do bring it up sometimes. On first revelation of the Carter-Ruck report in early 2014, The Syrian Ministry of Justice issued a January 22 statement (cited here) denying any crime. It said in part:
     "The report is a mere gathering of photos of unidentified persons proving that a number of them are foreign terrorists from several nationalities who had been killed when attacking the military checkpoints and civil institutions," the statement said, adding that "part of them are civilians and military personnel who were tortured and killed by the armed terrorist groups because of their support to the state." (emphasis mine)
That might be the most accurate characterization yet, but it's also a bit vague and formulaic-sounding. It wouldn't convince the people who really need convincing.

And since then not much has been said (that I caught anyway). Maybe it got tricky and became a hush-hush subject. But then President Bashar Al-Assad just the other day brought it up again, without even being asked about it, in a July 1 interview with Australia's SBS (as transcribed here), which spurred this post. At one point the interviewer asks Assad about "thousands of government documents" said to have "proved your government sanctioned mass torture and killings."

He clearly means the "Assad Files" as dubbed, which by the way do no such thing. Rather, they seem to be legitimate documents recording a government responding to a crisis, and then there have been attempts to fuse them to the Caesar photos. The closest solid link they could find was one instance of an official responding to reports of fairly mild torture (orders of magnitude from what the images show, anyway), and he was ordering that it be stopped. Otherwise, they have innuendo and more blah blah by supposed witnesses, implicating the men named in the documents in things that hideous (see my analysis here). It's another politicized and baseless sham in the regime-smear campaign, which underlies the regime-bleed campaign.
     But, perhaps from the poor characterization, Assad decided the interviewer meant photos and/or reports about actual torture, not those documents, which he might be aware were totally unconnected. So he says:
"...the reports. The most important report that’s been financed by Qatar, just to defame the Syrian government, and they have no proof, who took the pictures, who are the victims in those pictures, and so on. Like you can forge anything if you want now on the computer. So, it is not credible at all."
     He's still saying this more than two years after the photos first made news? Does he care at all, or have anyone else checking into it, or anything?
Assad's Questions
Forged on the computer? 
    He didn't question the location directly, but Assad suggested the photos were perhaps digital forgeries. Carter-Ruck's commissioned experts say FBI analysts checked and found no sign of serious alteration. I tend to believe that - digital photo faking is tricky and rare. The photos might be faked anyway, but probably using on-site photography of actual bodies that still, to me, require an explanation.

   This on-site part is important, and helps explain how President Assad should have easy access to the answers. The photos were taken - at least partly and probably mostly - at the garage behind military hospital 601. In mid-March, 2015 the odd view at right was released, showing starved victims and allowing a correct and unquestionable placement. Mount Qassioun is visible to the northeast, and all foreground features consistently match. This puts Mazzeh prison nearby but off-frame to the right, and President Assad's palace off to the left, a couple hundred meters up the next hill. (See centered location on Wikimapia). 

Anyone contesting this placement (many have) should check the match as shown by Human Rights Watch (report) or by Bellingcat. It's not a political call but a simple visual match. In fact, I had already decided it was probably this spot – the middle building on the lot's south side - months earlier and from much less evidence - basically the info you can see below.
   That's from this (repaired) photo (was too washed-out), also shown below, analyzed for basic directions from sunlight (direction of view is southeast). It seems to be the same shed used in both photos, as if this is the usual place for this process. It would perhaps be marked as such. Maybe under the blur on the center pillar it says: place for (don't let the viewer see what). Unidentified bodies?

For what it's worth, the date is unclear with my limited resources. On the right-hand edge of the photo, that seems to be the head and shoulder of distinctive victim 215-1895 (face) (and at right, shown by Al-Jazeera with number but not face). He and others of similar number are logged early in the folder 4-6 (June 4), 2013. That has a huge number of bodies added in a span only three days, suggested, so likely including prior images (last folder was dated March, and was not huge). There is also some February entries confusion, and the single woman victim, Rihab Allawi (600 entries later, 2935), is also in 4-6, said to die in February, April, and June, depending (profile). So it's unclear, and these folder dates are just the kind of thing that really can be reasonably faked anyway.

    But most photos are pretty clear in showing the same type of bodies seen here, the same type of numbers used, and/or at the same place. A handful are listed as from another hospital in Damascus (Tishreen), and one at least is probably from Dara'a, likely even in someone's home (Mahmoud al-Zoubi, an unusual case, and the very first one too, chronologically).  

    So clearly, this is all in Syria and it does matter. But the question too few have asked is: just what is it they were documenting here? Of course, that's been explained already, but we're questioning those words.  

Who took the pictures?
If the president really wants to know, he could ask. Damascus should know or have some good guesses. They should check their files for someone fitting this profile:
  • "a senior sergeant in Syria’s Army”
  • "spent 13 years working as a forensic photographer"
  • from 2011, was stationed at military hospital 601, taking the photos in question, of those huge numbers of dead people there (did anyone notice when that happened?)
  • compare that list to employees who seemed to die suddenly around August 20, 2013, but left behind no body or one that could be someone else' (they faked it! Ha, tricked you!), and then had his core family vanish right after (smuggled out so you couldn't kill them! Ha!).
There should be one or zero employee files matching that story. Easy enough to narrow "Caesar" down from that pool, right? So if it the story is true, as everyone's been assured, the code-name would not serve its stated purpose of protecting his identity from the people with the files (and so the true reason to make-up a "curveball" type code-name could be debated). If there's no such person, then just focus on the first part of the last point, folks who vanished just before the Ghouta chemical attack, to find your defector. If he can't be the photographer, then find out who was (from photos and records) and find how that defector got hold of the pictures.

Who are the victims in those pictures?
    It seems that the Carter-Ruck experts really don't know, nor do we. "Caesar" probably knows, and the Qataris might. And Syrian officials very well should know, or at least have a basic guess. Unidentified body numbers (as it seems these have) suggest it wasn't exactly known at the time. But there should be information on where the bodies came from and how they got in such a state. And presumably at least some were later identified.

    We've considered the Justice Ministry's statement from early 2014, and as mentioned, I suspect he's right. It seems likely these are initially unidentified bodies from clashes and, more substantially, of people captured by foreign-sponsored opposition forces, and killed en masse. By precedent, those would be soldiers and fighters of the SAA, NDF, and allies, and civilians seen by the terrorists as infidels or as supportive of the government, who had the misfortune of living in areas the killers controlled or could access. The evidence in and around the photos themselves is bearing it out in a number of ways. And Syrian authorities might have had that proven in some cases by family members, before they handed the bodies back to them.

    This alleged prisoner of Air Force intelligence #9227, for example, should not have been hard to identify. To his family, sorry. But he's all over the place anyway, I think in service of a lie.
Here's one Caesar and cohorts might have disrespect for, as they cannot get his pants back up (a common theme in the photos). An ID for 215-3670 could be tricky...
    ...except I can match that number (sort-of) and enough body and lighting details to this face, even though it's listed wrong (killed by 227, not by 215). Next to him by body and correct, alleged prisoner number, is 215-3669, with a similar tattoo. Someone knows who these apparently Shia men are. 

And the Shia boy 215-3873 248-72 248-73, who got shown off in Geneva to bolster the bargaining position of Mohammed Alloush in "peace talks" there !! He's the political leader of "Army of Islam" from Douma, sworn to eradicating Shia from all Syria. Anyway, this boy probably didn't live too far from Douma, and someone knows who that is as well. Why is the global public left thinking he was a random victim of the Syrian government's continued existence?

My Questions
    Again, I understand that if this is a terrorist crime, one goal is to terrify or demoralize the Syrian public, so maybe keeping the truth under wraps is better, from that standpoint. My research suggests it's one of the worst terrorist crimes of modern history, claiming an average of 1,000 victims a month between November 2012 and August, 2013 (by dubious folder dates, below mapped with hospital # timeline). The activists claim there were 11,000 bodies, according to this number. I can see it ticking to 10,000, so maybe it goes past 11.
    At least the 6,600-6,700 shown by the Caesar-Qatar-connected SAFMCD seem to exist. It's a lot of death here that's real and not digital. I wish it weren't so, but it is so.

("H# insertions" explained here. Below: red span broken down, colors explained)

   The full 11,000 seems to mean unidentified bodies, of all kinds. But the solid majority of the slight majority shown by the SAFMCD seem to be abused captives of someone.  These people by and large were kept in horrible conditions, starved and neglected, tortured some, and it seems to me were mainly gassed to death with something like chlorine. On December 22, 2012, of course seven SAA soldiers reportedly died in Daraya from what seems to be chlorine released by terrorists. Note how that's early in the suggested spike of chemically exterminated people in that or a nearby area ... I can see why this might be touchy. Whenever anything about chemical crimes goes public, the guilt of Syria's government is made to seem obvious, and people clamor for war, which translates into more support for the terrorists actually doing the gassing...

    The decision on what Syria says about this subject is and remains in Syria's hands, not mine. But as soon as it seems tolerable and wise, it might be helpful if the authorities and the media there could work together to offer some more information about what these photos show. Some specific questions:
  • Were any of these unidentified bodies ever identified and claimed? If so, what might help is publishing a few sample cases, some best and safest ones, showing pictures to compare, and giving the victim's true back-story. For example: can't anyone recognize the distinctive boy victim 215-1895, as linked above? Or j-9227?
  • As possible, could you tell us who did the capturing in these cases? There are a lot of people out here expressing a desire to catch the culprits. So let's get some names.
  • Regarding the ostensible identifications so far offered by opposition parties: these are dubious, but may be partly true. They're presented to the masses here as obviously 100% true. Among these (Rihab Allawi, Ayham Ghazoul, etc.) can authorities check their own info and help us understand the truth-to-lie ratio here?
  • Hospital 601 staff, forensic examiner Dr. Akram al-Shaar in particular, has been indicted in helping cover-up the alleged Mukhabarat extermination program. It seems past time to hear the other side of this story about what was happening there in those days.
  • Can Damascus ever tell us if it's one or zero former employees who fit the description Caesar gives? If there is such a person, or sort-of so, what do officials know about the beliefs, behavior, and connections, etc. of the person or people behind these photos?
  • Regardless of who took the photos, are they official documents reflecting an official process, or are they creative works made at 601 by abusing privileges? 
  • It seems the SAFMCD site with the identification photos is not able to be viewed inside Syria, at least in some of the major, government-held population centers. Is this a block by the Syrian authorities, or by someone on the SAFMCD's end?
I can be contacted for any questions, etc. publicly by comments below, or privately (you know, internet private) by e-mail : caustic_logic@yahoo.com. Thanks in advance, to whoever, for whatever.

Further questions, including for the Syrian general public, can be answered below in comments.
  • Can readers inside Syria see the face photos I link to, or is the site blocked? (I've hear two credible nos and one yes, hope to hear more and learn more about why - Here's their main list of image folders for anyone who can check it. http://www.safmcd.com/martyr/category.php)
  • (others perhaps later)

Friday, July 1, 2016

Was the Syria Chemical Weapons Probe "Torpedoed" by the West?

By Adam Larson (Caustic Logic), May 4, 2013  
(re-posted here January 5, 2016) 
last edits, July 1, 2016
 
(Note: this a slightly shorter and updated version of the May 2, 2013 edit of the article published at Global Research, plus 2016 updates and a couple of pictures. This story became very important within a few months, and remains informative in context of what's come since.)
 
Two Versions of the Khan al-Assal Chemical Attack
Since the perplexing conflict in Syria first broke out two years ago, the Western powers’ assistance to the anti-government side has been consistent, but relatively indirect. The Americans and Europeans lay the mental, legal, diplomatic, and financial groundwork for regime change. Meanwhile, Arab/Muslim allies in Turkey and the Persian Gulf are left with the heavy lifting of directly supporting Syrian rebels, and getting weapons and supplementary fighters in place.

The involvement of the United States in particular has been extremely lackluster, at least in comparison to its aggressive stance on a similar crisis in Libya not long ago. Hopes of securing major American and allied force, preferably a Libya-style "no-fly zone," always leaned most on U.S. president Obama’s announcement of December 3, 2012,* that any use of chemical weapons (CW) by the Assad regime – or perhaps their simple transfer - will cross a "red line." And that, he implied, would trigger direct U.S. intervention. This was followed by vague allegations by the Syrian opposition - on December 6, 8, and 23 - of government CW attacks. [1] Nothing changed, and the allegations stopped for a while.

* 2016 Update: That was the pronouncement I noticed at the time, but it turns out the first utterance of the red line threat/offer was on August 20, 2012, exactly one year before the Ghouta attack....
 
Locals speaking to SANA after the attack
However, as the war entered its third year in mid-March, 2013, a slew of new allegations came flying in. This started with a March 19 attack on Khan Al-Assal, a contested western district of Aleppo, killing a reported 25-31 people. Dramatic imagery run by state news agency SANA and from a Reuters photographer showed people – including children - suffering breathing problems, some already deceased. People said they could smell chlorine. Many of those who died were Syrian army soldiers.

The Syrian government and related sources were the first to report the incident, blaming "terrorists" as usual. In an equally predictable answer, rebels accused the Syrian military of launching the attack but missing their target. [2] Both initial versions came with moral denunciation of the perpetrators on the other side, and these curses were echoed by outside supporters along unsurprising lines. Washington, the New York Times reported, "cast doubt on claims that the opposition had used chemical weapons and said it was evaluating the possibility that the government had used them." Other mentioned hunches were that the government "used chemical weapons and tried to blame its opponents," that it accused rebels "to prepare cover for its own future use of them," or did so "to distract from its use of long-range Scud missiles against civilians." [3]

Russia’s foreign ministry, in contrast, said "the use of chemical weapons by the armed opposition … (is) a new and extremely alarming and dangerous turn." They added "we are extremely, seriously concerned by the fact that weapons of mass destruction have gotten into militants' hands." [4]

Farm animals reportedly killed in the attack
The full details of the case are best handled in a separate article, but in short, this incident has strong indications of being a rebel attack. There’s no clear guess from the opposition side which chemical agent (not sarin) was used, or what the delivery system was. The government version is clear: a homemade rocket that emitted a vapor of chlorine and saline hit near an army post. * Rebels in Aleppo have plenty of chlorine gas, some 400 tons or more stolen from an Aleppo-area factory seized by Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria) in August, 2012. [5] They have many basing areas surrounding loyalist-held Khan al-Assal, custom rockets with reported ranges up to 60 km [6], and as far as we know warhead expertise obtainable to serious terrorist networks. Given all that, it’s little comfort to hear as a denial, from opposition spokesman Louay Meqdad, "we have neither long-range missiles nor chemical weapons. And if we did, we wouldn't use them against a rebel target." [7] Syria, in contrast, swears if they had CW, they would never use them against their own people, even enemies like Meqdad.

* 2016 Update: it seems the chemical tests (by Syrian and Russian experts) showed sarin was in this mix, explaining a death toll that a simple chlorine attack would not cause under normal circumstances (the death toll would most likely be zero from chlorine, was about 30 in the Tokyo subway attacks with sarin).

Syria demanded an investigation into the event by the United Nations, and everyone else agreed. A team was assembled, but then in early April Syria blocked them, for reasons that come across as mysterious. Soon, the world was hearing unprecedented recognition that perhaps Obama’s "red line" had been crossed - not by "terrorists," but by the Assad regime - somewhere, at some time(s) since December. The deadly nerve agent sarin is increasingly specified, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

All this has kicked off a renewed drive for intervention based on intelligence assessments of WMD dangers, evoking widely-noted memories of the bogus U.S. case for war on Syria’s ally, Iraq, one decade ago. The latest developments cast doubt on the imminence of outright military involvement - yet again. However, the danger persists, the accusations stand as a pressure and a danger to the people of Syria, and the purported casus belli deserves all the scrutiny it’s been getting and more.

As this article relates the battle over an investigation of this incident, it should be noted from the start that the case for a rebel attack in Aleppo is stronger and clearer than most realize. Yet that narrative - and that attack in general - have been effectively sidelined, in favor of whole other alleged attacks. It’s only been six weeks since this saga began, but they were weeks of the whirlwind sort. Considering where all the twirling has left us - horribly confused, if not on the brink of war - I offer this article towards un-spinning the record to discover just what happened in that time.

Conflicting Urgencies at the UN: The Battle Over Scope

Syria's voice at the UN, Dr. Bashar al-Jaafari
The demand for an investigation began with Syria's government, the day after the attack in Khan al-Assal. Their representative at the U.N., Dr. Bashar Al-Ja'afari, on the 20th requested the Secretary-General to form a "mission to investigate the use by the terrorist groups operating in Syria of chemical weapons yesterday against civilians." He specified that the effort should be "technical" "independent," and "neutral." [8] Russia supported that, with deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov saying "we expect that the UN secretary general will promptly react to Syria’s request." Iran backed the call, and continued pressing various nations and leaders, with little success, to condemn the attack as an opposition one. [9]

Western powers always publicly agreed it was worthy of investigation. Every party was clear that they wanted the truth, and both sides agreed on using terms like "impartial" and "urgent" to describe their solutions. Yet the best approach was consistently disagreed on.

Both Russia and Syria complained on the 20th, the same day Syria first asked for a probe, that the U.K. and France had blocked it, in a "stalling" measure. [8] The Western powers used the stall to explain, in a letter from France and the U.K. on the 21st, why the U.N. should instead "launch an urgent investigation into all allegations," rather than just the one. [10] What they proposed was the investigative model now prevailing and blocked by Syria. It has three alleged CW incidents singled out as needing investigation;
  • The March 19 Khan al-Assal attack
  • A same-day incident in the Damascus area (Otaybah)
  • An older incident in the city of Homs, on December 23, 2012
The incident in the Otaybah suburb of Damascus does merit a look, but so far there is little to go on – some videos of apparent rebels struggling to breathe, but not even a death toll. [11] The eastern Damascus suburbs around and north of here have witnessed at least three further CW allegations (Aadra March 24, Jobar April 6, Otaybah April 9) with at least one now said to have yielded samples suggesting sarin.

The December Homs incident (al-Bayada district) featured several apparent rebel fighters gasping for breath, and various alleged details. More than 100 were reportedly exposed to the unknown gas, with six reportedly killed. This was taken seriously once and investigated by Western governments. The general consensus by mid-January was some kind of riot control gas used in the wrong concentration. [12] The dismissal is not certain, however, and now the incident is back in the limelight, thought by the British and French to require urgent scrutiny.

But however important those other cases are, all this investigation drama began immediately after the well-documented incident in Aleppo, and Syria’s unprecedented request for others to come have a look. On hearing a demand to investigate the Otaybah incident, representative al-Ja'afari said he'd never heard of it, proposing that the allegation "was set up on purpose to torpedo the investigation on the real use of chemical weapons which took place in Aleppo." [8]

Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin voiced suspicion that "this was really a way to delay the need for immediate, urgent investigation of allegations pertaining to March 19 by raising all sorts of issues." [8] This "unjustified step" of widening the probe, Russia’s foreign ministry warned (perhaps with some hyperbole), "wrecks the investigation of concrete information." [13]

As the following events show, they were apparently onto something. The battle over the scope - with the multi-attack format winning in the end - repeatedly delayed and complicated the original request from the nation of Syria, which remains to be granted.

U.N. Maneuvers: Ban Joins the Battle

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon first seemed favorable to Syria’s position; he announced on March 21 that while there were clearly "other allegations," the probe would focus on "the specific incident brought to my attention by the Syrian government." However, he announced on the 25th that it might be broadened after all, and asked for more information from everyone. [14]

Angela Kane,U.N. disarmament affairs director (Reuters)
Reuters was given letters between Syria's Ja'afari and one of Ban’s deputies, U.N. disarmament affairs director Angela Kane, discussing the investigation’s terms. In one, Kane said Aleppo would be the main focus, but "we must remain mindful of the other allegations that chemical weapons were used elsewhere in the country." [15] It was apparently the U.N. end that leaked the conversation; an April 6 letter had Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem complaining to Secretary-General Ban that the leaks "left the impression of a lack of seriousness on the part of the (U.N.) secretariat on cooperation in good faith." That too was shared with Reuters. [16]

U.N. representative al-Jaafari returned to this issue in statements of May 1, saying that there had been an "agreement reached," with disarmament chief Kane, to send the team to Aleppo. He explained how the agreement was first reached in letters on April 3. The terms aren’t specified, but apparently were to Syria’s satisfaction, meaning no mandatory insistence on other sites. Jaafari says there was a short meeting on April 4 that cemented the agreement, with a longer session set to finalize the details. [17]

But, as SANA reported, "Kane then went back on the agreement … and delivered a letter the next day contrary to the previous agreement." She explained this by saying that the Secretary General Ban had just received new information on the December incident in Homs, upping its urgency and requiring cancellation of the agreement to visit Aleppo. SANA noted that "Al-Jaafari wondered how the UN Secretary General could have new information available to him" just then and so quickly, and also stated that Ban’s apparent procrastination "raises more doubts on the attempt to politicize the issue to achieve the goal sought by some Western, Arab and regional countries, similar to what happened in Iraq before it was invaded." [17]

So once again on April 5, the added attacks blocked any investigation that could happen. Whatever their reasons, Syria would not agree to anything but its request to study the Aleppo incident, and true to that, Damascus held open that door even after this turn. Foreign minister Moualem modified the offer on April 6, as a Reuters report summed it up, "the inspectors should go first to Aleppo and if they are seen to be impartial, the possibility of visiting Homs could be discussed." [16] The Jerusalem Post reported that "Western delegations" didn't like this; more than just too little too late, they "said the Syrian response of April 6 was unacceptable and that the chemical weapons team must have assurances now that it can visit both Aleppo and Homs," and also the Damascus area, presumably. [18]

Whatever one’s suspicions about what would happen afterwards, no one has offered a reason that the Aleppo attack should not be investigated. One site and one site alone could (ostensibly) be agreed to by all, and investigated without delay. As the U.S. representative to the U.N., Susan Rice, said on March 21 (as Khan al-Assal seemed to be the priority): "the United States supports an investigation that pursues any and all credible allegations … as swiftly as possible." [19]

But Secretary-General Ban re-affirmed in a public statement of April 8 that it could wait. He said:

"It is a matter of principle that when there is an allegation, whether it is one or two or multiple allegations, all these allegations should be investigated. Only then will we be sure that there was or there were uses of chemical weapons. Without that nobody can be sure." [20]

He does not explain why investigators of any one incident needed to know what happened at x number of other sites in order to "be sure" what happened there. But without bending to that inexplicably holistic philosophy, and its growing list of interlocking allegations, Syria would get no U.N. investigation at all. Perhaps for dramatic effect, as Ban noted, an advance team was already in Cyprus, "ready to go to Syria within 24 hours." The scope of the investigation almost seems broader yet with his statement: "All we are waiting for is the go-ahead from the Syrian government … to determine whether any chemicals weapons were used, in any location" [21]

It was quite an impasse. Syria’s request, it could be argued, had been torpedoed.

Rejecting Regime Change Maneuvers
Syria’s stern and narrow insistence on its initial request is clearly part of the impasse that resulted. Given the risks of war, it would seem unwise to refuse cooperation, and the exact reasons they did refuse are not widely or clearly understood. There is the pride issue, and other considerations, like clues of bad faith (leaking letters), and structural signs of duplicity. For example, it was promised that the Khan al-Assal portion of the probe would be handled "initially" and/or "primarily." But a Western diplomat told Reuters on March 27 that the U.N. team would be based in Beirut, Lebanon. [22] That’s clear across Syria from Aleppo, but quite near the sites around Damascus and Homs, which were the "primary" interests, it seems. It’s difficult to imagine a probe that started with these southern addenda finishing with both sites and managing to cross the war-torn nation to Aleppo, all without the process getting derailed first. It is, however, a good formula for denying Syria’s request, even if a team were actually deployed.

Besides the issue of which incidents to study, the Russian foreign ministry felt there was a shift to increasingly invasive demands on the government. They stated that the shift came "under pressure from Western members of the (security) council," and might represent "attempts to drag this issue out and turn an investigation under the aegis of the United Nations ... into an additional element of pressure for regime change." [23]

Russia said that for geopolitical balance, all permanent five (P5) members of the Security Council (US, UK, France, Russia, China) should send experts for the probe. [23] Secretary-General Ban answered by banning scientists from all P5 members, as well as from other involved parties, like Gulf Arab states and Turkey. [24] Syria thought they should have a say in staffing the investigation, but Ban reserved the right. [15] He decided the probe would be staffed by varied scientists selected by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). [17]

As nice as that sounds, the OPCW’s director-general is Ahmet Üzümcü, a Turkish career diplomat with possibly compromising links to his belligerent nation. According to his Wikipedia entry, Üzümcü was previously Turkey’s consul in Aleppo, as well as ambassador in Israel and the permanent representative of Turkey to NATO. [25] This could hardly help Syria to feel anything other than threatened; the selected scientists would be, in effect, deciding if they could turn up justification for the US/NATO to openly join in the war against Syria, waged most fiercely so far from Mr. Üzümcü’s home nation.

From the outset, there were signs that the West and the U.N.’s leadership intended the requested investigation to lead into Iraq-style inspections of Syria’s closely-watched CW stockpiles. Ban Ki Moon insisted that it would require "unfettered access" to locales not clearly defined, and cryptically noted "It is my hope that the mission would contribute to ensuring the safety and security of chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria." [26] He didn't specify how a technical mission to investigate what happened in one or even three locations would help make Syria's alleged CW more "secure." That it would become a sneak inspections regime in the Iraq vein, however, might explain that strange hope. 

Syria’s decision-makers can hardly have missed these further clues that this was the plan:
1) The investigation, staff, mandate, etc. was to be negotiated between Syria and, specifically, the U.N.'s office for Disarmament Affairs.
2) Swedish scientist Åke Sellström was put in charge. He had previously been a chief inspector for UNSCOM, the U.N. inspection team in Iraq in the 1990s, and worked with UNMOVIC in 2002, which found no basis for the claims on which the war on Iraq was launched anyway. [14]
3) The "investigators" as originally tasked were increasingly referred to as "inspectors."

More important yet were signs of invasive intent. Ban specified, publicly even, that the U.N. would have to investigate "in any location." [21] Russia’s foreign ministry announced on April 6, as a Reuters report summed up, that the U.N. "was seeking overly broad access for investigators to facilities and individuals (note: not crime scenes) in Syria and wanted to use aircraft for transportation. "This approach brings to mind the line taken over an investigation into the presence of chemical weapons in Iraq, which was based on deliberately false data and led to well-known consequences," it said, … "We consider such actions unacceptable and inadmissible by any party and moreover by the leadership of the U.N. Secretariat."" [27]

While the full details remain unclear, Russia’s accusations in this area remained dramatic and troubling. Foreign ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich told RT on April 27 that:

The management of the UN Secretariat demanded that Damascus agree to the establishment of a permanent mechanism for inspection throughout Syrian territory with unlimited access to everywhere. … The proposed scheme of inspections is similar to those used at the end of the last century in Iraq, which, unlike Syria, was under UN sanctions.” [28]

Bashar al-Jaafari would later explain that the planned mission, "moving freely on the Syrian land based on letters including baseless claims whose aim is clearly malicious" was unacceptable, "especially when these letters and requests are submitted by countries that have been hostile towards Syria since the beginning of the crisis." He also said "respecting the international law and the UN Charter demands a strong respect of the sovereignty of countries … We expect the UN General Secretariat not to be part of this campaign targeting Syria … What happened in Iraq has been alive in our mind until this moment, and our region in general and Iraq in particular are living the repercussions of such false claims." [17] Information minister Omran al-Zoubi also told RT that one of the goals of the mission as configured "is to repeat Iraq’s scenario, to pave the way for other investigation-inspections." [28]

It was just after these parallels were created, and as Ban and the West made it most clear by April 8 that the inspection must be all-or-nothing, Damascus announced, essentially, that it would have to be nothing. Syria’s foreign ministry on April 8th said Ban has "suggested a supplementary mission to deploy throughout Syrian territory" and placed "additional tasks" that would constitute a "violation of Syrian sovereignty." He did so, they said, under "pressure exercised by states known for their support for the shedding of Syrian blood." And so, they announced, "Syria cannot accept these maneuvers from the UN's Secretariat-General, taking into account the truth of the negative role it played in Iraq."  [29]

Most Western media reports blame the impasse on Syria, and they did in fact block the U.N. team’s entry. However, as this article shows, there were several questionable actions (and alleged actions) by the other side determining what the "no" came in response to.

Most reports cite the scope of attacks to investigate as the only dispute. But these inexplicably invasive aspects seems to be the straws that broke the camel’s back, laid more quietly, right before the audible snap. Therefore, they deserve more scrutiny and explanation.

Consider this: if the government had been demanded to surrender and disband before any investigation, no one could blame them for refusing. That extreme example set one end of the scale on which Damascus’ decision was made. On one end of this scale is a design to force Syria to reject its own investigation in a way that could be easily blamed on them alone. On the other end is a regime so desperate to conceal its patterns of abuse that it blocked the most reasonable of demands. U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell took this view, saying "if the regime has nothing to hide they should let the UN investigators in immediately so we can get to the bottom of this.” After strongly suggesting they did have something to hide, Ventrell threatened that all options - including military ones - remained open. [30]

Sarin After the Failure: Confusion Yields to "Confidence"

To be clear, the investigation was not quite fatally sabotaged. In lieu of in-country work, the U.N. says Sellström’s team was working on Cyprus anyway, investigating what they could from there. Spokesman Martin Nesirky told a press briefing “you need to be able to go into Syria to be able to do that investigation properly on site, but in the meantime … information is available without actually visiting Syria." [31] Hypothetically, this could still expand into something more substantial, but past events leave little room to suspect it will.

April 8, when Syria made it clear there would be no visit, is an important point to pin on the accusation-investigation timeline; five days later, a new type of report emerged. British military scientists previously dismissed the Aleppo attack chemical as a "super strength tear gas," after looking at videos but before studying the alleged soil samples. [32] This effectively played the incident down, while Syria was pursuing an investigation (March 24). But on April 13, the same people at Porton Down came back with results from the Damascus area, reportedly showing "some kind of chemical weapon." The scientists wouldn’t say which, but specified "it can’t definitively be said to be Sarin nerve agent," suggesting perhaps that it was. [33]

Based on this, most likely, Britain and France wrote separately to the UN on or before April 18, more sure than ever that the Syrians were using chemical weapons, repeatedly, since December. [34] On the 23rd, Israel and its top intelligence people went public as agreeing that sarin was used, citing public imagery and something classified. [35] What they sent the Americans was presented by the White House on the 25th as convincing their intelligence community, "with varying degrees of confidence," that Syria has used chemical weapons including at least sarin, "on a small scale." [36] The report noted there was still caution, especially over chain of custody issues, but this is the closest the Obama administration has come to saying its red line is crossed.

As the world was left hovering at this dangerous juncture, questions thankfully were publicly raised. Several good articles, mainstream and alternative, have reported and analyzed these in recent days, and even Western politicians are getting it, sporadically.

As the UK Guardian noted, there are two types of evidence cited in support of sarin use: "physical samplesand videos, photographs and witness accounts." [37] Alleged witness accounts should be obvious in their unreliability, and the remaining classes of evidence have their own serious problems too. An informative April 25 report from McClatchy news service heard from unnamed but authoritative sources that investigators "found trace amounts of a byproduct in soil, but there are also fertilizers that give out the same byproduct … It’s far from conclusive." [38]

As for the video and photo evidence, there are now infamous images of two men with white liquid around their mouths or noses, like slightly-foamy milk. They show no other clear symptoms and no one is wiping it off. [39] The Guardian cited one expert that this "would not be indicative of use of nerve agents." Another said more strongly "it's not possible that what is being shown to the public is a chemical weapons attack. The video from Aleppo showing foaming at the mouth does not look like a nerve agent. I'm wholly unconvinced." [37]

Impunity and Repetition

Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi seems at least reasonably justified in saying, as SANA reported on April 26, "the Western sides … want now to hide behind this "fabricated and false" talk ["that chemical weapons were used by the Syrian army in other areas"] to justify their silence on failing the investigation mission requested by Syria and to exonerate the terrorists." [40] The correlation between exoneration and impunity on the one hand, and repetition of crimes on the other, is simply common sense. Repetition should be expected.

The above-mentioned images in of people "foaming at the mouth," as cited in mid-April, are connected to a then-new chemical allegation in Aleppo, this time in the city’s sprawling Sheikh Maqsoud district. This case looks better for rebels in that they had just conquered the Kurdish-majoity area for the first time (and subjected it to a reign of terror, incidentally), and may have been absorbing some government attacks. Opposition sources blame a regime helicopter, not one of their own mortars, for dropping the unidentified gas early on the morning of April 13. The attack reportedly poisoned 15-16 people non-fatally, and killed one woman or perhaps two, and two young children – reported as 4 and 18 months old. [41]

World powers have been saying these people were likely killed by a government sarin attack. But even as the nerve agent charges evaporate, Jabhat al-Nusra’s stolen chlorine remains a suspect. If this even was a gas attack, please note that some impugn and thus enabled party was again gassing people in Aleppo, less than five days after the threat of investigation there evaporated like the morning fog.

Then on April 26, there was an unconfirmed report from the Barzeh neighborhood of Damascus, that entrenched rebels gassed attacking army soldiers, killing some. [42] Three days later in Saraqeb, Idlib province, northwest Syria, 2-5 civilians died after exposed to unknown liquid and/or powdered chemicals, with both sides blaming each other. We know that rebels took the bodies back to their patrons in Turkey for study, to see if they can get NATO air support now. [43] If not, and until someone changes their thinking, "the regime" should be fully expected to try yet again to get themselves caught crossing Obama’s "red line."**

One portion of the Ghouta Massacre's x-hundred victims
** 2016 Update: They tried in an unexpectedly big way within a few months of that prediction, on the birthday of the "red line" threat/offer almost to the hour ... killing 400-1400 in the Damascus suburbs of Ghouta, just as Ake Sellstrom's team of UN investigators finally arrived there to investigate the Khan al-Assal sarin attack by rebel forces. How's that for irony?

First, there was an agreement reached in early July, and a visit by Sellstrom and Kane to Syria on July 24-26, saying they agreed with Damascus "on the way forward," in a joint statement on the 26th. (see here). With the investigation moving forward, rebels launched a desperate offensive to re-take Khan Al-Assal, which succeeded just before the visit, on July 22. This let them commit a massacre of 50 captured soldiers, and perhaps over 100 civilians, likely including witnesses to the attack who now couldn't speak.

Unable to visit Khan al-Assal directly, due to security concerns over the rebel occupation, Sellstrom's team arrived in Syria to investigate all three incidents on August 18, two days before the Ghouta incident. Of course they still didn't get to investigate even indirectly in Aleppo, becoming too busy sampling Ghouta locals with token sarin traces, while failing to test any of the actual x-hundred dead bodies (see here). 

The tests would likely show what the visuals do - these people were killed in a variety of ways that at least often did not involve sarin, ranging from carbon monoxide to chlorine to sliced throats (see here), and to the extent it was, the question of whose sarin was scrambled and side-stepped. The UN team's findings helped to blame the government again, and the U.S. recognized the "red line" as being massively crossed by a clear government sarin rocket attack, and threatened military attacks. These were called off when Damascus agreed to join the OPCW and surrender its remaining chemical weapons (only to get accused of chlorine attacks after this...)

Later the UN came back, and finally examined the Khan al-Assal incident, but found too much time had passed to be clear what happened, and the world had definitely moved on to other chemical accusations ...

References / Notes : 

(ACLOS = A Closer Look on Syria, the site at which the author shares most of his research)
[2] ACLOS, Alleged chemical attack, March 19 - Organized but incomplete main page: http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/Alleged_chemical_attack,_March_19,_2013
[3]Syria and Activists Trade Charges on Chemical Weapons By ANNE BARNARD, New York Times. Published: March 19, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/20/world/middleeast/syria-developments.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1
[4] Moscow alarmed by use of chemical weapons by Syrian armed opposition The Voice of Russia, March 19, 2013 19 March, 19:15 http://english.ruvr.ru/2013_03_19/Moscow-alarmed-by-use-of-chemical-weapons-by-Syrian-armed-opposition/
[5] Syria’s Civil War: The Mystery Behind a Deadly Chemical Attack By Aryn Baker, Time, April 1, 2013
[7] Syria regime, rebels trade chemical weapons accusations Agence Frace-Presse, via Global Post, March 20, 2013. http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130320/syria-regime-rebels-trade-chemical-weapons-accusations See also: Al-Akhbar English: http://english.al-akhbar.com/content/accusations-swirl-over-syrian-chemical-attack
[8] West stalls Syria chemical attack probe in U.N.: Russia Michelle Nichols and Louis Charbonneau, Reuters, via Chicago Tribune, 6:56 p.m. CDT, March 20, 2013 http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/sns-rt-us-syria-crisis-chemical-unbre92j0re-20130320,0,6271830.story
[9] Various articles from Press TV highlight efforts to get various leaders and powers to condemn the rebel attack. For example: Kazakhstan: http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2013/03/31/295955/iran-urges-kazakhstan-to-slam-cw-use/ Armenia: http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2013/04/01/296010/iran-urges-armenia-to-slam-cw-attack/ The OIC chief and even Ban Ki Moon are reported as doing so, but really just condemned the attack, apart from attacker. http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2013/04/15/298381/oic-condemns-chemical-attack-in-syria/ (Moon article hard to re-locate - were they ordered to retract it?)
[10] U.N. launches probe of possible Syrian chemical arms attack. By Michelle Nichols and Louis Charbonneau, Reuters, March 21, 2013, 6:56pm EDT http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/21/us-syria-crisis-chemical-un-idUSBRE92K0OY20130321
[13] West wants to use Syria chemical weapons charge for regime change, says Russia. Steve Gutterman, The Independent (Ireland), 25 MARCH 2013 http://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/west-wants-to-use-syria-chemical-weapons-charge-for-regime-change-says-russia-29152774.html
[14] Swedish scientist to head U.N. Syria chemical weapons probe Michelle Nichols and Louis Charbonneau, Reuters, Tue Mar 26, 2013 8:00pm EDT
[15] No agreement on Syria access for UN chemical arms inspectors By Louis Charbonneau, Reuters, April 4, 2013 http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/04/syria-crisis-chemical-idUSL2N0CR1KS20130404
[16] U.N. talks with Syria on chemical arms probe at impasse By Louis Charbonneau, Reuters, UNITED NATIONS, Thu Apr 11, 2013 8:20am EDT http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/11/us-syria-crisis-chemical-un-idUSBRE93919B20130411
[17] Al-Jaafari: Syria Is Waiting Investigation Team into Khan al-Assal Incident, Demands Credible Information on Other Claims. Syrian Arab News Agency, May 1, 2013 http://sana.sy/eng/22/2013/05/01/480100.htm
[18] West has 'hard evidence' of Syria chemical weapons use Reuters and Jerusalem Post, April 12, 2013 http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/West-has-hard-evidence-of-Syria-chemical-weapons-use-309614
[19] Statement by Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, on the UN Investigation into Chemical Weapons Use in Syria U.S. Mission to the United Nations, New York, NY, March 21, 2013 http://usun.state.gov/briefing/statements/206494.htm
[20] Syria Blocks UN Chemical Weapons Mission By Margaret Besheer, Voice of America, April 08, 2013 http://www.voanews.com/content/syria-blocks-un-chemical-weapons-team/1637442.html
[21] All Syria chemical arms claims must be probed: U.N.'s Ban. By Anthony Deutsch, Reuters, The Hague, Mon Apr 8, 2013 8:39am EDT http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/08/us-syria-crisis-un-ban-idUSBRE93709620130408
[22] UN yet to reach chemical inquiry accord with Syria: envoys Agence France-Presse via Global Post, March 27, 2013 15:47 http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130327/un-yet-reach-chemical-inquiry-accord-syria-envoys
[23] Russia, China must be part of Syria chemical arms inquiry: Moscow. Reuters, Reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Alistair Lyon. Mon Mar 25, 2013 5:45am EDT http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/25/us-syria-crisis-russia-idUSBRE92O08A20130325
[24] UN excludes major powers from Syria chemical arms inquiry. AFP via Global Post, March 26, 2013
[25] Ahmet Üzümcü. Wikipedia, last modified on 21 March 2013 at 16:11 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahmet_Üzümcü
[26] U.N. to Probe Alleged Chemical Weapons Use in Syria. By Edith M. Lederer, Associated Press (via Time), March 21, 2013. http://world.time.com/2013/03/21/un-to-probe-alleged-chemical-weapons-use-in-syria/
[27] April 6 complaints: Russia Condemns UN Probe Into Alleged Chemical Weapons Used In Syria By Megan Davies and Steve Gutterman, Reuters (via Huffington Post) April 6, 2013 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/06/russia-slams-expansion-of_n_3029263.html See also: http://www.itar-tass.com/en/c32/698669.html - http://sana.sy/eng/22/2013/04/06/476141.htm
[28] Chemical inspection stalled: UN team can’t be trusted ‘politically’ without Russian experts – Syrian information minister Aril 27, 2013. http://rt.com/news/syria-chemical-iraq-scenario-483/
[29] Syria rejects 'broadening' of UN chemical weapons probe Asianet via Global Post, April 10, 2013 15:43 http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/asianet/130410/syria-rejects-broadening-un-chemical-weapons-probe
[30] ‘Soil sample proves chemical weapons used in Syria’ Times of Israel Staff and AP, April 13, 2013 http://www.timesofisrael.com/soil-sample-proves-chemical-weapons-used-in-syria/
[31] Syria Blames West For Chemical Weapons Attacks As UN Investigates From Afar. Talk Radio News Service, April 26, 2013. http://www.talkradionews.com/united-nations/2013/04/26/chemical-weapons-syria-denies-un.html#.UXuPHkarU98
[32] Aleppo attack likely tear gas and not nerve agent, analysts say. By Times of Israel Staff and AP. Times of Israel, March 24, 2013 http://www.timesofisrael.com/aleppo-attack-likely-tear-gas-and-not-nerve-agent-analysts-say/
[33] ‘Soil sample proves chemical weapons used in Syria’ Times of Israel Staff and AP, April 13, 2013 http://www.timesofisrael.com/soil-sample-proves-chemical-weapons-used-in-syria/
[35] Israel Says It Has Proof That Syria Has Used Chemical Weapons. By David E. Sanger and Jodi Rudoren, New York Times, April 23, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/24/world/middleeast/israel-says-syria-has-used-chemical-weapons.html?_r=0
[36] U.S.: Intelligence points to small-scale use of sarin in Syria. By Michael Pearson, CNN
[37] Syria chemical weapons – Q&A. By Julian Borger, The Guardian, April 26, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/26/syria-chemical-weapons-q-and-a
[38] U.S. believes Syria may have used chemical weapons; experts offer caution. By Jonathan S. Landay, Matthew Schofield and Anita Kumar, McClatchy Newspapers, April 25, 2013. http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/04/25/189653/syria-used-chemical-weapons-white.html
[40] Information Minister:  Western Sides Are Directly Responsible for Chemical Weapons Use in Khan al-Assal. Syrian Arab News Agency, April 26, 2013. http://sana.sy/eng/22/2013/04/26/479394.htm