UN HRC Report 36/55

On September 6, 2017, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) published a report addressing the April 4 Khan Shaykhun attack. The report found “reasonable grounds to believe Syrian forces dropped an aerial bomb dispersing sarin in Khan Shaykhun.”  This finding seems to bolster the hypothesis that the Syrian Army was responsible for the attack. That would justify inclusion in the related Rootclaim analysis. However, a closer look reveals that this is not the case.

The Khan Shaykhun Attack

On April 4, 2017, reports emerged of a deadly chemical attack in the Khan Shaykhun area of Syria. Amid the ghastly images and horrific accounts, blame was pointed in different directions: Was this the latest travesty perpetrated by the Syrian government, or a false-flag report by opposition fighters, or perhaps an unintended chemical release? The answers often depended on one’s political agenda. Which version should we trust as the most reliable?

A question like that warrants a proper Rootclaim analysis. So for the first time, Rootclaim undertook to provide an analysis of a developing story in real-time. This is possible because Rootclaim’s model is dynamic. As information becomes available, additional evidence can be incorporated, and previous evidence can be adjusted. Over a month, the analysis was revised and recalculated, incorporating contributions from sources all over the world. Ultimately, the Rootclaim analysis of the Khan Shykhun attack determined that it was likely an opposition attack.

Analyzing the Claims

The HRC report makes a number of claims. For each, we present the claim, and how the Rootclaim analysis relates to the evidence or argument in question.

  • Much of the report focuses on evidence that Sarin was the chemical involved. The Rootclaim analysis includes this explicitly (“this analysis is conducted under the assumption that sarin was the chemical involved”).
  • The report also cites various forms of eyewitness evidence that there were airstrikes at both 6:45 and 11:00/11:30 am on April 4th. However this too is already included in the Rootclaim analysis, as assumptions under all three hypotheses (with different likelihoods for each hypothesis).
  • The scenario presented by Russian and Syrian officials (who actually presented several potential explanations), an 11:30 am conventional air strike on a weapons factory which inadvertently released chemical materials, is not plausible. This is in fact already addressed as part of the Syrian government claims analyzed by Rootclaim. Intuitively we may believe that the Syrian government must be guilty since they provided false information. However, the correct way to evaluate evidence is to compare its likelihood under the different hypotheses. How likely are government officials to deliberately promote an implausible timeline if they carried out the attack? And what is this likelihood if they had no idea what happened?
  • The harm caused (more than 80 killed and almost 300 injured) does not match the expected result. A conventional attack on a weapons warehouse should have either caused the chemical agent to be destroyed in the building, or conversely, remained in significant enough proportions as to cause harm days after the incident. The unlikelihood of this particular explanation is reflected by the prior likelihoods in the Rootclaim analysis, and is part of why that hypothesis is considered the least likely. However assuming that the attack must have been either a  chemical weapons airstrike or conventional airstrike on a chemical weapons facility is a false binary. There are other explanations, most notably that Syrian opposition fighters carried out an attack deliberately. The Rootclaim analysis includes this hypothesis and finds it to be the most likely.
  • No evidence of an alleged chemical weapons factory. Once again, this hypothesis is one which Rootclaim found to be the least likely explanation. Regarding this particular claim, there are two pieces of evidence in the Rootclaim analysis which are relevant (“Two weeks after the calamity” and “There have not been any photos of collapsed buildings”). Morever, the strength of this evidence is partially undermined by the lack of direct access to the site by impartial investigators, and the accompanying risks involved with relying on testimony of locals, who might be coerced by opposition fighters. The HRC report admits these limitations explicitly.
  • The bomb remains “are consistent with sarin bombs produced by the former Soviet Union.” This claim is qualified explicitly by the report, which admitted an inability to accurately identify any bomb used on the basis of the fragments found. Rootclaim analyzed this evidence as part of a subanalysis on the crater found in Khan Shaykhun . The Rootclaim analysis determined that any such comparisons were highly speculative. The alleged match relies on two very general features (a cylinder and some green paint). Moreover, a closer analysis found that the fragments do not match known bombs well. 

More to Come?

Thus, while the HRC presents a report, complete with evidence and justifications, it does not  offer any new evidence. Rootclaim has already addressed all of the evidence from the report, along with additional evidence. It is noteworthy that the currently underway UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism, with a broader mandate to identify the parties behind the attack, and better resources to do so, has yet to issue its final report. This leaves open the possibility of future announcements leading to an adjustment of the final likelihoods.