It still seems difficult to pin down the three most important facts in yesterday’s attack: who did it, what did they use, and how many people did it kill. I would suggest that is also the order of strategic importance, and the reverse order of likelihood of finding out.
Hopefully soon, in a day or two, the figure of how many people died in these Damascus attacks will become clear, and from that we can try and work out what percentage of those died from exposure to an unknown chemical. The spread of these casualties/fatalities is important, without this information we are forced into the conclusion that the spread of attacks was at the maximum reported - which then presupposes a significant, organised force behind it. If this isn’t the case, and all the chemical casualties come from a single area (and it’s downwind path) then it makes it more likely that a smaller, potentially rogue faction, was behind it. This is certainly the Russian view, as espoused by RT here and it is interesting that their comments about a rocket ties in exactly with the suggested analysis from Brown Moses on the munition used (though he makes no claims as to how many devices or who fired them) read it here. Large amounts of munitions, many different sites, makes it more likely that it was a large, organised agency behind the firing; an isolated, small exposure (with a big ol’ ATP45 track behind it) would make it more likely that it is a splinter force.
The agent itself remains problematic. Some of the symptoms are classic organophosphate (OP), Al Jazeera shared with us some footage that they didn’t release and this is classic OP, far more believable than previous footage and some of the more readily available footage from yesterday. This suggests two clear options: 1) that some of the casualties claimed to be from a chemical attack are actually from other causes (RCA, pressure wave, asphyxiation) and that the true number of chemical fatalities is far lower, and tied to a specific area that was targeted by ‘pure’ sarin 2) that it is an adulterated sarin/OP, mixed with other substances which means that the signs and symptoms aren’t consistent, some will have had a larger dose of the OP element, and some will have had other elements. The fatality figures above will help solve this question, but only with the analysis of agent (needed in the next 48 hours) will this really be defined. There are many notes of caution to be uttered about identifying agents based on signs and symptoms, but the one I would underline is that the vast majority of (historical) testing on chemical munitions was done on fit, young males, there were no clinical trials (that I am aware of) on children, women, the infirm and elderly - so exactly what happens has never (and never should) been measured. Equally it is difficult to take universal lessons from the Syrian experience, a shortage of trained medical professionals combined with a war torn country, and elements of mass hysteria, make it difficult to do read across from the Ghouta attacks to others that might occur in Syria and beyond.
As to who did it… My best suggestion would be to read a Newspaper! Noah Shachtman in Foreign Policy makes some good points (here ) but it really comes down to the old axiom of ‘Who benefits?’ CWA are perfect for urban environments, especially the sort of fighting in Damascus and Aleppo, but if you are serious about it why use a non-persistent agent and don’t follow it up with conventional forces. It’s CWA 101 that you use the non-persistent agent to kill people and free up ground that you want to hold, and persistent agent on the ground that you don’t. If Assad wanted to have a show of force majeure then he could have used VX, had the same effect and denied the ground to the enemy, instead he zaps them and sits back. I appreciate that this could be a Verdun/Dien Bien Phu, and the plan is to ‘bleed them white,’ but the FSA lacks the logistics for that sort of scheme to work. Militarily, strategically, it makes no sense for him to do it - but that would presuppose that those are his only reasons. When it comes to the FSA the benefits become a lot clearer, already the UN is deliberating, Russia and China are looking exposed, and the chances of Obama’s red line being crossed (and I loved Raging Bull’s headline: ‘Barry! They’ve crossed the red line again!’ here ) and arms being provided becomes much more likely.
Finally, and most importantly, we cannot miss the human tragedy that happened yesterday. Many of the survivors of yesterday will need long term care, survivors of the 1995 Tokyo sarin attack need ongoing, expensive, medical care and this will not happen in Syria. These survivors will have to go through daily pain and long term suffering, largely forgotten amongst the other survivors of this terrible conflict. All at CBRNe World would like to pay their deepest respects to the families of those that died because of yesterday’s attack and their sympathy onto the survivors.