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.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Sarin-Faking in Syria

Token-Dose Storytellers Running the Show?
October 16, 2017
(rough, incomplete)
edits October 17

tokens, wishes... (photo cropped from this source)
I recently got caught in an had to untangle some confusion passed on in Gareth Porter's September analysis at AlterNet: Have We Been Deceived Over Syrian Sarin Attack? I focused on the claims of sarin-faking there, citing clues that it wasn't sarin at all that caused those test results. Phosphine was postulated as a poison that might explain it. I drafted this article initially to explain these valid-seeming claims, and to add a wrinkle about a test they may have side-stepped in their effort to not find out if it was sarin.

But - as the October 7 note atop that article now explains - it turns out that test probably wasn't side-stepped, Porter's sources didn't even know about it, and it essentially proves sarin really was involved (or rather, the list of "sarin-like" substances seems to be too narrow to allow for any proposed alternate poisons). It seems most likely the more recent and specific tests were used, so when they say "sarin or a sarin-like substance," they almost surely do mean sarin.

The standing issue is the quantities involved. Some sarin incidents have this information publicized, but most others - including pivotal Ghouta and Khan Sheikhoun (Ghouta II) incidents, no such details are available now and quite likely none will ever will be published. The reason can't be known for sure, but Gareth Porter and I and others have some thoughts and insights.

How it Might Really Work (Speculative, but...)
In the scenario I've proposed for both Ghouta and Ghouta II and for most other alleged CW incidents, based on research into many of those cases, the victims are people already held hostage by the Islamist forces opposing the Syrian government. Religious decrees allow execution for captive enemy men (aged 13 and up - Alawites, government supporters or soldiers, etc.). Women and children can also be taken, but can't openly be killed - that has to be blamed on Assad, and the same clerics pass on that blame with no questions or even with a wink. They probably keep a few, to sell off and help raise funds.

But when the time is right, those selected are gassed with whatever is handy in some basement, or just suffocate them, then dragged in front of cameras and blamed on something only "the Assad regime" could have done. If testing their tissues helps the case being made, that might happen. Otherwise, it certainly won't be done, and the bodies will just be dumped in mass graves as soon as the cameras are gone.

Those alleged CW attack victims who come in alive will give passionate testimony to how the regime dropped the gas, and how all these people they know died from that. They'll tell you there were no militant targets, that Assad is just gassing civilians for no rational reason, and they'll often plead for help in overthrowing the government (usually in veiled terms, for subtlety). Their sarin levels will be there, but no higher than needed.

Sarin faking here means using the real nerve agent, but using voluntary or involuntary token doses to trick the test. It seems that incredibly low levels will register as a positive result, so the trick is easy to pull off - if the system allows it. Coincidentally, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) apparently pursues only yes-no answers, pointedly not looking for or sharing quantitative details. All they care about is if sarin turned up, in any amount. There's an openness to fraud in this, and there are signs of active fraud along that opened avenue. Is that coincidental? Or it this evidence of a running system used to pin blame for made-up sarin attacks on the Syrian government? This important question is not yet answered but seriously raised here.

If this were the system, here's what you'd see: some fatalities who can't tell their own story, and are free to give high, realistically fatal sarin readings. Some alleged neighbors or family of the fatalities will give the back story and test usually quite low, if at all, even if they describe symptoms consistent with extreme sarin exposure. Prior to testing, picture them sipping a weak dilution in water, slowly, to let it metabolize between sips. Religious music plays softly in a place with a Jabhat al-Nusra flag on the wall. That might be what crossing the red line looks like, aside from the hostage-gassing.

What you would probably not see in such a scenario is a seriously affected person who nearly died from a real sarin dose, but survived to talk about it. That should be a prime subject, but the signs are such people aren't sought or perhaps don't exist, and we see only mute corpses and token-dose storytellers speaking for them.

That may sound extreme or fanciful, but do consider how it stacks up against the available evidence. This is partly related below. 

Defining Fatal vs. Not Fatal Levels of Sarin
I credit ACLOS member and fellow researcher Pmr9 for a lot of tips here. 

There are two complementary factes of sarin poisoning measured, some in one case, with the other given in other cases. Some give sarin levels (usually in nanograms per milileter, ng/ml). More sources I've seen report the blood's cholinesterase activity (sub-totals: AchE and BChE levels), as observed compared to normal levels. Some give AchE levels, some the BChE levels, and some give the total activity. I don't think any sources give two of those at once to help compare. It may matter a bit which enzyme they cite, but we'll presume the operative thing here is the percentage the normal, healthy range, which also has to be given. And that range is broad and inexact - natural levels vary from person to person.

We can define severe poisoning as marked, roughly, by cholinesterase activity < 10% of normal.  This NIH report states:
"Patients with red-cell acetylcholinesterase activity of at least 30% had normal muscle function and no need for atropine. By contrast, patients with less than 10% of normal red-cell acetylcholinesterase activity had grossly deranged muscle function and needed high doses of atropine".
At such a point, things like breathing will not work right, and there's an increasing danger of brain damage or death if the victim lingers in that state.
From all the reported Syria incidents, there's been little seen of such details, which is our main point here. But one early sarin attack (Saraqeb, April 29, 2013) has details shared about the one fatality, and some details came through from a case of 4 Syrian soldiers attacked with sarin in 2015. Between these two incidents, the 1995 Tokyo subway attack, and one preceding attack by the same terrorists in Japan, I could assemble this abbreviated table. pink = fatality, gray = likely confused details. And note IU is not the same as U. Not sure what it is (International Unit - a special time-unit-based proprietary measure for each enzyme), but either that 100 IU/L norm or that 13.3 IU/ml norm has to be wrong... my date 97=95... will fix this.
Unfortunately, there are some confusing discrepancies in the chart of 21 Japanese victims studied (in this 1997 report) very small samples, less than a quarter of a milileter each, to deduce what might be in a full ml, and dated, somewhat degraded - perhaps not so much of it was found. Those entries are shaded gray here - some cases show high impairment of BChE activity suggesting the sarin levels should be higher than given). 

People can die, it seems, at 13% of normal activity, and at lower levels like 6%, while others can pull through from as low as 7.5% and with increasing ease from levels like 10, 12, 17, 19%. Tokyo victim #10, at 12% activity and probably well over 4.1 ng/ml of regenerated sarin, seems the best candidate for death of their 14 subway attack victims. But it seems this is a sampling of people who survived (I am or have been confused about this - but at 14 entries (not 11!), it's not quite the same-size-as-the-death-toll that it first seemed. Confusingly, their sampling for the earlier incident is still almost the same as the death toll there).

That's the body's cholinesterase activity, which is ... a complex biological enzyme thing ... that's lessened under attack by sarin. How this correlates to detected sarin levels - given in nanograms per milileter (ng/ml) - is less clear. 

In general, of course, as sarin goes up, the other number goes down. The Mariam Al-Khatib case (MAK) suggests 9.5 ng is fatal, but her cholinesterase activity seems higher than you'd expect for a fatality. But she was 52, with unspecified prior medical conditions. And maybe one or both of these figures is incorrect, from a different point, etc. 

<Add 10-17> In fact, the cholinesterase activity given is probably wrong, as Pmr9 helps me realize. A report on her biomedical samples testing (John et. al, PDF) points out that her sarin level was high enough that she had past 100% receptor saturation (or so we both read this):
"Binding sites additional to hBChE indicate that the level of sarin exposure had been quite high, inducing saturation of binding sites in cholinesterases and making excess agent available for binding to other proteins."
I'm not certain that really means 100% blockage and thus 0% cholinesterase activity (I mean, to bind to other proteins, does the sarin have to check if every BChE spot, even clear across the body, is taken? I imagine this other binding increases as the 100% saturation point is reached in that area, while a few receptors might be functioing somewhere else. Either way, it seems 9.5 ng/ml should mean close to or exactly 0% ch. activity, not 13%. <end 10-17>

This given number (9.5 for MAK, and that's from Le Monde, 6-4-13) is receptor-bound and fluoride-ion regenerated sarin, and only represents a portion of the actual dose. The majority of agent that enters the body (I hear 70-90% usually, per this source) is attacked in the blood and converted into IMPA (the less toxic breakdown product of sarin) before it ever causes harm. Japanese victims in 1995 had levels of IMPA up to 135 ng/ml (1998 report). I think this means that person (presumably the deadest among the 12 or so fatalities) had at least that much sarin at one point. But that person's fluoride regeneration test, in these terms, would only show the fatal part that bound to receptors and disrupted the nerve signaling balance. If it's 10-30% of the total, then that person's samples might read ~15 to maybe 50 ng/ml upon similar testing, depending on how extreme doses skew the proportions. And some extremely high doses are expected in that case, given the crude dispersal method. (add Oct. 17: that is, if other-protein-bound overflow sarin also turns up ... if it stops at what the ch. receptors can hold, it should show maxed-out at aroun 9-10 ng/ml ... we think. But that would be less metabolized, so the percentages change... close enough. It's a side issue.)

Maybe 10 ng/ml is a fair upper level some could survive 9 ng/ml is a fair point to call certainly fatal. 7 or 8 would probably do it for most people. For a low end, Tokyo #10 suggests 4.1 ng might push one into about the fatal zone (12% enzyme activity), but again this is likely a low finding of a higher amount. Being fair and broad, let's say 5-10 5-9 ng/ml of sarin is a range of very dangerous to solidly fatal doses. Unfortunately, it's this less clear value we'll have to consider below

OPCW's Yes-or-No Approach

As we consider the possibility of voluntary exposure to sarin, just to trip the sensors, it should be noted low levels aren't even necessary. A dedicated jihadi might take a near-fatal or fatal dose, if that were important enough. But probably no more than that guy would... Well-spaced mild doses could leave fairly high cumulative levels, and still be done with fairly little discomfort or danger. But especially for women or children to be tested, lower levels are much more likely, so long as the plotters didn't worry much about this pattern being exposed. 

And luckily they didn't have to do any better than make sarin appear, in no particular amount. What helps is that from the OPCW's point of view, a positive result suffices, as if it's nothing more than a simple yes or no question.

In a February 15, 2015 incident, four Syrian soldiers were exposed to sarin while fighting rebels in the Damascus area. The OPCW analyzed their preserved blood samples (after DNA matching them to in-person interviews), turning up unambiguous signs of sarin. Their report (PDF via Jean Pascal Zanders' blog The Trench) says "The OPCW designated laboratory was tasked as follows: “Scope of Analysis: Please analyze these samples for the presence or absence of nerve agent adducts.”" That sounds like the whole thing. There's nothing about amounts mentioned - presence or absence is all they ask for.

In the end, for this case, information about amounts (AchE activity) was provided in the OPCW report. But that was apparently from the Syrian blood tests, not from the OPCW lab work resulting from this request. 

The 2017 report by John et. al. on Mariam Al-Khatib's test results (PDF link) agrees "According to the requirements given by the OPCW, qualitative analysis was sufficient for verification of exposure." (h/t Orbi) Quantitative measures don't matter much to them, for some reason. (this report doesn't help much, only specifying her exposre uwas "quite high," and suggesting her receptors were nearing total saturation.)

In that case, it doesn't seem there was a quantity issue - her dose was probably genuinely fatal. And in her case, the OPCW leaked her sarin concentrations, and a UN report in December published her corresponding cholinesterase activity. But there were another five people admitted to the Reyhanli hospital in Turkey, as patients in the same case (it's reported as up to 13, but by the UN report, one was Maraim, 5 others were living patients, and 7 were "relatives" or perhaps minders tagging along). Of the five patients, at least four of them ostensibly being Mariam's family members, we hear one tested for sarin, no details on amount, and that one patient had IMPA in their urine. Two others apparently tested negative. Negative here should mean ... very, very low, as we'll see. It really means no exposure. Yet they were admitted for symptoms ... of something, and were all (except perhaps one) supposedly from the same stricken home.

Detection levels vary by test and improve over time. In 1997, the new fluoride reactivation test could only pick up 0.2ng/ml or higher. Some samples came up no sarin detected, when there clearly was some. Small and aged samples left the results inconsistent anyway. If 5-9 ng/ml is dangerous to fatal - and heck, let's be extra fair and just leave it at 5 ... at worst 4% of a reckless dose would have been enough to barely register in those days. Still, not many volunteers would sign up for that.

Pmr9 directs me to this paper (2004) where it's explained how the threshold of detection was whittled down to about half that size -  0.09% saturation of the receptors is sufficient to say "yes, there's sarin here." That 1.8% of the way to maybe fatal. In 2012, scientists in Beijing developed a way to detect sarin at levels as low as 0.01 ng/mL, or 0.2% of the way to 5 ng/ml. At this point, the exposed person would probably feel no symptoms at all, but could still spark a "global outcry" and a disastrous regime-change war, in the wrong circumstances.

Finally, Pmr9 cites Van der Schans et al 2004 as saying they had already developed, back in 2001, a way to detect sarin down to 5 pg/ml. 1 pg/mL = 0.001 ng/ml, one thousandth of the units we've been using (a trillionth of a gram?). So by this, it's down to 0.005 ng/mL. With this method, 0.002% of the way to possibly dead (or about 0.001% of the way to surely dead) would be enough to probably show up. That's 2/1000ths of one percent. That's a ridiculously small amount. But it would show up as Asad crossing a red line, more or less.

There may be even more sensitive methods developed since, but 0.005 ng/ml is probably the roughest we can expect at the cutting edge. OPCW-certified labs would be encouraged to use the more sensitive test to maintain their accreditation; it stands to reason they would use the most sensitive test, so the smallest does possible would trigger a positive finding. If there's a reason to cast blame on Syria's government, the OPCW will be digging for it with a fine-toothed comb.

As Pmr9 puts it: "There was no need for the planners to fake positive tests for sarin in Ghouta or (Khan Sheikhoun) volunteers, when tiny doses of sarin can safely be used to get a  true positive - as long as they could rely on OPCW  to withhold the quantitative results." In the end they could rely on that, but it's not clear if the terrorists had assurances to that effect as they set up the evidence.

And perhaps just as luckily for them, some important segments of the evidence were simply left out of the testing loop entirely.

What About the Ghouta Attack? Too Little Sarin?
We've seen quantitative results for the Saraqeb attack that killed one, although it took four years. Far more importance is attached to the sarin findings in the Ghouta attack on August 21 of the same year, which allegedly killed 1,429 people and supposedly came close to triggering U.S. military strikes.  - but still nothing of such detail has been published. Why?

NO Ghouta victims tested for sarin, presence or amount
A number of problems - The Ghouta Massacre's Sarin Myth, Brightly Lit - sarin did turn up, accurately identified with the fluoride reactivation method. But this was only in pre-screened alleged attack survivors. Investigators failed to collect a single sample from any of the x-hundred (probably over 500) who actually died. With no tests, we have only the visual evidence shared for a good portion of them, but this shows no consistent indication of sarin exposure. Some have signs of a rubigenic poison (eg carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide), and others for a caustic agent like chlorine or phosphine. Many others are just unclear, possible sarin victims, or just suffocated, but never proven. They were just put in the dirt.

This dismissal of the dead was a conscious choice, as UN disarmament chief Angela Kane explained in an interview on RT. Kane, who accompanied the “inspectors” to Damascus, said “there were so many victims who are still alive that there was really no need to exhume bodies.” If exhumation was the alternative, that would mean none were kept on ice for study. Islamic custom is to bury people within a day when possible, but this is special case. Implicitly, no exception was made.

And it didn't even seem worth a bit of digging. This suggests that the investigators somehow knew they wouldn't like the answers, or their opposition contacts in the area knew that and ruled it out for them.

Kane gives a bizarre and completely incorrect reason why this doesn't matter, or might even help clarify the picture: “a dead body can’t tell how the person dies … a living person can tell you that.” (video: time-stamp: 12:29) The host rebutted this immediately and to good effect, pointing out that what a dead body says is so valuable autopsies are routinely performed just to understand the message. CRBN expert Dan Kaszeta agreed in e-mail to me: “you can tell a lot from a dead body. Principally the same protein adducts that would be analyzed by fluoride regeneration as from a live body. It would have been great to get some bodies and do some testing.” (or, maybe not...)

My friend Denis O’Brien paraphrased Mickey Spillane: “dead men don't tell lies.” In contrast, the people Angela Kane was happy to rely on might have told lies.

Gareth Porter: Signs of Low-Level Exposure Among the Stand-Ins
Back in 2014, investigative reporter Gareth Porter analyzed the U.N. report and decided the subjects probably had “extremely low” exposure to the agent, which would be important if true.  New Data Raise Further Doubt on Official View of August 21 Gas Attack in Syria By Gareth Porter, Truthout, April 29, 2014. (Cited: The UN team overall report, and their more detailed report for the Ghouta incident.) Porter explains the sample selection:
"...the investigating team had asked an opposition leader to help identify a total of 80 people "who had been badly hurt but had survived." The opposition leader chose the doctors who in turn identified the patients to be interviewed. The 36 individuals ultimately selected for detailed profiles of symptoms described themselves as among the most seriously exposed to sarin. Thirty of those 36 reported rocket strikes either on or near their homes. The remaining six said they had gone to a point of impact to help those suffering from the attack."
Smell and caustic notes: "something like
vinegar and rotten eggs" or "like cooking gas," 
along with "redness and itching of the eyes."
(Guardian) UN report shows two sample eyes:
one with dilated pupils but no irritation,
one with miosis and also severe irritation.

So Islamist-selected selectors gathered the requested 80 people, from which 36 worst cases were chosen for clinical assessments. 16 of these were from Moadamiyah (West Ghouta, where perhaps 100 were said to be killed), and just 20 from Zamalka (East Ghouta, where many hundreds to 1,500+ were said to be killed). 34 blood samples were drawn (2 subjects refused). "Fifteen of the survivors who had more severe symptoms or signs during the clinical assessment also had urine samples taken, with three of these also having hair samples taken," the UN report notes. "Of the 34 blood samples tested, 91% tested positive for Sarin exposure in Laboratory 4 and 85% tested positive in Laboratory 3." Moadamiya's part was at about 100%, Zamalka's a bit lower than that average.

"The UN report states that the data on symptoms collected on the 36 individuals are "consistent with organophosphate intoxication." But both (CRBN expert Dan) Kaszeta and Dr. Abbas Faroutan, who treated Iranian victims of Iraqi nerve gas attacks, have pointed to serious irregularities in the symptoms reported by these people."
We must note this is based partly on symptoms reported, which may not be complete, as well as what was observed at the time of assessment. But of those 36, "only five reported miosis, or constricted pupils, one of the most basic signs of sarin exposure," Porter notes. The report also states 15% of those studied had miosis at the time of assessment about a week later. That's the same 5. It's hard to say how many might have had it right after the attack. Moving on...
The UN team found that six people [out of 36] who claimed high levels of exposure had no trace of sarin in their blood, but the rest all showed evidence of exposure to sarin. The fact that all but seven of them failed to exhibit the most basic sign of such exposure suggests that the amount of sarin to which they were exposed was extremely low. After comparing the data on the 36 survivors with comparable data on survivors of the Tokyo sarin attack, [Dan] Kaszeta told Truthout that the people interviewed and evaluated by the UN "didn't have serious exposure" to nerve gas.
Recall these were the 36 best cases out of the 80 cases selected to show sarin traces most clearly, out a reported several thousand people affected. If this is the best they could find, the rest will be lower yet, or all at zero. One in six couldn't even muster the micro-dose needed to test positive. The other 5 in 6 probably did take their token dose.

Collectively, the people of East and West Ghouta were apparently exposed to barely any sarin, and that little bit was probably by choice.

And consider these other findings:
"Even stranger, seven of the 36 victims told investigators they had lost a combined total of 39 members of their immediate families killed in buildings they said were either points of impact of the rockets or only 20 meters (64 feet) away from one. Yet only one of the seven exhibited the most common symptom of exposure to sarin - the constriction of pupils - and only one reported nausea and vomiting." 
This is evidence - not proof - that 7 fakers were able to explain  39 deaths between them. These are the pivotal story-tellers that appear with every serious allegation of a regime massacre. But all these low-dose survivors claiming families that died all around them present a strange, unexplained gap running down the middle of each story. That is, they probably were not survivors of these families, and were just falsely claiming them after the fact.

"Twenty-eight of the 36 victims - nearly four-fifths of the sample - said they had experienced loss of consciousness, according to the UN report." That seems higher than one would expect considering the otherwise low exposure suggested. But just passing out does allow for shorter stories with less details to get wrong.

Porter's findings there are not conclusive, but impressive considering the lack of provided specifics. It does strongly suggest exposure was usually below the threshold  to trigger the symptoms. Yet as we know, it's high enough exposure to test as sarin. These apparent low doses make voluntary exposure by Jihadi fakers more plausible than one might think. Some victims would have, or seem to have, low exposure. But what if everyone tested looked ike they were all invited to a party where someone barely spiked the punch with sarin (or chlorosarin, etc.) and hardly anyone even noticed it. The signs are these fakers just met expectations, and weren't even willing to get a good pupil-squeeze in to back their stories

Early on, some analysts noted the roughly 100% sarin-positive human samples in the East Ghouta (Moadamiya) portion, compared to almost completely negative results in the environment (See "Sasa Wawa" analysis). That alone has always suggested manipulation, and people exposed from something other than the widespread sarin release they allege. Perhaps these suspiciously low token traces are another part of the picture that they hide from us.

I also find this noteworthy, perhaps out of ignorance - this might prove the dosing was done later than the attack:
Physical examination demonstrated that 39% of  survivors were confused or disoriented at the time of the assessment and that 14% had miosis (constriction of pupils). In spite of the fact that the clinical assessments in Moadamiyah occurred five days following the alleged incident and the assessments in Zamalka occurred seven days following the alleged incident, these signs were persistent. 
Did they get the wrong amounts at the wrong time too? And is the confusion from the same small doses of sarin they were given, from something else they were given, or just deduced from their narratives falling apart?

What About the Khan Sheikhoun Attack? 

At just six months in, we can't complain as much that lab-based reports haven't been published about the April incident in Khan Sheikhoun. Here, fatalities were said to be sampled and tested, and it sounds like these tested for sarin AND for serious caustic exposure, with most suffering pulmonary edema (lung damage). People describe white or pale yellow-ish fog or "dust", with a disgusting and strange stench, burning eyes and lungs (chest tightness, etc.). (see The Sarin Evidence

This is apparently in the impurities evident to similar effect in every other supposed sarin attack. France claims to have logged impurities at 40% of the agents volume, at least in the 2013 Saraqeb incident. It's not at all colorless and odorless. It's yellowish, nasty-smelling, like some hard-to-define rotten smell. It burns the eyes, besides causing sarin-style vision problems (things go dim, or even black, and vision is said to be lost). Lungs burn, suffer damage, and fill with fluid as in a chlorine attack. But it's also sarin, or at least sarin residues always turn up in conjunction.

Others were based on supplied samples (all from survivors?) with the odd timeline issues, lots of IMPA still present, yet other signs for sarin seeming to lack (this is all pending review...) http://www.alternet.org/grayzone-project/what-really-happened-khan-sheikhoun
(I'll be adding more detail here, citing porter at least - I rushed ahead of filling it in yet)

Talkers blaming regime methods might be sampled more professionally, might show sarin, probably token doses. But by now that subject has been raised - primarily by Porter, and echoed by myself and others - there's an increasing chance that event plotters have moved to address the problem. Here I'm leaving open that they even got one case, at least, of several token's worth in one guy.

Which guy? He's seen weak and sweaty, pouring tears, saliva and mucous in the days after the attack, as he visited Turkey and slobbered on Erdogan's head. It seems possibly he was in a days-long, low-to-mid-level sarin crisis, seen repeatedly getting IV drips and sipping water that, for all we know, contained his latest mini-dose.

On the day of the attack, he swears he stashed his wife and kids in a basement as he ran through three different sarin plumes in different parts of town. He says he tried rescue people at several family members' homes, grabbing and carrying the recently dead and dying with no protection, before he passed out from all the sarin rubbing off on him. Sadly, he only helped one person survive in his story, but confirmed the death of dozens before it finally went dark for him. Huh. He says he passed out, later awoke, and learned his own wife and children were also dead in that basement.

When he finally went to retrieve them it was 4 hours since they parted. But solar-timed imagery (with agreeing publish times) seems to show he was down maybe 15 minutes, if at all, and got back up after a light hosing. Yet he inexplicably goes to rescue his own wife and children only some 3-3.5 hours later. Here, maybe 20-30 minutes after all that exposure, a slash of water and now this self-described sarin sponge is okay? He's okay to touch with unprotected hands? The sarin rinse is ok in sandals?  This all makes no sense, until we consider that maybe his story just isn't true.

So let's see Abdelhamid Al-Yousef's higher-than-token sarin results, if they exist.

I predict we'll never see the tests done on his alleged wife and infant twins because no such thing was ever done. With people like that, you bury them and don't ask questions, like with the many hundreds of people whose bodies were dragged across Obama's red line in Ghouta. It's people like Abdelhamid here who speak for them, in words of defiance against "Assad," and sometime in the biomedical sampling area as well.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Saraqeb Sarin Incident: The Magic Grenades

Saraqeb Sarin Incident: 
The Magic Grenades
October 15, 2017
(rough, incomplete) 
edits 10/16

(incident: alleged sarin attack, April 29, 2013, in Saraqeb, Idlib province. partial background: A Closer Look On Syria talk page, main page that might finally get filled in soon)

While clarity is pending, my analysis along with Pmr9 suggests the lone fatality of this attack, Mariam Al-Khatib (as given), suffered a rather massive dose of sarin. That could require some explaining when such a small amount was deployed, and it seems no one else suffered serious or any exposure, despite symptoms (real and/or claimed). The more extreme the poisoning, the less plausible it is by the activist narrative - the most extreme doses can best be delivered up-close, but not easily with a dropped bomb or other remote delivery as alleged.

In this case, a strange weapon was allegedly dropped right inside the front gate of the Khatib family's courtyard. Note rubble on right side and towards the camera - this might suggest it flew in from the left, whereas things from helicopters fall straight down. The view seems to be facing north, so perhaps this projectile was fired from the northwest? It didn't explode, it seems to me, just hit the pavement with some weight and displaced some dirt beneath.
clockwise from top left: map from UN report w/note, best view of that home from Google earth, BBC view, app. firing line?

What could help explain a massive dose (for the locale, not for any one person) is early morning with cold air, at a home tucked into its own little hollow, or inside a walled courtyard, with no wind. The sarin vapor, which would behave like fog, would stay pooled at maximum concentrations and evaporate only slowly. The home has a walled courtyard, but otherwise those  best conditions aren't met, and only one person there suffered serious exposure. Maybe it sprayed her right in the face when she got too close? It's possible.

The UN's Dec. 13 report S/2013/735
"Weather information from Idlib on the afternoon the 29 April 2013 shows the temperature to be between 34°C and 33°C at 1600 hours (worldweatheronline.com), with  no  clouds  and  a  north  to  north-east  wind  at  4  to  5  miles  per  hour."

That's Idlib, not Saraqeb some distance away. North-northeat should be wind origin, so it would blow southwest, away from the home, but perhaps remaining trapped in the walled courtyard. They could mean the opposite as well. I won't even look up which it shows, because worldweatheronline uses computer models that only sometimes approximate reality - it's not worth citing for something this important. Further, wind barely matters here where it's all allegedly at one home

All we can say is it was mid-afternoon in late spring, so almost surely too warm for ideal sarin conditions - it would evaporate faster than the ideal. The report seems to agree: "In  those conditions, chemicals like Sarin would disperse quite rapidly, especially considering the small volumes allegedly used, while  migrating  a  short  distance  in  the  direction of the wind," which is not actually known. So it would evaporate or dissipate and be less harmful than expected, although the alleged impact is close enough to the home that these issues don't matter much.

But the ultimately fatal dose observed in Mariam Al-Khatib was allegedly from "smoke" released in her courtyard from this munition - an unmarked white plastic hand grenade they showed to explain the incident. One man handles it with bare hands. It's now said this another copy of the weapon, or a similar one used for illustration, not the exact unit responsible. The exact allegation at the time is unclear to me.

The smoke it emitted is described as white, but the smoke stains on this unit are black. Heat is suggested too, whereas burning level heat would destroy fragile sarin molecules - they need a cool dispersion, like fog. As for quantity: one unit could only hold so much sarin, but it's alleged two of these - or similar - were used at each attack site (see below).

The same style of grenade was allegedly used once before, in an April 13, 2013 chemical attack in Aleppo district of Sheikh Maqsoud. The sprawling Kurdish-majority district was just overrun by Islamists headed by Jabhat al-Nusra when this grenade fell into an apartment building, after allegedly being dropped from a helicopter, killing 14 (4 women and children reported right away, 10 men barely mentioned later). US tests later claimed to identify sarin in this incident, despite the initial lack of indications by symptoms like gillettosis - shaving cream applied to the face (ACLOS page).

Otherwise, the device was unseen and unknown at the time.  After the 29th, its profile was raised, and was quickly matched to some photos of a Jabhat Al-Nusra religious policeman in the country's north. This was publicized by Eliot Higgins/Brown Moses, it should be noted, on May 8, 2013. It was sort of astounding. Was al-Nusra behind these events?

Shortly, an explanation appeared; the Assad regime had these things first. Non-Nusra but Islamist rebels ("Abu Dhar al-Ghafari Brigade") proved that by showing some they had, because they had just then found them on some soldiers they captured across the country in Irbin, Damascus. (May 23 video by Marwan the Umayyad, showing a chest of "booty seized by the heroes of the Free Army after defeating the Assad forces") On May 24 Higgins passed on this claim and seemed to buy it, it should be noted.
Add Oct. 16: Michael Kobs identifies some other improvised weapons siezed from the regime thugs in that video - matched to weapons Al-Nusra filmed themselves improvising (not verified, but looks pretty likely).

Later on, German journalist Alfred Hackensberger poked around inside Syria, using photos and questions to find a number of rebels and a defector to say the same, incrementally. At first no one knew, then some guys remembered JaN had them, or maybe it as another militia, but they weren't chemical grenades. Then al-Nusra people said they had them, having seized them from the regime, but they weren't chemical weapons, just smoke or maybe tear gas canisters. Then a defector (who admits running weapons deliveries at the Turkish border) appeared, and said he saw them used back in the army: Iranians sent them to disperse a nerve agent to "calm" the protesters, or so the common grunt was told. So if it turns out these things have something dangerous, it's the regime's and Iran's fault, not this smuggler's or Turkey's. At least this is what Hackensberger heard, as he pushed for an explanation and, I think, as one was fabricated for him. (his article in Die Welt (German), and credulous Brown Moses coverage - and see my lone comment) 

Eliot Higgins at Bellingcat revisited the case in 2017, with the same story he had in 2013 as re-hashed by the French intelligence report just released. On their end, it seems quite clear whose copies of the grenades were used in the attack. According to the (accepted) activist claims; they were packed into something like cinderblocks (or breezeblocks) - 2 grenades per block, somehow secured, maybe with an external box, and dropped from a regime helicopter. It's alleged three blocks total (six grenades) were dropped in this attack.

The regime has no reason to do this, everyone agrees, but hey ... Jabhat al-Nusra doesn't have helicopters.

Activists provided video for one of the three drops at the time, with James Miller alerting Eliot Higgins swiftly. This was accepted as adding to the picture; the bomb package glows and pours white smoke as it falls. Higgins thinks they lit the outer box on fire for some reason. But to me this is pretty clearly some white phosphorous being dropped, as a screening agent for some Syrian army ground operation (ones in the area were underway, at an air base a way away from Saraqeb). It would look exactly like this. Look up videos to see.

Hence, there's no supporting video of this cinderblock drop. Is it that hard to admit? That reported drop might have happened anyway, or quite likely not. The grenades, smoke, poison - whatever part was physically true - may have gotten in the Khatib courtyard or Mariam's bloodstream in this way, or in some other way. But it is problematic how three alleged drops in broad daylight somehow didn't get filmed.

Higgins maintains even now this is the weapon falling, but he acknowledged to me in 2013 (comments) "this doesn't seem to really match with a Sarin attack ... The more I think about it, the weirder it gets." Maybe after a few years of not thinking about these details, it got to seeming alright again.

He credits the French intelligence report (presentation and report, English versions) for clarifying things. This was released in 2017 to bolster the case for government guilt in the Khan Sheikhoun incident. It does add some details I haven't assessed fully, claiming to link two exact grenades to the attack, and to have found 60% pure sarin inside them. They show two units, top from the Khatib family home, broken into pieces, and bottom from another impact on the edge of town.

Both appear a bit different from the kind shown at the time, and perhaps different from each other. Both appear slightly curved, they think, because they fell from a helicopter. The top image is especially unclear, second-hand. Also lest we forget, they say there were two grenades per brick, and the French report claims 3 weapon drops that day. That means we're only seeing 1/3 of the claimed units here.

The main thrust of the report was to let France claim that Khan Sheikhoun was a regime attack, because it used the same exact kind of sarin used in Saraqeb, which was ... an especially clear case, in their minds? From that case, the French spooks learned the Syrian government's method of producing sarin. The clever buggers! It was uniquely devised and "involves the use of hexamine as a stabilizer." It's suggested the Syrians invented this process and remain the only people in the world capable of using it.
"The  presence  of  the  same  chemical  compounds  in  the  environmental  samples collected  during  the  attacks  on  Khan  Sheikhoun  on  4 April 2017  and  on  Saraqib  on 29 April 2013  ...  produced using the same manufacturing process ... Moreover, the presence of  hexamine  indicates  that  this  manufacturing  process  is  that  developed  by  the  Scientific Studies and Research Centre for the Syrian regime." 
That was "formally  confirmed  by  France," the report itself states with authority.

Hexamine is made to sound like some DNA fingerprint level clue meaning Assad did it. But it can in fact be from several things, like the small explosive opening charge on a CW munition, or sarin made with the same process but by someone else, or even manufacturing or burning plastics in the area. This is partly explained at Washington's Blog, where Dr. Ake Sellström (former head of UN-OPCW CW invstigations in both Iraq and Syria) acknowledged this, and noted "the phrasing in the (French) statement is clever." Science, of course, isn't about being "clever."

Anyway, it was apparently the French report that led Higgins to summarize:
... it is now clear that this attack was the deployment of sarin as a chemical weapon by Syrian government forces against a civilian population ... one question remains. Why did Syrian forces use sarin in such a bizarre way, ... we are yet to understand exactly why the attack took place in the manner it did.
Of course whether it even did happen that way is a far more important question, among  the many questions that he doesn't mention.

Just considering opposition sources, there have been two other earnestly-offered explanations (original articles all pulled now, but documented here at ACLOS). .
* barrel bombs filled wit TNT and sarin was dropped from a helicopter, "each poisoning an area of one kilometer in diameter," while "a third barrel" didn't blow up but spread phosphorus "to cover up the Sarin" (which would be destroyed already by the TNT). "Phosphorus is used in fertilizer, so they could have claimed that the people were poisoned because of an agricultural accident." Hm. Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat reported this.
* Others said a helicopter  "dropped bags" to disperse "dust particles, causing 14 suffocation injuries." Turkish sources at first spoke of "some 13 victims of an attack that included white powder." (PRI) Elsewhere, two people were killed" (who's the other?) "and 20 others were injured Tuesday when planes dropped bags of suspected chemicals in Idlib province, al-Jazeera reported." (UPI) If the Al-Jazeera report was in English, it's was parently been pulled. I'll check Arabic.
* So it's basically "whatever, but from a helicopter," or maybe from "planes." Heck, it could have been scud missiles, just something only the regime has. That part is clear.

But if we accept the grenade story, we have to accept these others weren't telling the truth. But then if this class of activist produces multiple false helicopter-based stories, why believe their other helicopter story? 

And the Syrian government had an unusually-detailed counter-claim involving  ... yes, terrorists and ... hostages, barrels of poisonous liquid with incapacitating fumes, and/or plastic bags of white powder people had "thrown" in their faces near the southern entrance into town, and people rushed to Turkey just to get test results. (ACLOS)

Every story here is weird. The event almost surely was weird. So which story seems closer to likely?

Why is it bags of powder the most agreed version, between Syria's, Turkey's and some of the opposition's sources?  Eliot Higgins early ran on the notion that "canisters" of powder and grenades were used, showing this pile of white powder with some solid, caked-seeming chunks. This is how first reports sounded, but soon the BBC-backed Ian Pannel story of grenade-packed cinderblocks emerged, and Higgins decided this is really the smashed block remains at an alleged impact site. This is by the highway at the southern entrance into town ... or actually I thought it was the north end earlier, hen I first looked. But it needs review. This might be where Syria's sources have powder thrown around.

Where's the same dust of smashed block in the courtyard impact shown above? (the outer boxes will be burned away, since they were apparently lit on fire to appear as glowing, the thinking probably runs).

Magic Grenades in Memoriam

Between its Aleppo debut and this second appearance, the ingenious brick-drop sarin grenade managed to kill a murky few civilians, and to make rebel accusations look bizarre and even silly, and to make the deaths look kind of like ... things the terrorists themselves were doing. Aha! Is this why the regime did it? Well, after doing such a good job of embarrassing the rebels, they must have taken off and had them appear all over, right?

No. This was the second and final attack involving this specific weapon. Someone put it into retirement, took a break, and then switched to large-quantity surface rockets, as blamed for the infamous Ghouta chemical massacre a few months later. Afterwards, that weapon too - and sarin attack allegations - were put to sleep for the time being, favoring chlorine from helicopter stories for 3 years. Now it's sarin again, in murky bombs maybe with chlorine, dropped from one guy's jet Quds1, and he's a friggin' Alawite who they say should die and maybe did.

After all this, I note that chemical scud missiles have really been underplayed so far. Might that finally spark an intervention? Will Assad just have to try it at some worst possible time?

Monday, October 2, 2017

Gareth Porter on Faking Khan Sheikhoun Sarin Results

Idlib Chemical Massacre
Gareth Porter on Faking Khan Sheikhoun Sarin Results
October 2, 2017
Updates Oct. 4, 7

October 4, Important update: I've been informed by a knowledgeable source (with whom I should have checked first) that Porter might well be wrong on the sarin testing done and thus this article is on a wrong track. It could be, as my source argues, the OPCW labs did use the now-standard fluoride test, and did positively identify sarin, despite the unclear phrasing now used. I'll look into this some more and then decide what to do.

October 7: This 2015 report of the OPCW cites use of "The  fluoride  reactivation  method,"  performed  "according  to  the  method  published  by  Holland  et  al (2008), J. Anal Toxicol., 32:116-124." So it's apparently that new. Dan Kaszeta hadn't heard of it yet in 2013. Porter's sources maybe didn't even know about it in 2017. I suspect they're retired - retired people have the most time for e-mails, but sometimes have dated information. This same report also uses the phrasing "sarin  (or  sarin-like  substance."  - as found in the blood of Syrian soldiers reportedly attacked with it by opposition forces in Daraya, Damascus, in February, 2015.  In spots, it's specified as "a sarin-like  agent,  for  example,  chlorosarin." The explanation provided is that even with the best tests, "the leaving  group  (fluorine  in  the  case  of  sarin)  cannot  be determined.  Sarin,  or  chlorosarin,  would  produce  identical  results."

Chlorosarin (Wikipedia) is controlled, illegal, with no legitimate business for anyone having it. It's used for producing sarin, or emerges in the process. It's far less toxic, though similar in effect. And it would trigger the best tests. Maybe there is reason to use this, if it's easier to produce and adequate. I'm not sure. Chlorosarin is the only other possibility that's mentioned, but it's "for example," so there might be other substances. A report on the findings from Saraqeb incident, 4-29-2013, agrees on the ambiguity and adds an alternate: "It should be noted that for both types of biomarkers the structure of the leaving group of the toxicant (F- in case of sarin) is not revealed, which means that these biomarkers do not allow distinction among, e.g., sarin, chlorosarin or O-isopropyl VX (a VX analogue with an O-isopropyl moiety instead of an O-ethyl group). By this even VX is out, but a VX "analogue" could explain the result. But it seems doubtful that phosphine, for example, would produce this result.

So why do they later use this phrase without explanation? (or was there an explanation we missed?) It could be just a concern for accuracy, or perhaps en effort to get people asking the wrong questions  (it seems to have done this, intentionally or not). So while it's not 100% certain this was used, and sarin or something very similar was truly found, it is far more than likely. (and it's still not certain, by any measure, that it was from the Syrian government.) Therefore, the following, and Porter's corresponding arguments, stands as an exploration, and a distantly possible alternate explanation.
---Original Article--
I finally begin publishing my review of Gareth Porter's article, Have We Been Deceived Over Syrian Sarin Attack? Scrutinizing the Evidence in an Incident Trump Used to Justify Bombing Syria (AlterNet, September 13, 2017) It involved some original research and leg-work, working with others at AtlerNet, leveraged to good effect into an ambitious and ranging piece of some size. But that's only part of why it's taken me this long to get even a partial review up.

Some excellent points are raised, some of which I've also cited, and some of which I'll start citing. But Porter's take is far from perfect, with a couple of important points poorly handled, in my opinion. I plan to examine some shortcomings or disagreements in a further post, but in case I only finish one part, I'll cover the good aspects first, and primarily what seems the most important part of his findings.

Among the strong points of this article is that it questions the widespread certainty about sarin's involvement. It seems clear sarin was involved at least in a few tested spots, if not central to the incident. At the very least we can say sarin wasn't the only thing at work. To whatever extent it really matters, I suspect this sarin was held and used by anti-government terrorists, who are known to have and to have used the stuff. (That's not as well-known as it should be - some points along these lines are collected here.) So from the start, I have no stake in deciding sarin was or wasn't responsible.

And the article specifically proposes an alternate poison, which I suspect was involved where sarin wasn't. As far as I know, there could be 2 or more others. Porter and I so far do not agree on how it might have been released, but his proposal of phosphine is compelling, and worthy of its own post (so it could take 3 parts to cover two good tracks and the parts I disagree with)

The part I want to highlight here is "How the OPCW Produced False Positives for Sarin Exposure." Technically, it seems they didn't. But they clearly helped produce a false impression that sarin was definitely used. As Porter explains, what they did was get test results that COULD be from sarin, or from several other things. They passed that off as if it probably was sarin, and governments, corporate media, and institutionally-controlled "human rights" groups amplified that into near-certainty, rather than expose it to any kind of skepticism. 

The Two Tests that Can't be Sure
As Gareth Porter notes, the OPCW's June report highlights "largely positive test results for exposure to “sarin or a sarin-like substance,” as OPCW phrased it." That's all some people needed to hear, but with some research, Porter found and explains how "the two types of tests OPCW relied on to produce those results can both produce false positives for sarin exposure." The two levels of testing that were probably used, as explained by Porter:

- gas or liquid chromatography (finds the IMPA): This is used "to look for a specific metabolite or breakdown compound, as they could not have identified sarin itself. Sarin breaks down rapidly in the human body into a metabolite called isopropyl methylphosphonate. IMPA is the first compound for which the laboratories test, and finding it in a blood, urine or tissue specimen has long been considered evidence of exposure to sarin." Note: it's evidence, not proof; it's consistent with sarin, not exclusive to it. The test can be fooled, as Porter notes. IMPA can be openly purchased, is safe to handle and ingest in lower amounts, and "could be administered in a hydration drip or glass of water before a biomedical sample is taken from the test subject."

Porter contacted "two scientists with close ties to the OPCW, both intimately familiar with the organization’s testing for exposure to sarin and other nerve gases," but who requested anonymity. They agreed generally that IMPA administered before sampling "would indeed show up in the OPCW lab test as a positive for IMPA." If much time had passed, this too should break down, but as one said "it is likely that following ingestion or administration some would appear in the urine unchanged.” 

"Neither of the scientists contested the fact that the test for IMPA in urine samples could have produced false positives."

- protein adduct test (shows that something inhibited nerve function): This second tests is "more elaborate" than chromatography. Here, Porter explains, "they try to regenerate part of the compound representing the organophosphorus nerve agent that binds to acetylcholinerase (AChE) or butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) enzymes in human cells in order to confirm the nature of the compound to which a victim has been exposed." So the protein adduct test "can only confirm exposure to a type of chemical that can bind with those enzymes and cause them to cease functioning." IMPA doesn't do this, only a more complex molecule like sarin - but not necessarily sarin.
The OPCW confirmed that fact in a 2014 article on its protein adduct test, explaining that the adduct reproduced by the test may appear identical to the one produced by exposure to sarin, but may actually be the result of exposure to VX nerve gas. That explains why the OPCW adopted the phrase “sarin or a sarin-like substance” in reporting the results of the protein adduct tests on biomedical sample from Khan Sheikhoun. 
So VX nerve agent, for one, can also produce the results. So perhaps the regime dropped the just-as-banned VX? Or what other kinds of things could cause the positive results? I had Bellingcat member DDTea assure me a while back "sarin-like" can only mean  "sarin, cyclosarin, thiosarin, thiosoman, O-ethylsarin, soman, chlorosarin, and chlorosoman," but might have agreed to VX - all banned nerve agents, It wou;dn't be a common pesticide or industrial chemical, for example. (as for the phrase "or a sarin-like substance," DDTea proposes "they’re trying to keep an open mind, taking into account the possibility that other agents may have been used along with Sarin, or that “GB” was not specifically what was used.")  At the time, I accepted that something like phosphine, for example, was likely ruled out. But Porter casts doubt on such claims.
The OPCW, which is only concerned with chemical weapons, never considered the possibility that the organophosphate toxic agent that was reflected in those tests results was phosphine gas. Experts on phosphine have long known, however, that among other toxic effects on the human body, phosphine gas disrupts the supply of acetylcholinesterase—just as sarin and other officially recognized nerve gases do.
William Potter of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Tulsa was the lead author of an early study on the effect of exposure to phosphine gas on acetylcholinesterase levels in agricultultural workers, including those who applied phosphine. Potter told AlterNet that whenever phosphine gas enters the human body, “it forms reactive phosphorus intermediaries that would inhibit acetylcholinerase in a manner very similar to known chemical weapon nerve gases.”  ... But Potter added that the laboratory tests probably would not have recognized it as the signature of a phosphine derivative, because they were only expecting to find sarin or another weaponized nerve agent.
If that really was their sole expectation, that would question their scientific objectivity. If OPCW don't know or don't care that it could be a non-weapon chemical, but it actually was one, then they'd be certain to find the wrong answer. That's how bad this approach is, and this might be just such a case where this structural flaw matters.

The key point here: phosphine is "sarin-like" enough to explain the positive results achieved in Turkey. For all we know, their tests actually proved it was phosphine, or perhaps some other poison that could also classify (but I can't say which ones, so  ... I'll be examining the phosphine option soon)

Deliberately Passing up the Chance to be Sure?
So neither of the test used is conclusive regarding sarin. But as I understand it, there is an available test that might have been more clear on the question, and the signs say this other method was side-stepped, for reasons unknown. Porter doesn't mention this, and didn't seem clearly aware of it, so I'll make the case for it here.

I was at first very skeptical of the sarin claims throughout 2013, including in the August 21 Ghouta attack. But in the course of research, I was informed that what turned up in the biomedical samples probably was sarin, based on the kind of test used. Called perhaps a few things similar to "fluoride ion regeneration," this test supposedly rules out everything but sarin, forcing me to posit that test subjects didn't just ingest IMPA but actual sarin (presumably in a highly-diluted form). Gareth Porter was my source for one important point - the test results suggested low level exposure to sarin. (TruthOut) That's consistent with a voluntary  token dose, probably administered well after the events of the 21st.

In lieu of an informed overview, some sources suggesting this test was used in 2013 (but note: the picture remains a bit unclear on this point).

* ACLOS member Pmr9 cites a “fluoride ion regeneration test” in a 2014 comment at the WhoGhouta blog:
1. The UN labs appear to have used only the test for sarin-BChE adduct (fluoride ion regeneration). The half-life of BChE is about 11 days, so an eight-fold fall in concentration is expected. For sampling after an interval, a test for IMPA-albumin adduct should have been used also. The half-life of albumin is about 20 days so this test should be able to detect sarin explosure at least six weeks after exposure. We wouldn't want to rely only on the IMPA-albumin adduct test as it's easily faked, but in these individuals we already have a positive sarin-BChE adduct test which is hard to fake without real sarin. 
* In my later "Sarin myth" article, I acknowledged some unclear role for genuine sarin, due to this test presumably being used. As explained in endnotes about fluoride ion regeneration:
"A search indicates that exact name isn’t usually used, but a test like that exists. Dan Kaszeta mentioned “a much newer method, one that forced me back to the library to read up on, called fluoride regeneration or fluoride reactivation.” (see also note 1) Both agreed this rules out the known methods of fakery (like ingestion of IMPA powder) and/or proves actual Sarin exposure."
* A U.S. military study (PDF, date unclear, but citing works from as late as 2001) "A method has been developed for the analysis of a Sarin (GB) nerve agent biomarker in the tissue and biological fluids of minipigs that is very sensitive and selective." From there, it addresses mainly how the GB was distributed, always referring to it as GB (sarin), not "a sarin-like substance." 

As I recall in 2013, sarin was claimed to be used in the Ghouta attack, not a "sarin-like substance." The UN Commission of Inquiry, Feb. 2014 (.doc file): "In no incident was the commission’s evidentiary threshold met with respect to the perpetrator," but "chemical weapons, specifically sarin, were found to have been used in multiple incidents." These were "Al-Ghouta (21 August), Khan Al-Assal (19 March) and Saraqib (29 April)." "128. In Al-Ghouta, significant quantities of sarin were used." They don't explain how they got so certain about the agent, but they do sound certain.

"By 17 September, the UN was able to confirm Sarin had indeed been used in Syria," says an informed article at Cosmos Magazine. This says a chromotography test was used, and doesn't mention the fluoride ion test, but that may have been used anyway. Like everyone at the time, this still claims sarin, plain and simple. Only now do we hear this variant "or a sarin-like substance." It seems like something has changed, and this might be it.

It's now 4 years later, and tests don't get un-invented. So why wouldn't they use the best method this time to get a clear picture? I'm no expert, but this seems like a good question. It seems possible they did try fluoride ion regeneration but got the wrong answer - NOT sarin - and then re-did it to get the "maybe" answer they took to the public. At least as likely is that they avoided that testing altogether, somehow knowing from the start it would come out wrong. Why order tests you don't want and leave a possible paper trail you'll have to erase?

Signs of Planting and Faking
Environmental samples (soil and metal fragments, pavement and stones, and non-human biological samples all seem to fit in this category) will test for actual sarin, as well as the breakdown products like IMPA. The former will appear later in soil than inside an animal body, and the latter will appear more slowly (air and dirt don't break sarin down as vigorously as the body does). But the results here are questionable, and seem uneven.

As widely noted, the Syrian government secured its own samples from the attack site, which it provided to the OPCW. The Syrians tested the samples themselves first, and reported their findings; sarin and its breakdown products were found neatly inside the crater/hole near the bakery, but hardly at all outside of it. People can say the Syrians proved their own gas attack, and even that they found "telltale hexamine," but it could be their tests prove site tampering.
Although the samples from soil and metal objects in the crater said to have been taken on the Syrian government’s behalf and tested in its laboratories all registered as positive for sarin, those samples could have easily have been contaminated from the start with a few small vials of sarin. On the other hand, all but one of the 14 soil samples analyzed by the government laboratory outside the crater registered nothing of significance.
Biological samples, as Porter argues, suggest the subjects were exposed to IMPA, not sarin, and that it was probably done after the attack.
"According to specialists who had tested biomedical samples for sarin exposure, the metabolite of sarin can rarely be detected after a week.  Yet biomedical samples of alleged attack victims were transmitted to the OPCW team between April 12 and 14—from eight to 10 days after their exposure to chemicals in Khan Sheikhoun. And every one of the seven urine and hair samples submitted by the Idlib Health Directorate—which operates under the control of al-Qaeda and its allies in the province—was positive for IMPA."
This is important. It should be rarely seen, if it started out as sarin on the 4th. But it's seen in 7 of 7 cases. That suggests a timeline discrepancy - the IMPA probably appeared more recently than the 4th, like in a voluntary exposure in the days following the attack. That would obviously be a conspiracy to fake the tests; they knew the truth was not going to get the results they wanted.
Porter also looked into "biomedical samples submitted during that same period by the Syrian American Medical Society" (SAMS) another propaganda outfit under the influence of local jihadists, with a terrible track record on accuracy. Of the SAMS samples from a week or more after the attack...
"Three of the seven blood samples tested negative for “sarin or sarin-like substance,” indicating that those three had not been exposed to a nerve agent. Yet two of the three urine samples and all three of the hair samples from those who had clearly not been exposed tested positive for IMPA, the substance that can be administered to produce false positives for the breakdown product of sarin. "
So ,,, if this pans out as it seems, SAMS helped prove their supposed sarin victims were just falsely dosed with IMPA. "The OPCW report itself recognized those results as irregularities," Porter notes, "but did not acknowledge that they indicated an obvious manipulation of the sample-taking by those institutions" (or their allies).

How The OPCW Invites Fakery
"The OPCW violated one of its most fundamental rules," Porter argues, by accepting samples they couldn't really vouch for. "It is forbidden from using any biomedical or environmental samples as evidence unless they have a verifiable chain of custody, as a spokesman for the organization clarified when allegations of chemical attacks first arose in Syria four years ago." Yet they accepted samples  gathered in often unprofessional ways and that were quite possibly contaminated, before or after collection, as explained above.
The OPCW had no verifiable chain of custody of the samples, meaning that the organization did not see them collected, so al Qaeda-directed personnel could have manipulated the samples either before or after collection.
This is valid. Every group that's able to operate here should be considered suspect, at least, of being controlled or coerced by the ruling Islamist forces, who don't subscribe to our ideas of truth and science, to say the least. These include the “chemical sample unit” of the celebrated "White Helmets" who function here, as Porter notes, "entirely under the authority of the province’s al-Qaeda leadership."

It could be that no one took advantage of this chance to taint things, and the results came out on the level. But we have no guarantee, and not even the OPCW's direct assurance, that that's the case. Whether or not anyone walks through it, this laxness of process opens the door for serious deception. As Porter notes:
The OPCW itself took no samples of any kind in Khan Sheikhoun because its fact-finding mission never set foot in the city.  Instead, it performed all of its work in Turkey or elsewhere in locations in Syria controlled by al Qaeda or another rebel group. That, too, was an explicit violation of the organization’s own rules.
This is part of a policy of theirs, based on circumstances apparently set-up by the opposition's Islamist forces, in late May, 2014. As this hard-to-find AP report explains, an OPCW fact-finding team was on its way to look into a chlorine attack back in mid-April. Headed to Kafr Zita, they started from government-held Hama. In good faith, the investigators continued past the front-line with no more Syrian army escort possible. A ways out, apparently with some rebel escort, they were hit with a roadside bomb someone planted, damaging at least one vehicle. Some returned - towards the government-held area, not deeper into rebel turf - in another undamaged vehicle. But 11 other team members were mysteriously delayed. The Syrian government said they had been kidnapped by terrorists. The OPCW just said they had safely returned in the end, with no details and no complaints. ("But the OPCW issued a statement shortly afterward saying a convoy had come under attack but “all team members are safe and well and are travelling back to the operating base.” Opposition activists could not immediately be reached for comment.")

The OPCW suspended such missions for a while after this, limiting their Fact-Finding Mission to more remote work. Years on, after Khan Sheikhoun, they reportedly operate inside rebel-held areas again, to some extent. But it seems they retain the option to call some places too risky, as they did here. As Aaron Lund put it:
Although the Fact-Finding Mission operated both out of Damascus and on the Turkish border, its members were unable to gain access to the actual crime scene in Khan Sheikhoun. The city is located in a war-torn, rebel-held region of northwestern Syria that is controlled by hardline Islamist insurgents, including groups with strong links to al-Qaeda.6 It is extremely dangerous for non-Syrian aid workers or journalists to visit the region, and for a team of OPCW scientists to travel there seems almost out of the question—particularly since the guilty party, whoever that is, would have an evident interest in whipping up violence against them.
It's also dangerous for non-Sunni Syrians, etc. But if anything bad happened to investigators on such a mission, we can be sure the local "activists" would claim a regime aircraft did it, or perhaps Russian. That would be accepted with no question: "Yes, Russian or Syrian jets, we'll find out someday."

"The mission was unable to visit the site itself due to security concerns and will not attempt to get there, the head of the OPCW was said to have decided." (Reuters, June 29) They're happy with the system worked out with the jihadists. It gets Assad blamed, and no one kidnapped safely returned. It's a win-win. As Porter notes: "Despite this flagrant breach of its own protocols, the OPCW has faced no real scrutiny from Western mainstream media." In fact, they continue to be cited as scientific experts who can only find the truth. Surely they found sarin, and they're just being open-minded to add "sarin-like."

Porter seems to ride the line between accusing the OPCW of being dupes who were fooled by the Islamists and implying they had to be in on it, leaning to the former. To me, it's pretty clear they're deliberately furthering the false narratives. They've made so many questionable decisions, regarding Khan Sheikhoun, Ghouta, other incidents, and the over-arching patterns between them, all helping blame the Syrian government, that it can hardly be accidental.

We know the director of the OPCW this whole time has been Ahmet Üzümcü - clean-shaven Turkish diplomat, former ambassador to NATO and to Israel. He's quite possibly controlled by Turkish strongman Erdogan, whose hand in causing the Syrian bloodshed is somewhat known. Üzümcü has repeatedly cast doubt on Syria's compliance with its OPCW obligations, suggesting they have retained serious stocks of banned chemicals. And his OPCW has taken every chance possible to accept opposition claims that helicopters or jets were involved in chemical attacks, always lacking proof, and using that faith as proof the government did it, since false-flag terrorists don't have an air force. The OPCW's supposed foundation in science and its perceived neutrality makes this trick work when it should not be able to.  

In regards just to the April 4 attack, I've caught the OPCW ignoring the US radar track that gives the attack jets an alibi, and ignoring the best evidence to establish wind direction, which happens to prove the opposition story untrue. And quite possibly, we also have them side-stepping the test that could be sure about the sarin, perhaps to avoid finding out it wasn't sarin and not as easily blamed on Syria. If people were dosed with IMPA prior to the tests, and the OPCW chose to employ a test that would be fooled by that, we must ask is that a coincidence? Or is it maybe a coordinated operation, with people inside and outside the OPCW, working on the Turkish-Saudi-Muslim Brotherhood-Al-Qaeda script to fool the system into again laundering the true, ongoing genocide in Syria?