Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Human Rights Watch Takes a Stab at Khan Sheikhoun

Last week it was French intelligence's assertion that the presence of hexamine in the sarin sample taken from the impact crater at Khan Sheikhoun was the smoking gun linking Syria to the April 4 chemical weapon attack. This week it is Human Right Watch's slick "Death by Chemicals: The Syrian Government’s Widespread and Systematic Use of Chemical Weapons."

More a prosecutor's brief than a dispassionate entry in a scientific journal, which is its intended voice, the HRW report is more of the same. It seeks to cement its authenticity by repetition and girth. The main components are present: plenty of photos of crumpled, post-impact shells combined with plenty of eye-witness testimony. "Death by Chemicals" rhetorical strategy is to convince its reader that Khan Sheikhoun was just a single tile in a large mosaic of aerial chemical weapon attacks perpetrated by the Syrian government since December. The benefit of this is it allows HRW to include a bunch of chlorine attacks most readers haven't heard of and baldly assert Syrian Arab Army responsibility.

The weakness of the HRW account of Khan Sheikhoun is that it, like the French intelligence report of last week, refuses to engage the Postol analysis: the photographic evidence of the bomb used at Khan Sheikhoun points to an IED detonated on the ground not a warhead dropped from a helicopter or airplane.

This is all the reader gets in terms of engagement in counter theses:
Two theories have been presented to provide an alternative explanation to the allegation that a Syrian government warplane dropped a chemical bomb in Khan Sheikhoun: that an explosive bomb hit a chemical weapons production facility or depot in a warehouse; or that armed groups detonated a chemical weapon on the ground. Human Rights Watch has not found any evidence to support either theory.
HRW takes on the former by pointing out that reports of chemical poisoning preceded reports of the bombing of the munitions depot, but "Death by Chemicals" completely dodges "armed groups detonated a chemical weapon on the ground."

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