Hexamine may be the smoking gun implicating the Assad regime in the Ghouta chemical attacks

The New York Times reports: Buried in the annex of a United Nations inquiry into chemical weapons use in Syria is information that some outside analysts say could further implicate the government of Syria in the deadliest of the five confirmed attacks.

The investigators, who released their final report last week, said they had found a chemical called hexamethylenetetramine from environmental samples in Ghouta, the Damascus suburb that was the site of the deadliest attack, on Aug. 21. Hexamine, as the chemical is also known, can be used as an additive in the production of chemical weapons using sarin, the nerve agent, according to analysts, along with other commercial uses. The Syrian government happens to have a stockpile of hexamine; it is part of a list of chemicals scheduled to be destroyed as part of the deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program.

United Nations investigators who conducted the inquiry pointedly steered clear of assigning blame for any of the attacks. The investigators have declined to explain Syria’s purpose in amassing the hexamine, a common commercial chemical.

But some experts who reviewed the panel’s final report said the presence of hexamine at Ghouta was in some ways akin to the police finding red lipstick in a woman’s purse that matches collar stains on a murder victim. While considered circumstantial evidence, it added to information in the panel’s interim report on Ghouta released in September, on the type of projectiles used that appeared to implicate the Syrian government.

The hexamine connection was pointed out last week by Dan Kaszeta, an independent security consultant and former officer in the United States Army’s Chemical Corps. He argued that the presence of hexamine pointed to the involvement of the government in the attack on Ghouta. [Continue reading…]

Among the commentators trying to make sense of this issue, Kaszeta is probably the only chemical weapons expert whose knowledge of sarin is not only technical but also includes direct experience in handling the material. He says he “spent weeks debriefing guys who used to make the stuff back in the 1950s.”

In his preliminary analysis of the findings presented by the UN, he writes:

Hexamine was discovered in a wide variety of the environmental samples. Hexamine also appears in the declared inventory of significant chemicals reported by the OPCW after disclosure and inspections subsequent to Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention. It would have been informative if the UN and OPCW had explained why they considered hexamethylenetetramine (‘hexamine’) to be considered as a chemical of significance to this investigation. I do not think that hexamine’s normal uses as a heating fuel and component of some conventional explosives do not merit its inclusion as a chemical of concern by the OPCW, nor would it merit inclusion in the declared stockpile that needs to be destroyed.

However, based on numerous sources of information I have deduced the chemical warfare significance of hexamine, both in the numerous environmental samples and in the declared chemical inventory. Hexamine is apparently being used by the Syrian government as an additive to binary Sarin. The inspections subsequent to the UN/OPCW investigation covered by this report reveal that the Syrian concept of operations was to employ binary chemical weapons.

Binary Sarin weapon systems combine methylphosphonic difluoride, also known as DF, with isopropyl alcohol to form Sarin. The resulting mixture has a lot of residual acid in it, in the form of hydrogen fluoride (HF), which is highly destructive, possibly to the point of ruining the weapon system. The US Army’s cold war era Sarin program used isopropylamine to reduce this excess HF. Several chemists and engineers knowledgeable in the matter have confirmed to me that hexamine is useful as a Sarin additive for the same reason. One hexamine molecule can bind to as many as four HF molecules. This would explain the declared Syrian stockpile of 80 tons of hexamine. Interestingly, the same stockpile contains 40 tons of isopropylamine as well.

I consider the presence of hexamine both in the field samples and in the official stockpile of the Syrian government to be very damning evidence of government culpability in the Ghouta attacks. 7 weeks of research on this subject reveal no public domain evidence of hexamine being used in this way in other Sarin programs. The likelihood of both a Syrian government research and development program AND a non-state actor both coming up with the same innovation seems negligible to me. It seems improbable that some other actor wanting to plant evidence would know to freely spread hexamine around the target areas.

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