File photo of a man crying in Aleppo

CSI: Syria — Inside the Chemical Weapons Investigation

If Syria’s government used chemical weapons, it was a crime under international law.

And where there’s a serious crime, there’s the opportunity to break down the ensuing investigation into a CSI-style police procedural.

Last week, the White House said that the best evidence suggests “the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.” At least one of the alleged attacks being scrutinized took place in the city of Aleppo on March 19th.

But how did the American government reach that conclusion?

Vocativ spoke to military intelligence analysts familiar with gathering and assessing evidence in a case like this. According to our sources, the investigation likely played out something like this:

Step 1: Reach out to covert special forces troops in the area and get them ready to move: Wait… there are U.S. special ops guys in Syria? Well, if not American, then British. And if not in Syria at a given moment, ready to sneak in and out at the drop of a hat. But make no mistake: Western powers have well-trained guys with guns capable of pulling off operations there, say our experts. (Shhh — thats highly classified information!)

Step 2: Obtain soil samples from the target zone — on the double: Those hush-hush special forces troops were likely rushed into action shortly after the Aleppo attack to gather evidence from the site. Soil samples would be the highest priority, but the troops might have grabbed air samples too, if they arrived quickly enough. The key thing to keep in mind is that sarin is highly volatile, and disappears within days or weeks under normal conditions.

Once gathered, some of the soil samples would likely be field-tested at the site, while others would be brought to a laboratory for more comprehensive tests.

Sound far fetched? Earlier this month, the Times of London reported that “forensic evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria has been found for the first time in a soil sample smuggled out of the country in a secret British operation.”

A classic example of this kind of super-secret op was British special forces team Bravo Two Zero‘s 1991 mission in pre-invasion Iraq to find and destroy Scud missile launchers. After the team’s position was compromised by a chance encounter with a shepherd, a harrowing escape saga began. The mission has been the subject of multiple books.

Step 3: Find some missile fragments and get those tested too: Teams would also be looking for fragments of the missiles that delivered the sarin gas. As with the soil samples, this evidence has far more value if it is gathered directly by special forces troops. If it comes through the hands of local agents, there is always the question of tampering.

Step 4: Interview the witnesses: Probably acting through local operatives, intelligence agencies would reach out to people in the area and ask what they heard and saw. This kind of evidence is definitely softer than a chemical test, but it can also play an important role in reaching a conclusion. The British and French last month cited interviews with Syrians as part of their assessment that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons.

Step 5: Scrutinize satellite photos: Photographic evidence, while not a smoking gun by itself, can still play a strong role in bolstering the case. Western intelligence agencies know very well where the Syrian government keeps its chemical weapons, and they know where the missile launch sites are. Satellites are likely watching all such locations. Figuring out whether weapons were transferred from the holding depots and whether missiles were launched around the time was purported chemical attacks is key to reaching a conclusion.

Step 6: Put on your eavesdropping ears: Agencies have been combing through the communications they may have intercepted before, during and after the attack. In addition to any specific clues within the chatter, they have been looking at the volume of messages sent and received by military units potentially involved in the chemical strike.

Step 7: Scrutinize local photos and videos: When it comes to cell phone videos and photos of the purported attack uploaded to the internet, you’re in a murky world. But intelligence agencies may still pay attention to this kind of anecdotal digital evidence.

Earlier this month, Vocativ reported that Syrian rebels were posting videos on Youtube of a cluster of dead birds, proof — they claimed — that the government had deployed chemical weapons near Damascus. Proof? Far from it. Evidence? Possibly.

Step 8: Get medical reports from the area: Non-governmental organizations — or even local doctors — who treated patients in the area may have been squeezed for information by American or British intelligence. The goal would be to understand what the most common symptoms were and how many people were affected. On Tuesday, Israel said it had evidence of chemical attacks including photographs of victims foaming at the mouth and some with contracted pupils.

Step 9: Shake it all up and see how convincing it is: In the end, intelligence analysis is more art than science. In this case, the Americans — presumably being cautious after the Iraq WMD debacle — clearly felt the sum was strong enough to run with publicly.

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