What We Know & Don't Know About the Chemical Attack on Khan Sheikhoun, Syria & Why It Matterss

Despite the nearly universal acceptance by our government and the US media that Syria conducted a deadly Sarin Gas attack on a small, rebel held town near its border with Turkey, an attack to which Trump responded with a cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase, we don't know as much about what actually happened to the people of Khan Sheikhoun on this past Tuesday as many think we do.

We know only one thing for certain: upwards of seventy or more people died in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Syria on the morning of April 4, 2017 from a chemical attack that has all the signs a neurotoxic agent, consistent with Sarin, was used to cause their demise. Everything else we've been told is a tangled mess of confusing and contradictory accounts by politicians, reporters, NGOs, victims and other alleged witnesses to this atrocity.

President Trump and most US politicians of both parties blame Syria for this attack. The Syrians deny they used use chemical weapons in any attack although they admit to bombing a structure in Khan Sheikhoun they claim held munitions, including chemical weapons held by the rebels. The Russians, for the moment, are standing by Syria's official story, though they have called for an independent investigation. I for one agree that such an investigation is sorely needed before we inflame the situation in Syria with further military action by US forces.

Most of the eye witnesses to the attack on agree on only one thing - that it killed a lot of people with what appears was a neurotoxic chemical in the early hours of the morning between 6:30 am and 7:00 am. After that, no one tells the same story. What follows are various reports compiled from witness statements published in primarily mainstream news media outlets. I'll provide a source for each one:

Hussam Salloum, quoted in The National on 4/5/17, claimed to be an rebel air raid volunteer who witnessed the attack from a distance of 1.5 kilometers away. He "described watching a Sukhoi-22 aircraft, a Syrian army jet, approach the town at low altitude." He also said the jet

...dropped three conventional explosive bombs – and a fourth that made little sound on impact but produced a cloud of smoke.

"The smoke was white and thick," he said. "It began to spread out, until there was a layer over the town." [...]

"The pilot carried out the bombing in one go, four bombs together," he said

Salloum's account is very detailed and specific. He knows the exact type of warplane that bombed the town, and that four bombs were dropped, three conventional high explosive bombs and then a fourth that did not explode as the others did, releasing a cloud of white smoke instead.

Unfortunately, his account doesn't match many of the other witness statements, nor is it consistent with the fact that nerve agents, such as Sarin, when released as a gas are colorless. Sources: Department of Homeland Security, Centers for Disease Control, and The Boston Globe.

Here's what other witnesses, some of them victims and some not, had to say:

CNN (4/6/17)

Mazin Yusif, a 13-year-old resident of the town reportedly told CNN:

"At 6:30 in the morning, the plane struck. I ran up on our roof and saw that the strike was in front of my grandfather's house," he said.

He said he ran toward his house and found his grandfather slumped over. He ran outside to call for help. "I got dizzy and then fainted in front of my grandfather's garage. I next found myself here in this hospital, naked in a bed."

Aisha al-Tilawi, 55 year-old grandmother of Mazin, claimed to have seen blue and yellow colors after the alleged bomb strike. She stated she "started choking, felt dizzy, then fainted. Mazin was trying to wake up his grandfather..."

CNN also interviewed Ahmed Abdel Rahim, age 31, who did not mention any bomb at all. He claimed seeing "three rockets" carrying a "poisonous substance" hit "him" (I assume he meant three rockets hit the town near his home). He also said:

"I was in my house. I had difficulty breathing, but I feel better now. But I did throw up after getting to the hospital. I don't know if my family is dead or alive. I don't know anything," he said.

As you can see, none of the witnesses cited by CNN spoke of white smoke. Nor did any of the other with eyewitnesses I've found in the reports filed by major news outlets:

NY Times (4/4/17)

Mariam Abu Khalil, claimed that on her way to an exam about the Quran, she saw:

[A]n aircraft drop a bomb on a one-story building a few dozen yards away. In a telephone interview Tuesday night, she described an explosion like a yellow mushroom cloud that stung her eyes. “It was like a winter fog,” she said.

A yellow mushroom cloud is not consistent with either white smoke or what you would expect from a Sarin gas release, which would be an colorless, colorless gas. However, it would be consistent with the release of a chlorine gas bomb, which appears yellow-green in color according to the CDC. Chlorine gas does share some symptoms with Sarin gas, though it is less deadly. Syria has been accused of several Chlorine gas attacks in 2015 (according to a UN report) and in 2016 according to a report published by Human Rights Watch, dated February 13, 2017. It is also not inconsistent with a statement released by Doctors Without Borders, whose treated patients from Khan Sheikhoun and said they emitted an odor like bleach, which suggests Chlorine gas may have been involved in the attack, as well.

BBC (4/6/17)

Hussein Kayal, a photographer for the pro-opposition Edlib Media Center (EMC), told the Associated Press that he was awoken by the sound of an explosion at about [6:30 am]. When he reached the scene, there was no smell, he said. He found people lying on the floor, unable to move and with constricted pupils.

Mohammed Rasoul, the head of a charity ambulance service in Idlib, told the BBC that he heard about the attack at about 06:45 and that when his medics arrived 20 minutes later they found people, many of them children, choking in the street.

The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM), which funds hospitals in rebel-held Syria, said three of its staff in Khan Sheikhoun were affected while treating patients in the streets and had to be rushed to intensive care.

None of these witnesses mentioned any cloud, fog or smoke, for whatever reason. Nor did they identify the plane (or rockets in one case) as Syrian in origin.

Then there is the controversy about when the attacks occurred and who was responsible for them. Syria admitted to a late morning attack on what it called a rebel munitions supply depot that contained chemical weapons, but not to any attack using chemical weapons themselves, nor to any early morning attack. "US officials" claimed our radar in the region detected Syrian planes in the vicinity of Khan Sheikhoun around 7:00 am, but of course they spoke on condition of anonymity because they "weren't authorized to speak on the intelligence" (even though they obviously did quite willingly).

As for the people who spoke about whether the town did have a ammunition depot for rebel forces, well whether they did depends on to whom one spoke. Pro-opposition "activists' (i.e., rebels) claimed there was no depot there, or that even of there was it didn't include chemical weapons. Pro-government sources said the exact opposite. You can read the LA Times report and compare their stories if you like. One Syrian journalist, Nizar Nayouf "quoted an unnamed doctor who told him there had been a storage area for the rebels in town." However, he this unnamed doctor did not make mention of any chemical munitions stored there.

So, as you can see, at this point we have very little, if any solid evidence that the Syrian government was responsible for the attack, except for one rebel witness. His detailed identification of a Soviet style warplane used by the Syrian air force that he saw drop four bombs on the town, including one that caused a large cloud of white smoke sounds damning. However, he admitted that he was located a distance equivalent to a mile away from the scene of the attack. That and the fact that Sarin gas or other nerve agents are colorless, and there is no other witness who can clearly prove Syrian involvement makes him not very credible in my eyes. The anonymous leak by US officials that radar showed Syrian warplanes being close to the town about 7:00 am is also just a little to convenient in my opinion.

Still the story Syria is pushing, that the destruction of a rebel ammunition dump, which included Sarin gas, was responsible for the deaths of these people has come under a great deal of criticism, and I find those critics have a point. As one expert on chemical munitions noted, nerve gas is stored in a "binary manner, which suggests that bombing a weapons depot holding Sarin munitions would not result in any release of Sarin gas.

Nonetheless, there is little other than speculation to tie Syria to this atrocity. Which brings us to the question of motive? Why would Assad risk an escalation of the war, which could result in his expulsion from power and likely death, by using deadly nerve gas against a small rebel town? What's the gain for him and his government, especially at a moment in time when the new American President was indicating a willingness to forego the previous administration's policy of regime change?

The same questions were raised back in 2013, when Sarin gas or some other nerve agent was used to kill anywhere from 280 to 1800 people living in Ghouta, an area that contained several suburbs of Damascus. At the time, the US and its allies doggedly blamed Syria for the attack and a UN investigation seemed to support their position. However, a subsequent investigation by Theodore Postol of MIT and Richard Lloyd demonstrated that much of the evidence relied upon to prove Syrian involvement in the Ghouta tragedy was actually very thin and speculative, at best. At worst, it pointed the finger of blame squarely on the US supported jihadi rebels

As in that case, the question of motive rears its ugly head again with respect to this new attack, the only difference being that President Obama held off any major military response against Syrian forces, unlike President Trump. Obviously, it is not in Bashar Assad's interest to see his regime overthrown and replaced with one more amenable to Saudi and Western influence. Not, that is, unless he has a death wish. I suppose you can't entirely rule that possibility out, but it seems to me that the people who stand to benefit from increasing US military involvement in the Syrian conflict are the same ones who supported Hillary Clinton foreign policy proposals (i.e., neocons).

As many of you know, distinguished and Pulitzer prize winning journalist, Seymour Hersh, accused Clinton, while she served as Secretary of State under Obama, of arming the so-called "moderate rebels" in Syria with Libya's arsenal, including chemical munitions. The Deep State actors in the CIA and the armed forces have long sought to escalate the war in Syria and the direct use of our military there to overturn the Assad regime and replace it with one more favorable to "our interests." They still do, despite the risks of expanding that war into a much greater conflict involving Russia and Iran.

Supposedly we became involved in Syria to fight ISIS. We now know nothing could be further from the truth. Regime change was the goal all along. It remains the goal of many leaders in both major parties, as evidenced by call for the Trump administration to come up with a plan to "deal with the violence" (i.e., get rid of Assad's government) come hell or high water.

So when looking at the evidence that Syria is responsible for the nerve gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun, ask yourself one essential question: cui bono? Who had the most to gain from some half-assed nerve gas attack on a small Syrian town under rebel control? Assad? Russia? Or the more obvious candidates closer to home: all the players who operate, and/or benefit from, the Deep State?

31 users have voted.


detroitmechworks's picture

who tried to teach us how journalistic writing is supposed to be done, there are several questions that aren't being answered. So, if this sounds like an unhinged conspiracy theorist asking ridiculous questions, blame public American Education of the 80's.

WHO did this? Everybody says Something Different. Since this is the case and we have no reason to believe any side over the other, this question is not important.

WHAT happened? Corpses have been found that bear the markings of a chemical weapon attack. However, the photos of this are amazingly well choreographed to tell a very specific story, which any 1st year photography teacher will tell you is indication of a biased reporter.

WHEN did this happen? We know when the attack was reported, but we have seen no photos of anything save bodies. And "Rescue Workers" who are apparently not in very much danger at all, although their poses suggest differently. This suggests that there was time to edit the photos and send them out for maximum effect. Hence, the time stamps on the photographs becomes VERY important, and ignoring that or omitting when they were published is suspect to any good reporter.

WHERE did this happen? We know where it supposedly happened. However, the status of this town as a rebel held territory, complete with Jihadists, makes me wonder why there were so many women and children there for the photographs to show. There have been reports of the Rebels using human shields from loyalist towns. Are the victims locals, or are they in fact somebody who shouldn't be there. Every victim has a name, face and story, and we seem to not even know of ONE name or village, or other sob story that should be making the rounds. We should be seeing crying relatives constantly, if they REALLY wanted to fire up the war... Why is there none of this?

WHY did this happen? What possible reason could the Syrian military have to bomb a non-military target with chemical weapons for the sole purpose of killing innocents? The peace treaty was on track. The war was almost over. Then the attack happens. War's back on. This time the US HAS to get involved.

So, I think I must have learned Journalism wrong, because according to all the rules I was taught, this story needs a HELL of a lot more research before it even goes to print. I think it needs an investigative journalist to actually, DO THEIR JOB and go out there and see what the fuck happened.

21 users have voted.

I do not pretend I know what I do not know.

Put the witness on to testify as to who, what, when, where, why, and how.
Thanks for this, Steven D.

13 users have voted.
featheredsprite's picture

Our own Deep State, Alphabet Soup Agencies, and military-industrial types come to mind as likely suspects.

The thing is, Syria was winning the war against ISIS. This chemical attack will only lengthen the conflict.

And who would benefit from that? Refer to paragraph #1.

16 users have voted.

Life is strong. I'm weak, but Life is strong.

Thaumlord-Exelbirth's picture

@featheredsprite When isn't Trump getting played these days?

6 users have voted.
fakenews's picture

@Thaumlord-Exelbirth Let's face it. At this stage of the game you don't get played. You're either with us (aggressive war) or you're with the terrorists (good guys).


3 users have voted.

"Democracy is technique and the ability of power not to be understood as oppressor. Capitalism is the boss and democracy is its spokesperson." Peace - FN

Thaumlord-Exelbirth's picture

@fakenews @fakenews that Trump is on the side of whatever group he was just talking to last. Kinda like a reverse Hillary, where she's on the side of whatever group of people she's going to be talking to in the next couple days, before she talks to them.

For the record, I don't believe a majority of the federal establishment and their corporate puppeteers are on the side of us or the terrorists. I believe they themselves are the primary terrorists (actual ones).

2 users have voted.
Amanda Matthews's picture

all this death and destruction' people?

For the record, I don't believe a majority of the federal establishment and their corporate puppeteers are on the side of us or the terrorists. I believe they themselves are the primary terrorists (actual ones).

I am too. We're murdering people in the Middle East for the benefit of those that make the bombs, bullets, drones, jets, aircraft carriers...

They make sure that those who do what they want are well taken care of. And I also believe that some running and/or in the military just plain like to kill.

3 users have voted.

I'm tired of this back-slapping "Isn't humanity neat?" bullshit. We're a virus with shoes, okay? That's all we are. - Bill Hicks

Politics is the entertainment branch of industry. - Frank Zappa

For someone wishing to offer an apology for the Assad regime -
you certainly do an excellent job.

(Meanwhile, I wait for a moderator to disenroll me, please.)

2 users have voted.
detroitmechworks's picture

@Jamawani that you were going for.

Appeals to authority don't work.
Name calling doesn't work. (Even that special name calling where you say the other side name called first so therefore you are morally superior!)

I think we should be flattered that we have our own taste of the old website here.
But if you must go:

16 users have voted.

I do not pretend I know what I do not know.

@Jamawani Your opinion is always welcome. However, if you assert something as truth, you need to back it up.
It is not hard, it I not contentious.
Nobody on this site is going to deny you a truth.

15 users have voted.
Sandino's picture

@on the cusp @featheredsprite Apparently the Russians were warned about the response attack, in which a handful of cruise missiles did some minor damage to a Syrian airfield. Now Trump is a hero to the neocons who probably staged the the whole thing and choreographed the media response.

2 users have voted.
Steven D's picture

@Jamawani to or for anyone.

The reports on this attack are all over the map.

Possible use of both sarin and chlorine gas according to MSF?

Yellow mushroom clouds seen by some?

White smoke by others?

Some people show up to help the dying and immediately have to go to intensive care?

Others show up and don't have any problem handling the dead and the dying?

Syria admitting they bombed the place but around noon, not at dawn?

None of what I read makes sense. Nothing adds up.

So, that brings me back to motive. As vile as Assad has been, our jihadi proxy "rebels" have been just as bad or worse. In many cases far worse.

Now a new President comes in saying he wants to end the "regime change" strategy of the prior administrations, GOP and DEM, and that's when Assad decides to use Sarin gas against an insignificant little place because he just can't help himself?

Perhaps Assad is that crazy but past behavior hasn't shown him to be a madman, just your average "bad man," i.e., a Middle Eastern despot whose government is no worse than most of the regimes in that neighborhood, many of whom are our allies. Some even practice genocide in Yemen, as is the case of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with our full fledged support.

So, I have to wonder who has the best or most urgent need to derail any potential peace agreement? Not Assad. Not Russia. But I would imagine the Saudis don't want peace in Syria, nor their jihadi friends, and and neither do their gulf buddies. Israel is probably happy to see all the attention focused on Arabs fighting Arabs (with US support) so no one notices the continuation of their own apartheid regime and its building of new settlements in the Palestinian Territories. Who knows what the Turks want. I don't think they even know themselves.

However, back in the USA there are many people and institutions and "interests" that have a stake in expanding the war.

So, you decide who would want to see Sarin gas used against the people of that town. You simply assume it must be the Syrian government. Maybe you are right, but they have a far greater interest in not doing such a thing at this point in time.

I admit I don't know what I don't know. What I do know is that we've been fighting wars in the Middle East since the early 90's on and off, and continuously since 9/11, and I fail to see how that has benefited the average American citizen.

I don't understand a foreign policy that risks war with another nuclear power for the benefit of large corporations and Arab dictators who just happen to be sitting on a lot of oil and gas.

I don't understand our elite foreign policy wonks fascination with regime change over there, especially in light of the fact that whenever we accomplish that goal we end up with countries in worse shape than before we started.

Maybe someone should be apologizing for our nation's war crimes in the Middle East (and those of our "friends), which far exceed anything Mr. Assad has accomplished.

Maybe we should stop sending them military aid and ordering our military to engage in combat to help fundamentalist religious fanatics and the regimes that support them.

Just a thought.

As for the dis-enrollment thing, that's up to you. You have the power to decide whether you wish to be a member here and post comments and essays or not. This place doesn't operate like Daily Kos.

I might not agree with your views or like the way you responded to my essay with an ad hominem attack, but hey, to each their own.

Best of luck to you regardless of whatever you choose.


21 users have voted.

"You can't just leave those who created the problem in charge of the solution."---Tyree Scott

snoopydawg's picture

@Steven D
peace in Syria either. During the last ceasefire some person in the pentagon made the decision to go behind Obama's back and attack the Syrian troops who had been holding on to an air base for two years and after 82 Syrian troops were killed and others wounded, ISIS was able to take over that air base.
One reason why Hillary and the other neocons in our government want a no fly zone is so that the Syrian and Russian Air Forces can't bomb the rebels who we have been arming and funding to help overthrow Assad. There is no other reason for the no fly zone. The rebels don't have access to jets.
There were factions in our government who hated that Obama wouldn't put massive amounts of troops into Syria and complained that he was micro managing the war. I was under the impression that the president was the person who was in charge of the wars, not the military, the pentagon or the CIA.
Now that Trump is president he has given control of military action over to the military.
The so called moderate rebels who we have been backing are Al Qaida and the offshoots of AQ and they have been terrorizing the Syrian people. I am not going to post the photo of the young boy who was photographed minutes before they beheaded him.
Others here have posted the pictures of McCain meeting with the moderate leaders of the rebels including two people who were involved in fighting against our troops during the Iraq war. And some of our troops are pissed that they have to train them and give them weapons because they know that one day in the future they are going to be fighting against them. Again.
The clusterfuck in the Middle East is beyond reprehensible. And unfortunately as always it's the civilians who are paying the highest price for what our country and allies are doing.

Good essay Steven and great links.

10 users have voted.

America is a pathetic nation; a fascist state fueled by the greed, malice, and stupidity of her own people.
- strife delivery

Thaumlord-Exelbirth's picture

@Jamawani Thought you said that you were done with this place earlier today, after you faced rather mild criticism of your pro-war, let's murder civilians and be good guys diary.

10 users have voted.
edg's picture


He just can't quit this place.

3 users have voted.
enhydra lutris's picture

we did, I see nothing here which would warrant it. The sophomoric innuendo aimed at the author is, sadly, all too common in today's political discourse, and we really don't give a shit which side of most issues you are on. You wish to support Trump, for example? Fine, just do it with a minimum of shit flinging and it will be fine with us, though it will generate a ton of push-back.

4 users have voted.

That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

of your essay for me is this:

The Syrians deny they used use chemical weapons in any attack although they admit to bombing a structure in Khan Sheikhoun they claim held munitions, including chemical weapons held by the rebels. The Russians, for the moment, are standing by Syria's official story, though they have called for an independent investigation.

And this part:

As one expert on chemical munitions noted, nerve gas is stored in a "binary manner, which suggests that bombing a weapons depot holding Sarin munitions would not result in any release of Sarin gas.

So if the Syrian government and Russia are admitting that Syria bombed a site known to contain chemical weapons components, are they saying such an attack would not have released a deadly mixture of components, because the conventional wisdom is that it wouldn't? Or are they saying the Syrian forces did not know there were chemical weapons stored there?

8 users have voted.
Pricknick's picture

nerve gas is stored in a "binary manner

there is nothing to say that they were stored in their normal manner. Also remember that binary does not mean they are stored separately from each other but within the weapon.
You hit an explosive binary weapon with another explosive weapon the chances are very good for dispersal.

9 users have voted.

Regardless of the path in life I chose, I realize it's always forward, never straight.

1. The Russians briefed the United States on the proposed target. This is a process that started more than two months ago. There is a dedicated phone line that is being used to coordinate and deconflict (i.e., prevent US and Russian air assets from shooting at each other) the upcoming operation.

2. The United States was fully briefed on the fact that there was a target in Idlib that the Russians believes was a weapons/explosives depot for Islamic rebels.

3. The Syrian Air Force hit the target with conventional weapons. All involved expected to see a massive secondary explosion. That did not happen. Instead, smoke, chemical smoke, began billowing from the site. It turns out that the Islamic rebels used that site to store chemicals, not sarin, that were deadly. The chemicals included organic phosphates and chlorine and they followed the wind and killed civilians.

4. There was a strong wind blowing that day and the cloud was driven to a nearby village and caused casualties.

5. We know it was not sarin. How? Very simple. The so-called "first responders" handled the victims without gloves. If this had been sarin they would have died. Sarin on the skin will kill you. How do I know? I went through "Live Agent" training at Fort McClellan in Alabama.


14 users have voted.


CB's picture

@native @native
every day for almost a month. These were in response to a very large HTS assault on Hama that had pushed the SAA backwards. HTS was well armed with American TOW missiles. In the last two weeks, the SAA managed to regain all the areas they had lost and then some. This came at the cost of huge loses on the part of HTS. BTW, I have never seen as many TOW attacks against the SAA as during this 2 month operation.

I have been watching on a daily basis. The SAA have resumed bombing in the general area where the chemicals were released about 30 minutes ago.

Check out different strikes here:


Edit: you can close that small window and then use mouse wheel to resize to see the whole area. Left click & hold to move around the entire country.

Here's a SAA strike about 30 miles south of Khan Sheikhoun.

7 users have voted.
Dhyerwolf's picture

I've read in several places that if it was Sarin, there was no way responders could have touched bodies with their bare hands safely (referencing the Japanese subway Sarin attack in the 90s). If true, then it makes it seem very unlikely that Sarin was the chemical agent in this case.

9 users have voted.
enhydra lutris's picture

4 users have voted.

That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

edg's picture

The only known production-level weaponization of sarin in binary form was by the United States as its M687 bomb. There is no need to have sarin in a binary form other than safety during transport. As a weapon, when liquid sarin evaporates, it becomes a killing gas. It is odorless and colorless. Sarin liquid could be poured into an artillery or mortar shell and it would become gaseous upon impact.

CDC- Facts About Sarin
Wikipedia - Binary Chemical Weapons

4 users have voted.