Clashes could be seen in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, on Wednesday.

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Syrian rockets carried large payload, experts say

  • Article by: WILLIAM J. BROAD
  • New York Times
  • September 4, 2013 - 10:01 PM

A new study of images apparently from the Syrian massacre in August concludes that the rockets delivering toxic sarin gas to neighborhoods around Damascus, Syria, held up to 50 times more nerve agent than previously estimated, a conclusion that could solve the mystery of why there were so many more victims than in previous chemical attacks.

The study, by leading weapons experts, also strongly suggests that the mass of toxic material could have come only from a large stockpile. U.S., British and French officials have charged that only the Syrian regime and not the rebels was in position to make such large quantities of deadly toxins.

Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress that the United States believes the Syrian military was responsible for the attack, and in classified briefings officials have pointed to Unit 450, which controls Syrian chemical weapons.

The new study was conducted by Richard Lloyd, an expert in warhead design, and Dr. Theodore Postol, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They based their investigation on scores of online videos and photographs posted since the Aug. 21 attack. They said their analysis of rocket parts and wreckage posted online suggested that the warheads carried toxic payloads of about 50 liters, or 13 gallons, not the 1 or 2 liters (up to a half gallon) of nerve agent that some experts had estimated.

“It’s a clever design,” Postol said. “It’s clever not only in how it was implemented but in the effectiveness of its dispersal. It accounts for the large number of causalities.”

Lloyd and Postol say their analysis explains how the misidentification of a central rocket part resulted in the excessively small payload estimates made by analysts shortly after the attack. “This design explains the evidence on the ground,” Postol said. The cloud from the impacting rocket, he added, probably rose to a height of 10 or 15 feet.

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