noreply@blogger.com (Brown Moses)

Has The Release Of 13 Orthodox Nuns Created A Real Turn In The Battle Of Yabrud?

3/11/14
-       Zilzal, along with Burkan, introduced against Yabrud this week
-       Details of nun’s deal

Special report by Elijah J Magnier

Thirteen Greek Orthodox nuns and their three maids were held for over 3 months against their will by Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), a Jihadi rebel group presumably affiliated to al-Qaeda operating in Lebanon and Syria. These were freed over the weekend after being abducted from their convent in Maaloula, north of Damascus and one of the rare locations in the World where the ancient language of Jesus Christ is still spoken. Their release marks a real turn in the battle of Al-Qalamoun.

A high ranking officer in the Syrian Army / Hezbollah joint military operation room who seeks anonymity said that ‘the order of the day in al Qalamoun battle is to concentrate all military operation on Yabrud, the city itself, rather than other cities. This move was due to:

1.     Intelligence information
2.     Request of JAN to allow a free passage for fighters as part of nun release deal

The source said: “Our intelligence information refers that, in the last week, several thousands of fighters left Yabrud for southern cities. This information corroborates JAN’s hostage release deal, it requested a free corridor for 1500 fighters to leave Yabrud toward Assal al-Ward and Rankus. We have rejected this request and offered the fighters to give up on their weapons, leave the city and surrender. JAN refused to lay down the arms. Instructions were given to shell Yabrud with modified Burkan and Zilzal. Moreover, Yabrud will be under intensified air raid this week like never before. The ground troops will be ready to break in and re-take the city once the shelling will stop. We are at the door of the city now.”

Burkan (Volcano), a short-range rocket and Zilzal (Earthquake), a long-range missile. The modification introduced by both Hezbollah and the Syria army turned the short-range rocket to a limited range of 300 m, and the long-range missiles to a shorter range but with a modified warhead that can carry explosives from 250kg to 900 kg.

Rebel sources deny the advance of Hezbollah/SAA forces into Rima farms, insisting the battle still ongoing inside the city and has not reach Yabrud yet.

No proof or footage could confirm either claim so far.

According to the source “There are many rebel factions inside Yabrud, mainly guided by Jahbat al-Nusra. JAN is led by Abu Malik al-Talli and his vice Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti, both are directing the battle in Yabrud. They have offered to leave with their fighters. As far as we are concerned, the number of fighters inside Yabrud is irrelevant. We will deal with them”.

Regarding the nuns and their maids, the source said that “Qatar paid one million dollar for each hostage, with a total of 16 millions delivered by the Qatari envoy. Moreover, the regime agreed to free 155 prisoners out of 950 negotiated as part of the nun’s release”.

Rebel sources denied receiving any ransom.

Sources close to the Lebanese head of the ‘Sureté Generale’ Brigadier General Abbas Ibrahim, present at the negotiation, confirmed that “money was part of the deal”, without disclosing further information.
When asked about Hezbollah losses in the al-Qalamoun battle; the source indicated “Hezbollah has lost 45 so far with 4 reported missing during a reconnaissance mission and around 80 wounded. Hezbollah can accept up to a thousand if necessary to end the entire battle of Qalamoun and secure completely the absence of rebels along the borders with Lebanon and close to Damascus. Yabrud is only the beginning. There are other battles awaiting in al-Qalamoun further south”.

ISIS Deploys Croatian Weapons Against The Iraqi Army

3/8/14
In early 2013, Saudi Arabia began smuggling weapons it had purchased from the Croatian government through Jordan to the south of Syria, to forces loyal to the Free Syrian Army.  At the time, videos posted by the Syrian opposition showed a number of weapons coming into the south of Syria, including RBG-6 grenade launchers, M60 recoilless guns, RPG-22 rocket launchers, and M79 Osa rocket launchers.  In March 2013, videos began to appear showing these weapons appearing with groups outside of the FSA, including Jihadists such as Ahrar al-Sham, and images posted today show these weapons have now spread even further afield.

A series of images were posted on Twitter by the account Alanbar_news, an account used by the al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, with the @Alanbar_news account covering their operations in Al Anbar Governorate of Iraq.  The images show their operations against US-made armoured vehicles belonging to the Iraqi army (collected here), and one image in particular stood out


This photograph appears to show a M79 Osa, as supplied to the Free Syrian Army at the start of 2013, being used to attack Iraqi armoured vehicles inside Iraq.  The following image compares the M79 Osa to what's visible in the above photograph


Another recent photograph from ISIS shows a fighter with what appears to be a Croatian RBG-6 grenade launcher


These weapons are not used in the region (apart from those supplied to the Free Syrian Army), so it seems extremely likely these weapons are the same ones purchased from Croatia, by Saudi Arabia, and smuggled through Jordan.  Now, despite the best intentions of those who were involved with providing these weapons to the Free Syrian Army, these weapons are being used to attack Iraqi government forces inside Iraq, a clear indication that attempts to control the spread of weapons beyond the borders of Syria and the groups that initially received them has failed in a spectacular fashion.  This raises serious questions when there's talk of providing the opposition in Syria with Chinese FN-6 MANPADS (surface-to-air missiles), especially when these Croatian weapons have ended up in the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

Thanks to @ShamiWitness for highlighting these photographs, and Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi for additional information.

The Martyrs of Mheen Brigade Arrives In Qalamoun With A Large Supply Of Chinese Anti-Tank Weapons

3/7/14
The following video was uploaded to Youtube on March 6th by the Martyrs of Mheen Brigade


The video shows the Martyrs of Mheen Brigade unloading 13 covered tubes.  The markings on the boxes they are uploading from have been purposely and systematically obscured



The items are described at "Red Arrows" in the video, the name used for Chinese HJ-8 ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guide Missiles) , and it's possible to determine the exact model thanks to the coverings on the rockets


As per Ares Arms Research Services' earlier post on Chinese ATGMs in Syria, the letter "E" in a circle indicates these are HJ-8E models, the same type reportedly supplied by Qatar earlier in the conflict, which also had their markings obscured.

The earliest posts on the Martyrs of Mheen Facebook page suggests they have been active in the Qalamoun region since October 2013, and videos posted to another YouTube channel associated with the group show they have access to Croatian RAK-12 multiple rocket launchers, supplied to opposition groups aligned to the Free Syrian Army in early 2013 by Saudi Arabia, smuggled via Jordan into the south of Syria.

It's very interesting that the same group have access to the Croatian weapons provided by Saudi Arabia and these Chinese HJ-8E ATGMs, fresh supplies of which have been rumoured to have entered the south of the country in recent weeks.  Could the HJ-8Es in this new video be the first signs of large quantities of this new supply arriving in Syria?

New Online Tool For Archiving Facebook Pages

3/5/14
Last month, I wrote about how Facebook was deleting large numbers of Facebook pages relating to the conflict in Syria, in many cases as a result of targeted campaigns by pro-government groups against specific pages.  As a result, large amounts of information about the conflict was being lost, and my own survey discovered that included the majority of pages posting initial reports on the August 21st Sarin attack in Damascus.

As a response to this, a new site has been launched that hopes to preserve this information by archiving Facebook pages.  Alghayma, meaning “The Cloud” in Arabic, is the creation Frederic Jacobs and Batikh Souri, and their hope is to not only archive Facebook pages, but also turn them into more usable information.  That includes developing improved search functions, a torrent of the entire archive, and many other functions as the project progresses.

Users can support the project by authorising the Facebook app, that allows more requests from Alghayma to the Facebook servers, allowing pages to be archived more frequently, and anyone can add pages or search for pages already archived here.


Significant New Barrel Bomb And Volcano Rocket Images

3/3/14
A couple of interesting videos have appeared online in the last few days that provide new information on both Volcano rockets and DIY barrel bombs.  The first video was posted on February 28th, and shows a unique DIY barrel bomb drop


This video shows what appears to be the same design of DIY barrel bomb used widely across the country over the last few months, mounted on the stub wings of a Hind helicopter.  All previous examples of DIY barrel bomb drops have shown the bombs pushed out the rear of Hip transport helicopters, so to see them dropped from stub wings is a major change in how they are deployed.  It also begs the question, why is a helicopter that can carry large, powerful bombs, being used to drop DIY bombs?  When transport helicopters were being used, it seemed reasonable to assume they were dropping DIY barrel bombs to make the most of the Syrian air forces transport fleet.  Could this be an indication that bomb supplies are now running low at certain air bases?

The second video shows the launch of a Volcano rocket as part of the Yabroud Offensive


This appears to be the largest type of Volcano rocket, a type previously seen in this video from the Syrian National Defence Force, as opposed to the type based off 122mm rockets used in the August 21st attack.  What's interesting about this video is it includes the launch, flight, and impact, as well as the sound of the impact.  From the delay between seeing the impact and hearing the sound of the impact (around 8 seconds), it's possible to calculate that based on the speed of sound the distance travelled by the rocket is at least 2700m.  Due to the shaky camera movement and poor quality image, it's possible the impact occurs earlier than we can see in the video, so it's possible the range may be more than 2700m.  It's worth noting a Shia Facebook page claimed these rockets had a range of 1-3km, so this is the first evidence that the claim might be correct.

There's also this image of a Volcano rocket, taken by government forces outside the town of Zara, where they've been fighting to capture the town for the past few months


What's interesting about this picture is the tail fins of the Volcano rocket.  It appears they are swept back, and no tail ring is visible, unlike all other examples of larger Volcano rockets seen in the conflict so far.  This may be the first example of a new design of Volcano rocket being deployed by government forces.  As yet, no other information is known about this design.

Special Report On The Yabrud Offensive From Elijah J Magnier

2/15/14
A special report by Elijah J Magnier on the ongoing Yabrud Offensive.  His earlier report on the opening stages of the Offensive can be found here.

  • Al-Qalamoun, the Syrian Tora-Bora
  • Al Jarajeer and Al Sahel in the hands of attacking forces
  • 207 rebels were killed in the first week by over 45 air raids, Kornet missiles, tanks and artillery.
  • A full description of the battle map

It is not the battle of Yabroud but the battle of Al-Qalamoun.  Regular Syrian Army Forces, along side with Hezbollah Special Forces, initiated this week a ground attack against Al Qalamoun occupying strategic position and attacking cities around Yabrud. None of the forces engaged consider it is going to be an easy walk. The attacking forces describe the topography of al-Qalamoun, with its mountains and hills, as the ‘Syrian Tora-Bora’, referring to the infamous Afghan mountains.

Over 45 air raids were carried against the rebel’s position in the area so far. More than 207 rebel fighters were killed. All three arms (ground, air, artillery) are fully engaged on the front line.
Hezbollah claim that all car bombs are prepared in Yabroud, driven to Arsal and into its stronghold in the Bekaa and the suburb of Beirut.

A few days prior the beginning of the attack, Shaikh Naim Qassem, vice Secretary general of Hezbollah, explained that ‘it was necessary to put an end to the car bombs coming from Yabrud’. Sayed Hasan Nusrallah, Hezbollah Leader, will be tomorrow evening on Al Manar TV to talk about the newly formed government; the Takfirees operation in Lebanon following the arrest of Naim Abbas, a commander of the Al-Qaeda affiliated Abdullah Azzam terrorist group; to prepare the Shia community for the lost of lives Hezbollah will suffer in Al-Qalamoun battle as he did prior the battle of Quseyr and during Hezbollah full engagement in Syria since May 2013.

A high-ranking source in the joint military operational room said “Al Jarajeer and Al-sahel are fully under the control of the attacking forces, advancing at the moment toward other objectives close to Yabrud and engaged on different fronts. So far, we have counted 207 rebels killed even if the close contacts has been limited so far, allowing the fire power to pound all rebels positions in the area”. The source explained the course of the battle as following:

East: Syrian troops and artillery are deployed East of Yabrud on all strategic positions and hills overlooking Yabroud, from Al Nabak to al-Qastal where Rima farms, Yabrud and Ras al A’yn are under artillery fire control. This is essential to avoid any tactical withdrawal of the rebels toward rif-Dimashq.

North: The front attack has started from the North of Yabrud where the main attacking forces moved from Nabak toward Rima Farms. Strong firepower was used to bombard rebel’s position. The advance forces are also supported by the artillery positioned East of Rima Farms contributing in pounding the farms. Until today, half of Rima farms have been re-taken. No civilians inside Rima farms. Thousands left the area toward the Syrian position prior the battle. These are neutral families. Others, the families of the rebels, were divided between those who left to Arsal (Lebanon) and others toward Yabrud.

West: The main battle is in the West to support the Northern-front attack toward Yabrud. This is where the main military operation is engaged. On the West side, troops were deployed on the mountains and roads between Lebanon and Syria. Four of the six official roads are today fully under control. The remaining two roads are today under fire control and will be soon closed. No vehicle can cross between the two borders. There are ten unofficial roads between Lebanon and Syria, leading to the Lebanese city of Arsal. All these roads are today fully under control. The attacking forces are using smugglers of the area to identify all possible existing paths and caves. On the other hand, ground troops managed to enter both Al-Jarajeer and Al-Sahel. The battle is ongoing now in the surrounded city of Falita, under heavy bombardment.

Nonetheless, notorious inhabitants of Falita asked to negotiate an exit for rebels. The city of Falita is completely surrounded. Inhabitants were asked to gather all weapons in one accessible place for the attacking forces and to raise the Syrian flag is they agreed to surrender. The attacking forces will not enter the city unless the road is completely cleared. We have spotted 6 vehicles with armed rebels going from Falitah toward Yabrud. Anti-tank 9M133 Kornet missiles destroyed these. Hezbollah has effectively used the laser guided missiles Kornet in 2006 war causing heavy loss among the best Israeli tanks, the Merkava.
Always on the West, the attacking forces are advancing on the easier landscape between Falita and Rima Farms, closing the wing on both Rima farms and Yabrud. There is no close contact with the rebels in this area, allowing the artillery to open the road ahead of the ground forces.

South West: On the South West of Yabroud, there is the city of Ras Ma’ara. Forces are advancing North toward Ras Ma’ara to close the road to Yabrud. West of ras Ma’ara there are the Lebanese Shia area of Nahle, Baalbeck, Nabi-Sheet and others, preventing any infiltration into Lebanon.

According to the source, “the city of Yabrud has not been completely surrounded. A passage south of Yabrud maybe left open for a possible withdrawal.”

When asked about the same experience Hezbollah faced in Quseyr allowing some of the rebels to withdraw to fight these later in other places, the source explained: “We're constantly revising our plans according to the battle field necessities. If all the rebels decide to stay, we shall face these. This is what we came to al-Qalamoun for. The style of attack has changed. First we use air force, artillery and tanks power. Ground troops come last. Rebels will be completely trapped inside if we decide to close the passage later. Ground troops will enter when little resistance remains. If the rebels decide to leave, we occupy more land (Yabroud/Qalamoun) with less loss and we shall face these some other time in the battle field if they still have the will to continue fighting”.

Special Report On Hezbollah's Role In The Yabrud Offensive

2/12/14
A special report by Elijah J Magnier on the Yabrud Offensive, originally published in Arabic here:

High ranking military sources in the Hezbollah and Assad military operations room:
- Advance against Yabrud will be on 6 axes around the city;
- Burkan (Volcano), artillery, tanks, air raids and Special Forces all deployed in the battle of Qalamoun
- Yabrud battle is supposed to end in less than a month at most
- The timing of the start of the attack coincided with the anniversary of the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh

Volcano rockets with Syrian forces in Yabrod [Source]
Hezbollah, supported by Syrian tanks, artillery and air raids, has started this morning a large scale battle advancing toward the city of Yabrud in the Qalamoun, close to the Lebanese-Syrian border.
In fact, the pro-Iranian Hezbollah initiated weeks ago their military operation when thousands of Special Forces were pushed in the area with the following objectives:
  1. Cut the supply line between Lebanon (Arsal) and Syria where rebels have safe heaven.
  2. Protect Damascus and its rif. 
  3. Divide, through future military operations, the North from the South of Syria.
Hezbollah used in this attack self-made Volcano (Burkan) rockets to advance on the ground from Nabak and Deir Atiya re-taking Al-Jarajeer and all the surrounding hills between Lebanon and Syria.  As this article is published, the battle is ongoing in Mazare Rim. The next stop is Fallita before heading toward Yabrud. Hezbollah has learned its lesson in Qusayr: “No more safe exits for rebels” since more than a thousand of them escaped towards Qalamoun. Today, Hezbollah has to fight against those same rebels once more.

A senior leader in the joint operations room, run by Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, said that "the Special Forces started their ground attack on all axes at the crack of dawn. Hezbollah intelligence unit, through meticulous under-cover operation, has gathered detailed information on the number of rebels, where their command centers are, and what is their capability and readiness to fight."

The source said: "After gathering all necessary information, we launched the attack, which coincided with the anniversary of the martyrdom of Hajj Imad Mughnniyeh, Sayyed Abbas Musawi, Sheikh Ragheb Harb and all those who fell by the extremist's car bombs sent to Lebanon. Our message to these: Nahnu Qadimun (We are coming)".

"The battle of Qalamoun will be run differently from the one of Qusayr: Far more intensive fire power to reduce loses and inflict more damage to the rebels. We shall block entry to the city and villages from all access and directions. The advance of the Special Forces (SF) will progress from six different axes to separate the rebel lines and isolate them into smaller groups." explained the source.

He pointed out "Hezbollah SF who have participated in the battle of East Ghota, Idlib and Qusayr have been deployed in the battle with their experience and full equipment, including their special Burkan (Volcano) to open the road."

The source said that, according to their intelligence information, there are "some 200 Lebanese fighters under the banner of the extremist groups, while the rest is divided as follows: One third Saudi, one third from different Gulf countries including Palestinians and one third Syrian, mainly under Jabhat al-Nusra’s command".

According to this high ranking military commander, it is "difficult to predict how long the battle will last, none the less, Yabrud will surely take less time than Qusayr which is no more than two to three weeks".

In relation to the 12 nuns kidnapped by the extremists, the source was aware of the kidnappers request and revealed "the extremists asked to stop the battle against Yabrud and to release 500 extremists from the Rumiyeh jail and from Syria. This is unacceptable since each one of these will return to fight again. We hold the extremists responsible for the safety of the nuns".

Fourth Chemical Volcano Rocket Used On August 21st Geolocated

1/31/14
Following on from yesterday's post on a third possible impact location of the chemical rockets used on August 21st I've been investigating more of the GPS co-ordinates provided to me by the local who filmed the video used in this ITN report


I now believe there is enough information to locate the position of the rocket I've dubbed Volcano 4 (playlist here).  One set of GPS co-ordinates pointed to this location


After reviewing video footage collected for the 8-9 Volcano rockets recorded after the attack, I believe this is almost certainly the location of Volcano 4.  The below clip shows a view to the west followed by a view to the east from two different videos.


Firstly, the location itself.  We can see to the north there's a brick wall which appears to have been pierced by the rocket, and in this image from Google Earth's historical satellite imagery we can see it's casting a shadow


In the satellite imagery it appears the building just west of the wall, on the north side, juts out to the south


In the video we can actually see it's only the top floor that juts out, while the ground floor is level with the wall


It's also noticeable that the building to the south is not parallel to the street, which can be seen on the satellite map



In the view east, we have a clear shot down the road


Satellite imagery shows a large multistorey building to the east, as visible in the above still


Although somewhat obscured in the video by greenery, the historical satellite imagery appears to show that the design of the building matches what we see in the video




Combined with the GPS data, I think this proves a strong match to Volcano 4.  What's also very interesting about this video is it appears the munition passed through the wall to the north, landing just south-east of the hole in the wall.


It's worth keeping in mind that just northwest of this position is a building that appears to be at least two storeys tall, so it's possible the munition could have deflected off the building.  However, it does seem likely the rocket would have come from the northwest.  I've created the following map showing the distance from the impact site, with the red line being 2km, yellow being 2.25km, and green being 2.5km.


It's worth noting the area south of the motorway running from the north to the west of the picture was the scene of Operaton al-Kabune, a government operation to secure a strip of land between Jobar and Qaboun, with the aim to encircle Jobar and Qaboun along the motorway running north to south in the above image.  That operation commenced on August 20th 2013 as part of Operation Capital Shield.

A big thank you to Chris Kabusk for help finding the impact locations of this rocket.


Third Chemical Volcano Rocket Used On August 21st Geolocated

1/30/14
Things have been rather quite on the blog recently while I work on a number of projects, including the launch of a new website.  One project I'm working on involves the August 21st Sarin attack, and while working on that project I've managed to geolocate one more potential impact sites from the August 21st Sarin attack in Damascus.

This task was made somewhat easier because I was able to contact the person who filmed the footage for this ITN report


He provided me with the GPS co-ordinates of what he filmed, and I was particularly interested in one site, which I've called Volcano 5 (playlist here).  This video shows what appears to be the impact site, and it appears the munition was removed from the site, leaving part of the warhead's outer shell, and the remains of a black rod device that has been sighted in a number of Volcano videos, but whose purpose is unclear


Because the munition is not present, we cannot be 100% sure this is an impact location, but I believe this area is worth geolocating on the chance it could be, and because it features in a number of videos and photographs, in particular focusing on one feature, a mound of dead animals


According to the GPS information I received, the location of the dead animals was in this area



The first image from this video shows the building to the south of the open area.


This building is partly built, and we can see from Google Earth historical satellite imagery this building construction appears to have begun between 2010 and 2011


Here we can see the ground floor juts out from the building, as it does in the video


At the bottom of this image we also see the building behind the newly constructed building that's visible in the video


The forth picture in this article shows the pile of dead animals, and is facing east.  On the map we can see the following 3 points of interest


At point 1 we can see a building at the corner of a walled area filled with trees.  The photograph shows a small building on the south corner, with another smaller building attached to it.  This matches what we have in the satellite image.

At point 2 there's a building visible in the photograph, and behind that at point 3 another building that juts out to the north, also visible in the photograph.

In this next video we have a view to the west


In this frame from the video it's possible to see a number of points of interest



At points 1 and 2 we can see the alleys to the west and south.  At point 3 we can see the building at the end of the west alley.  Behind that building is a taller building with balconies, visible in the historical map images of the area, marked with a 1 in the below image


Based off the above information, it seems very likely that this is the correct location, bringing the total number of Volcano rockets geolocated to three.

A big thank you to Chris Kabusk for help finding the impact locations of this rocket.

Responses To The Final UN Report Into The Use Of Chemical Weapons In Syria - Part 1

12/13/13
Yesterday, the final UN report into the use of chemical weapons in Syria was published online (here), detailing the investigation into several alleged uses of chemical weapons in Syria.  I've invited a number of chemical weapon specialists to give their thoughts on different aspects of the report, and today I'll be focusing on the Khan al-Assal attack, Saraqeb and Sheik Maqsood attacks.

Khan al-Assal

In July, Russia provided the UN with a 100-page report on their own investigation into the chemical attack in Khan al-Assal on March 19th 2013.  While the report was not published, key findings were detailed by the Russian Foreign Ministry when the report was submitted, and also reiterated in a statement by H.E. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations
It was established that on March 19 the rebels launched an unguided "Basha'ir-3" projectile towards Khan al-Assal controlled by the Government forces. As you know, 26 people were killed (16 of them were military personnel), 86 injured and intoxicated to different levels.
The results of the analysis clearly indicate that the ordnance used in Khan al-Assal was not industrially manufactured and was filled with sarin. The sarin technical specifications prove that it was not industrially manufactured either. The absence of chemical stabilizers in the samples of the detected toxic agents indicates their relatively recent production. The projectile involved is not a standard one for chemical use. Hexogen utilised as an opening charge is not used in standard ammunitions.
Therefore, there is every reason to believe that it was the armed opposition fighters who used chemical weapons in Khan al-Assal.
According to the information at our disposal, the production of "Basha'ir-3" unguided projectiles was started in February 2013 by the so-called "Basha'ir al-Nasr" brigade affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.
Not only did the Russian's claim it was a DIY rocket fired by the Syrian opposition, but even the specific type, "Basha'ir-3", and the group involved, the "Basha'ir al-Nasr" brigade.  One would assume that as this claim is being made in relation to the 100-page report presented to the UN, the teams investigating the Khan al-Assal attack would be fully aware of the details on those rockets, which are incredibly specific.  However, in the final report the picture is somewhat less clear
The United Nations Mission received contradicting information as to how chemical weapon agents were delivered in the Khan Al Asal incident. Witness statements collected by the UNHRC Commission of Inquiry, provided to the United Nations Mission, supported the position by the Syrian Arab Republic that a rocket was fired from the neighborhood. However, according to other witness statements to the UNHRC Commission of Inquiry, an overflying aircraft had dropped an aerial bomb filled with Sarin.
The United Nations Mission was not able to collect any primary information or any “untouched” artifacts relevant to the incident and necessary for an independent verification of the information gathered. 
It goes on to say
The United Nations Mission received from the Government of the Russian Federation its report of the results of the analysis of samples obtained from Khan Al Asal from 23 to 25 March 2013, which identified Sarin and Sarin degradation products on metal fragments and in soil samples taken at the site of the incident.
For me, the question I have now is why the big difference between the UN report and the Russian report about which munition was used?  It seems the type remains of the munition would be the best possible evidence of who was responsible, especially if the Russian's were able to figure out the exact type of munition, and which group uses them.  If Russia had that level of detail, why is the UN report unclear on whether or not it was even a rocket that was responsible?  It's also very interesting that the UN report also states
The team was open, however, to receiving any biomedical samples previously collected by the Syrian Government, which the United Nations Mission would authenticate through DNA tests.
No biomedical samples were handed over to the United Nations Mission by the Syrian Government.
So why did the Syrian Government fail to keep what would have been key evidence in the investigation?  Either way, it seems that the Russian's must have the best possible evidence of opposition responsibility, and with the UN report failing to concur with their results, it's time that the Russian government publishes at least that part of their findings to clear up the discrepancies between the reports.

Saraqeb and Sheikh Maqsoud

Saraqeb and Sheikh Maqsoud are two attacks I spent a number of months investigating.  What first caught my interest in the two attacks was the method of attack used.  Reports and images from both attacks suggested a similar method of attack, my initial thoughts on which I detailed in this April 2013 post.  The March 29th Saraqeb attack, which took place two weeks after the Sheikh Maqsoud, is described in the UN report
The source close to the opposition claimed that, on 29 March 2013, a helicopter was seen passing above the western part of Saraqueb flying from north to south and that the helicopter allegedly dropped items at three locations. The first point of impact was reportedly in the northern area of the town, the second in the middle of the courtyard of a family house, and the third was close to an opposition checkpoint on the roads to Idlib and Aleppo.
A trail of white smoke reportedly came down from the helicopter as improvised munitions were allegedly observed being dropped. 
This mostly agrees with the detailed report I put together on the Saraqeb attack on May 17th, but at that time I believed only two items were dropped from the helicopters.  It was also reported that the Sheikh Maqsoud attack involved the same method of attack, but there was a lot more that linked the two attacks.

The UN describes the munition used in the Saraqeb attack as follows
Based on the information gathered by the United Nations Mission from the source close to the opposition, the Saraqueb incident was atypical for an event involving alleged use of chemical weapons. The munitions allegedly used could hold only as little as 200 ml of a toxic chemical. Allegedly tear gas and chemical weapon munitions were used in parallel. The core of the device allegedly used was a cinder block (building material of cement) with round holes. These holes could, allegedly, serve to “secure” small hand grenades from exploding. As the cinder block hit the ground, the handles of the grenades would become activated and discharged. Some of the hand grenade–type munitions allegedly contained tear gas, whereas other grenades were filled with Sarin.
I've spoken to a number of chemical weapon specialists about this method deliver in the past (earlier interviews here, here, and here), and the general viewpoint has been this would be a really odd way of delivering Sarin.  There's video and photographic evidence from Saraqeb, with the BBC report on Saraqeb showing video footage of the munition falling through the sky, as described in the UN report


The shattered remains of one of the cinder blocks used


And photographs and videos of the grenades used


Compared to the Saraqeb report, there was very little information on the Sheikh Maqsoud attack, but what there was appears to link it to the Saraqeb attack.  Aside from reports of a helicopter dropping the munitions, we also had a series of photographs


In these photographs we see the remains of the same type of white grenade, surrounded by the same type of debris that appears to have come from a disintegrating cinder block.  It would seem that this evidence would link the two attacks, and point towards the use of Sarin in the Sheikh Masqoud attack.

The story of the white grenades didn't stop there.  In May, I was sent the following photograph from Jeffry Ruigendijk of a Jabhat al-Nusra fighter (hi-res here)



This begged the question of whether or not Jabhat al-Nusra has the same grenades, and what they actually were.  Journalist Alfred Hackensberger took up the challenge of finding out, and detailed his finding in my blog post The Hunt For Chemical Weapon Attack Linked Gas Grenades In Syria
At beginning, nobody recognized them and we thought we are at a dead end. But later, we found two rebels at front line position in Assafireh who immediately recognized them. They were sure of seeing them on rebels, but didn't remember if the were from Liwa Tawhid or al-Nusra. But anyway, they said this were smoke grenades, not chemical grenades. Later in Aleppo we found two more men who said same thing.
He went on to add
He said, that he saw these grenades (the original one from Saraqeb and Maqsoud) during his military service over one year ago in Daraa (before he defected). An elite force, supposedly from the 4th Division, was training with these grenades. His officer told him that the grenades were delivered by Iran and would contain, beside smoke, a certain nerve relaxant, to calm protesters down. The former soldier also said that these grenades were not used at that time.
So it seems that if these grenades were carrying Sarin in the Saraqeb attack, they don't appear to have been designed to do so.  For me, the Saraqeb and Sheikh Maqsoud attacks have always been a bit of a mystery. The delivery method has seemed, awkward, and almost self-endangering.  Why use a helicopter to deliver just 3 of the munitions, for such a tiny number of causalities, in areas where the attack has no obvious military value?  Could what we've seen in these attacks have been a test? There were certainly no other reports of these munitions being recovered in relation to chemical attacks, so it remains somewhat of a mystery.

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More responses to the UN report can be found in part 2 and part 3 of this series.