A Tale of Two Bombings: Khan Sheikhoun and Shayrat Airbase


On April 6th, the US bombed the Shayrat airbase in Syria, ostensibly, as a result of the alleged use of chemical weapons. To be clear, the Shayrat airbase was held by the Syrian government which is currently supporting President Bashir Al-Assad’s regime. Aside from the prevailing commentary of the bombing, which generally alludes to the Trump administration’s about-face on its policy regarding Syria, it is interesting and illuminating to consider the “alternative” explanation of what occurred in Khan Sheikhoun three days earlier.

According to Western media and states that side with Syria (i.e. Russia), the events regarding the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-held town in Syria, on April 3rd unfolded in the following way: First, according to the BBC, the US military detected aircraft moving from the Shayrat airbase to the small town at approximately 06:37 and 06:46. According to eyewitnesses in the area, they saw aircraft drop bombs on buildings in the town. The effects of chemical weaponry, most likely attributable to sarin, a chemical that affects the nerves of a body that can lead to respiratory failure, were seen on civilians in the area. At least 80 people have died as a result of the chemicals released in the area with hundreds more injured. However, this is the extent of the similarities of the two narratives,  after this point, the series of events diverge between the accounts of Western media and that of Russian and pro-Assad sources.

Western media has reported that the bombs dropped on Khan Sheikhoun were chemical weaponry of the Syrian government which released the toxic nerve agent called sarin. In contrast, the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation indicated that the Syrian government aircraft were targeting stockpiles of chemical weapons that were being held in Khan Sheikhoun. According to the Russians, bombing Khan Sheikhoun was done in order to eliminate rebel access to chemical weapons, something that an Al Jazeera article, called “The chemical brothers: Putin and Assad.”

The Russian account of events is widely disregarded due to several large inconsistencies in Russia and Syria’s stories. For one, if we accept that it was indeed sarin that was used– something that has been reportedly verified as a result of Turkey’s post-mortem examination of Khan Sheikhoun’s victims — bombing the stockpiles of sarin would not have had the effect that was seen in the town. According to Al Jazeera and the BBC, the chemical components that create sarin are stored separately and are only mixed together immediately before use, i.e. it is implied by these sources that bombing the components at the same time would not cause sarin to be produced.

The US responded to this grave crime in a characteristically inconsistent and reactionary way, at least for the Trump administration, by bombing the Shayrat airbase. (Despite Trump’s myriad of statements indicating that the US would not get involved in the war in Syria.) From a US perspective, the bombing was done so as to neutralize any further threats of chemical weapons because it was believed that the airbase was where the sarin was stored and, potentially, still being stored. Russia maintains that the US did not provide evidence that Syria has chemical weapons. It is interesting to note that according to the National Security Adviser to President Trump, H R McMaster, great care was taken in the bombing of the Shayrat airbase in order to ensure that the sarin at the airbase “would not be ignited and cause a hazard to civilians or anyone else.” This is particularly interesting given the fact that Hamish de Bretton Gordon, a former officer with the British Armed Forces Joint Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Regiment, said, “If you blow up Sarin, you destroy it.”

This information provides some conflicting conclusions about the bombings of Khan Sheikhoun and the Shayrat airbase. Components used to make Sarin must be mixed immediately before use, and the likelihood of bombing being the cause of the production of Sarin is unlikely. The unlikelihood of Sarin production via bombing is supported by the Al Jazeera article “The chemical brothers: Putin and Assad,” which indicates that “you would have the same success releasing sarin gas by bombing chemical stockpiles as you would making borscht soup by throwing a grenade into a vegetable market,” as well as by the comments of de Breton Gordon who indicated that sarin is supposed to be destroyed after it is blown up. Thus, bombing chemical stockpiles should neutralize the effects of sarin by not allowing its production. This was not the case in Khan Sheikhoun where the effects of a nerve agent were seen. Clearly, the Russian account of why pro-government forces were bombing Khan Sheikhoun has some major holes in it. Moreover, if Sarin is destroyed when it is ignited (and thus immobilized as a threat) then why was the US avoiding bombing it directly at the Shayrat airbase?

There is a preponderance of unsatisfying information from many media sources that do not quite address these gaping holes in the dominant narratives surrounding the motivations of the bombings in both Khan Sheikhrun and at the Shayrat airbase.

Lauren Hogan

Lauren Hogan

Lauren is a recent graduate of Carleton University's Bachelor of Public Affairs and Policy Management, with a specialization in International Studies and a minor in European and Russian Studies. While Lauren is relatively new to writing for online media, she is very interested in Russian current events and foreign policy. She also intends to pursue a Master's in European and Russian Affairs at the University of Toronto this fall.
Lauren Hogan

About Lauren Hogan

Lauren is a recent graduate of Carleton University's Bachelor of Public Affairs and Policy Management, with a specialization in International Studies and a minor in European and Russian Studies. While Lauren is relatively new to writing for online media, she is very interested in Russian current events and foreign policy. She also intends to pursue a Master's in European and Russian Affairs at the University of Toronto this fall.