Sarin: The lethal fog of war

April 29, 2013

The Syrian government’s reported use of sarin in its war against rebel forces is ominous. It suggests dissemination of the nerve agent could become more frequent there — whether by the Syrian military or by opposition forces in possession of captured stockpiles. If this happens, many more people will likely suffer the tortured effects of the chemical.

This could weaken the international taboo against such weaponry. No wonder President Barack Obama has warned that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of sarin would be a “game changer.”

For sarin is considered a weapon of mass destruction. As with all chemical agents, effectiveness depends on the purity, the means of dissemination and vulnerability of the exposed population. At worst, chemicals can be devastating agents of death, even if less expansive in their effect than a biological release or a nuclear detonation.

A drop of liquid sarin can be lethal after skin contact or inhalation of its vapor. The colorless, odorless material blocks the transmission of impulses between nerve cells, which effectively paralyzes the organs of the body, including the lungs. Asphyxiation and death can result within minutes.

Unlike a biological agent, such as the bacterium that causes plague and can lead to an epidemic, a chemical does not pose the danger of an infected person transmitting the disease to others. Nor does a chemical release threaten the massive destruction and widespread radiation that would result from a nuclear explosion. Still, the effects of a chemical attack can be horrendous.

The largest use of chemicals as weapons took place during World War One. In 1915, German troops first released chlorine gas in the direction of French forces. The wind was at the Germans’ backs, so the gas soon enveloped the stunned French troops. They gasped for breath and suffered “agony unspeakable,” according to one account.

Additional chemical agents, including most famously mustard gas, were later used by all the major powers in the conflict. By the war’s end in 1918, these agents had killed almost 100,000 people. An additional 1.3 million victims suffered blindness, burned lungs and other serious injuries.

The gruesome effects of the gas attacks prompted a postwar international agreement, the Geneva Protocol, which banned the use of poison gas in war. These weapons remained largely unused after that, though some countries continued to stockpile them.

In 1938, German scientists, in search of new insecticides, developed a family of toxic materials, including sarin, that attacked the nervous system. Sarin was far more potent than any previous warfare agent – and unknown outside of Germany until after World War Two.

It has since been stockpiled as a warfare agent by several powers. But Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was the first to use it in warfare. He attacked Iranian troops with the chemical during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. In 1988, Hussein also ordered low-flying Iraqi airplanes to spray sarin over his own people — the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja. Between 3,500 and 5,000 Kurdish civilians suffered agonizing deaths in what has been labeled a genocidal massacre.

Seven years later, in another case of terrorism, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 and sickening perhaps a thousand. Seconds after exposure, froth bubbled from victims’ mouths and their bodies began to convulse. Initial estimates of 5,500 sick victims were attributable to panic among the many who jammed hospitals thinking, erroneously, they had been affected.

The year before, in Matsumoto, seven people with similar symptoms died from what was thought to be an accidental release of insecticide. Only after the Tokyo attack did authorities learn that the cult had also disseminated sarin there.

By then, impetus for a strengthened ban on chemical weapons was growing. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which went into force in 1997, prohibits the development as well as possession of these weapons, and it provides for onsite inspections to verify compliance. More than 185 countries have signed the agreement. Syria is among the handful of countries that have not signed, and it has refused to allow inspectors on its territory.

Gas masks and antidotes, including atropine, can offer some protection against sarin. But as the Iraqi and Japanese experiences showed, the unprotected are vulnerable to the worst consequences of exposure. The introduction of chemical weapons can only compound the  misery of war already inflicted on the Syrian population.

Obama has implied that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would warrant a forceful intervention. Based on photographs, the reported symptoms of victims and the manner of shelling, U.S. intelligence officials now believe with “varying degrees of confidence” that Syria has used these weapons.

Obama is demanding further proof. But additional evidence, which can be collected from human tissues or soil samples, will likely be hard to attain. In part, that is because Sarin dissipates in a few weeks. The trip wire for forceful action should be Assad’s refusal of inspections by outside authorities.

If Assad is permitted to get away with chemical murder, the consequence will not only be tragic for Syrians. The norm against unconscionable weaponry will likely further erode, and inhibitions about the use of biological and nuclear, as well as chemical, weapons may also diminish.


PHOTO (Top): A man reacts as he sits in rubble at a site hit on Friday by what activists said was a Scud missile in Aleppo’s Ard al-Hamra neighbourhood, February 23, 2013. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman

PHOTO (Insert A): Abdlhamid Haj Omar, 70, a father who lost three sons and two grandsons in the ongoing Syrian crisis, visits their graves at the Martyrs’ cemetery in Azaz city, North Aleppo, December 25, 2012. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

PHOTO (Insert B): Special chemical control unit members emerging from Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki subway station, which was poisoned by sarin. Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth Sect) cult members had released the deadly nerve gas by puncturing gas-filled plastic bags with sharpened umbrella tips. March 20, 1995. REUTERS/Kimimasa Mayama/Files


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So, is your suggestion that the U.S. intervene in a civil war in which we have no interest? How humanitarian is it to risk American lives for a people in a country who turn on both themselves, and eventually the U.S.

Anyone who suggests that the U.S. intervene after seeing the response of the Iraqi “democracy” of telling the U.S. to leave, today restricting the press and media, and the Sunni majority persecuting the Shiites (or is it) the other way. Or Egypt where the government stands by while the Coptic Christians are killed by the muslim majority.

This is another war of muslims on other muslims. Let the Syrians, Iranians and Saudi’s live with the consequences. The President was wrong to establish “a red line” as that gave the connotation we have an interest.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

This is a complete lie. The Syrian government never used any chemical weapon. The only people who used chemical weapons are Western-backed Islamist militants in Aleppo in an attack which killed 26 people including government forces.

If you want a war, at least be real. Don’t make false allegations.

The author of this article may be fronting for Israel or the war lobby. But it’s also highly suspicious that the warmongers have started talking Sarin and nonsense after the Boston Bombing. Regime-change in Syria has failed. Just give up.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

I don’t want to see America get entangled in Syria, but use of chemical weapons is a ‘game-changer’. If it is found that chemical weapons have been used than the full weight of the UN must be compelled to act; if not what point is there in having these institutions. And frankly I don’t care which side was guilty – the UN should step in, force a solution, find whomever is guilty and prosecute them in intl court.

To be complacent in the face of atrocity is immoral and those that make excuses to not intervene are every bit as morally stained as the people committing the acts themselves. It’s shameful to hear apologists for either side speak in this way…

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

Chemical weapons lie is the only card left in his Regime- change fiasco. Interesting to see how it’ll be played. It’s also very interesting that warmongers are linking Boston with Syria and Russia. Watching warmongers try to find a pretext to bomb Syria is like watching devils at work. Some analysts predicted that the strange Boston bombing will be linked to Russia and Syria. More precisely the US will use the event in Boston as a bargain chip with Russia with regard to the Syrian mess.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

How can you be sure?
How do you know it wasn’t an Islamist Rebel that used the sarin? ( they Jihadis would have everything to gain from this.= foreign support an Assad everything to lose…)
How do you know there’s wasn’t any foul play or contamination of the sample?
What was the chain of custody of the sample?
Why not let the security council of the UN take care of this?
And do you remember Collin Powell and the tube with proof of WMD in the UN before the unilateral invasion of Iraq?

Posted by VladimirJr | Report as abusive

And the use of chemical waepon white phosphporous by Israel in Gaza and the USA in Iraq? Who will invade these war criminal countries and depose their these corrupt regimes?

Posted by Blurt | Report as abusive

The real “game changer” is the desire of the American people, the vast majority of us, to stop invading countries that have not directly attacked us.

How difficult is it for our elite to understand? If we wanted to be ruled by an elite we would still be a British possession. We don’t need no stinking House of Lords, though it appears we have got one or several anyway.

Bend to the will of the people and stop the wars! There are at least 5 more in the planning stages and an unending line of minor ethnic groups ready to wreck the rest of our lives because we do not matter to them. They may be US citizens but they are not Americans. You care about the people of your homeland more than anyone else. The litmus test. Most do not care a fig about common Americans. Ours is to sacrifice and pay for their “causes”.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

The American military complex is vast.

It extends from junior officers whose careers drag slowly in peace but are greatly enhanced by wars.

It extends not just to giant military weapons manufacturing corporations, and the hundreds of thousands of junior executives and highly paid sales reps in their employ.

It also extends to the many thousands of subcontractors, from chemicals, software engineering, and food supply, to public relations and policy development.

It extends to foreign countries, like the immensely wealthy corrupt Saudia Arabian government, the largest customer for US military hardware and software.

My guess is that the author of this article, is a shill for some party in that vast money-corrupted US military-industrial complex.

Instead of hoping for stability in Syria, they, folks like the author of this article, have been doing everything in their power to sow discord, hatred and war. The rebellion in Syria would never have come this far without help from players in the US military-industrial complex like the author of this article.

America has nobody to blame but itself for what is happening in Syria.

If the author of this article is not engaging in war-mongering, then what is war-mongering?

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

@usagadfly – Well said.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

QUESTION: What nation possesses and manufactures the most chemical weapons?

ANSWER: The United State, by far, possesses and manufactures more chemical weapons than any other nation.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

Check out: bama-and-u-s-military-divided-over-syria  /

“A very revealing New York Times article quoted U.S.-backed Syrian rebels admitting that the chemical weapons attack took place in a Syrian government controlled territory and that 16 Syrian government soldiers died as a result of the attack, along with 10 civilians plus a hundred more injured. But the rebels later made the absurd claim that the Syrian government accidentally bombed its own military with the chemical weapons.”

Of course, this whole WMD thing as regards Syria was setup when Obama drew the Red Line in the sand. It is completely like the Iraq setup. It is obviously easy for Israel and its operatives to manufacture an apparent chemical attack by the Syrian government. In fact, it would be out of character if Israel didn’t. They think nothing of setting one group against the other, in this case Sunni against Shiite/Alawite.

I would ask further: why would Assad use a little bit of chemical weapons? So he could provide an excuse for international intervention? Anybody can see: blaming this chemical attack on Assad makes no sense.

The whole Syrian chemical issue reeks of a repeat setup of the American people for the next war. The perpetrators of such mass-murders are criminals and should be put in jail.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

Gas is bad news. But it does seem quite probable to myself that any group that doesn’t mind blowing up vehicles to kill as many civilians as possible, like the rebels have done, would have any problem using it. If they are willing to blow themselves up, they’ll have no qualms about using it on others. I would also like to know what has happened to all of the Syrian soldiers that the rebels have captured when they overrun bases and capture territory. Where have the pow bases been set up, or have they all died to the last man?

Posted by Domsayshi | Report as abusive

I invite Mr. Cole to go to Syria himself.

Posted by cranston | Report as abusive

It indeed would be tragic if Assad ordered the use of nerve gases. But did he, or was it a rogue element that did it, or even the jihadists who want to egg the US into the civil war for their own purposes?

Those beating the drums for more war are always willing to rush in without the facts. Yes, they can make moral arguments, but war is messy, and is too often taken lightly by those who will never have to face it.

Perhaps this fits into Assad’s approaches of pushing the envelope to see what he can get by doing. Or perhaps it is a scheme by Israel to get the US to do it’s dirty work of eliminating another regime they don’t like.

Only fools rush in.

Posted by pavoter1946 | Report as abusive

A University Professor, Director of terror medicine promoting terror. This is what the war lobby does. They hire smart people to lend credence to their lies. This is exactly what that NYT reporter, Judy Something, did prior to Irak war. These professors, experts and reporters must understand that the public is not stupid.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

Did they get the Sarin from same place Iraq got the WMD’s?
Someone needs to invade fantasy land and take all those horrible weapons.
Right after the US goes into another war, of course.
Look into history, there is a long line of fake reasons for a war to make money for the wealthy during economic hard times.
The USS Maine- Spanish American War
The Gulf of Tonkin incident -Vietnam
Iraq WMD’s -Iraq II
There is no REAL proof if anyone used Sarin or who did it.
ALL LIES and excuses for bogus wars for blood profits.

Posted by americanguy | Report as abusive

Leonard A. Cole is said to be a dentist, political scientist and expert in bio-terrorism. Where he finds the time to write inflammatory articles for Reuters is a mystery. He urges Obama to bomb Syria based on Israeli reports that gas was tested.

Cole is a member of the Aspen Institute which states that it is dedicated to promoting enlightened discussion. In enlightened discussion it’s apparently OK to advocate bombing a country on the mere suspicion of intent to use WMD. Does that ring a bell?

Where was Cole’s outrage when the USA was selling Iraq nerve gas to use in its war with Iran?

Iraq used US nerve gas and mustard gas using artillery and bombs:

One of the most successful Iraqi tactics was the “one-two punch” attack using chemical weapons. Using artillery, they would saturate the Iranian front line with rapidly dispersing cyanide and nerve gas, while longer-lasting mustard gas was launched via fighter-bombers and rockets against the Iranian rear, creating a “chemical wall” that blocked reinforcement. 93Iraq_War

Posted by pyanitsa | Report as abusive

This is interesting. Assad knows that using a weapon like this would bring the world down around him. Not only that, he stands no chance of seeking safe haven in a friendly country if he is ousted. Does it make sense that he would play a card like that? Turn the tables and see it from the rebel perspective: they are in a protracted conflict which has no end in sight unless the world jumps in and does their work for them. They also know that allegations of the use of a WMD would have the world removing Assad. It wouldn’t take much to believe that the rebels used a device like this purely to get Assad removed.

Posted by GreaterGood | Report as abusive

The collective illusion in America that we are a good people must be similar to what the Germans suffered under during the lead up to, and during WWII. Most Germans could not face that they were sending large number of Jews and Gypsies to gas chambers, although there were quite a few reports that such things were happening. Similarly, we have killed upwards of a million people due to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but see it as for a good cause. Similarly for our provision of chemical weapons materials to Saddam Hussein to use against Iran. Similarly in our promotion of sectarian wars in the Middle East. Similarly, our drone assassination and murder program.

Hopefully we will not have to be so completely destroyed as Germany was, so that we will finally be forced to see the truth about ourselves.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

For all you wimps screaming your cowardly angst masked in pious anti-war rhetoric: Don’t worry, Obama doesn’t have the ba11s to start a war. He’ll bluster and make a big scene. In the end, it’ll get brushed under the rug with some quick political side stepping facilitated by the state-run media to make him look like a hero in all of this.

Posted by wonderinghow | Report as abusive


I certainly hope you are right, that no war will happen!

If the US were to get involved in direct attacks on Syria, it would demonstrate to me that President Obama is at least as stupid or evil (take your pick) as former President Bush II.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive


Is being anti-war something to be ashamed of? Maybe in the crazy right wing world. And at this point we’re not even anti-war as there is no war but anti-lies, anti-deception and reacting to an article that’s a lie and an attempt to deceive the public into accepting yet another war of aggression.

You right wing zealots who are not wimps and who have ba11ls(but really bu11s**t), why didn’t you finish all seven wars you planned when George Bush and Dick Cheney were running the killing machine? Syria was right there next to Irak, why didn’t you go to war against it then?

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

The ‘evidence’ falls far short of that needed to confirm use of sarin by the Assad regime, and it is far more likely that it was used by insurgents. The author is grabbing for straws. We’ve been hearing from his type since the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. They have learned nothing. In the meantime, we have. Well, most of us anyway. There are still sheep baying like wolves.

Posted by RynoM | Report as abusive

You people truly amaze me!

Most of you can’t seem to understand what is happening even though it is staring you in the face.

I have said previously, so many hundreds of times I have lost count over the past couple of years, that the problem with this country is the Military-Industrial Complex.

THIS is proof of my assertions, which NONE of you want to deal with. If you build an economy on war — and the US for the first time in its history has become “merchants of death”, solely for profit — then war is what you will get.

How much plainer does it have to become that we are in serious trouble because of our proclivity to begin wars, all for liberty and justice and the American Way, of course.

Well, folks, the American Way has morphed into a mightly Military-Industrial Empire that will take us all down with it, not just those who have profited from it.

I LOVE saying “I told you so!”

NOW, if this incident turns out to be as ugly as it appears to be at the moment, we will have ourselves a full-blown Middle East war.

Are you happy, now?

By the way, Reuters articles aren’t even coming close to telling the truth of how bad things really are.

Here is a sample of the truth you might be interested in, unless you want to keep shoving your heads in the sand or up the rectal cavities of the powers that be who got us into this.

From Debkafile, a highly respected news source located in the ME, which a specialization in reporting military news.

“Israeli reserves called up for Syrian, Lebanese borders. Military drill starts Sunday” li-reserves-called-up-for-Syrian-Lebanes e-borders-Military-drill-starts-Sunday

By the way, if you people think this is a drill, you are even stupider than I thought you were.

Obama is desperately trying to keep us out of this, but perhaps he should have kept his mouth shut instead.

You can go around threatening people for only so long before someone calls your bluff.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

Rebels use sarin — 5/us-syria-crisis-un-idUSBRE94409Z201305 05

Posted by campoperdido | Report as abusive