Sarin: The lethal fog of war

By Leonard A. Cole
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

25 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

@wonderinghow:

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

@woderinghow

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”

http://www.debka.com/article/22938/Israe 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