22 August, 2013: Syrian opposition forces have made claims that the Assad government has conducted a massive chemical weapons attack in the East Ghouta region outside of Damascus, resulting in unconfirmed death tolls ranging from the hundreds to over 1,400. Rebel forces claim that rockets with toxic agents were launched early on Wednesday as part of a major bombardment. Limited evidence based on early testimony, photography and video has concluded that the reports are accurate. If the scale of the attack is confirmed, this incident could mark the largest chemical weapons attack since the 1988 Halabja Massacre in Iraq.
Still and video imagery taken from the region of the attack depict gruesome images of rooms full of dead children, and images of young victims twitching and struggling to breath. Close-up images reveal severely constricted pupils. Experts believe that it would be nearly impossible to fake so many dead and injured, including children and babies. The symptoms appear to be in line with use of the chemical weapon sarin.
Was it Sarin?
Sarin is a man-made liquid that can be converted to gas. It was originally developed as a pesticide in Germany in 1938, but is now classified as a nerve agent. Of the known agents used in chemical warfare, nerve agents are the most toxic and fast acting. In liquid form, pure sarin is a clear, colourless, tasteless, and odourless. It mixes easily with water, which could result in contamination of drinking water or foods grown in areas exposed to the agent. However, sarin can be evaporated into vapour (sarin gas), which can be released and spread into the environment, exposing people through breathing air, or exposing the agent to skin or eyes. Sarin is a heavy gas, meaning it is likely to settle in low-lying areas, creating greater risk exposure for individuals in low lying areas. Following exposure to sarin vapour, a person’s clothing absorbs and can release sarin, resulting in the possible exposure of the gas to others. Exposure to large doses of sarin can cause convulsions, loss of consciousness, paralysis, and respiratory failure, possibly leading to death.
Doctors treating patients in the area have reported that the chemical solution contained “extremely high” concentrations of sarin, as opposed to more diluted attacks in previous months. The director of the Douma city medical office, calling himself Khaled ad-Doumi, stated “Atropine, the chemical used to curb the effects of these chemical attacks, has had only limited effects.” However, Gwyn Winfield, editor for a trade journal dedicated to unconventional weapons, does not believe that pure sarin was involved. After examining video and still images, Winfield noted the lack of mucus or saliva, stating “No doubt it’s a chemical release of some variety — and a military release of some variety … But it’s too weak for a pure sarin release.”
Still others do not believe that a nerve agent was released, but do agree that the attack was a chemical one. Michael Ellman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies says, an attack on this scale “would have had to involve a large amount of chemical agent, which means it would have had to be delivered in a very deliberate fashion, and that would be a strong indicator that it was deliberate use or not accidental use, or just spraying munitions, which may be what happened in the past – we don’t know.”
The Red Line
One year ago, the Obama administration declared a “red line” at the use of chemical weapons. In July 2012, the Syrian government admitted that Syria had stocks of chemical weapons. Opposition parties have accused the Assad regime of chemical weapons use on multiple occasions, however only a few of those attacks have been confirmed. Despite the evidence that chemical weapons were used, the US government has remained hesitant to engage in full-scale conflict over what they consider relatively small-scale incidents. The failure to react to these smaller incidents has ignited criticism from within the US government. Democrat Eliot Engel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, “If we are to salvage what remains of our credibility in the region, we must act soon.”
However, an attack on this scale could trigger outside intervention. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said that if confirmed, the attacks indicate a “shocking escalation in the use of chemical weapons in Syria.” The US and UK, along with 33 UN member states, have called for a formal United Nations investigation.
A statement from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon assured that a UN chemical weapons team in Damascus was discussing the matter with Syrian authorities. Chief U.N. Weapons Inspector Ake Sellstrom arrived in Syria on 18 August to investigate the alleged use of nerve gas in three other villages, including Khan al-Assal, where 26 people were killed in March. But it is unlikely that Syria will allow investigators to visit the East Ghouta region.
Timeliness is critical. The half-life of sarin gas is approximately 5 minutes, and other chemical weapons have a half life of approximately 30 minutes. Traces of the gas could disappear within days, and a delay in investigations means evidence of their dispersal methods could be removed. Still, while chemical experts may be able to identify the nature of the weapons used in the region, they will be unable to determine the party responsible for the attack. Some have questioned if the finding will still result in a net-zero impact.
The Syrian regime has called claims of the attack “absolutely baseless,” and insisted that the rebels either initiated the attack, or are lying to cover the number of losses they have recently experienced. Within the UN, member nations have reached a stalemate on actionable impact. China and Russia blocked the used of strong press statements condemning the Syrian government. The Russian foreign ministry has pointed out that the report coincided with the arrival the UN chemical weapons inspection team to Syria, saying, “This makes us think that we are once again dealing with a premeditated provocation.” In the past, China and Russia have vetoed UN efforts to impose penalties on Assad.
A watered down statement has been released by the UN, calling for a cessation of hostilities throughout Syria, where over 100,000 people have been killed in the past 28 months. It is uncertain how findings by UN weapons inspectors will impact international action in the region.