Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Syrian Government Used Sarin

Posted by butalidnl on 5 September 2013

I have been following the news on Syria, and have noted that some of my (political) friends rejected the possible US military action in Syria. I understand the sentiment. The US had intervened in many places of the world, with all kinds of negative results. I can understand the natural reaction to reject yet another US military intervention.

But, while I understand the anti-US sentiment, I do not share the Russian view that either: no chemical weapons were used; or worse, that the rebels were the ones who used them.
I believe that the Syrian government used nerve gas against its people on 21 August 2013, that killed from 355 to more than 1700 people in 5 Damascus suburbs.

Rocket Science. A British Parliamentarian declared during their debate on Syria that “making sarin is not rocket scinece”.  Ironically, his statement is correct. Making sarin is actually MORE DIFFICULT that rocket science. While many countries and even some individuals have made rockets, only a few states and one non-state group has succeeded in making sarin.

While the Aum Shinrikyo sect in Japan succeeded in manufacturing sarin gas, in 1995, and used it to kill 13 people in the Tokyo metro system; no other terrorist group has done so since then. If making sarin gas was so easy; then, why is it that Al Qaeda has not succeeded in making it inspite of all their motivation to do so?

Many people don’t realize how difficult it is to manufacture sarin gas. While the chemical formula for sarin and its precursors are known, all the chemicals to make sarin precursors are strictly banned by the International Chemical Weapons Convention. There are no legal ways of obtaining these chemicals.
Then, you need to know how to mix the ingredients, including how to avoid getting killed in the process.  If a little sarin gas escapes in the process of making it, everybody near it will die.
And lastly, you need to make a delivery system for it – so that many people will die from it. One way is to put the precursors in an artillery shell, in such a way that they mix properly after the shell is fired, so that sarin gas comes out on impact.
Aum Shinrikyo only managed to kill a total of 13 people in three attacks on the Tokyo metro because they did not have a proper delivery system.

Sarin gas is very dangerous. A very small amount of it will kill a person. It works by stopping the body’s capacity to relax muscles: the heart, after beating, must relax before it can beat again; the lungs need to relax after taking a breath, before you can breath again.

Synchronized attack w/ many shells. Sarin is a very convenient gas for the Syrian military to use, especially against the particular neighbourhoods attacked.  Rebels had successfully repelled army attacks for more than a year in house to house fighting. The army hoped that sarin will kill them off wherever they hid.
Sarin kills quickly, and disperses quickly. But the army didn’t want sarin spilling over to their troops; because it kills not only upon breathing, but also on contact (i.e. through the skin) – meaning that gas masks do not fully protect them from it.

In the 21 August incident, a lot of shells were used against each of the targetted neighbourhoods – with each shell having a relatively small amount of sarin.  This was done in order to keep the effects of the gas within relatively small areas (because some neighbouring areas were sympathetic to the government).
It goes beyond belief to think that the rebels had a large stockpile of sarin shells, and the logistical capacity to deploy them to hit five different neighbourhoods simultaneously.

The flaw in the Syrian army’s thinking is that they assumed that sarin disperses quickly. And that all the government had to do is to delay the entry of chemical inspectors for a few days while the sarin dissipates. But while sarin does dissipate quickly in the air;  it stays longer in the bodies of people it kills or injures. Blood and tissue samples of victims and survivors will show traces of sarin breakdown products at least for a couple of weeks after the attack.

Rebels have ‘chemical weapons’. They probably do. I would be extremely surprised if the rebels had not manufactured or used some kinds of ‘chemical weapons’ against the Syrian army. However, this would be limited by the conditions of the battlefield.

The Syrian army had complained that their soldiers had irritated eyes and were forced to cough etc when they attacked some rebel positions. I believe this to be true.But, irritated eyes and coughing are more likely symptoms of a tear gas attack, and not of sarin.  The rebels would most likely have captured tear gas from the government forces and even spiked these with some additional irritants.

Another thing that the rebels could have done was to use incendiary chemicals such as white phosphorus and napalm against Syrian troops. These weapons are available from many countries.  White phosphorus could also be used for making smoke screens. While these weapons could burn enemy soldiers,  the Chemical Weapons Convention only prohibits their use against civilians.

The countries which currently supply weapons to the Syrian rebels (i.e. Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Qatar) do not have sarin or other nerve agents. They could not have given it to them.

What now? So, by the process of elimination – i.e. the rebels could not have made sarin, could not have received sarin from others, nor could have manufactured or stolen so many rockets or shells loaded with sarin. Nor did they have the logistical capacity to fire these shells into five different suburbs simultaneously.
This leaves us with the only possible conclusion, which is that the Syrian military did use sarin against civilians on 21 August 2013.

But knowing that the Syrian government did it, does automatically call for an immediate US military strike on Syria. The UN process could still be played out first. The UN must first prove that a sarin attack did occur.
If the chemical weapon inspectors prove conclusively that sarin was used, and that it killed hundreds of people; the Syrian government is the only possible culprit. THEN, there would be an international legal basis for a military strike, with or without Russia’s consent. But only then.
And Al-Assad should eventually be tried for violating the Chemical Weapons Convention, as well as for other crimes against humanity.

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