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article imageOp-Ed: Was it sarin gas or something else in Syria?

By Stephen Morgan     May 1, 2013 in World
During the last week, there have been many reports in the media about possible chemical attacks in Syria. After wavering on the question for days, Obama changed tack yesterday and stated that the US now has evidence that chemical weapons have been used.
Many people are understandably skeptical and suspicious after the lies over weapons of mass destruction made by Bush to justify the invasion of Iraq and fear that this issue could be an excuse for militarily intervention. However, regardless of whether this issue is being manipulated, what is the likelihood that chemical weapons have actually been used?
Yesterday, Anne Sewell reported for Digital Journal about a video made by a Syrian man claiming that he had new evidence of a chemical attack in Idlib. The chemical agent thought to have been used is sarin, a nerve gas with deadly effects, which quickly manifest themselves as frothing at the mouth, miosis or pinpoint pupils, muscle spasms and difficulty breathing, leading quickly to death. The videos from Syria definitely show victims with similar symptoms and doctors reports of patients' illnesses back this up.
However, like others in Aleppo and Homs, the person in the video talks of seeing a “cloud of gas" and smelling a bad odor. This description doesn't match with what is known about certain features of sarin gas. Sarin is described as being both odorless and colorless. It doesn't create a cloud, but its does give off a vapor which stays close to the ground. Obviously, this seems to undermine the credibility of the reports and rule out the possibility that it was sarin. Nevertheless, perhaps we shouldn't jump to conclusions too quickly. The reports don't necessarily rule out a chemical attack, it may just suggest that another chemical was used or that it wasn't pure sarin.
We also need to take into account that the reports were made in the heat of the moment, while many people were panicking. We know very well that people, who are witnesses to a murder or violent crime often give contradictory accounts of what happened and different descriptions of the suspect, but that doesn't mean a murder didn't take place. People also see what they expect to see, in that they make sense of events through unconscious, preconceived notions of what it would be like. So some of the witnesses of the chemical attacks may have thought they saw clouds of gas or smelt an odor, when there wasn't any. But again, that doesn't mean that a chemical attack didn't occur. It could actually mean that it really was sarin, but they were hallucinating or it might still prove it wasn't sarin, but impure sarin or another chemical.You can't really say. Therefore, testimonies shouldn't be considered as definitive proof.
So one possibility is that the gas was a derivative or a mix of sarin with another chemical substance or a different nerve agent all together. It isn't easy to say, because most have very similar effects on victims. Back in January this year, the New Yorker looked into the first claims of such an attack in Homs. Having listened to the reports from witnesses, the publication posed the question, “So was the gas used in Homs akin to sarin? No and yes...there are similar chemicals out there that cause the same symptoms but are not nearly as potent and do have an odor. They are orgaonphosphate pesticides, which happen to be among the most common pesticides in the world.... They can cause symptoms identical to their military counterparts, including death, and are treatable with atropine." An article in the Global Post yesterday says that, “most of the victims survived, which would not likely be the outcome of a sarin attack in a confined environment.” That might be because, it was made from one of these pesticides instead.
But even if there weren't many casualties, that still doesn't prove it wasn't sarin. It is true that a minute amount can be deadly, but you have to take into account the circumstances in which an attack happens in detail - inside or outside, the wind and weather, the number of people in the direct vicinity, etc, etc. I understand that the attacks in Aleppo and elsewhere took place in the open air, not in a “confined space” and, moreover, sarin is known to dissipate very quickly in the air, more than any other nerve agent.
To have a better idea of what effects sarin can have on a civilian population, the only incidents we can compare Syria with is the terrorist attack in Tokyo in 1994 and the attack on Halabja in Iraq in 1988. It is worth noting that the sarin gas attack carried out by the Japanese Aum Shinrokyo cult on the Tokyo subway was in an extremely confined space in the underground metro network with little air circulation compared to ground level. In that attack, 27 people died and up to a thousand were made sick. The attackers carried the sarin in plastic bags wrapped in newspaper, entered a number of different metro trains and then punctured the bags with umbrella points. As a consequence, the sarin leaked out into the train carriages and also onto the platforms of stations, where the trains stopped.
However, the testimonies of witnesses sound much like those in Syria, including the question of whether sarin is really odorless. A report of the attack quotes some people at the scene, who survived.
“An Irishman who boarded the Hibuya line train told Time that the package released a liquid that formed "a pool of oily water on the floor. I noticed this quite offensive smell that I can't really describe."
“Kasumasa Takahashi, a 50-year-old salaryman, entered a subway car filled with poison gas and picked up a 6-inch-high package spewing out the foul-smelling stuff and wrapped it in newspaper and carried it to the platform.”
Therefore, it would seem that, firstly, sarin can smell under certain conditions and we shouldn't discount the testimonies on this basis. Indeed, a description of sarin in the US Army Study Guide says “Odor: Almost none when pure.” Secondly, the argument discounting sarin in Syria because “most of the victims survived,” doesn't hold water either. Even in an extremely confined and crowded place like the Tokyo metro, only 27 people died. Thousands of potential victims survived, though there was no doubt that it was sarin. Therefore, it seems quite plausible that, if it had indeed been a sarin attack, a lot fewer people would die and many others suffer less severe symptoms in the open air in Syria.
The evidence from the attack on Halabja, by Saddam Hussein's forces also suggests that it takes quite a lot of effort and quite a large amount of chemicals to cause deaths in the thousands under normal conditions. Somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 people were killed in Halabja and 7,000 to 10,000 injured. The reports show that a lot more than a canister or even a few artillery shells were necessary for casualties on such a scale.
At the time, the BBC reported that up to 20 aircraft were seen in the skies at about 11.00 that morning and the attack lasted five-hours, with Iraqi MiG and Mirage fighter jets “dropping chemical bombs on Halabja's residential areas.” It quotes Kurdish rebel commanders, who said “there were up to 14 aircraft sorties, with seven to eight planes in each group” “Eyewitnesses” it continues “told of clouds of smoke billowing upward "white, black and then yellow"', rising as a column about 150 feet (46 m) in the air.
However, in order to have such a horrific effect and cause so many deaths, Hussein didn't only use sarin. The BBC said that “According to experts, the chemicals dropped by the planes may have included mustard gas, the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX and possibly cyanide.” Amazingly, some people survived even this. Therefore, the fact that one canister didn't cause major causalities in Aleppo doesn't confirm that a chemical weapon wasn't used.
The article in the New Yorker also makes the point that, "If the chemical used in Homs was a commercial pesticide, then it appears that someone has manufactured a crude, poor-man’s chemical weapon out of a commonly available item.”
The idea that it was a “crude, poor-man’s chemical weapon out of a commonly available item” could give credence to the claim that chemical weapons have also been used by the rebels. That certainly could not be ruled out. One could easily imagine that Al Qaeda in Syria wouldn't have any qualms about using chemical weapons. There have been suggestions that chemical weapons could even have been used during in-fighting between the different rebels groups themselves.
However, some people have discounted the alleged chemical attacks in Aleppo and elsewhere by saying that it would have to have been delivered by a missile or a spray-tank and not the grenade-like devises, which have been shown as evidence. But, if the rebels are equally suspect, then this would mean that they would also have the sophisticated facilities and technicians capable of assembling missile heads armed with chemical agents and spray tanks. That doesn't seem to be the case.
On the other hand, Tokyo actually shows that you don't need a sophisticated system to disseminate it. But that still doesn't mean it's the rebels who are using chemical weapons. Assad's army and paramilitaries could be doing so, therefore, the argument is inconclusive. Assad forces could be experimenting with chemicals, which are less easily identifiable than sarin or are mixed with it. Indeed, people are talking more and more about a “Sarin-like chemical” or “something similar to Sarin.”
Sarin gas is not immutable and it can be modified. Indeed there are two different versions or very similar nerve agents with the same effect and so there is no reason to believe that new variants haven't also been developed secretly. That's what Assad's chemical warfare program was designed to do. For example, there is cyclosarin, which is, in fact, twice as toxic as normal sarin and works the same way and there is soman gas, which is very similar to sarin, but works incredibly faster. Assad is known to also have another deadly gas called VX.
Clearly, there are so many contradictions in the arguments being used that they are unlikely to get us to the truth. In the end, it seems that the only conclusive evidence of a chemical attack can come from the scene through soil and water samples. Better still, that should be done by an outside, independent investigation on the ground. Unfortunately, Assad is refusing to let such a group from the UN into the country.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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