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What We Know, What We Don't

Sarin in Syria

by MANUEL GARCIA, JR.

A cruel and heart-rending civil war rages in Syria, and this tragedy is fueling a heated political debate in the rest of the world between interventionists (whether sincere R2P humanitarians, or opportunistic imperialists) and non-interventionists.

Syrians opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad battle to overthrow the government with the help of weapons supplied by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, who are apparently assisted by the CIA in effecting the arms transfers. Syrian government forces seek to eradicate the rebellion with the military help of Iranian troops, Lebanon’s Hezbollah organization, and the technical support of Russia, and the moral support of China.

The Syrian government has a chemical weapons arsenal that includes bombs that disperse the nerve toxin sarin as a gas and aerosols. Inconclusive reports that sarin has been dispersed in populated areas in Syria have inflamed the debates, both public and inside governments, about a potential foreign military intervention in Syria.

Did the military forces commanded by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad use chemical weapons (whether Sarin, Tabun and VX vapors and aerosols, or mustard gas) against the armed rebellion or against civilians?

Did rebel forces in Syria surreptitiously release a small amount of sarin (or other chemical) in a populated area to create a war-crimes incident that could plausibly be blamed on the Assad regime, to help precipitate a foreign intervention by the United Nations and the United States, which would favor the rebellion?

Did agents of governments opposed to the Assad regime, perhaps from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or elsewhere, mount a covert operation to release sarin in Syria to establish a pretext for a foreign military intervention in support of the Syrian rebellion?

These questions can be further elaborated on the many imagined details about Syrian sarin chemical weapons: their production (by the government or the rebels?, made where?), or procurement (what foreign suppliers to Syria?, did the rebels capture some Syrian chemical weapons or industrial plants?), the size of stockpiles and their locations (and under whose control?), and the delivery systems (artillery shells, missile warheads, aerial bombs, agricultural aerosol sprayers, the poisoning of water supplies with liquid sarin?). The murkiness obscuring such basic facts, which are necessary to understand who is doing what to whom in Syria with sarin (probably), is so thick that even so well-informed an insider as President Barack Obama is forced to describe his view as almost completely vaporous:

“What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them… If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we can find ourselves in a position where we can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do.” (April 30, 2013, bloomberg.com)

Also, in answer to reporters’ questions Obama said:

“What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside Syria. What we don’t know is who used them. We don’t have a chain of custody. Without evidence of what happened, how can I make a decision what to do? I have got to make sure I have got the facts. If we rush to judgment without hard evidence we will find ourselves in a position where we cannot mobilise the international community for what we have to do. It is important that we do this in a prudent way.” (May 1, 2013, guardian.co.uk)

What is sarin? Why would Syria have it? Why worry about it?

Sarin (quoting from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarin till noted),

or GB, is an organophosphorus compound with the formula [(CH3)2CHO]CH3P(O)F. It is a colorless, odorless liquid, used as a chemical weapon owing to its extreme potency as a nerve agent. It has been classified as a weapon of mass destruction in UN Resolution 687. Production and stockpiling of sarin was outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 where it is classified as a Schedule 1 substance.

 

Sarin was discovered in 1938… by German scientists attempting to create stronger pesticides; it is the most toxic of the four G-agents made by Germany. The compound, which followed the discovery of the nerve agent Tabun, was named in honor of its discoverers: Schrader, Ambros, Rüdiger and Van der Linde.

 

It is prepared from methylphosphonyl difluoride and a mixture of isopropyl alcohol.

 

CH3P(O)F2 + (CH3)2CHOH → [(CH3)2CHO]CH3P(O)F + HF

 

Isopropylamine is added to neutralize the hydrogen fluoride generated during this alcoholysis reaction.

 

As a binary chemical weapon, [sarin] can be generated in situ by this same reaction.

 

Sarin cannot be manufactured from pesticides.

 

Like other nerve agents, sarin attacks the nervous system. Sarin is estimated to be over 500 times more toxic than cyanide. The [lethal dose] of subcutaneously injected sarin in mice is 172 μg/kg. [A proportionate dose for a 70 kg (154 pound) human would be 12 milligrams (0.42 milli-ounce)]. Initial symptoms following exposure to sarin are a runny nose, tightness in the chest and constriction of the pupils. Soon after, the victim has difficulty breathing and experiences nausea and drooling. As the victim continues to lose control of bodily functions, the victim vomits, defecates and urinates. This phase is followed by twitching and jerking. Ultimately, the victim becomes comatose and suffocates in a series of convulsive spasms. Death [is ultimately a result of] the inability of the muscles involved in breathing to function.

In the political tectonics of the Middle East, Syria is a small fragment squeezed on all sides by ponderous forces. It is bounded on the north by Turkey, on the east by Iraq, on the south by Jordan, on the southwest by Israel (at the Golan Heights), on the west by Lebanon, and further north on the west by the Mediterranean Sea. Recall that Saudi Arabia lies south of Jordan and Iraq, and that Iran lies east of Iraq.

With Cold War American allies Turkey and Jordan north and south, previously uncertain neighbor Iraq to the east, and the mighty nuclear-armed American co-dependency state of Israel just over the hill southwest of Syria’s capitol Damascus, chemical weapons were an obvious choice for an affordable and credible Syrian deterrent to potential aggressors. Relatively speaking, the international controls on nuclear materials are quite good and the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology is limited as compared to that of chemical and biological weapons. The technology of chemical warfare is that of the chemical and petroleum-refining industries. The technology of biological warfare (“public health in reverse”) is more delicate and thus difficult to maintain in primitive settings or warring areas; it is that of drug and biochemical research and development, and then industrial-scale drug manufacture.

Weapons of mass destruction may be politically useful as deterrents but they are very problematic as actual tactical options. The discharge of debilitating irritant and lethal poison gas munitions during World War I was never very effective despite being used against static troop concentrations arrayed along trenches, because of the shifting, nonuniform transport and dissipation of the gas clouds (mustard gas, chlorine and phosgene being the most notorious). Also, each combatant soon found that a change in the wind could result in the gassing of their own troops. So, though Syria could fire sarin-loaded shells at the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and perhaps temporarily repatriate them, it would obviously open itself to retaliation by similar methods, or worse. And, as in WWI, the capricious wind might foil the initial attack. A Syrian government that believed it had any kind of future — even if only an escape — would not initiate chemical warfare, but if it was driven to extremes and convinced it was doomed then it could see its chemical weapons as a means of inflicting a parting vengeance on its victory-bound enemies. Syria undoubtedly gained its initial chemical weapons capability from the USSR, which also supplied it (and many other countries) with its Scud (SS-1) tactical ballistic missiles.

Laura Smith-Spark of CNN reported:

Syria had always denied having chemical weapons. But last July [2012], then-Foreign Minister Jihad Makdissi confirmed for the first time that Damascus has “unconventional” weapons, but vowed they “would never be used against civilians or against the Syrian people during this crisis at any circumstance… All the stocks of these weapons that the Syrian Arab Republic possesses are monitored and guarded by the Syrian army. These weapons are meant to be used only and strictly in the event of external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic.” Makdissi… has since fled to the United States as a refugee, according to the U.S. envoy to Syria, Robert Ford. (March 22, 2013, CNN)

Quoting from Wikipedia:

In September 2012, the Syrian military began moving its chemical weapons from Damascus to the port city of Tartus. That same month, it was reported that the military had restarted testing of chemical weapons at a base on the outskirts of Aleppo. On 28 September, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated that the Syrian regime had moved its chemical weapons in order to “secure” them from approaching opposition forces. It emerged that the Russian government had helped set up communications between the United States and Syria regarding the status of Syria’s chemical weapons. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Syria had given the United States “explanations” and “assurances” that it was taking care of the weapons.

According to The Hindu:

Addressing the American media [at a UN General Assembly meeting on 28 September 2012] Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov… said that Moscow had helped the American experts to establish contact with the Syrians on the subject of chemical weapons. “I hope I won’t disclose any big secret, but we have helped American experts establish contact with the Syrians on this issue, and we have received explanations and assurances that the Syrian government is guarding these facilities in the best possible way,” said Mr. Lavrov, as reported by Russia Today.

From Wikipedia:

On 8 December, it was reported that members of the jihadist Al-Nusra Front had recently captured a Saudi-owned toxic chemicals plant outside of Aleppo. Allegations that chemical weapons have been used in Syria first began to emerge on 23 December 2012, when Al Jazeera released unconfirmed reports that a gas attack killed 7 civilians in the rebel-held al-Bayyada neighborhood of Homs.

But who was gassing whom with what? With the erosion of Assad regime authority, rebel forces may have captured arsenals of police weapons and riot-control gear (non-lethal incapacitating gases — if properly used — like Agent 15, or 3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate), and used them ineptly or maliciously. In late April 2012:

“Rebel video showed small canisters it said held a poison gas and footage of a clinic with several people lying on cots wearing oxygen masks or vomiting into trash cans. State television carried a news flash saying the rebels had mixed a weapon with a chemical powder and used it in attacks then blamed on Assad’s forces. … It is difficult to determine what weapon might have caused widespread cases of choking and sometimes death, as a UN observation team trying to examine alleged sites of attacks has been stalled. Some potent mixes of tear gas can also cause severe choking, vomiting and death.”

If sarin-loaded weapons, whether from government stocks or amateurish improvisations (Chem-IEDs), are on the loose in Syria then this is a matter of genuine concern to the rest of the world. This realization was painfully visited on the Japanese, who suffered from two sarin attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo apocalyptic cult, in Matsumoto in Nagano prefecture in 1994, and in the Tokyo subway system in 1995. The total casualties from the Aum Shinrikyo attacks were 21 dead, 254 injured and between 900 and 5000 others affected. Aum Shinrikyo was “the most ambitious known effort to date of a terrorist group seeking to acquire [and use] chemical and biological weapons.” (July 2011, http://www.cnas.org/files/documents/publications/CNAS_AumShinrikyo_Danzig_1.pdf)

Chemical terrorism is pollution on steroids. So, the hunt is on to determine (and politically exploit) the facts about the allegations of sarin use in Syria.

From Reuters:

Turkey is testing blood samples taken from Syrian casualties brought over the border from fighting in recent days to determine whether they were victims of a chemical weapons attack, local government and health officials said on Wednesday [1 May 2013]… Britain last week confirmed it had “limited but persuasive” information showing chemical weapons use in Syria, including sarin, evidence that the Foreign Office now says is “physiological” – from the bodies of chemical attack victims… A Foreign Office spokesman said it was likely that Syria, and not the rebels, would be behind any such attack, and Britain added that it was working with the United Nations to harden up evidence of whether chemical weapons had been used.

From the Washington Post:

“A few days ago, a little-known Swedish scientist with a career devoted to studying lethal warfare agents paid a quiet visit to London. He was there to examine evidence that British officials believe shows that Syrian forces used chemical weapons against their own people. Ake Sellstrom’s confidential mission marked the first stage in a fledgling U.N. investigation into claims that the nerve agent sarin was used in battles in at least three Syrian cities since December [2012]. The inquiry has once again thrust the United Nations into the center of a hunt for weapons of mass destruction.”

Any military expedition to secure Syrian chemical weapons would face determined resistance from both Syrian government forces and rebel groups that wanted them. Such an invasion would be messy, cumbersome, extended and sustain casualties:

“Pentagon planners have been putting together military options for the president to consider in dealing with Syria’s chemical weapons. Analysts say none of those scenarios is simple or straightforward – as they could involve the deployment of tens of thousands of troops, a high risk of contamination, and a likely large-scale escalation of the conflict.”

The magnitude of these negative potentialities is such that President Obama has so far very publicly excluded initiating any overt interventionist action. The preferred US method of intervention is by massive aerial bombardment, which would be highly counterproductive because: the exact locations of Syrian chemical weapons depots (whosever’s) are unknown, bombing such depots would release lethal contamination widely over populated areas, indiscriminate and inaccurate aerial bombardment will inevitably kill innocent civilians (by either explosions or sarin poisoning) and amplify popular opposition to the interventionists.

All of these would be difficulties to interventionist ground troops dispatched to find and physically secure chemical munitions. Arming the rebels with heavier gauge weaponry, so they defeat the Assad forces (quickly?) and thus become the Syrian government and capture the national chemical weapons arsenal “for us,” is not guaranteed to ensure a perfect nonproliferation of Syrian chemical weapons. The various groups in the rebel coalition are only united by their opposition to the Assad regime, otherwise they are competitors for control of the Syrian state and its arsenals. If one considers the radical members of the rebel coalition to comprise an Aum Shinrikyo type of militia, then the negative potentialities of significantly increasing rebel firepower become clear. The idea of micromanaging rebel coalition politics and selecting groups to arm and act as US proxies, and groups to suppress and eliminate, is as likely to succeed as herding feathers or mailing the ocean. (May 2, 2013, juancole.com)

Assuming the facts about sarin in Syria become evident and public, then we will probably be able to estimate how each of the political entities immersed in the heat of the Syrian crucible, whether by happenstance or choice, will appeal to them so as to justify advancing its own overall political agenda. I cannot possibly give a clear picture of what such a spectrum of political policies might be. However, I offer the following list of seven types of economic, political and security concerns that may affect the policy-making calculus of each player in the Syrian “great game.”

Seven areas of concern and competition regarding the Syrian Civil War are:

1. Syrian popular aspirations for a non-authoritarian state.

2. Radical Islamists’ ambitions to capture the Syrian state, and impose their vision on a national population.

3. Washington-consensus ambitions to capture the Syrian state by proxy, and impose some variety of its overall vision on another national population.

4.  Competition between Syria and Israel (by asymmetrical methods) for influence in Lebanon, and regionally.

5. Competition between the Sunni oil powers of the Persian Gulf led by Saudi Arabia, and the Shia political arc spanning from Iran west through Iraq (Shia-dominated Maliki government), Syria (Assad regime with Alawite elite) and Lebanon (with a very powerful Hezbollah presence).

6.  Westbound oil pipeline rivalry between Turkey and Syria: from Central Asia and the Caucasus through Turkey to the West, versus from Iran and Iraq through Syria to the Mediterranean.

7.  World public safety concern to prevent chemical weapons proliferation, especially to sub-state and insurgent groups. This includes Russian and Chinese security concerns to prevent restiveness and terrorism from arising in the Muslim populations in their Caucasus or Central Asian regions (and probably also Tibet), or the countries bordering them.

Despite the overwhelmingly sympathetic worldwide sentiment for the popular effort among the Syrian people to unyoke themselves from authoritarianism, the six other considerations listed above have so far combined to make a UN military intervention into Syria (whether by a NATO or non-NATO combined force) improbable. That might change if a credible finding is made that control of Syrian sarin and other chemical weapons stockpiles has been lost. The case for such a military invasion would have to be very strong indeed, because the operation to secure Syrian chemical weapons (and any possible chem-IEDs) would be unavoidably costly in terms of human life, both Syrian and interventionist.

The only suggestions I can offer regarding US policy toward Syria are these five items:

1. Support UN relief operations on behalf of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.

2.  To President Obama: be very very skeptical of Pentagonal optimism. Whatever the estimate, it will always be pi (3.14159…) times worse.

3. Develop a combined US-Russian diplomatic effort to influence Bashar al-Assad to:

- not use chemical weapons,

- allow Russian inspectors to inventory and monitor the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal,

- not resist Russian troops securing biological and chemical weapons if the Syrian Army falters,

- begin negotiations on a ceasefire agreement with the rebel coalition (perhaps via intermediaries),

- accept that a future Syrian state would have to allow for power-sharing through elections,

- accept being a political leader of a party participating in Syrian multi-party politics,

- exchange the chemical weapons arsenal for personal security and subsequent political viability.

4. Any such US-Russian diplomatic effort to silence the guns of the Syrian Civil War might have to include immunities against prosecution by the International Criminal Court for Bashar al-Assad, his ministers and commanders, as well the leaders and commanders of the rebel forces. In any case, plans should be drawn for internationally-supported future Syrian social programs to alleviate the trauma of the surviving victims of the Syrian Civil War and its war crimes. Additionally, the rebel groups might have to be strong-armed into accepting a negotiated settlement with the Assad regime (item 3, above), and this in turn might require the elimination of recalcitrant rebel groups by US- and Saudi-led forces (and Iran?).

5.  The US could also make the bold (and wise) decision to use this proposed Joint US-Russian Diplomatic Intervention In Syria as a vehicle to initiate secret face-to-face talks with the government of Iran, initially on the issue of a Syrian ceasefire and the securing (and ultimate destruction, one would hope) of Syrian chemical weapons. Iran should have a bitter distaste for chemical weapons, thanks to Saddam Hussein. Perhaps other contentious issues could eventually be approached.

Contemplation of the horrible potentialities that might come to pass anywhere in the world as a result of the free circulation of sarin chemical weapons from Syria, or from malicious improvisation, may focus enough minds to cooperate on non-violent alternatives that resolve as many of the interlacing conflicts of the Syrian Civil War as possible.

As suggested above, one possible resolution to the Syrian Civil War would be for international unanimity to assure the security and political survivability of the Bashar al-Assad faction as one political party in a Syrian multi-party power-sharing successor state, in exchange for immediately bringing Syria into compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 (CWC): a viable political future in exchange for destruction of Syrian chemical weapons (and ideally biological weapons also, though they are not covered by the CWC).

“Currently 188 of the 196 states recognized by the United Nations are party to the CWC. Of the eight states that are not, two have signed but not yet ratified the treaty (Burma and Israel) and six states have not signed the treaty (Angola, North Korea, Egypt, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria).” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemical_Weapons_Convention).

The world is nearly unanimous in its concern for public safety by the elimination of chemical weapons, so it may be possible to base a united (and minimally violent) approach to quelling the Syrian Civil War on that basis.

The time for coordinated international discipline and better diplomacy on Syria is now. On May 3rd the Israeli Air Force bombed a Syrian weapons convoy bound for Hezbollah, and on May 5th it bombed the Scientific Studies and Research Centre in Jamraya near Damascus. Huge explosions and fires were reported at both sites. What if the convoy and research center had held chemical weapons?

Manuel García, Jr., mangogarcia@att.net, was a professional physicist for three decades and is now an independent writer. He can be reached at: mangogarcia@att.net