Syria is one of the five countries that have not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws production, storage and use of poison gas. The U.S. now believes that President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime has used the chemical agent sarin against its own civilians.
The news isn’t all too shocking. After all, last year Syrian officials did not deny that they possessed such weapons and threatened to use them in the event of “foreign intervention” in Syria’s ongoing conflict with domestic opposition forces.
Despite all this talk about chemical weapons, how much do we really know about them? Here are 5 things you should know about chemical weapons and their use in Syria:
1. The History Of Chemical Weapons
The first recorded use of chemical weapons was by Germany. In 1915, the country used poison gas during the second battle of Ypres, resulting in an estimated 6,000 deaths. Subsequently, both Germany and the Allied Forces used this weapon in World War 1, resulting in an estimated 90,000 deaths.
Since then, Italy has used mustard gas in Ethiopia, Japan has used various gases in China, and the U.S. has used Agent Orange in Vietnam. More recently, Iraq used various gases against Iran and the Kurds in the 1980′s; the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan launched a sarin attack in the Japanese metro in 1995, and now the Assad regime has allegedly attacked its own people in Syria.
2. What Chemical Weapons Do to People
According to Mother Jones:
Chemical weapons wreak havoc on the body, but are not always lethal. Nerve and choking agents hit hardest. When you inhale a choking agent—such as chlorine gas, which was used extensively during World War I—it forces fluid into your lungs, and that basically drowns you. Nerve agents can kill within minutes, and cause twitching and seizures prior to death. Symptoms of mustard gas include skin blistering, burning eyes, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and swelling of the respiratory tract that can seal the victim’s airway. They take 2 to 24 hours to appear and are not usually lethal if adequate health care is available.
3. What Chemical Weapons Are Made of
Outlawing chemical weapons is tricky because many of the ingredients that go into making them are routinely traded internationally. The blue in denim jeans is one example; thiodiglycol is the quickest way to make mustard gas, but if it were banned, we’d have to do without those jeans. Nerve gas is basically bug spray used on people rather than bugs. Outlawing these chemicals, known as pre-cursors, is out of the question because many of them are widely used in manufacturing.
4. The Chemical Agent Allegedly Used in Syria
Sarin gas was the chemical weapon that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allegedly deployed against rebel neighborhoods in Damascus. Sarin is a vicious poison that attacks the nervous system and can kill a person in five to ten minutes.
“Just a fraction of an ounce of this stuff, of sarin, on your skin could potentially be fatal,” said CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta in an interview Thursday on ‘Piers Morgan Tonight.’ “It can be absorbed across the skin, it can be absorbed into the lungs, across the eyes. It’s pretty gruesome stuff.”
“It is so indiscriminate. It is tasteless. It is odorless. You can’t see it. And, so you don’t even know that you’ve been exposed, necessarily, until you suddenly start to get sick. And then, it starts pretty quickly and can degrade pretty quickly as well,” Gupta explained.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), exposure can result in a myriad of symptoms, including contracted, pinpoint pupils, foaming at the mouth, muscle rigidity, respiratory difficulty and failure, burning eyes, confusion, drowsiness, weakness, nausea, vomiting and other symptoms of nervous system failure.
Scientists in Nazi Germany first synthesized sarin in 1938, intending to use it as a pesticide. After discovering its potency as a human poison, even the Nazis decided it was too vicious a weapon to deploy.
5. Who Still Has Chemical Weapons
The crisis over Syria has raised fresh questions about how that country built its vast arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. Iran, Russia and North Korea have been accused of supplying Syria with materials and expertise. But back in the ’70s and ’80s, Damascus is believed to have received a helping hand from western business.
As of February 2013, Albania, India, Iraq, Libya, Russia and the United States still have declared chemical weapons stockpiles. This doesn’t count the five countries that have not signed nor ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, or nations that may have secret stockpiles.
An Impetus for War?
It is clear that chemical weapons are ghastly tools of war, but they aren’t Syria’s worst problem. According to experts, at least 100,000 people have died in Syria since the conflict began, and another 2 million are currently refugees. Of those who’ve died, just about 1,500 may have died as a result of chemical weapons.
Is launching military action against Syria the best way to respond to their use?