If You Were Gassed by Sarin Your Death Would Be Unimaginably Painful

 In ASEAN, Egypt, GDI, Defense, Air

Key Point: No wonder these weapons of war are banned. 

The res­i­dents of Khan Sheikhoun prob­a­bly thought they were in for just anoth­er ordi­nary day of civil war when they woke up early in the morn­ing of April 4 to the whine of approach­ing Syrian Air Force Su-22 attack jets. The town of around fifty thou­sand people was sit­u­at­ed west of Aleppo in Idlib Province, long a strong­hold of rebel groups oppos­ing the gov­ern­ment of Bashar al-Assad since 2011. Artillery and air attacks were a hor­ri­bly rou­tine aspect of daily life there, as they are in many parts of Syria, divid­ed by numer­ous war­ring fac­tions.

Residents later report­ed that the muni­tions dropped by the jets released clouds of poi­so­nous gas. Even this was hardly unheard of in Idlib Province. Even while Assad handed over his stock­piles of mus­tard gas and deadly nerve agents, gov­ern­ment heli­copters launched at least a dozen chlo­rine-gas attacks on com­mu­ni­ties in Idlib Province alone in 2014 and 2015. However, while chlo­rine gas causes hor­ri­fy­ing res­pi­ra­to­ry prob­lems, par­tic­u­lar­ly in chil­dren and the elder­ly, it usu­al­ly killed “only” a hand­ful of people per attack, if any.

However, res­cuers arriv­ing from out­side Khan Sheikhoun beheld an unex­pect­ed­ly night­mar­ish sight: more than six hun­dred civil­ians lying par­a­lyzed in their homes or help­less on the ground, limbs con­vuls­ing, saliva foam­ing from their noses and mouths as they gasped for breath. Local first respon­ders — the lucky ones that hadn’t died or fallen vio­lent­ly ill when arriv­ing on the scene — were fran­ti­cal­ly spray­ing the twitch­ing bodies with hoses.

These symp­toms cor­re­spond to the effects of sarin, a col­or­less, odor­less nerve agent that dis­rupts acetyl­cholinesterase, an enzyme that helps a muscle relax once it has com­plet­ed an action. By block­ing the enzyme, sarin has the effect of con­tin­u­ous­ly trig­ger­ing those mus­cles, making breath­ing effec­tive­ly impos­si­ble as well as caus­ing the break­down of other bodily func­tions, and lead­ing to the dis­charge of bodily fluids.

Though inhala­tion of the vapors is the pri­ma­ry vector of the agent, even skin con­tact can trans­mit a fatal dose of sarin to vic­tims, who may die within one to ten min­utes of expo­sure due to asphyx­i­a­tion and the loss of bodily func­tions. Those sur­viv­ing ini­tial expo­sure may suffer per­ma­nent brain damage if they do not receive swift treat­ment. Even worse, par­ti­cles of the gas cling to cloth­ing, food and water, and can remain lethal for up to thirty min­utes. That was why respon­ders were wash­ing the vic­tims with hoses.

Reports cur­rent­ly sug­gest that eighty to one hun­dred of the res­i­dents were killed, and over six hun­dred injured. On Thursday, a Turkish hos­pi­tal claimed its exam­i­na­tion of the vic­tims con­firmed the use of sarin gas.

Chemical weapons are often col­lec­tive­ly labeled weapons of mass destruc­tion, but many of them — for­tu­nate­ly — have a low fatal­i­ty rate, serv­ing prin­ci­pal­ly as weapons of terror rather than attri­tion.

Sarin and other nerve agents are a notable excep­tion. Only thirty-five mil­ligrams of sarin per cubic meter are nec­es­sary to kill a human being after two min­utes of expo­sure, com­pared to nine­teen thou­sand mil­ligrams for chlo­rine gas, or 1,500 for phos­gene gas, the dead­liest chem­i­cal weapon used in World War I. The latter invis­i­ble gas often killed those affect­ed the day after expo­sure, mean­ing it was not espe­cial­ly prac­ti­cal for achiev­ing bat­tle­field objec­tives. Mustard gas, which was highly vis­i­ble and widely feared, caused hor­ri­ble blis­ter­ing injuries on con­tact with the skin, but killed only two per­cent of those it scarred.

The first nerve agent was acci­den­tal­ly dis­cov­ered by German sci­en­tist Gerhard Schrader in 1938, who had to be hos­pi­tal­ized for three weeks after expos­ing him­self to a par­tial dose of tabun. Realizing the gas’s poten­tial as a weapon, Nazi Germany devel­oped four dif­fer­ent “G‑Series” nerve agents and pro­duced tens of thou­sands of tons of the deadly poi­sons — at the cost of a dozen work­ers, killed by con­tact with the deadly liquid despite the use of pro­tec­tive suits.

Fortunately, Hitler ulti­mate­ly shied away from using nerve agents. This wasn’t because of some deeply buried shred of decen­cy. When Hitler inquired about using sarin against the Allied powers, he was told by IG Farben chemist Otto Ambrose — who him­self had tested the gas on human sub­jects — that the Allies prob­a­bly had nerve agent stocks too, and would likely retal­i­ate on an even greater scale. This was a for­tu­nate mis­per­cep­tion, as the Allies did not pos­sess any nerve agents at all and were com­plete­ly unaware the Germans had them.

After World War II, both the Soviet Union and Western nations stud­ied up on the German poi­sons and devel­oped even dead­lier “V” series nerve agents, most notably the VX gas rather inac­cu­rate­ly depict­ed in the 1996 film The Rock. However, the taboo against using lethal chem­i­cal weapons on the bat­tle­field was mostly respect­ed — with some notable excep­tions.

Egypt dropped mus­tard and phos­gene gas from Il-28 bombers over vil­lages in North Yemen between 1963 and 1968, killing an esti­mat­ed 1,500 people. Nerve agents may also have been used by Vietnamese troops in Cambodia, Cuban troops in Angola and the Pinochet regime in Chile. Iraq unleashed mus­tard and sarin gas during the Iran-Iraq War on poorly armed Iranian mili­tias exe­cut­ing human wave attacks. Then on March 16, 1988, Iraqi air­craft bombed the Kurdish town of Halabja with a mix­ture of both gasses, mas­sacring between three and five thou­sand people in just five hours.

As my col­league Paul Iddon point­ed out in a recent arti­cle, there’s a common thread in the use of chem­i­cal weapons since World War I: they’re nearly always used by gov­ern­ments against vic­tims that lack the abil­i­ty to retal­i­ate in kind.

Even as far back as World War I, the oppos­ing armies suc­cess­ful­ly phased in train­ing and equip­ment that lim­it­ed the effec­tive­ness of chem­i­cal weapons. Whenever one side employed a new type of gas, the other soon copied it and retal­i­at­ed. Chemical attacks failed to change the out­come of a single major battle, despite their hor­ri­fy­ing effects. Even worse, unpre­dictable winds fre­quent­ly blew the poi­so­nous clouds back onto friend­ly troops or towards civil­ians, who were much less well pre­pared to deal with them. That explains why many armies oth­er­wise bristling with more and more deadly weapons aren’t beg­ging to bring gas war­fare back.

As early as 1925, the Geneva Protocol banned the use of chem­i­cal weapons in inter­na­tion­al con­flicts, and was suc­ceed­ed in 1993 by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which fur­ther for­bade their stock­pil­ing and pro­duc­tion. (Syria is a sig­na­to­ry to the former but not the latter.) The United States renounced first use of chem­i­cal weapons in 1969 under Nixon, and then com­mit­ted itself to destroy­ing its stock­piles under George H. W. Bush in 1991 — a process which was report­ed­ly 89 per­cent com­plete in 2012.

Syria came to the brink of war with the United States after a sarin gas attack on August 2013 that killed hun­dreds of Syrians in Ghouta, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. It was a clear vio­la­tion of the inter­na­tion­al taboo against chem­i­cal weapons (which Syria denied even pos­sess­ing at the time), and more specif­i­cal­ly, the “red line” threat made by President Obama. However, Russia bro­kered a deal in which Assad pledged to give up his mil­i­tary-grade chem­i­cal arms in order to avert a U.S. attack. The process of destroy­ing nearly six hun­dred tons of mus­tard, sarin and VX gas was offi­cial­ly com­plet­ed in August 2014, and involved many inter­na­tion­al observers and con­trac­tors.

However, this did not bring a halt to gov­ern­ment air attacks using chlo­rine gas to ter­ror­ize rebel-held com­mu­ni­ties. Because of its broad civil­ian appli­ca­tions, there is no way to “ban” chlo­rine. Syrian rebels — mostly, but not exclu­sive­ly, belong­ing to ISIS — have also occa­sion­al­ly launched rock­ets laden with chlo­rine or mus­tard gas on gov­ern­ment-held ter­ri­to­ry in Syria and even Iraq.

Meanwhile, there were per­sis­tent rumors that the Syrian army’s destruc­tion of its chem­i­cal stocks was less than com­pre­hen­sive, and that the Assad regime had hidden away small quan­ti­ties to serve as a future deter­rent. International inspec­tors also report­ed dis­cov­er­ing trace quan­ti­ties of sarin, VX and ricin in facil­i­ties that had not been listed as stor­ing chem­i­cal weapons by the Syrian gov­ern­ment.

Damascus admit­ted to launch­ing the airstrike on Khan Sheikhoun with Su-22 fight­er-bombers, but main­tains its war­planes did not use chem­i­cal muni­tions. Predictably, Moscow claimed the chem­i­cal attack was the opposition’s fault, alleg­ing Syrian bombs had hit a rebel chem­i­cal-weapons work­shop. This was far from the first time the allied gov­ern­ments have advanced some vari­ant of the clas­sic “they bombed them­selves” defense in regards to chem­i­cal attacks that mostly land in rebel ter­ri­to­ry.

However, chem­i­cal-arms experts don’t buy it, point­ing out that even if oppo­si­tion fight­ers had some­how man­aged to pro­duce and store sarin agents with the binary pre­cur­sors side by side for rapid use, blow­ing them up with a bomb would simply not have dis­persed the gases to such mur­der­ous effect. They argue that such a deadly attack could only have been car­ried out by prop­er­ly deployed chem­i­cal muni­tions.

It is vital that the Syrian Civil War not lead to a fur­ther break­down in inter­na­tion­al norms against chem­i­cal war­fare, result­ing in their more fre­quent use in con­flicts across the world. Chemical weapons have repeat­ed­ly proven to be inher­ent­ly indis­crim­i­nate terror weapons, and have killed far more civil­ians than com­bat­ants in the Syrian con­flict.

Source: National Interest

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