Haaretz has reported that Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad has used sarin gas against Islamic State forces near Damascus. The militants were thought to be attacking key air bases vital to the regime’s survival.
Sarin and other chemical agent were banned in most nations by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria acceded to in 2013. Chemical weapons are widely regarded as weapons of mass destruction and there is a taboo surrounding their use. Even nations like the United States, China, Israel and Russia, who generally do not sign treaties banning weapons, have signed the CWC.
Nerve agents like sarin attack the central nervous system, blocking the breakdown of a molecule called acetylcholine. Without this molecule, muscles cannot properly respond to nerve signals. Even in extremely small doses, sarin is capable of stopping vital bodily processes. Death usually results from respiratory failure, as the gas prevents nerve signals from reaching the lungs. In the this sense, Sarin works a lot like bug spray does on insects, except it’s made to kill people.
In 2013, the regime used sarin against civilians in Damascus. Called the Gouta chemical attacks,during which, 1300 people were killed. The event crossed the Obama administration’s ‘red-line’ against chemical weapons use and nearly prompted an American intervention. The Assad regime was saved by a Russian-brokered deal that removed stockpiles of chemical weapons. By December 30, 2014 the weapons were supposed to have been removed completely.
The reappearance of sarin is indicative of two possibilities:
- In the first case, the gas was simply an old stock that was retained to ensure the security of vital regime assets like bases and infrastructure. In this case the gas would be severely degraded, and while still capable of severe injury and long-lasting damage, the weapons would but much less deadly. Depending on the quality and potency of the precursor chemicals, shelf life ranges from a few weeks to a few months. Compare this with mustard gas which can last for years. These weapons would at least 17 months past their expiration date.
- The second possibility is an active chemical weapons program. It’s possible some of the infrastructure to create the weapons was left intact, or rebuilt. The U.S has expressed doubts about the regime’s honesty in this regard. If this is the case, Assad may be rebuilding his WMD capability.
Assad’s use of chemical weapons implies that he believes he can now use them, either because he now has Putin’s protection or use against ISIS is low-key enough not to raise alarm. The question now is what his capacity is. Is he just using old diluted stocks, or manufacturing a new arsenal?