News / Middle East

Rockets in Syria Attack Carried Large Payload, Experts Say

Ake Sellstrom (R), the head of a U.N. chemical weapons investigation team, arrives in Damascus August 18, 2013.Ake Sellstrom (R), the head of a U.N. chemical weapons investigation team, arrives in Damascus August 18, 2013.
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Ake Sellstrom (R), the head of a U.N. chemical weapons investigation team, arrives in Damascus August 18, 2013.
Ake Sellstrom (R), the head of a U.N. chemical weapons investigation team, arrives in Damascus August 18, 2013.
VOA News
Two independent weapons experts studying videos and photographs of the suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria have concluded the missiles used in the assault carried up to 50 times more nerve agent than previously thought, according to a report in the New York Times.

The report said the size of the missile payloads may explain the large amount of casualties in the August 21st attack near Damascus. It said the researchers concluded that the Syrian government is the only entity in the country capable of producing that amount of sarin.

The analysis was done by Richard M. Lloyd, an expert in warhead design, and Theodore A. Postol, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  The Times said the two studied online videos and photos posted since the attack, which U.S. officials say caused more than 1,400 deaths.

The two scientists told the Times that their analysis “suggested that the warheads carried toxic payloads of about 50 liters, not the one or two liters of nerve agent that some weapons experts had previously estimated.”

“It’s a clever design,” Postol told the Times. “It’s clever not only in how it was implemented, but in the effectiveness of its dispersal. It accounts for the large number of causalities.”

Immediately after the attack, it was believed the rockets could not have carried 50 liters of sarin, but Lloyd and Postol told the Times that the earlier and much lower estimates of the chemical agent payload was based on faulty identification of a central missile component.

Stephen Johnson, a chemical warfare expert, told the Times that if the 50-liter estimate is correct, only the Syrian government would have been able to produce that amount.

Photos of the rockets after the attack, the experts told the Times, showed a large canister lying nearby.

“This design explains the evidence on the ground,” Postol told the Times, saying the cloud created by the rocket rose to a height of 10 or 15 feet.

Sarin is a clear, colorless and tasteless liquid that has no odor. It can evaporate into a gas and spread into the environment.  Because it evaporates quickly, the threat is immediate — but not long-lived.

How sick a person becomes after being exposed to sarin depends on how much he or she is exposed to, the length of exposure and the method used to deliver the gas. Symptoms usually appear within a few seconds of exposure to sarin vapor and a few minutes to 18 hours after exposure to liquid sarin.

Symptoms may include:  “pinpoint” pupils and blurred vision, difficulty breathing, muscle twitching, excess saliva and other secretions, impaired judgment, seizures and unconsciousness.  

On Thursday, President Barack Obama pressed world leaders at the Group of 20 summit in Russia to approve a possible U.S. strike on Syrian regime targets in response to the use of chemical weapons.

The full U.S. Senate could begin debate next week on a measure calling for limited military strikes on Syria.  On Wednesday, a key Senate committee approved the president’s bombing plan, but ruled out deploying U.S. ground troops to the country.

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