News / Middle East

    What We Know About Chemical Weapons in Syria

    This citizen journalism image taken on April 25, 2013 and provided by Edlib News Network (which has been authenticated) shows a wounded Syrian man holding his injured son after an air raid on the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province.
    This citizen journalism image taken on April 25, 2013 and provided by Edlib News Network (which has been authenticated) shows a wounded Syrian man holding his injured son after an air raid on the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province.
    Cecily Hilleary
    The United States now says there is evidence that chemical weapons may have been used in the Syrian civil war, and a debate is underway over what President Barack Obama’s administration should do about it.
     
    The president said last week the evidence points to small-scale use of chemical weapons. Intelligence officials said the evidence pointed to the poison gas, sarin, a powerful nerve agent said to be 500 times more toxic than cyanide that can kill those exposed in less than a minute. Officials in Britain and France say they have come to similar conclusions.
     
    U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks with reporters after reading a statement on chemical weapon use in Syria during a press conference in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, April 25, 2013.U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks with reporters after reading a statement on chemical weapon use in Syria during a press conference in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, April 25, 2013.
    x
    U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks with reporters after reading a statement on chemical weapon use in Syria during a press conference in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, April 25, 2013.
    U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks with reporters after reading a statement on chemical weapon use in Syria during a press conference in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, April 25, 2013.
    But U.S. and allied officials also said it was unclear how much sarin may have been used and who actually used it. Syria is known to possess large stores of chemical weapons, including sarin, but questions remained over whether its use was officially sanctioned by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
     
    The issue was especially difficult for Obama because he said in August of last year that systematic use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria would be a “game changer” that would bring about a shift in Washington’s policy of non-intervention. The president now says more detailed information is needed before any change in policy.
     
    The evidence so far

    The provenance is murky, and that raises questions about whether these samples are really from the location they are said to be taken from, whether they were tampered with along the way, whether they stored properly to preserve the signatures within the samples to provide a useful analysis.
    Gregory Koblenz, a nuclear and biological warfare specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the chemical warfare allegations are based on two basic forms of evidence from Syria, neither of which alone provides enough information about what really happened.
     
    “One is video footage of alleged chemical attacks in Syrian hospitals,” he told VOA.  “Some of the symptoms we see are consistent with exposure to a nerve agent like sarin, but the problem is that there are other chemicals that can cause similar reactions, and just the videos alone don’t provide enough information and context to really assess what happened to these people.”
     
    There has also been mention of soil and human tissue samples that have been taken out of Syria and analyzed by labs in the United States and Britain.  But Koblenz says these samples are also unreliable. 
     
    “The provenance is murky, and that raises questions about whether these samples are really from the location they are said to be taken from, whether they were tampered with along the way, whether they stored properly to preserve the signatures within the samples to provide a useful analysis,” Koblenz said. 

    In other words, simply finding sarin in soil doesn’t prove who used them.
     
    In this Tuesday March 19, 2013 file photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a Syrian victim who suffered an alleged chemical attack at Khan al-Assal village according to SANA, receives treatment by doctors, at a hospital in Aleppo, Syria.In this Tuesday March 19, 2013 file photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a Syrian victim who suffered an alleged chemical attack at Khan al-Assal village according to SANA, receives treatment by doctors, at a hospital in Aleppo, Syria.
    x
    In this Tuesday March 19, 2013 file photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a Syrian victim who suffered an alleged chemical attack at Khan al-Assal village according to SANA, receives treatment by doctors, at a hospital in Aleppo, Syria.
    In this Tuesday March 19, 2013 file photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a Syrian victim who suffered an alleged chemical attack at Khan al-Assal village according to SANA, receives treatment by doctors, at a hospital in Aleppo, Syria.
    Doctors’ Claims
     
    Dr. Zaher Sahloul of Chicago, president of the Syrian-American Medical Association, has just returned from his sixth mission in Syria, where he spoke with medical personnel in seven hospitals in and around Aleppo. 
     
    “In the six or seven attacks that we spoke to physicians about, they all reported similar symptoms. And these attacks happened in Homs in December of last year—that was the first reported one—and then we [had] two in Aleppo.  The largest one was on March 19th in the area of Khan al-Asal, and there were about 40 people who died and more than 300 who were admitted to the hospitals for symptoms.  Some of them ended up on the ventilator in the ICU (intensive care unit),” he said.

    Sahloul said all these patients were reported to have symptoms “consistent with cholinergic syndrome,” which is usually caused by drug overdose, eating certain poisonous mushrooms or exposure to nerve gas or certain pesticides

    “So the patients had respiratory and neurologic symptoms—respiratory, including shortness of breath, bronchospasm, a lot of secretion and respiratory failure requiring mechanical ventilation, large concentration oxygen—and also neurologic symptoms, confusion, convulsions, and some of them went into comas—and also eye symptoms,” he said. 

    Sahloul said the only other chemical agent that could cause similar symptoms would be certain insecticides, which he rules out in this case.  “It’s very unlikely that in these six or seven areas you had exposure to insecticides, especially since everyone reported a similar pattern:  That you have an explosion, usually a missile, usually from a fighter jet or from a helicopter, and then people see white smoke, and then they start to have symptoms.  It’s very unlikely that you have this related to exposure to insecticide,” he said.  “Other less harming agents like tear gas and chlorine, for example, will not cause neurologic symptoms, will not cause death."

    Implications and Options
     
    Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs for the Washington D.C.-based Ploughshares Fund, says that before the Washington can consider taking any action, it must understand exactly what happened in Syria. 
     
    “It appears there was some dispersement of sarin, but we need to understand where that came from. Was it part of a structured decision; was there a use of it in a manner that would actually suggest it will continue to be used?” he said.  “That would create a certain set of reactions.”
     
    Rubin says the bigger question is exactly how the West, Russia and China should react and adds that all possible options pose serious consequences. 
     
    “Syria sits next to key allies of the United States—Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Iraq,” Rubin said. “What happens in Syria matters to those neighbors, so should the U.S. and Western countries, the U.N., try to create buffer zones, humanitarian corridors or buffer zones around the borders to ensure that those countries are not destabilized?”  

    ...Again, this is not an easy thing to do—we ought to be able to define who it is in the Syrian opposition that we want to support and arm, with the idea that if we give them sufficient military assistance, [they] will flock to our side.
    Some U.S. politicians are calling on the White House to begin arms shipments to selected elements of the Syrian opposition. But Rubin points out that the rebels, some of whom have been identified as terrorist groups, remain an unknown quantity.
     
    This undated image posted on a militant website purports to show evidence of a growing cross-border alliance between two powerful Sunni jihadi groups Al-Qaida in Iraq and the Nusra Front in SyriaThis undated image posted on a militant website purports to show evidence of a growing cross-border alliance between two powerful Sunni jihadi groups Al-Qaida in Iraq and the Nusra Front in Syria
    x
    This undated image posted on a militant website purports to show evidence of a growing cross-border alliance between two powerful Sunni jihadi groups Al-Qaida in Iraq and the Nusra Front in Syria
    This undated image posted on a militant website purports to show evidence of a growing cross-border alliance between two powerful Sunni jihadi groups Al-Qaida in Iraq and the Nusra Front in Syria

    Act Now
     
    Gary Schmitt, co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, however, believes Washington needs to act as soon as possible, even in the absence of definitive evidence of chemical weapons use. 
     
    “It’s rare that you ever get 100 percent certainty of the kind that the administration is saying that it wants right now, and that sort of chain of custody—i.e., who did what, who’s to be blamed—it’s rare that you get that kind of intelligence,” Schmitt said.  “And if you use that kind of standard, what happens is that you delay making decisions, which in this case are really causing an immense amount of instability in the region, in addition to the loss of lives.” 
     
    Specifically, he thinks the United States should create a no-fly zone and a safe zone to harbor civilians.  “And then—again this is not an easy thing to do—we ought to be able to define who it is in the Syrian opposition that we want to support and arm, with the idea that if we give them sufficient military assistance, [they] will flock to our side.” 
     
    If the U.S. doesn’t act, Schmitt fears that one of two things could happen:  “Either the jihadis are going to wind up controlling what happens after Assad goes, or you’re just going to have an incredibly splintered situation in Syria which makes Beirut in Lebanon look like New Jersey.”

    You May Like

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Before burial at overflowing cemeteries, unidentified dead being swapped for DNA, in case some day relatives come to learn their fate

    Russian Opposition Leader Sues Putin for Conflict of Interest

    Alexei Navalny tells VOA in exclusive interview why transfer of $2 billion from country’s wealth fund to company with ties to President Putin’s son-in-law triggered lawsuit

    How Diversity Has Changed America

    Over the past four decades, the level of diversity in the United States has increased most in these four states

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Rex from: Pittsburgh
    May 03, 2013 10:23 AM
    If Assad does not win, Al-Qaida will take over regardless of what we do.
    Either we go in and engage all factions as enemy combatants or we stay out of it entirely.


    No form of compromise or measured response will have any positive outcome.

    by: Victor Purinton from: Cambridge, MA
    May 03, 2013 10:18 AM
    The problem with saying "if you use chemical weapons we'll slam you good" is that it gives Assad's enemies (e.g., the Islamist groups fighting him for their own dictatorial control) a hugely powerful incentive to use them and blame the regime.

    We really do have to be sure.
    In Response

    by: Al Prazolam from: Switzerland
    May 06, 2013 8:17 AM
    That is exactly what I was thinking. It seems far more likely for the rebels to use Sarin in an attempt to garner support. We spelled it out for them what would be needed and low and behold what happens? A minor amount is used, and in no strategic way whatsoever. SecDef Hagel knows this and understands if the rebels would use Sarin against themselves, what would they do if they overthrow Assad and inherit his chemical legacy? Some countries need a tyrant to hold them together. Iraq was one, and Syria is another.

    by: douglas gibson from: stanley new mexico
    May 03, 2013 9:37 AM
    When I first heard of chemical weapons being used in Syria, it was the rebels being accused of using them. Now it's the government. I also remember it was the Israeli's first reporting the story, just how far can we trust the truth from them. We should not become involved.

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Filli
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 11, 2016 8:01 PM
    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video US Co-ed Selective Service Plan Stirs Controversy

    Young women may soon be required to register with the U.S. Selective Service System, the U.S. government agency charged with implementing a draft in a national emergency. Top Army and Marine Corps commanders told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that women should register, and a bill has been introduced in Congress requiring eligible women to sign up for the military draft. The issue is stirring some controversy, as VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from New York.
    Video

    Video Lessons Learned From Ebola Might Help Fight Zika

    Now that the Ebola epidemic has ended in West Africa, Zika has the world's focus. And, as Carol Pearson reports, health experts and governments are applying some of the lessons learned during the Ebola crisis in Africa to fight the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Illinois Voters Have Mixed Emotions on Obama’s Return to Springfield

    On the ninth anniversary of the launch of his quest for national office, President Barack Obama returned to Springfield, Illinois, to speak to the Illinois General Assembly, where he once served as state senator. His visit was met with mixed emotions by those with a front-row seat on his journey to the White House. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Heated Immigration Debate Limits Britain’s Refugee Response

    Compared to many other European states, Britain has agreed to accept a relatively small number of Syrian refugees. Just over a thousand have arrived so far -- and some are being resettled in remote corners of the country. Henry Ridgwell reports on why Britain’s response has lagged behind its neighbors.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.