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

    No More Space Race for US, Rivalry Gives Way to Collaboration

    What began as a struggle for dominance in space between two world powers has changed entirely to one of joint efforts

    Beijing Warns Critics Over South China Sea Dispute

    Official warns critics that the more they challenge China's position regarding disputed territories in one of world’s busiest waterways, the more it will push back

    Move Over Millennials, Here Comes iGeneration

    How the first generation to be born, almost literally, with a smartphone in hand, might change America

    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.
    Image Recognition Market Seen Doubling by 2020i
    X
    Ramon Taylor
    May 05, 2016 10:05 PM
    From auto tagging on Facebook to self-driving cars, image recognition technology as it exists today is still in its beginning phases, experts say — and will soon change the way users and corporations interact with the physical world. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
    Video

    Video Image Recognition Market Seen Doubling by 2020

    From auto tagging on Facebook to self-driving cars, image recognition technology as it exists today is still in its beginning phases, experts say — and will soon change the way users and corporations interact with the physical world. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
    Video

    Video Child Labor in Afghanistan Remains a Problem

    With war still raging in Afghanistan, the country also faces the problem of child labor as families put their school-age children to work to help make ends meet. But, thanks to VOA's Afghan Service, two families whose children had been working in a brick-making factory - to earn their livings and pay off family debts - now have a new lease on life. Zabihullah Ghazi reports.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Troops Recount Firefight Which Killed US Navy SEAL

    A U.S. Navy SEAL killed Tuesday, when Islamic State fighters punched through Kurdish lines in northern Iraq, was part of a quick reaction force sent to extract other U.S. troops trapped by the surprise offensive. VOA's Kawa Omar spoke with Kurdish troops in the town of Telskuf -- the scene of what U.S. officials called a "dynamic firefight."
    Video

    Video British Lawmakers Warn EU Exit Talks Could Last A Decade

    Leaving the European Union would mean difficult negotiations that could take years to complete, according to a bipartisan group of British lawmakers. While the group did not recommend a vote either way, the lawmakers noted trade deals between the EU and non-EU states take between four and nine years on average. Henry Ridgwell reports on the mounting debate over whether Britain should stay or exit the EU as the June vote approaches.
    Video

    Video NASA Astronauts Train for Commercial Space Flights

    Since the last Shuttle flight in 2011, the United States has been relying on Russian rockets to launch fresh crews to the International Space Station. But that may change in the next few years. NASA and several private space companies are developing advanced capsules capable of taking humans into low orbit and beyond. As VOA's George Putic reports, astronauts are already training for commercial spacecraft in flight simulators.
    Video

    Video US Worried Political Chaos in Iraq Will Hurt IS Fight

    The White House is expressing concern about rising political chaos in Iraq and the impact it could have on the fight against the Islamic State. The U.S. says Iraq needs a stable, central government to help push back the group. But some say Baghdad may not have a unified government any time soon. VOA's White House correspondent Mary Alice Salinas reports.
    Video

    Video Press Freedom in Myanmar Fragile, Limited

    As Myanmar begins a new era with a democratically elected government, many issues of the past confront the new leadership. Among them is press freedom in a country where journalists have been routinely harassed or jailed.
    Video

    Video Taliban Threats Force Messi Fan to Leave Afghanistan

    A young Afghan boy, who recently received autographed shirts and a football from his soccer hero Lionel Messi, has fled his country due to safety concerns. He and his family are now taking refuge in neighboring Pakistan. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from Islamabad.
    Video

    Video Major Rubbish Burning Experiment Captures Destructive Greenhouse Gases

    The world’s first test to capture environmentally harmful carbon dioxide gases from the fumes of burning rubbish took place recently in Oslo, Norway. The successful experiment at the city's main incinerator plant, showcased a method for capturing most of the carbon dioxide. VOA’s Deborah Block has more.
    Video

    Video EU Visa Block Threatens To Derail EU-Turkey Migrant Deal

    Turkish citizens could soon benefit from visa-free travel to Europe as part of the recent deal between the EU and Ankara to stem the flow of refugees. In return, Turkey has pledged to keep the migrants on Turkish soil and crack down on those who are smuggling them. Brussels is set to publish its latest progress report Wednesday — but as Henry Ridgwell reports from London, many EU lawmakers are threatening to veto the deal over human rights concerns.
    Video

    Video Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Ruling

    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Painting Captures President Lincoln Assassination Aftermath

    A newly restored painting captures the moments following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It was recently unveiled at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where America’s 16th president was shot. It is the only known painting by an eyewitness that captures the horror of that fateful night. VOA’s Julie Taboh tells us more about the painting and what it took to restore it to its original condition.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora