Why Syria’s Sarin Gas News Isn’t New

Chemical warfare is tragic, devastating, and not at all new.

The allegations of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of a chemical weapon on hundreds of civilians outside Damascus have been confirmed but not proved by the Obama Administration. Now we’re just waiting on a report by the United Nation’s group who field tested the area this week, to be released this weekend, if not today with the details.

(If you’re already lost, The Washington Post has a nice breakdown on Syria.)

Unfortunately, the weapon used, sarin gas, is difficult to detect (some say it dissipates within 30 minutes of exposure) but this article by Scientific American claims 29 weeks.  If the U.N. does report evidence in Syria, a country about the size of Missouri but with the entire population of the state of New York, it’s just another chapter in the chemical’s history.

Courtesy Defense.gov.

Courtesy Defense.gov.

Sarin gas is a silent killer.  Odorless, colorless, and tasteless, it’s about 500 times as toxic as cyanide.  Sarin is named for the chemists who created it – Schrader, Ambros, Rudriger, and van der Linde.  Symptoms can include convulsions, muscle twitches, nausea, and respiratory failure, due to loss of muscle and gland control.  Though it was originally developed in 1938 in Germany, It may sound familiar – in 1995, a Japanese cult released a debilitating stockpile of it into the Tokyo subway.  The attack killed twelve and hospitalized a thousand, paralyzing the muscles around their lungs and suffocating them.  Frighteningly, investigation revealed the cult had further plans for New York City and Washington, D.C. before they were caught.

It’s an ugly thing, much like the history of chemical warfare.  While the story goes back much farther, our attempts to reign over the fears spiked in the 1920s.  And the United States wasn’t always the peacekeeper.

Spurred by World War I and the allegations of chemical weapons and biological bombs harbored by Germany, concerned nations gathered in Geneva in 1925 to draft a plan to contain the spread of both chemical and bacteriological weapons.  The Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, known simply as The Geneva Protocol, was enacted in 1928, prohibiting the signees from using chemical or biological weapons.

One hundred eight nations ratified the protocol, but the United States wasn’t one of them: a conservative senate balked at participating.  Yet, it’s hard to say if our absence mattered because even those who did sign – Japan, Great Britain, Canada, France, the Soviet Union, and Syria – began developing biological and chemical weapons before the ink had even dried.  Called unethical and inhumane, chemical weapons were condemned by all for their targeting of vulnerable civilians and the heavy moral penalty of drawn out and painful death, yet they were continually developed by major state powers (ironically, with the exception of Nazi Germany) for both defensive and offensive contingencies.

Artist rendering of Russian stockpiles of chemical weapons. Courtesy Flickr/jenspie3.

Artist rendering of Russian stockpiles of chemical weapons. Courtesy Flickr/jenspie3.

In 1972, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union hammered out the provisions of the proposed Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, later joined by twenty-two states including the U.S.  The convention banned the production, development, and possession of biological and chemical weapons, except for peaceful purposes, and then only in small amounts.

In 1975, the same year the convention came into force, the United States, in “better late than never” form, ratified the Geneva Protocol. And, following the sarin gassed Tokyo subways of 1995 (the same year of the Oklahoma City bombing), President Bill Clinton signed Presidential Decision Directive 39 creating the Counter-Terrorism Security Group, a network tying together six major government agencies including the CIA and the FBI to defend against terrorists with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.  Congress preferred a decentralized civil defense strategy and encouraged states to prepare their own emergency responses.  The Department of Defense allocated money to 120 cities across the country to purchase emergency equipment and run training scenarios to prepare for dirty bombs and bioweapons.

These fears have continued to ramp up following 9/11 and Syria has only exacerbated concerns.  The amazing thing about our protocols and signed papers is that we assume that everyone who participates will follow these agreements – social taboo and resulting stigma is enough to keep people in line.  And it’s worked, until now.

Luckily, sarin gas does have an antidote (not all chemical weapons do).  A drug called atropine, also used for ulcers and cardiac arrest, binds to receptors in the muscle cells where sarin might bind otherwise.  If sarin gets there first, it causes the muscle in the gut to contract, causing spasms, but atropine keeps it relaxed.

There is no antidote for chemical warfare.  Though Syria ratified the Geneva Protocol, its name is absent from the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.  Whatever action President Obama takes next, whatever force is deemed necessary to show muscle over misbehavior, it’s really a show of dedication to an international agreement that has generally worked for the past 85 years.  Whether or not it will work is a different question.

(And perfect timing on this paper out of Ohio stating nations aren’t any less likely to wage war than they used to be.)


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