The Syrian government, led by Bashar al-Assad
A pressing issue of international current events is the Syrian civil war. This armed conflict has been ongoing since March 2011, but as of June 2013, there is evidence that deployment of chemical weapons has occurred; “samples taken from Syria and tested in France have confirmed that sarin gas has been used there multiple times” (The Associated Press). The test results have been handed over to the United Nations following a report on Syria claiming that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that toxic chemicals have been utilized in at least four attacks in Syria’s civil war. This new development may hold strong implications for U.S. involvement in Syria due to a statement by President Barack Obama in August 2012 in which he stated “‘…a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized’” (Jackson).
So why is chemical warfare such a huge deal? Why did President Obama make this “red line” comment denoting chemical warfare as a tipping point for the United States? What is it about the use of chemical weapons that generates such a strong reaction from international governing bodies and human rights groups?
Sarin is a man-made toxin classified under nerve agents, the most toxic and most rapidly acting of known chemical warfare agents. Chemically, nerve agents are similar to organophosphates, which are the basis of many insecticides and herbicides and are known to be universally toxic to plants, wildlife, and humans. Its pure form is a clear, colorless, tasteless, and odorless liquid, but it can evaporate and be spread into the environment. As a result, people can be easily exposed to it. If sarin is released into the air, exposure can occur through skin contact or eye contact as well as by breathing the contaminated air. It also mixes easily with food and water, causing exposure through ingestion.
Nerve agents cause their toxic effects by inhibiting function of the chemical that acts as the body’s “off switch” for glands and muscles. As a result, glands and muscles are constantly being stimulated, tiring them out to the point that they are unable to sustain breathing function, paralyzing and suffocating the victims. Out of all nerve agents, sarin is the most volatile, allowing it to easily and quickly evaporate and contaminate the environment. Severely exposed people are not likely to survive, especially since even moderate sarin exposure must be treated quickly for recovery to be possible (“Facts About Sarin”).
Originally developed as a pesticide in Germany in 1938, sarin was never utilized as a nerve agent against Allied targets during World War II. However, following weaponized uses beginning in the latter half of the 20th century, in 1993, the United Nations classified sarin as a weapon of mass destruction. That same year, the production and stockpiling of the chemical was outlawed (Zheng).
Understanding the science behind a nerve agent as dangerous as sarin, it becomes evident why the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict is a serious and concerning development, one that emphasizes the cruelty and severity of the current situation and raises additional concerns for the ongoing evolution of the conflict.
Written by Constance Kaita
Map courtesy of www.lonelyplanet.com
The Associated Press. “Tests confirm Syria has used sarin gas ‘multiple times’ during civil war.” NYdailynews.com. Daily News. 04 June 2013. Web. 06 June 2013.
“Facts About Sarin.” CDC.gov. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 17 May 2004. Web. 06 June 2013.
Jackson, David. “Obama tied down by Syria ‘red line’ comment.” USAToday.com. USA Today. 06 May 2013. Web. 06 June 2013.
Zheng, Limin. “Syria: Chemical weapon of mass destruction.” CCTV.com. CCTV: English. 03 June 2013. Web. 06 June 2013. <http://english.cntv.cn/program/newsupdate/20130603/102808.shtml>.