A flurry of questions followed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s announcement Thursday that chemical weapons — in particular, the nerve agent sarin — were used in Syria. But since no one knows how the sarin was used or who exactly used it, let’s start with the basics about Syria’s sarin stockpile.
What is sarin and how deadly is it?
Sarin is an odorless, colorless gas that’s 500 times more toxic than cyanide and deadly in doses of 0.5 milligrams and larger. If you’re exposed to it, you may begin vomiting immediately or start convulsing — or, in less severe cases, get a runny nose. Besides potentially killing you within 10 minutes of inhalation, the gas can cause paralysis and environmental damage.
How much sarin does Syria have?
Estimates vary, but as a whole, Syria is known to have the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the Middle East and the fourth-largest stockpile in the world. Mideast weapons proliferation expert Laicie Heeley tells Foreign Policy that most estimates for the actual sarin stockpile hover around "the high hundreds of tons, possibly over 1,000."
Has Syria weaponized its sarin stockpile?
Yes. "By the mid-1990s it was estimated that Syria had developed between 100 and 200 warheads filled with sarin for its Scud-B and Scud-C missiles, and thousands of chemical bombs filled with the nerve agents VX and sarin," Dina Esfandiary of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, tells FP. "Presumably, these numbers will be higher today."
How might Syria use its sarin stockpile?
It depends. From a purely tactical standpoint, sarin is not a natural tool for the Assad regime in the context of the urban warfare it’s engaged in. "Nerve agents are effective in open spaces (battlefields) … and as a terror weapon," James Lewis of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, tells FP. "Strategically, they are not particularly useful in urban warfare."
That’s partly because a sarin strike is unweildy, as Esfandiary explains. "Sarin in particular is very volatile (evaporates easily), which means it presents an immediate but short-lived threat," she told us. "Syria seems to have the capacity to deliver nerve gas with its rockets and missiles. But Syria’s missiles in particular are inaccurate and have small payloads. The speed at which missiles hit targets make it difficult to use them to disperse chemical weapons homogeneously."
Still, that doesn’t mean it’s useless. "The real value is as a weapon of terror; there is no bullet hole, no cut but people start twitching and dying," Lewis told us. "It is pretty haunting." Take a look at this graphic video and you’ll see what he means.
How has sarin been used in the past?
The two main cases are in Iraq and Japan. In 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult released sarin in the central Japanese city of Matsumoto, killing 11 and injuring more than 5,500. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein deployed sarin gas against his own people in Anfal and Halabja in 1988 to horrendous effect.
Why is the use of sarin a "red line" for the United States? Assad already killed 70,000 people.
It’s a good point. No one knows exactly why the Obama administration drew a line at chemical weapons as opposed to the regime’s many other nefarious acts, but arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis brings up a valuable point. "Chemical weapons use invokes an interest that has nothing to do with the future of Syria," he writes on his blog. "We have a stake in strengthening the norm against chemical weapons use. If Assad is using chemical weapons to hold on to power, we have an interest in ensuring that his government falls and that the responsible regime figures take their turn at the Hague."
Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy's award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. Lynch previously wrote Foreign Policy's Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He is also a recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Silver Prize for his coverage of the United Nations.
Before moving to Foreign Policy, Lynch reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. As the Washington Post's United Nations reporter, Lynch had been involved in the paper's diplomatic coverage of crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, and Somalia, as well as the nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea. He also played a key part in the Post's diplomatic reporting on the Iraq war, the International Criminal Court, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Lynch's enterprise reporting has explored the underside of international diplomacy. His investigations have uncovered a U.S. spying operation in Iraq, Dick Cheney's former company's financial links to Saddam Hussein, and documented numerous sexual misconduct and corruption scandals.
Lynch has appeared frequently on the Lehrer News Hour, MSNBC, NPR radio, and the BBC. He has also moderated public discussions on foreign policy, including interviews with Susan E. Rice, the U.S. National Security Advisor, Gerard Araud, France's U.N. ambassador, and other senior diplomatic leaders.
Born in Los Angeles, California, Lynch received a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. He previously worked for the Boston Globe.| The Cable |
Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge.| The E-Ring |