The 2011 Libyan revolution and the ongoing civil conflict within Syria have sparked fears around the world that chemical weapons could find their way into the hands of terrorist groups, particularly those within the Middle East. Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons dates back to the early 1970s and is considered by U.S. intelligence agencies to be the largest in the entire region.
International concerns that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may order the use of chemical weapons against his own people have escalated further since December 2012, when Pentagon sources told NBC News that chemicals used inside Syria to produce sarin, a lethal nerve agent, were being loaded into bombs that could potentially be launched from fighter jets (Mi-25s). Syria may in fact possess in excess of 500 metric tons of the sarin precursor agents, according to press reports. The same sources also confirmed the fear that the Syrian military is prepared to use, against other Syrians, one of the most toxic of all the weaponized military agents.
Origins & Effects
Originally developed in 1938 in Germany as a pesticide, sarin is not found in the earth’s natural environment but is, rather, an extremely lethal “man-made” chemical warfare agent. As the most poisonous of the known chemical agents, nerve agents are hazardous in both the liquid and vapor states – and can cause death only a few moments after exposure. Moreover, and making control even more difficult, is the fact that nerve agents can be spread by various mediums including but not limited to rockets, spray tanks, missiles, and – probably the first choice of Syria’s own military – bombs.
After sarin is released, exposure can occur through contact with the skin and eyes, or simply by breathing air that contains the agent. Symptoms of exposure – for example, convulsions, paralysis, respiratory failure, and/or the loss of consciousness – may occur almost instantaneously or take as long as several hours.
Iraq and Japan suffered two devastating sarin attacks. In 1988, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces killed an estimated 5,000 or more Kurds with a single sarin release against Halabja, a major city in the Kurdish region of Iraq. In 1995, the terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo used sarin, concealed and transported in portable packets, to launch an attack on the Tokyo subway system. The immediate result was 13 people killed and an estimated 5,000 or more others hospitalized – 17 of them in critical condition and 37 listed as severe. More than 900 victims also were diagnosed with long-term vision problems.
If chemical agents are in fact used by Assad, the effects on the Syrian people could be equally or more devastating – both in the short and long term:
- Those directly impacted could be exposed to a large dose of the agent, which would ultimately suffocate most of the victims by paralyzing the muscles around the lungs.
- Because sarin has no distinct odor or color, and is tasteless, some victims may not even know they had been exposed and therefore would delay treatment.
- Those not directly impacted might still be exposed to a low dose of the toxic agent, either by breathing in air or eating food or water tainted with sarin.
- First responders who care for those who come in direct contact also could experience some or all of the same symptoms as those who had been directly exposed to the agent.
- In addition, the clothing of those directly exposed would probably continue to release toxic vapors (for up to about 30 minutes after exposure).
Major Questions & Concerns
There are mounting concerns that go well beyond whether Syria itself is prepared to and/or would ultimately use chemical agents against its own people. The international community remains on alert that such weapons could eventually fall into the hands of terror groups such as al-Qaida, which has been attempting to acquire chemical weapons for years, or even Hezbollah, which since the 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli war has threatened to use chemical weapons against Israel.
Hezbollah has not yet acted on those threats, of course, but its alliance and close working relationship with Iran is good reason for concern. If Assad’s government is in fact overthrown, Israel and other U.S. allies, including some nations bordering Syria, already have expressed concern that terrorist groups would gain access to Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, which includes mustard gas and sarin.
According to various intelligence reports, Hezbollah already has established bases in close proximity to some of the Syrian weapons caches, a step that escalates considerable concern as the instability in Syria continues to worsen. Two possible scenarios of particular concern are that: (a) Syria’s chemical weapons caches would ultimately fall into the hands of Hezbollah (and possibly other terrorist groups); and/or (b) Assad would use chemical weapons on his own people in an eleventh-hour struggle to save his government. If even a relatively small amount of those weapons were to fall into the hands of al-Qaida or Hezbollah, it would significantly upgrade the capabilities of those groups – and, quite possibly, require some very difficult political decisions on how the international community would have to respond to them.
Preventing a chemical attack by the Syrian government against its own people would be extremely difficult. Largely because of the current hostile circumstances surrounding the civil conflict in Syria, the U.S. Department of Defense estimates that military efforts to secure Syria’s cache of chemical weapons would require the deployment of more than 75,000 U.S. troops, according to 2012 press reports. Given the current distribution of U.S. military forces – and the increasing likelihood of large new cutbacks in defense spending – it is questionable at this time whether the United States would have the resources needed to effectively address this mounting concern.
Another factor to consider is that Syria itself has not signed the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans the manufacturing, stockpiling, and/or use of substances such as nerve agents. Moreover, it is uncertain what other types of chemical weapons, in addition to sarin, that Syria may have in its arsenal and is prepared to use. (The answer, according to several press reports – not officially confirmed by the U.S. government – is that Syria possibly already possesses hundreds of tons of numerous chemical agents, including VX and sarin nerve agents, in addition to blistering agents such as sulfur mustard.)
Promises, Security & Future Threats
In July 2012, Syria’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, said in a televised news conference that, “No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria.” However, less than a year later, the Syrian government now has the nerve agent “locked and loaded” – and apparently still has no desire to comply with the CWC.
According to the United Nations, at least 60,000 people already have died during Syria’s two-year internal conflict. Israeli hospitals currently, and very prudently, are scheduling regular training sessions so their staffs can respond both quickly and effectively to a chemical-weapons attack – if or when there is one. U.S. President Obama himself also cautioned Syria, in a press statement on 3 December 2012, that, “The use [by Syria] of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable … [and] there will be consequences and you [Assad and Syria’s other political and military leaders] will be held accountable.”
Fortunately for the Syrian people, the combination of such a stern warning from the United States – backed by public support from such disparate nations as Russia, Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan – seems to have suspended the chemical mixing and the bomb preparations, at least for the time being.
However, the most important unanswered question still looms: Whether they are used or not used against its own citizens, will the Syrian government be able to effectively secure and protect its chemical stockpiles from falling into the hands of persons, or groups, looking to acquire them? In an effort to address this question, the United States and its key allies have deployed specialists to neighboring Jordan to help prepare for the possibility that Syria may in fact lose control of its chemical weapons cache. That modest step forward is no guarantee, of course – but it is at least an offensive move much needed in a game with too many unanswered questions and no end in sight.
Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 25 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. He was also assigned numerous collateral duties during his FBI tour – including as a certified instructor and member of the agency’s SWAT program. In addition to the FBI and NCTC, he is an author and has served as a media contributor for Fox News, CNN, PBS, NPR, Al-Jazeera Television, Al Arabiva Television, Al Hurra, and Sky News in Europe. Additionally, he has authored numerous scholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combatting human trafficking. He also serves on the Domestic Preparedness Advisory Board.