In the August 21 chemical weapons attack in Syria, large quantities of the nerve agent sarin were deployed by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime against rebel forces, sparking international outrage and resulting in over 1,400 deaths according to U.S. estimates.
Sarin gas is classified as a Schedule one substance by the Chemical Weapons Convention.
“That means it’s outright banned,” said Michael Allen, Ph.D a political science professor at Boise State. “Sarin gas is considered to be a weapon of mass destruction.”
In 1992, the United Nations ratified the CWC to work to eliminate chemical warfare worldwide by banning the development and stockpiling of chemical weapons by its members, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Warfare (OPCW).
CWC members currently represent 98 percent of the international chemical industry.
“The tricky thing here is that Syria is not currently party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Syria submitted to be part of the CWC just last Friday,” Allen said.
Before Syria agreed to submit to the convention, there was no international body monitoring the development of chemical weapons in Syria.
“The ones to stop them are the Syrians themselves or other nations that contemplate invading or stopping them using some other method,” Allen said.
According to Allen, the amount of deaths attributed to chemical weapons have been only a small percentage of the total deaths in the Syrian conflict
Allen stated the outrage caused by the use of chemical weapons in Syria is attributable to the international norm established by the CWC.
“Nations that are considered good at war consider this type of weapon to be immoral,” Allen said. “They are globally considered to be the poor man’s option for a weapon of mass destruction. People who die from chemical weapons die in a lot of nasty ways. You can have a strong and demoralizing impact on the opposition by using them because chemical weapons are generally considered to be a horrible weapon.”
Sarin gas is a particularly potent chemical weapon because of the speed it takes effect and is potent even in low
“Sarin is 26 times more deadly than cyanide,” said Don Warner Ph.D, a chemistry professor at Boise State.
“Sarin gas can be ingested via inhalation or even absorption through the skin. It’s fairly persistent as well, and that’s one of the big problems,” Warner said. “It has a long enough life time that if it is absorbed in your clothing you can still inhale it, and if you come into contact with others and you’re releasing these vapors then other folks can inhale
it as well.”
According to Warner, sarin gas is an organic phosphate which exhibits an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase by forming a bond causing the body’s nervous system to transfer an overload of signals to muscle tissues in the body.
“What this does is it allows something called acetylcholine to accumulate in the body. The nerves keep firing, it doesn’t shut off. If you’re breathing then basically it’s like you die from suffocation,”
According to Warner the modern history of chemical weapons as warfare agents can be traced back to World War I.
“In World War I, most of the chemical weapons that were used were more of the mustard gases, which are blistering agents,” Warner stated. “Usually what happens with these types of compounds is they generate a strong acid when they are exposed to moisture, like mucus and things like that in the body, and that causes blistering. If you inhale it, it will cause blistering in your lungs.”
Modern day nerve agents work much faster than chemical weapons used historically.
“Modern chemical weapons are more effective, because they can react more quickly and smaller amounts can cause more death,” Warner said.
Warner explained Sarin gas works just as quickly as the bodies nervous system is able to communicate.
“You can imagine that this is a fast, rapid, very quick enzyme, because these responses by nature have to be quick,”