Civil conflict in Syria began in 2011 and was caused as its president, Basher al-Assad, sent the military to quash ongoing domestic unrest. Since then, the clash between the Assad regime and Syrian rebels has grown in complexity, as it now involves a number of other countries, such as the United States and Russia, and well-known terrorist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda (Brooks, 2017). It has been a bloody civil war, with the death toll reportedly reaching well-passed 400,000, and while the victims have died one battle after another, one barrage to the next, there have also been reported incidences concerning the use of chemical weapons. Also referred to as weapons of mass destruction, in war chemical weapons are used for a number of reasons. It is no different in Syria, however, there seems to be a great deal of confusion as to who is actually responsible for their use. While it is extremely likely that the Assad regime has resorted to their use, it also appears that the rebels have used them as well. Reports also indicate other players who may also be involved. It seems to be quite simple to place the onus on the Syrian government, but mounting evidence to the contrary makes this issue an ongoing mystery.
Chemical weapons are typically used in military operations. There are three reasons why these weapons are used: for incapacitation, to cause serious injuries, or for purposes of killing. There are three ranges of chemical substances used, having differing effects on their targets: nerve, blister and choking agents. Perhaps the most infamous nerve agent is Sarin. When released, victims experience respiratory distress, miosis (excessive constriction of the pupils), tremors, convulsions and cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat). When a high concentration of Sarin is released into the environment there is a high likelihood that victims will die in a matter of minutes (Federation of American Scientists, 2013). Blister agents such as mustard gas can be equally as deadly, but are usually intended to degrade the fighting capabilities of opponents because they are forced to wear protective equipment. These agents burn the skin and affect the eyes, lungs, mucous membranes and the lymphoid. Symptoms are latent and generally occur a few hours after exposure. Lastly, choking agents, such as chlorine, attack lung tissue and cause pulmonary edema. Victims experience a range of effects including severe coughing, nausea and vomiting. If symptoms persist over a 48-hour period it is likely that victims will die (Federation of American Scientists, 2013). Sarin, mustard gas and chlorine have each been used during the Syria conflict, but nobody knows, or at least are not saying, who has been using them.
Sarin appears to have been first used in the 2013 attacks on the suburb of Khan al-Assal, located near the country’s capital, Damascus. A series of attacks occurred in 2014 and 2015, when the Syrian military was alleged to have used weapons containing chlorine. Sarin was likely to have been used in an attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, where witnesses claimed to have witnessed Russian fighter jets above the vicinity. It appears that most of the victims were not involved in the civil conflict, and the fact that at least a dozen military forces died in Sarin attacks only muddies the waters further. But, the fact remains that over 1,000 men, women and children are reported to have died as a result of chemical weapons (The Associated Press, 2017). The most serious of these attacks occurred in August 2013 at Ghouta, another suburb of Damascus, where Sarin was used to allegedly kill over 1,400 victims. Koblenz (2017) reports that the number of chemical attacks has exceeded 120 and in most instances chlorine was used, and little in the way of casualties resulted. While most fingers point to the Syrian government as the culprit, specifically because it has the logistical and military capabilities, it is not entirely clear that the government could have carried out all of the attacks, which makes the situation quite confusing.
After an investigation conducted by journalist Reese Erlich it was found that both sides of the civil conflict had manipulated the evidence and lied to international inspectors. This occurred after the 2013 attack on Ghouta, where most who investigate chemical weapon attacks, including the United Nations, have concluded that both sides had used chemical weapons on that day (WhoWhatWhy Staff, 2017). While the United State government claimed rockets were fired from the government-controlled eastern edge of the country, investigators found they had been fired no further away than a mile or two. This has led to suspicions that the rebels were responsible and had fed false information to the press (Erlich, 2014). It is also strongly suspected that the rebels spearheaded the 2013 Sarin attack in the village of Khan al-Assal, and a UN report appears to have supported claims lodged by the Syrian government. This confusion only worsens when, in 2013, Turkish and Iraqi officials reported that members of the al-Qaeda-backed al-Nusra Front were caught carrying two kilograms of Sarin, while members of the Islamic State were arrested for building labs meant to manufacture both mustard gas and Sarin meant to be used in Syria (Erlich, 2014).
When accounting for the fact that witnesses had described seeing Russian helicopters after the attack in Khan Sheikhoun, it would appear that various parties may have played a role in the attacks. The fact that both sides have used lies and manipulation, and that terrorist organizations as well as other countries are now involved in the conflict, only serves to deepen this mystery. There doesn’t appear to be an end to the conflict, at least not in the foreseen future, and it is highly doubtful that the persons responsible for using weapons of mass destruction will commit to never using them again.
- The Associated Press. (2017, April 5). A timeline of Syria’s chemical weapons use in civil war. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/timeline-syria-chemical-weapons-civil-war-article-1.3020430
- Brooks, S. (2017). Syrian civil war. Retrieved from California History-Social Science Project, UC Davis website: http://chssp.ucdavis.edu/current-context/syrian-war.pdf
- Erlich, R. (2014, December 1). Who really used chemical weapons in Syria? Retrieved from https://whowhatwhy.org/2014/12/01/really-used-chemical-weapons-syria/
- Federation of American Scientists. (2013). Types of chemical weapons. Retrieved from https://fas.org/programs/bio/chemweapons/cwagents.html
- Koblentz, G. (2017, April 7). Syrian chemical weapons kill chain. Retrieved from http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/04/07/syrias-chemical-weapons-kill-chain-assad-sarin/
- WhoWhatWhy Staff. (2017, April 9). Disinformation on Syria: Collection of WhoWhatWhy exposés. Retrieved from https://whowhatwhy.org/2017/04/09/disinformation-syria-collection-whowhatwhy-exposes/