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War crimes

Little doubt on chemical weapons use in Syria

Photos, videos and eye witness reports from eastern Damascus seem to allow but one conclusion: it is highly likely that internationally outlawed chemical weapons, possibly sarin, were used in attacks in Syria.

Sarin gas is near the top on the list of toxic chemical weapons. Only one milligram of the nerve agent is sufficient to kill a human being in 50 percent of cases. It was outlawed by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

In its natural state, sarin is a colorless and odorless liquid, but due to its high volatility can easily turn into a gas. Entering the body through the lungs, eyes and skin, it triggers - among other symptoms - vomiting, spasms, and difficult breathing until the victim suffocates a few minutes after exposure.

Similar symptoms were observed last Wednesday following an attack east of the Syrian capital, Damascus. According to Doctors without Borders, thousands of people were treated for symptoms of poisoning in at least three hospitals, and more than 350 patients died. Some reports even mention a death toll of more than 1,000.

"Medical personnel in these facilities reported in detail on symptoms such as cramps, extreme salivation, pin-sized pupils, impaired vision and breathing problems," Bart Janssens from Doctors without Borders said. He added the organization has no way to verify the information except through descriptions of the effects, the large number of patients within a short period of time, and the contamination of first aiders and medical staff. All of these things point to the massive use of a nerve agent.

A Free Syrian Army fighter launches a homemade rocket (R) towards Nairab military airport, which is controlled by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo, June 14, 2013. REUTERS/Hamid Khatib (SYRIA - Tags: CONFLICT)

Were Syrians attacked with deadly sarin gas?

It is not yet clear whether it was in fact sarin that killed hundreds of people east of Damascus, but reports about the use of sarin in the Syrian civil war have been circulating for months. So far, the US government and other Western states presumed President Bashar al-Assad's forces killed up to 150 people in a series of nerve gas attacks. After those apparent nerve gas attacks, France, Britain and Turkey denounced use of the banned substance.

In its own situation report on Syria, the United Nations - citing four specific locations and dates - also said the chemical had been used in flagrant violation of international law.

No independent investigation

What has been missing was an independent investigation at the suspected sites. Until recently, UN inspectors had no access to the country to investigate the poison gas accusations. That has now changed: UN chemical weapons inspectors on Monday (26.08.2013) visited the site of last week's apparent poison gas attack east of Damascus.

A reporter takes notes at left as Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague participate in a joint news conference at the State Department in Washington, Wednesday, June 12, 2013. Kerry hosted a meeting with Hague, an ally equally unsure about what to do to end fighting in Syria that has now killed some 80,000 people. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

A reason for war? US Secretary of State John Kerry (right) with his British counterpart William Hague

One of the problems is that sarin gas, unlike other toxic chemical agents, has a very short shelf-life. In Syria's arid climate, the gas is only deadly for up to two hours. It decomposes rapidly into nontoxic phosphoric acid derivatives and generally degrades entirely in a matter of weeks - making it difficult to trace.

The nerve agent was discovered in the 1930s by two German scientists looking for a more effective pesticide. "In 1938, German army headquarters realized that this insecticide could also be used as a weapon. It's just a question of the concentration," said Klaus Koehler, whose company helped destroy stockpiles of chemical weapons in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Possible trail leads to Russia

No one doubts that Syria possesses chemical weapons; it is believed that the Assad regime has bunkered some 1,000 tons. "Basically, anybody who has access to normal chemical equipment can make chemical weapons," said Koehler.

Syrian activists produce homemade gas masks, 2013. REUTERS/Hadi Almonajed

Syrian activists have been producing homemade gas masks

But such nerve agents can also be purchased. The international community decided to get rid of stockpiles of chemical weapons some 20 years ago - but in some cases, Koehler noted, it is cheaper to sell than to dispose of them.

The assumptions are not new. In 1995, Russia's domestic intelligence service FSB charged a former Red Army general with selling chemical agents to Syria. Ex-General Anatoly Kuntsevich was said to have smuggled precursor chemicals for manufacturing VX gas into Syria. Before his death in 2002, Kuntsevich claimed he had only sold pesticides to Damascus.

Even today, it is not entirely clear how Syria built up its chemical weapons arsenal. "We do know, however, that Syria's chemical weapons resources are multiple times larger than Libya's potential ever was," said Rolf Nikel, a disarmament expert with the German government. According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Libya possessed about 25 tons of mustard gas before its Arab Spring revolution.

DW.DE