Yesterday, the world watched in horror as a deadly chemical agent—likely sarin gas, one of the most-toxic chemical weapons in existence—was unleashed on unsuspecting civilians, including dozens of children. Doctors and rescue workers posted videos of the attack on Syria’s rebel- and jihadist-controlled town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province. Soon, the images of dead, poisoned children had spread across the world, followed by condemnations by the United Nations and NGOs alike.
After news of the attack became public, President Donald Trump released a short statement, calling it “reprehensible” but also blaming the Obama administration for establishing a red line against chemical attacks and doing nothing. On Wednesday, Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, forcefully told the UN Security Council that the “illegitimate Syrian government, led by a man with no conscience, has committed untold atrocities against his people for more than six years.”
While the identity of the chemical used in the attack is still unclear, investigators suspect “sarin or worse.” Médecins Sans Frontières has also confirmed that the victims' symptoms are consistent with exposure to agents like sarin.
The Syrian government, for its part, has denied responsibility, instead blaming the attack on the armed rebel groups of Idlib and accusing them of using civilians as human shields. Several experts, however, have noted that the manufacturing process for sarin is too complicated for the rebels. And if they managed to steal the nerve gas, it wouldn’t have been in large quantities.
The Syrian government knows just how deadly sarin can be when used in chemical attacks. If sarin was indeed Assad’s agent of choice, it is clear that his is a regime emboldened to act with impunity, red lines or no.
Sarin is an extremely toxic, colorless, odorless gas that acts on the nervous system. It falls in the same category of substances as pesticides, also known as an organophosphates; even small amounts can cause death within minutes. Because sarin acts on the nervous system, it essentially disrupts all bodily functions. The pupils shrink to pinpoints, the mouth and lungs fill with saliva and bodily fluid, and the heart begins to slow. Blood pressure, responsible for keeping a healthy person lucid and conscious, decreases, and the victim loses consciousness. He may drown in his own secretions. His bowels and bladder spasm painfully and empty out. Some victims may experience seizures. Death comes quickly and mercilessly. (The antidote for sarin poisoning, atropine, is a cheap and effective medication available on every resuscitation cart in every hospital in North America. But with large-scale attacks in active war zones, rescue efforts can be futile.)
Sarin, along with other nerve agents like Tabun and Soman, was first produced in Germany’s famous I.G. Farben factory in October 1938 by chemist Gerhard Schrader and his team—quite by accident. Schrader and company stumbled upon the agent in the process of trying to develop a pesticide that targeted an insect’s nervous system. When Schrader himself came into contact with the liquid, he and his team were incapacitated for nearly a month. (The word sarin is an acronym for the names of the four scientists who developed it.) Later, the Nazi government told Schrader to forget about insects and focus on weaponizing sarin as soon as possible. Despite the Nazis’ chemical-weapons advantage, Hitler decided not to use them against Allied forces, for reasons unclear.
In 1993, the Chemical Weapons Convention, an arms-control treaty ratified, at present, by 192 states, banned sarin, classifying it as a Schedule-1 chemical. These are chemicals with “such lethal or incapacitating toxicity” that they have “little or no use for purposes not prohibited under this convention”—chemicals, in other words, with no use other than as weapons.
Astonishingly, if yesterday's attack did use sarin, it would be only the fourth confirmed use of the agent as a weapon in history—two of them apparently by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian Civil War. The first occurred on March 16, 1988, at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. In the Kurdish town of Halabja, about a dozen miles from the Iranian border, Iraqi aircraft appeared overhead and spread poisonous gas, killing over 5,000 people. It later became clear that the U.S. government was aware of the attack and had stayed quiet. Families in Halabja were utterly disoriented by the attack, as they watched birds fall from trees and animals and neighbors collapse to the ground, writhing in pain.
The second confirmed use of sarin occurred on March 20, 1995, when the Japanese new religious movement known as Aum Shinrikyo released the gas on three subway lines in Tokyo, killing 12 and injuring and producing symptoms in thousands of others. As one of the survivors noted, “really, it was like I’d been shot or something, all of a sudden my breathing completely stopped. Like, if I inhaled any more, all my guts would come spilling right out of my mouth.” The investigation into the terror attack revealed that it was carried out by a group of 10 men and masterminded by their leader, Shoko Asahara.
The two most-recent cases of weaponized sarin use occurred during the Syrian Civil War. On August 21, 2013, according to the United Nations, areas in East Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, were struck by Assad-regime rockets containing sarin. While estimates of the death toll vary, the U.S. government’s report on the attack puts the figure at 1,429 dead, including 426 children. The report also places the blame squarely on the Assad regime, and dismissed its claim that the rebels themselves had launched the attack to invite international sympathy.
If investigations prove, as many believe, that the Syrian regime was behind the latest attack, the international community once again has a decision to make. It can wag its finger once more, hold more meetings at the United Nations, or it can take a harsher stance that Assad must be removed from power. Assad has killed and displaced more Syrians than the Islamic State and all the jihadist groups combined. He has bombed hospitals and targeted rescue workers, and used chemical weapons. The international community must not afford him any legitimacy.