The Buzz

Chemical Weapons Mystery: Did Assad Attack with Chlorine (and Sarin)?

In World War I, all sides rapidly deployed countermeasures such as gas masks against chlorine gas, and moved on to deadlier chemical weapons. Nerve agents, first developed by the Nazis during World War II, are dramatically more lethal than chlorine; just thirty-five milligrams of sarin per cubic meter will kill. It is estimated over a thousand Syrians were killed in a single sarin gas attack on Ghouta in 2013.

Since 2012, Syrian military helicopters have “systematically and repeatedly” (according to the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) dropped chlorine gas on rebel-held towns and urban neighborhoods; more than two dozen attacks have been recorded. These attacks continued even after Syria supposedly disposed of its chemical-weapons stocks to avoid international retribution for the Ghouta sarin attack as part of a deal brokered by Russia.

The chlorine gas attacks also continued through 2017 and early 2018, even after the United States launched a missile strike on Syria as punishment for its deployment of air-dropped nerve agents on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, which killed around seventy.

These attacks are an indiscriminate terror tactic directed more at the civilian population than armed fighters, intended to make daily life in rebel-held communities as intolerable as possible so as to provoke an exodus to government-controlled territory. ISIS has also deployed chlorine and mustard gas (a blistering agent) in Iraq and Syria, and a Syrian rebel group has been implicated in a chlorine attack on a Kurdish community.

However, the chlorine raids received relatively little international censure, because chlorine is a common industrial chemical with many useful applications that can’t be plausibly regulated, and because, unlike nerve agents or phosgene gas, chlorine gas has a comparatively low fatality rate. For example, a helicopter-delivered chlorine bombing in Zubdiya in eastern Aleppo on August 10, 2016, injured around seventy (including forty children) and killed four (including a mother and her two babies). In numerous other chlorine attacks, dozens have been injured, but deaths have numbered “only” in the single digits or even zero.

What Happened in Douma?

The high number of fatalities in the Douma attack may suggest that a chemical agent besides chlorine was employed as well. While both sarin and chlorine cause breathing problems, symptoms exhibited by some of the victims of the Douma attack—convulsions, foaming at the mouth, dilated pupils—have led doctors to suggest that sarin or some other nerve agent was employed in tandem with the chlorine. Conveniently, sarin has no smell.

One possibility is that the chlorine gas was intended to mask the employment of a nerve agent, which, unlike chlorine, is considered a weapon of mass destruction. Alternately, the weapons could have been released together to increase the harmful effects of the attack; for example, Saddam Hussein deployed both mustard gas (a blistering agent) and nerve gases (sarin and tabun) in a 1988 attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja, which killed between three and five thousand.

The day after the chemical attack, the rebels in Douma surrendered and the area fell under control of the Syrian government. Subsequently, Russia claimed its forces investigating the site found no sign of a chemical attack. Moscow and Damascus insist that the rebels staged or faked the attack—a claim the two allies have steadfastly made regarding incident upon incident; if they are to believed, civilians in rebel-held territory are constantly staging attacks upon themselves to gain international sympathy. Or else, Russian officials seem to imply that the dead and injured contorted in agony in the videos are actors.