Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sarin as a Weapon of Mass Destruction

Sarin as a Weapon of Mass Destruction
CJ Galunan | 2013-50860

The post-midnight hours of August 21 2013 saw a silent cry of death among the people of Ghouta in Syria. At around 0100, massive fighting bouts were reported to have broken out. Before the world was awake, the weapons plunged down on four villages, engulfing the unsuspecting citizens in an imperceptible fleece of destruction.

Hospitals were flooded with a horde of emergencies. Hundreds of photos surfaced on the worldwide web. Speculations were made. Sides were taken. International news were exploding with several versions. The world opens its eyes to the headline: “Chemical attack in Syria causes death, injury to thousands.”

This fast, this massive, this lethal - the experts could only name their bets, but a few weeks later, all converge into a single opinion: sarin gas. All of a sudden, ears buzz and whispers resound the killers that made the Aum Shinrikyo and Saddam Hussein the notorious figures that they are.

The outcome of this phenomenon begs to ask science the most relevant questions. What is sarin gas and what does it do to human beings exposed to it? What points in history made sarin gas a threat to worldwide security? Most importantly, in light of recent events, what are the implications of the usage of sarin gas in modern society, particularly in local and international crises?

Sarin: The Lethal Chemical

Also known as GB, sarin is an odorless, colorless liquid that carries the chemical composition [(CH3)2CHO]CH3P(O)F. As a weapon, it is usually employed in gas form, as evaporated sarin is more likely to cause more damage to a larger area. It is considered to be one of the most toxic and fast-acting among its chemical weapon contemporaries, rendering the same effects as extremely effective insecticides.

According to the Council of Foreign Relations, sarin is classified as a “toxic nerve agent,” causing the most damage to the nervous system once exposed to or inhaled by its human victims. Specifically, the effects of sarin exposure depends on three factors: (1) point/s of contact (eyes, throat, skin, or inhalation), (2) the amount of sarin that entered the system, and (3) how long the contaminant was exposed.

In the simplest of terms, sarin as a nerve agent “turns our own nervous systems against us.” (Hamblin, 2013) It alters the usual functioning of neurotransmitters by blocking the messages, and in effect, repeating the message over and over, such as tear ducts producing excessive tears or repetitive muscular twitching at the point of contact. This may be manifested in more extreme effects such as stopping the function of more vital organs such as the lungs or permanent paralysis to muscles, which may lead to death in 1 to 10 minutes upon contact.

It may not be as fatal as other chemical weapons such as VX, considerably more toxic in nature, but what makes sarin in any form more dangerous to unprotected citizens is its being colorless and odorless, so the affected have no way of confirming that they have been exposed to whatever amount of sarin, until the symptoms appear or death occurs.

Sarin: The Weapon of Mass Destruction

The development of sarin dates back to Germany in 1938, out of an attempt to create a stronger pesticide. At the onset of World War II, the possibility for sarin to be a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) was considered by the Nazis, even leading to the building of large-scale facilities to produce higher amounts of the chemical. However, due to fear of material retaliation, no chemical weapon was used by the Nazis against the Allies.

Sarin as a WMD resurfaced in 1988 towards the end of the Iraq-Iran War, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein in the Battle of Al-Faw. Four times, with the help of American satellite imagery, a storm of sarin and mustard gas was projected upon several Iranian military posts, helping the Iraqis to retrieve the peninsula.

The world saw a breakthrough of international security when in 1993, the United Nations Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction or simply the UN Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), an arms control treaty under which all chemical weapons, including sarin, were outlawed, with existing stockpiles doomed to destruction. Signed by 162 countries, the UN CWC took effect on 1997, and has since then been administered by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in Hague.

The most famous civilian employment of sarin as a WMD in recent history was committed by the religious group Aum Shinrikyo twice - first in Matsumoto in 1994; and in the Tokyo Metro in 1995. The former caused eight deaths and over 200 injuries; the latter, thirteen deaths. The sect was then considered to be a terrorist organization by many countries, including the United States.

As aforementioned, the most recent of sarin gas attacks was performed in Ghouta, Eastern Damascus on August 21, 2013, with a varying death toll from 300 to 1,300. It still has not been confirmed whether it is the Assad government or the opposition that launched the gas, but certain details have surfaced: (1) that Soviet rockets were used in the attacks, (2) that a large number of the opposition was present in the area, and (3) that the weapons were evidently from the chemical stockpile of the Syrian military. The Syrian government, in its attempt to vindicate itself, has showed interest in joining the CWC. International organizations and allied countries, either with the government or the opposition, have expressed both denial and condemnation, but no major course of action has been taken since.

Sarin: Implications and Possibilities

Syria is only one among many Middle Eastern countries involved in the Arab Spring Revolution. Further, it is not the only country currently engaged in civil or international war. Sarin as a form of chemical warfare may have already been declared illegal by the UN CWC, but the apparent powerlessness of this arms treaty proves that there is a strong possibility that the leniency may be abused especially by countries which are capable of exerting soft power over the implementation and sanctions of these international organizations on the CWC. Thus, sarin still proves to be a major threat to international security, and until 100% of all chemical weapons can be cleared from military stockpiles, there is no assurance of the accountability of countries over the destruction brought about by sarin on civilians. CJLG


Prabirghose, 2013. Sarin gas – a weapon of mass destruction (WMD). March 7, 2014

Safire, William, 2004. Sarin? What Sarin?. New York Times. March 7, 2014

Laub, Zachary, 2013. Sarin. Council on Foreign Relations. March 7, 2014

Hamblin, James, 2013. What Does Sarin Do to People? The Atlantic. March 7, 2014

Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, 1993. United Nations Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction. March 7, 2014

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