Syrian Chemical Weapons May Have Been Used, Crossing U.S. "Red Line"


This morning, senior Israeli military officials stated that they had solid evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. If the evidence is conclusive, it could be a game-changer in the conflict that has dragged on for two years and claimed the lives of 70,000 people without meaningful international intervention. 

The evidence includes photographs of victims with constricted pupils, foaming at the mouth, leading Israeli officials to believe that a “sarin-type” chemical was used. A senior military official said that they had evidence of five incidents where chemical weapons seem to have been used, which may have claimed the lives of dozens. The incidents include the attacks on Aleppo and Damascus on March 19. 

British intelligence has also found evidence of chemical weapons based on soil samples from Damascus smuggled out of Syria. Based on the evidence, though, they cannot verify if the Syrian military or the opposition was responsible. Though the Syrian regime blames the opposition, opposition forces accuse the regime based on reports of victims with bluish skin and breathing difficulties.

According to the CDC, sarin is a nerve agent, "the most toxic and rapidly acting of the known chemical warfare agents." Saddam Hussein used sarin against Kurds in northern Iraq in 1987 and 1988, killing as many as 5,000 people. Sarin was also used in a 1995 Japanese domestic terrorist attack in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 and injuring thousands.

Sarin operates by disrupting the proper functioning of glands and muscles, leading to overstimulation. Symptoms can appear just seconds after exposure and include constricted pupils, blurred vision, slow or fast heart rate, and rapid breathing. Exposure to large doses can result in convulsions, paralysis, and respiratory failure. 

Israeli military officials say that the use of chemicals so far has been a test to see how the international community would react, an ominous claim implying that much worse is still to come. Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, chief of the research division of Israel's army intelligence branch, criticized the lack of international response to the evidence of chemical weapons. In August, President Obama stated that "a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."

The U.S. has been hesitant to agree that the evidence of chemical weapons is conclusive, perhaps to a degree because that would mean specifying how exactly the calculus would now change. The U.S. is concerned about supplying weapons in what could easily blow up into a region-wide, sectarian conflict. With the Syrian rebels' backing by Al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups, the U.S. fears that the weapons could easily end up in the wrong hands.

At this point, no outcome in Syria is ideal, between the survival of a despotic, murderous regime, chaotic anarchy in which militant Islamist groups rise in the wake of Assad's fall, or U.S. entrenchment in another sectarian Middle Eastern conflict. A U.S. military intervention won't solve the problem, but the evidence of chemical weapons is proving that inaction will only make the eventual outcome worse. We've reached the red line, and decisive military aid for the opposition from the U.S. and our allies could tip the balance that will allow for a political solution.