The Americans and the UN have not yet been able to tell who may have used sarin gas in Syria. They have tried to get reliable evidence whether Assad’s forces or rebels perhaps crossed this ‘red line’, as President Obama referred to the Syrian conflict veering into chemical warfare.
A doctor in the northern town of Azaz told a Belgian television crew how he dealt with patients suffering alarming from symptoms: “We gave them atropine, which acts as a nerve agent antidote, and that saved their lives.”
Sarin gas is one of the most toxic chemicals ever invented, hundreds of times more so than cyanide. A German chemist looking for new insecticides developed it accidentally in 1938. The Nazis in World War Two put it in artillery shells but never used it. The US produced it later, for a time.
Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, it is claimed, used sarin among other nerve agents, in 1988, on the ethnic Kurdish city of Halabja, in the final phase of the Iran-Iraq War. Thousands of civilians were killed.
Colourless and odourless, sarin is highly volatile, meaning it spreads quickly through the air or water, and, unless an antidote is given, it is deadly within minutes when inhaled or absorbed through the skin, even at low concentrations. Suffocation, mucus secretion, blindness, vomiting, uncontrollable defecation and urination and muscular convulsions end when the heart stops.
Both Cold War super powers stockpiled vast quantities of chemical weapons. Then, under a United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, sarin and other such materials were banned after 1997, and stores were ordered destroyed.
The convention was signed by 162 countries. Israel and Myanmar did not ratify this. Six countries have not signed: Angola, North Korea, Egypt, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria.
The most striking use of sarin was an attack in 1995 by the Aum Shinrikyo sect in Japan, when sarin was released in the Tokyo subway at peak rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring thousands, many of them severely. The toll could have been far worse, had the poison been in pure gas form, rather than pierced packets of thick liquid.
The Chemical Weapons Convention called for the elimination of stockpiles, a long and costly process, considering safety and respect for the environment. Estimates vary over how much sarin the Syrian military may control.