Jeffrey LewisSyria and Sarin

A few thoughts on where we are with the allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria.

The stakes. Let’s keep in mind why we are arguing about this.  The President has said that chemical weapons use would be a “game-changer” (oh, how I hate that…phrase) in Syria. Why do we care if Assad gasses his people, when we’re perfectly willing to let him shell them with normal artillery? Our reluctance, I suspect, arises from the fact that our distaste for Assad is not the same thing as enthusiasm for who replaces him.

Chemical-weapons use invokes an interest that has nothing to do with the future of Syria. We have a stake in strengthening the norm against chemical-weapons use.  If Assad is using chemical weapons to hold on to power, we have an interest in ensuring that his government falls and that the responsible regime figures take their turn at the Hague.

Now, the caution: Once we go in, the gloves are off.  The Assad regime may very well try replicate Saddam’s massacre at Halabja. That was a mass murder of the most appalling scale where you aren’t really sitting around asking, “Did they use nerve agents or not?” So let’s not be hasty. Deterring large-scale chemical-weapons attacks on the civilian population is of continuing value.

The standard of evidence. Now, I happen to think the standard for involving ourselves in this mess ought to be pretty high, particularly since once the gloves are off, Assad might start gassing cities. In for a penny, in for a pound. Let me propose a standard of evidence, then we can see where we are.

First, the allegation of chemical weapons use needs to be specific to a time and place. We need a date, time, location, and (ideally) the identity of the Syrian unit in question. What we want to be sure of is that an actual military attack occurred that resulted in victims.

Second, once we have an attack, we need victims of that attack. These victims, who can credibly be placed on the receiving end of the attack, will provide blood or urine samples that show sarin use.  There is a lot of public research, thanks to the Tokyo subway attack, on how to determine if someone has been exposed to sarin if you are interested. CDC and OPCW also have nice little primers.

We have to be certain that any sarin exposure resulted from an attack. Having set a red line for U.S. involvement to deter Assad, we’ve also created an incentive for certain groups to tell stories that might result in more U.S. assistance. As I’ve noted before, these groups don’t appear particularly scrupulous when it comes to the truth. So I’d be very, very careful about leaping to conclusions.

The evidence itself.  There are two useful sources describing the evidence.  First, the Obama Administration sent Congress a letter that lays out the details. Second, Geoff Dyer and James Blitz have some excellent reporting in the Financial Times that helps explain the letter. Hagel has now also released a statement, but it doesn’t add much.

Here are the two key sentences from the letter:

This assessment is based in part on physiological samples…. [However,] the chain of custody is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred  and under what conditions.

In other words, we have samples showing someone was exposed, but we can’t prove when, where, or how.

Dyer and Blitz add some very important details from “a senior western diplomat.” The physiological samples are two samples taken from different victims at separate locations and on separate dates. The U.S. analyzed one sample (possibly at Edgewood), and the UK Defence Science Technology Laboratory at Porton Down analyzed the other.

One can immediately see the problem: The samples show sarin exposure, but they are not linked to specific, credible events.

Emphasizing the chain of custody. Suddenly the constant references to the “small scale” use becomes more clear — we don’t have multiple victims in a single use, as might be expected if the Syrians gassed a military unit or a local community.  At most, we have two events in which only one person was exposed.

For all we know, these two poor souls stumbled into sarin canisters while ransacking a liberated Syrian military sites. I don’t say that to be callous, but rather because strange things happen on the battlefield. Remember, in 1991, U.S. troops detonated a pit of munitions at Khamisiyah in Iraq only to discover that the munitions contained sarin. The image atop the post is one of a series showing U.S. forces detonating the munitions at Khamisiyah, exposing thousands of U.S. service personnel to low levels of sarin. This was the worst such event, but not the only potential exposure of U.S. forces in 1991 to nerve agents.

There are many ways that Free Syrian Army fighters might find themselves exposed to sarin.  I still think caution is important.


  1. Rene (History)

    Excellent post. One question: since we know that the U.K., Franc, Qatar, and the Saudis are really interested in some form of U.S. military intervention, is there anyway to determine whether the Sarin (or other agents) used came from Syria’s stockpiles or those of others?

  2. John Schilling (History)

    I would also add that we want evidence that the use of chemical weapons was deliberate. Given the upheaval that Syria’s military command and logistics structure has undergone the past few years, it is quite possible that someone – loyalist or rebel – is in possession of a crate of say artillery shells labeled “152mm Very Special Munition” and genuinely doesn’t know what that means except that he’s got a hungry howitzer to feed and this stuff is the right size.

    We had at least one example of that in Iraq; an IED made from what was probably a binary nerve-gas shell left over from Gulf War 1 or earlier, deployed in a manner that made it clear that whoever was responsible didn’t fully understand what they were doing. The reaction to this was very appropriately not, “Teh WMD! Bush Was Right!!!”,
    but a simple recognition that this is war and screwups happen.

    I’d rather not send the United States Army into battle over a local screwup, and I’d certainly rather we not decide which side to support on the basis of relative ability to identify Syrian Army chemical munitions. If use of chemical weapons is widespread, that would be pretty unequivocal, but even absolute confirmation of a single instance should still be handled cautiously.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Yes, I suppose in wanting a specific unit engaged in a specific attack, I was implying some evidence of normal command. But I did not say so and I appreciate you making it explicit.

    • Tamara (History)

      This great documentary shows how accidental use could be easily possible.

      There’s a scene where the protagonist’s rebel unit has to fall back because they couldn’t figure out how to use Google Earth coordinates to aim a recently stolen rocket launcher. It’s literally grab and go, and the rebels are in such need of ammunition that they probably wouldn’t ask any questions before using a “Very Special Munition”.

  3. Thomas Moore (History)

    A small note: I am just a bit tired of everyone saying that since Syria is not a state that is a party to the CWC, then there are no limits. That’s just flatly wrong:

    As of December 17, 1968, The Syrian Arab Republic became a State Party to the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, signed at Geneva on 17 June 1925. The Geneva Protocol, per fancy legal analysis “implicitly, does not cover internal or civil conflicts.” But it might be interesting to ask whether this is still viewed as an internal or civil conflict given Administration policy. And whether it assesses that Syria is in compliance, or not, with the Protocol.

    • rwendland (History)

      I think you’d need to identify the other state party to the protocol that Syria is at war with for the Protocol to apply, given the wording “agree to be bound as between themselves according to the terms of this declaration”.

      But I could be wrong, not having studied academic discussion of it. As an example, by my reading it would also prohibit first-use of any nuclear weapon that emits radioactive particles very poisonous to people (ie all of them) – but I’m obviously wrong there! My simple reading would be that radioactive particles, and perhaps even gamma radiation, would be an “analogous material” in the protocol’s “asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices”!

      And an “analagous device” should surely cover first-use of a neutron bomb designed primarily to kill people in a painful way, to my obviously way-too-simple mind!

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Just a point of clarification, what would an “unfancy” legal analysis look like? Is a civil war subject to the rules of war or not, in the opinion of most international legal scholars? Can chemical weapons be legally used in a civil war, even though illegal in an interstate war?

      As an interesting aside, Assad earlier threatened chemicals against foreign invaders (clearly illegal), but not against rebels.

    • rwendland (History)

      Jonah, I think an unfancy legal analysis would also say civil war isn’t subject to the Protocol.

      Eric Croddy, author of Chemical and Biological Warfare books, writes about the Protocol:

      1) the historic record shows it was largely ineffectual
      2) did not prohibit use against not-ratifying parties (so effectively a no-first-use agreement)
      3) did not prohibit use within state’s own borders
      4) did not prohibit R&D or stockpiling
      5) the U.S. military and American Chemical Society lobbied against it, so U.S. Congress did not ratify for 50 years

      (pages 140-142 of “Weapons of Mass Destruction:
      An Encyclopedia of Worldwide Policy, Technology, and History, Volume 1”)

      Also it is not clear to me the Protocol bans skin-absorbing nerve agents like Sarin – the Protocol was written with inhaled gases (and analogous materials) in mind. eg the UK agreed the Protocol in 1930, but went on to make 20 tons of Sarin in the 1950s. The UK normally takes treaties very seriously, so I would not be surprised to find some rationale that it does not cover skin-absorbing agents.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      First, the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibits nerve gases. It is not limited to inhaled gases, but is written rather broadly to prohibit “asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices.” Nerve agents were developed later, in the 1930s, but were immediately understood to be prohibited by the Geneva Protocol.

      Second, the UK and many other powers stockpiled nerve agents because, as you note, the 1925 Geneva Convention only outlawed use. The UK signed the Geneva Protocol with the reservation that it “ceases to be binding in regards to any enemy state which does not observe the prohibitions of the protocol.” The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention finally banned production and stockpiling.

      Third, although I often read that the Geneva Protocol is limited to conflicts among states party, I would note two cautions. The plain reading is quite a bit broader than that.

      Whereas the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world; and Whereas the prohibition of such use has been declared in Treaties to which the majority of Powers of the world are Parties; and To the end that this prohibition shall be universally accepted as a part of International Law, binding alike the conscience and the practice of nations; Declare: That the High Contracting Parties, so far as they are not already Parties to Treaties prohibiting such use, accept this prohibition …

      Also, a Dutch court convicted a businessman of aiding Iraq in its chemical attack on Halabja, arguing that the attack violated the 1925 Geneva Protocol. I think there is a very strong argument that a plain reading of the 1925 Geneva Protocol would prohibit the use of nerve agents against restive populations. This is strengthened by the fact that Syria did NOT/NOT sign with the typical reservation that the Protocol is “binding only with regards to states who have ratified or acceded to the protocol.”

  4. Dean (History)

    I work in the medical field and just happened to carry out a DOD research study of PGW vets downwind of Khamisiyah. There are neurophysiological markers of organophosphate toxicity that are probably even more accessible than mass spec. In the case of the Kham study, we did not find evidence of neuro abnormalities in the very small handful of vets who were actually in the downwind plume and willing to show up to the lab for a day of electrodes and electrical shocks. However it should also be pointed out that these tests are not specific to Sarin or VX, etc., rather organophosphates generally. In fact we see pesticide exposure in the hospital sometimes, but (almost) never sarin. At any rate I must agree that we should be looking for population effects, a one-off or two-off is unfortunately unconvincing. Show me 30 patients with delayed central conduction times and I would be interested.

    • flamesInTheDesert (History)

      You wouldn`t need anything hi-tech just some organophosphate pesticides this will give you a false positve

  5. Bradley Laing (History)

    —If I were writing a piece of fiction, I’d have a government-sponsored scam artist use a high tech lab to create a “false positive” substance that would make the Sarin detectors go off, without any actual danger to anyone.

    —I assume, in reality, there is no way to “spoof” Sarin detection methods?

    • FOARP (History)

      “I assume, in reality, there is no way to “spoof” Sarin detection methods?”

      Sure there is. Expose them to Sarin.

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      —So, could dumping pesticides on Syrian rebels contaminate their blood samples to make it look like they were hit by Sarin nerve gas, or not?

  6. FOARP (History)

    BTW – what’s the picture?

    • SQ (History)

      See the second-to-last paragraph.

  7. David (History)

    What about the claims in the British letter to the UNSG, as mentioned in today’s New York Times story? Reports of dozens of victims with specific symptoms and perhaps 25 deaths in total. Are those credible? Any relation to the evidence assessed by U.S. intelligence?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      That amounts to little more than the Syrian opposition saying (again) we were gassed, just with more embellishment.

      I’ve laid out the standard that the Obama Administration would need to meet to convince me.

  8. Cyrus (History)

    Funny, “we” didn’t have much of an interest in strengthening this “norm” against chemical weapons use when “we” were aiding and abetting Saddam’s chemical weapons use, and were trying to pin it on the Iranians instead, huh?

    As a categorical statement, that is simply false.

    • SQ (History)

      For that matter, “we” in the United States also did not have a stake maintaing a norm against slavery when it was legal here.

      “We” did not have a stake in the “nuclear taboo” at the time of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And “we” did not have a stake in the norm against chemical weapons use during WWI. Or, apparently, during the Yemeni civil war, or the Iran-Iraq war. Or, to be more exact, not enough of a stake.

      None of which falsifies the idea that we do indeed have a stake in the norm against CW use today. Otherwise, I don’t think the President would have made a peep about it, and we wouldn’t be reading about it now. It’s not as if anyone outside of Syria cares about Syria for its own sake. Most of the world’s people have their own concerns and would be delighted to ignore the place and its people. I don’t recommend this attitude, but it appears to be what prevails everywhere.

  9. Nick Ritchie (History)

    Asad isn’t stupid. He will have digested the lesson Gaddafi learnt to his cost not to threaten swift, mass and indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians a la Benghazi. His forces are ratcheting up the body count bit by bit but avoiding spectacular massacres that could escalate Western moral outrage to the point of direct, violent intervention. He must, surely, understand that a major chemical attack killing thousands would in all likelihood tip the scales for an intervention that would cement his demise either in the Hague or a more gruesome end. Which begs the question of why he would authorise such a small-scale use of sarin? What did he have to gain? A demonstration shot, so to speak? That seems unlikely.

  10. Anon2 (History)


    Can you do me a small favor? Can you replace the F bomb in the article with something like Fracking, or even @#$%ing. Occasionally I point other people to your blog, and they may have different sensibilities. (I personally don’t care — I find your writing style humorous.)

    By the way, your article was great and it was timely. Excellent piece when this issue is being put in play in the mainstream media by people like Jeffrey Goldberg. The discussion also remains top notch professional.

    Thank you,


    • Jeffrey (History)

      Sure. I should stop swearing anyway.

  11. Anon2 (History)


    Thank you.

  12. Andrew (History)

    (my apologies, I accidentally posted a duplicate of this comment in MK’s latest piece just a moment ago)

    Perhaps this whole situation begs the question, should protective NBC equipment or anticholinergic drugs/autoinjectors etc. be something that makes up a significant portion of nonlethal aid to the FSA (or really, any rebel faction)? I’m not sure if anyone is in the position to know, but is that something that’s already being delivered? Maybe most importantly, is providing that aid an implicit signal that we can’t deter (further?) chemical attacks by Assad?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      You ask a serious question.

      Obviously, CBW gear provides a countermeasure for opposition forces facing CBW attacks. My colleague Amy Smithson thinks this is a good idea.

      On the other hand, CBW gear also enables such attacks — not a trivial consideration given (unproven) allegations of rebel CW use.

      Note, for example, the extreme distress that resulted from the interdiction of a shipment of chemical suits in Busan intended for Syria. (The North Koreans apparently arranged the shipment, but the cargo was loaded in a third country.) The Syrian purchase was not defensive.

      I’d like to be able to supply chemical defenses, but am troubled about how to do so in a way that doesn’t (unduly) increase the risk of chemical use by the opposition.

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