In Depth

Assad regime behind Syria's sarin gas massacre, says UN

In Depth: Russia claims report contains inconsistencies and unverified evidence

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad’s government carried out a chemical attack on the opposition-held Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed dozens of people in April, according to the UN Security Council.

“The Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017,” says a new report by the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons - known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) - Reuters reports. 

The gas attack prompted President Donald Trump to order the US military to fire 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase.

“Time and again, we see independent confirmation of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime," the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said in comments reported by CNN. “And in spite of these independent reports, we still see some countries trying to protect the regime. That must end now.” 

The panel’s finding “could place new pressure on Russia, the Syrian government’s most important ally, which pledged four years ago to ensure that President Bashar al-Assad purge all his chemical weapons”, says The New York Times

Russia today condemned the UN report, reports the Daily Mail. “Even the first cursory read shows that many inconsistencies, logical discrepancies, using doubtful witness accounts and unverified evidence... all of this is still (in the report),” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Interfax news agency.

Syria attack: What is sarin gas? 30 June 2017 

Sarin gas was used in an attack on civilians in Idlib, Syria, in April, killing more than 90 people, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed today.

The deadly nerve agent has only been used a handful of times in history, including attacks in Japan in the mid-1990s and during the Iraq-Iran war in the previous decade.

The OPCW also found that hexamine, "a known component of the Syrian regime's stockpiles", was contained in samples taken from the scene, says The Guardian.

A UN panel will now consider whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was responsible, the BBC reports.

"President Assad has previously said that the incident was fabricated," says The Times.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said today he had “absolutely no doubt the finger points at the Assad regime".

This month, White House officials said they were aware of "potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack" carried out by Assad's regime and would respond if an attack is carried out.

"Trump is coming close to finding his red line in Syria," CNN said this week.

So what is Sarin?

Sarin is a human-made organophosphorus compound usually stored as a colourless, odourless liquid. It can evaporate into a vapour which is slightly heavier than air and gathers near the ground as a result.  

Is sarin a new weapon?

No. The compound is believed to have been discovered in 1938 by German scientists attempting to create stronger pesticides. Following the outbreak of World War II, the chemical warfare section of the German army weapons office began manufacturing large quantities of the compound.

"From early in the conflict, high-level military officers pressed Hitler to use sarin against their adversaries," History.com says.

Despite pressure, Hitler did not use the chemical weapon against the Allies. "Some historians have traced this reluctance to Hitler’s own experience of the effects of nerve gas as a soldier during World War I," says the Washington Post.

What effect does it have on those exposed to it?

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sarin is "the most toxic and rapidly acting of the known chemical warfare agents".

As a nerve agent, it works by preventing the proper operation of the chemical that acts as the body's "off switch" for glands and muscles.

Without this, the glands and muscles are constantly being stimulated and so may tire and no longer be able to sustain breathing function.

If victims are exposed to enough sarin, they lose control of bodily functions. Ultimately, they become comatose and suffocate in a series of spasms.

"The antidote for sarin poisoning, atropine, is a cheap and effective medication available on every resuscitation cart in every hospital in North America," says The Atlantic.

But with "large-scale attacks in active war zones, rescue efforts can be futile".

Has sarin been used as a weapon before?

Yes, although not often.

One of the most notorious uses of sarin was during a two-day assault on the Kurdish city of Halabja in northern Iraq in 1988. As many as 5,000 people died when Saddam Hussein's forces dropped chemical agents, including sarin, on the city.  

In 1995, Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese cult, twice deployed the gas, killing 21 and injuring thousands, while in August 2013, according to the United Nations, areas in East Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, were struck by Assad-regime rockets containing sarin.

While estimates of the death toll vary, the US government’s report on the attack puts the death toll at 1,429, including 426 children

Why is it a 'red line'?

The fact sarin has "only been used a few times in history... is why the reports of potential use in Syria are so alarming", says Business Insider's Brian Jones

Earlier this week, the White House made a statement saying Syria would pay a heavy price for another chemical weapons attack, thereby "reinforcing a red line over the use of chemical weapons by Damascus," says the Financial Times.

Many foreign policy experts "blame Barack Obama for drawing a red line over the issue in 2011 and then hesitating to act when Syria used chemical weapons a year later," adds Jones.

"As opposed to an Obama red line, it’s real," said Frederic Hof, a Syria expert at the Atlantic Council who served as a senior Syria official during the Obama administration.

Obama's failure to follow through on his own red line cost the US "significantly" in the Middle East, then US secretary of state John Kerry said in December.

Kerry insisted the US ultimately "got a better result" from not bombing Assad, but said "the lack of doing it perception-wise cost us significantly in the region".

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