On July 23, the Syrian Foreign Ministry informed the press that the regime of Bashar al-Assad would not use chemical weapons against the Syrian people. A spokesman stated, “Those weapons will only be used in the case of exterior aggression.” Syria has never officially acknowledged it has chemical weapons and spent the next day denying it - despite it being well-known among intelligence agencies and confirmed by the Syrian opposition. Chemical weapons in the Middle East are in the headlines again. So just what are these chemical weapons and how could they be used?
Syria is alleged to have Sarin and/or VX nerve agents. Roughly speaking, nerve agents kill by causing uncontrollable expansion and contraction of muscles in the limbs and organs of the body. When muscles contract, they do so because signals are relayed through nerve cells by a messenger substance, acetylcholine. To stop the contractions, the enzyme acetylcholinesterase dissolves the messenger substance. Nerve agents such as Sarin and VX block the enzyme and the messenger substance continues to be sent. This means that the muscles of the body continue to contract uncontrollably, eventually destroying organs and causing death. Depending upon exposure amount and time, it can cause death within minutes or days.
Sarin is a G-Series nerve agent. The G series was discovered by a German chemist developing pesticides in the 1930’s. The Nazis refrained from using nerve agents because they falsely believed the allies possessed them as well. Only after the war did America, Britain, and Russia learn of them. G-Series agents are ‘non-persistent,’ meaning that once they are deployed, they only remain effective for a short period of time and become inert generally within a day. They are often watery or gaseous in consistency and harmful upon inhalation or skin contact.
VX is a V-Series nerve agent. It was developed in the 1950’s by British scientists and later shared with America. ‘Persistent’ V-Series agents may remain effective for a few days or up to a month. In moderate temperatures with little rain or wind, they can last as long as five weeks. V-Series agents are thicker and oily in consistency and evaporate less quickly. Skin contact and vapor inhalation are both lethal.
Chemical weapons, fortunately rarely deployed, are an effective weapon for reasons other than their lethality. Persistent chemical weapons can be used to deny access to an area for a period of time. Gassing strategic passes, cities, or ports can deny an enemy access to them or cause them to avoid them. Non-persistent agents can be used to cover a retreat, interrupt rear-area supply bases or routes, or cause enemy casualties in preparation for an assault. Even trained militaries equipped with chemical agent protective clothing and equipment experience significant slowing of operations when forced to operate in a chemical environment. Chemical weapons can be deployed in a number of ways, including aircraft spray, artillery, missiles, and mines.
Chemical agents are among the most lethal weapons known to man. They are cheaper and easier to develop than nuclear weapons and more controllable than biological weapons. The possibility of Syria deploying nerve agents against a ground invasion is a serious threat that shows the desperation of the regime. It presses home the point that ground action there would be a much more serious proposition than many are inclined to believe.