National Geographic News
Brazilian army soldiers wearing chemical suits participate in an anti-terror simulation exercise as part of the preparation for the upcoming 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brasilia.

Army soldiers wearing chemical suits participate in an anti-terror simulation exercise to prepare for the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil.

Photograph by Ueslei Marcelino, Reuters

Anna Kordunsky

for National Geographic

Published August 28, 2013

The White House is weighing military options in response to a chemical weapons attack allegedly carried out by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. United Nations inspectors are in Syria gathering evidence of the attack, which happened last week and left hundreds dead, while a separate U.S. intelligence report on the incident is expected later this week.

President Barack Obama declared a year ago that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a "red line" and could provoke U.S. military intervention. [Related: "Word in the News: Red Line."]

But what makes chemical weapons attacks more unacceptable than conventional military attacks, which have been raging in Syria since the start of the civil war there more than two years ago? And why is identifying the precise nature of last week's attack, including the chemical agents used, so difficult?

We spoke to chemical weapons expert Alexander Garza to get some answers.

A doctor and former Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs and Chief Medical Officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Garza is associate dean and professor of epidemiology at the Saint Louis University College of Public Health and Social Justice.

In a war that has seen 100,000 deaths, what is it about chemical weapons that crosses a "red line"?

The reason is that most of the world has come to an agreement that chemical weapons should not be used in war. I think most people today have some acceptance of the common ways that wars are waged: with bullets and bombs.

But as we've seen historically, chemical weapons are inhumane and a horrific way to die—and that's why the most of the world has outlawed them.

Another reason is that chemical weapons are indiscriminate—not that bombs and bullets can't be. These weapons kill everyone in any environment where they're deployed. That is why we see the large number of children [killed] in the footage from Syria.

What makes this latest attack different from the chemical attacks allegedly committed by the Syrian government over the last year?

This attack was much larger in scale, and it was more definitive that chemical weapons were used. The previous incidents of chemical weapons use in Syria were not as pronounced and as declarative as this attack. There were many fewer casualties, it wasn't such a widespread area, and there was substantial debate on whether chemical weapons were even involved.

Since then, the U.S. administration and other countries confirmed that yes, chemical weapons had previously been deployed. But they were used on a rather small scale and did not generate quite the response from the international community that this larger dispersion did.

Let's face it, whenever one sees children dying like that, it invokes a much different response from people and countries than a very small-scale incident where just rebel fighters die.

What chemical weapons are suspected of being used during the latest attack, and what are the symptoms in people exposed to them?

Most of the evidence is pointing toward nerve agents, and particularly sarin. Syria has a fairly well-known offensive chemical weapons program, and just based on reports and pictures from the news media and from the symptoms that the patients are exhibiting, sarin gas is the most likely culprit.

A nerve agent like sarin affects the ability of the nervous system to transmit signals to different parts of the body, by blocking the enzyme that the body uses to break down neurotransmitters. What results is overstimulation, and eventually the body may shut down because it's not able to do what it normally can do.

The symptoms are the product of this enzyme being inhibited. Patients may have pinpoint pupils and complain of difficulty seeing or may have a runny nose, which again are the effects of the neurotransmitter being blocked. You may see some twitching, and then eventually they may suffocate because they aren't able to adequately take a breath.

Are there ways to treat these symptoms?

Well, the best way to treat them is prevention. But once a person is exposed, there are a couple of medical antidotes, called atropine and pralidoxime, that can counteract the chemical agent's effects.

Equally important is the decontamination of patients. You can use water, to which you can add some bleach to make it a little bit alkalotic, which will break down the chemicals. In large exposures like this, treatment is very time-dependent, both in administering the antidote as quickly as possible and in decontaminating the patient as much as you can.

Unfortunately, places like Syria sometimes do not have large stockpiles of the antidote and widespread knowledge of decontamination procedures. So the chemical will stick around on the patients' skin, on the clothes.

The chemical is very volatile and it can affect other people around the patients, those taking care of them. So if there are reports of people who are affected by the chemical but who weren't near the scene of the attack, they may be feeling the effects of the chemical that was on patients' clothes and skin.

What are the UN investigators on the ground in Syria looking for?

These experts will most likely look at the different attack scenes and interview the victims, the medical caretakers, and people in the area. They will also be collecting samples and taking them back to the lab.

The main chemical agents degrade very quickly and disappear into the environment, but investigators may find remnants—chemical breakdown products—in human blood, urine, animal carcasses, and soil. Finding the specific breakdown products is almost conclusive evidence that a chemical weapon was used, since the only place where these chemicals could have come from is the breakdown of sarin gas.

It may take a fair amount of time, possibly weeks, before they have the answers. In some cases, patients who are known to have been exposed may not have the chemical in their blood (we saw that happen in the Tokyo subway attack), but in some cases they will. Nothing is really cut and dry when it comes to medical science, so the investigators will be taking a large volume of samples, and they have a lot of work to do.

How does Assad's use of chemical weapons differ from when Iraq's Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurds and against Iran in 1988?

It certainly carries a lot of similarities to the attack on the Kurdish citizens of Halabja during the Iran-Iraq war. If you pull up images of Halabja from when Saddam used chemical weapons and look at pictures of the victims in Syria, you'll notice that they are virtually indistinguishable.

With their horrific toll, and with the risk of drawing ire from the international community so high, why use these weapons?

It's hard to figure out what the logic was behind doing something like this with the understanding that the entire world is watching this unfold. One can only make deductions as to what was going on inside the minds of people responsible for this attack. But what would drive someone to use a weapon such as this?

As the U.S. launched operation Iraqi Freedom, military minds were concerned that backed into a corner, Saddam Hussein might use chemical weapons as the last-ditch effort, and we were fortunate that this did not occur. [Iraq turned out to lack a chemical weapons stockpile.]

But from what we see in Syria, this doesn't seem to be a last-ditch effort. What we have in Syria is at best a stalemate, and at worst the Assad regime is currently on the offensive. It really is an atrocity that somebody would allow a weapon like this to be used—especially in a highly populated suburb that allows no discrimination between fighting parties and innocent bystanders.

Jeff G
Jeff G

The idea that Chemical weapons are weapons of mass destruction is hardly new. Chem=Bio=Nuke has been policy at least since the cold war.

  Chemical weapons kill indiscriminately and en masse.  A single conventional artillery round may kill a dozen people and injure a couple of dozen more.  A single chemical round delivered by the same shell can multiply the death toll exponentially. They also kill in truly horrific manners - yes, a bullet or shrapnel wound is horrible, but go and research chemical effects. Most importantly, they can linger; they can continue to kill beyond the initial explosion.  Chemical weapons can kill people who come into an exposed area hours, days or even weeks after the initial attack.

The danger of letting a large-scale Chemical attack go unanswered is that Chem weapons are far easier to create than Nuclear..sometimes even easier than a conventional bomb of large enough scale.  If we create an atmosphere of tolerance, and they become viewed as "okay", we may be opening a truly nasty door.

Shane C.
Shane C.

The father of chemical warfare was a German Nationalist who happened to be a Jew. During WW1,  He showed them how to deliver it through artillery fire. He did not care about what it would do to the enemy, only that it would help them win the war. Shortly after Hitler came to power, he said he never felt so Jewish. At that time he was working on pesticides to improve crop growth. The Nazis would take his pesticide and slightly modify it and use it in the gas chambers. Hitler had experienced first hand the affects of chemical warfare during WW1, and refuse to use it during all of WW2 as of its horror. Except of course on the Jews. Finally I myself served in the Canadian Armed Forces and while going through boot camp in 1972, I had to endure being in a gas hut, first with a mask on and then with it off. This was an experience I shall never forget. Horrible!

Gaurav Goel
Gaurav Goel

The reason chemical weapons are different, which no one seems to want to say publicly, is that they are far more efficient in killing people than conventional warfare.  In other words, chemical weapons allow, with relatively simple means, killing thousands of people with a single strike.  For example, you could place a bomb in a stadium or other venue packed with people and kill many.  But you could use chemical weapons to kill nearly everyone in that area.

We hear comparisons between the tens of thousands killed in Syra and the thousand people killed in last week's CW strike.  But the Syrian war casualties have taken years to accumulate.  The chemical weapons strike occurred in an instant.

Big difference.

Jakob Stagg
Jakob Stagg

Why are chemical weapons attacks different? We still haven't learned anything about the conduct of politics and control. Politicians have no interest in human life other than taking it and promoting their own agenda.

The line in the sand will keep moving until someone blinks. Then we will be in yet another war. "We like war. We are a warlike nation." George Carlin.

Lewis L
Lewis L

So here's NG trying to defend Obama's response.  If this were a republican president we would see the exact opposite response from NG in this article.  

Xira Arien
Xira Arien

Chemical weapon attacks, and all other non-conventional weapons, are different because they could partially level the playing field between a technologically unsophisticated regime and the USA.

The USA has a massive advantage in terms of conventional weaponry, and we would rather like to not lose our advantage. So long as wars are fought between us and them on conventional terms we will win and suffer little to no losses. Should some other regime go fully into nuclear or biological or chemical weaponry that might change the equation.

Therefore they are a 'red line' that we can not allow regimes we would like to order around to cross.

 I.E. we can't invade N Korea because they could nuke S Korea( and just maybe our Western Coast cities). <- my blog

Roger Bird
Roger Bird

I don't suppose that anyone but me has noticed that it seems that only those countries dominated by the Religion of Peace have used chemical weapons for the past 75 years.  And in both case, Iraq and Syria, they used them on their own citizens.

Conwaythe Contaminationist
Conwaythe Contaminationist

Obama, a posturing dilettante hoping to divert attention from a moribund economy and an administration plagued by scandals.

Peter Slater
Peter Slater

As a report I read somewhere, we would if we attacked Syria be supporting Al quaeda just like we did against the Russians all those years ago, whats round comes around.

Casper McGrady
Casper McGrady

They are different because National Geographic is searching for a reason to justify why the Nobel Peace Prize winning President Obama is going to bomb another country back into the stone age, most likely causing 100 times the casualties of any chemical weapons release to date in Syria.

Daniel Phelan
Daniel Phelan

All weapons are chemical.  Conventional weapons can suffocate and burn and cause slow torturous deaths.  

US officials have “little doubt” about the use of WMD. Oh where oh where have we heard that one before?  The cost of the war in Iraq could have funded Social Security for 75 years!!  What are our priorities?  Are we ready to fail to rebuild another country at taxpayer expense?

There happens to be huge doubts about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. For one, why would Assad use the types of weapons with UN inspectors in country? Secondly, if these are chemical weapons then why aren't the people in the pictures sent by the opposition, wearing protective suits?

The rebels have a motive for using chemical weapons, it gets the US involved more than it is already. Assad has no motive to use these types of weapons when everyone in the world is watching.  

The claims of the existence of some red line are ridiculous as well. It’s like saying, “Assad, you can kill as many people as you want, just not with these types of weapons.” It’s garbage. If you want to step into this fight then do it with honor.

Now let’s watch as some mineral rights management armchair generals launch some cruise missiles into Syria from Utah or wherever. Real brave intervention from the soldierless army of drones.

Casper McGrady
Casper McGrady

@Roger Bird 

America dropped nukes on Japan and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, so what does that make us?

How about those depleted uranium rounds we left all over the earth in Iraq?

eyad al-akhras
eyad al-akhras

@Daniel Phelan

I'm Syrian living in Damascus. There might be a third party playing both sides, setting the pace and balancing the set. The scheme might be old and for the whole region, and the target is to strip off all military powers but one. And with this one, Israel, lies US' priorities, beyond its borders and taxpayers.

I think that the population in this region is being brainwashed on mass scale. New ideologies are being planted, so that this mosaic of little countries will keep on fragmenting, and Israel will keep on milking and feeding. Blame no one but us.

By the way, have you seen Gaza Strip bombarded with chemical agents? It was Phosphor I think.


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