The world doesn’t need another blog earnestly agonising over the question of whether chemical weapons were used in Damascus this week or not, and if so what the consequences will be. But since I once had a bit of involvement with this subject I’d thought I’d chuck in a couple of thoughts I have not seen expressed anywhere else. This is all in the context that we don’t actually know what’s going on in Syria. Certainly, it’s hard to see why the Syrian government (which is winning in the sense that it’s not losing) would use chemical weapons just when it seems to have things largely under control, whereas the opposition (which is losing in the sense that it’s not winning) has a far better rationale for using the weapons, to provoke foreign intervention. But for the moment at least, this is all speculation.
What we can say is that something nasty appears to have happened, and that if the pictures of the dead are genuine then, as experts have already said, they are consistent with the use of Sarin, which is an asphyxiating nerve agent that kills by paralysing the muscles and making it impossible to breathe. But it’s not at all obvious how it was delivered. news media (including the BBC) have talked in the same story about “missiles” and “artillery shells” which are very different things, although both recognised means of delivery. Pictures of the alleged weapons, reproduced on sites like this one, only add to the confusion. Certainly, the Syrian government has the capability to launch a CW attack, even if it is not clear what they hope to gain. But the rebels could also possibly launch a limited attack with these rather agricultural-looking weapons.
Which is why the final casualty figures are very important. Estimates of casualties have varied wildly, from “a few hundred” to as many as 1800 dead, although almost all of these reports are attributed to “opposition sources”; make of that what you will. But if even the lowest figure is accurate, then the attack must have been truly massive. For the fundamental fact about chemical weapons is that they aren’t very effective, and have never really been of any use for serious killing. In the Cold War, the Soviet Union planned to use them on such a scale – thousands of tonnes – that most of Western Europe would have been covered in a thick cloud of gas. Even then, they were intended more for nuisance value, and to create shock and panic, than as battle-winning weapons. If the published photographs are accurate about the size of the weapons, then thousands of them would have had to be used, and much of that part of Damascus would have been ankle-deep in projectiles of one form or another. They would also have to have been fired in quick succession, because, even though Sarin is invisible, it would be pretty clear what was going on, and most of the locals would have run like hell. Could the government have done that? Would they?
So as I say, as clear as mud.