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Middle East and North Africa

Syrian government used sarin gas against opposition, claims France, Britain, U.S., Turkey

French laboratories have confirmed that sarin gas has been used on at least four occasions this year by the Syrian central government in fighting rebels. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius believes “there is no doubt [the perpetrator] was the regime,” citing blood and urine samples taken from victims of the government helicopter attack in Idlib Governorate this April by French reporters for the Le Monde daily newspaper.

Scientists in the United Kingdom have found similar evidence of government-inflicted sarin attacks in the Syrian Civil War, with an anonymous British government spokesman noting, “the room for doubt continues to diminish.” American and Turkish intelligence services have also uncovered indications of nerve agent usage, corroborated by the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The Syrian central government, helmed by President Bashar al-Assad, has been fighting a civil war against a coalition of dissidents including the Coalition of Secular and Democratic Syrians, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Free Syrian Army, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party for over two years, since March of 2011.

A U.N. report cites the Assad regime’s use of thermobaric bombs to deploy sarin gas in the battles surrounding the town of Qusayr in March of this year. The Syrian central government is believed to also have the ability to deploy sarin gas and other nerve agents through Scud missiles.

At least some of these weapons have been acquired from Russia, which, along with the People’s Republic of China, is one of the only permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that still supports the Assad regime. Russia has paused a previously established deal to ship S-300 antiaircraft missiles to the Syrian government, with Russian President Vladimir Putin stating, “We do not want to upset the balance in the region.”

As for the foreign governments against the Assad regime, United States President Barack Obama has delineated usage of chemical weapons as a “red line,” past which foreign intervention against the Syrian government may be justified. He has not responded to this most recent evidence unearthed by France and the U.K., but White House spokesperson Jay Carney has stated that the administration “needs more information” before undertaking a formal intervention.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is similarly hedging, characterizing the “catalogue of atrocities… to be both sickening and staggering,” but stopping short at promising U.N. intervention in the wake of the attacks.

If Assad were using sarin gas against his opposition, it would be the second major case in history where a Ba’athist regime has used sarin gas to brutally quell opponents and civilians in a conflict. In 1988, at the denouement of the Iran-Iraq War, former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein undertook the al-Anfal Campaign to quell Kurdish rebellion. Sarin gas was most famously used in the Halabja massacre in March of that year, when nerve agents were used to kill five thousand and injure ten thousand Kurdish civilians. The al-Anfal campaign has been characterized as a genocide by several foreign governments, including the U.K., Sweden, and the Netherlands.

Sarin gas is virtually undetectable, as it is both odorless and colorless. Initial symptoms include a runny nose, chest tightness, and pupil constriction; leading to labored breathing, nausea, incontinence, and uncontrollable drooling in the second stage; and convulsive spasms and coma in the final stage, before death.

The Chemical Weapons Convention has outlawed the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons, including sarin gas, in the vast majority of U.N. member states since 1993. Only five states—Angola, Egypt, North Korea, South Sudan, and Syria—have not signed the treaty. Syria is suspected to have one of the world’s largest illicit chemical weapons stockpiles, which it did not even admit to possessing until the current conflict.

Former Syrian Major-General Adnan Sillu, who defected to the rebels last year, has claimed that usage of chemical agents by the Assad regime extends far beyond the four cases isolated by France, as far back as the battles in the cities of Aleppo, Damascus, and al-Zabadani in 2012.

By Laura Gates

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