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Chem/Bio Warfare

Sarin. Again.

I wrote in the early days of this blog about chemical warfare, including a two-part post on nerve agents specifically, here and here. The recent use of Sarin in Syria prompts me to link to those again, and I very much wish the topic were not of interest. I realize that war is a horrible business – General Sherman knew what he was talking about when he said “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it”. And a civil war is generally the worst of all.

But the use of Sarin or the other nerve agents is an affront to civilization, as indeed is any massacre of unarmed civilians. There is no military purpose to their use on such people, other than the general one of causing as much terror and dismay as possible (and of course demonstrating that you yourself will stop at nothing). The Syrian government has long been known to have stocks of chemical agents, and has been willing to use them in the past. The 2013 efforts to remove the government’s stockpiles are, in retrospect, something of a cruel joke, and might have at best merely postponed their use a bit. (And yes, this means that I find it highly likely that this attack was the work of the Syrian government, and highly likely that their Russian allies aided in it, since they’re the main reason that the government’s air force is operational at all).

So today we once again live in a world where people deliberately drop such things without warning onto homes and families, making sure to cause as much damage and horror as possible. If you’ve ever wondering how such things can happen, circumspice.

53 comments on “Sarin. Again.”

  1. pera detlic says:

    Assad’s forces are gaining ground and control. American’s are showing less determination in defending rebels, especially since Trump became president. So what does Syrian regime get with targeting civilians?

    Very small amount of people are willing to consider that this was set up by rebels themselves, although it makes absolute sense.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Assad has used them before so it’s hardly unbelievable he would do so again. Especially with Russia and China on the security council to protect him.

      1. Dolph says:

        MMmm, No. Actually everybody not living under a rock by now should have heard or read that the Sarin used a few years ago was definitely not of syrian origin and handed over to the “rebels” by turkish secret service. But hey, I gues the US media is always roughly five years behind…
        Why should Assad even think about using chemical weapons. He is winning and the only thing he could do to lose is use chemical weapons, Aahh… Right…

    2. Hap says:

      I assume it was air-delivered, so the rebels would have to have airplanes and the ability to keep them in the air (in a hostile air environment) long enough to deliver the agents. They may be able to identify the sources of the chemicals used to make it, and given the “disposal” of Syria weapons previously, the source of the sarin could likely be identified from standards. Bomb fragments with the agents might also be identifiable. (Alternatively, they’d have to take some from the Syrians, which is possible but likely hard, and they’d still have to deliver it.) Ground delivery would probably be less efficient, and might also have an identifiable pattern. Given all that, it seems hard for them to pull off deniably.

      Between the Russians (taking out 120 people in a movie theater to nail Chechnya terrorists, though not actually trying to kill them all – sort of negligent homicide, I guess) and Assad (between him and his father, there is a long ignoble tradition of targeting civilians), it is unfortunately credible that they would do something like this. While that makes it more profitable for the rebels to do, having the proven ability and willingness to use chemical weapons makes up for a lot.

    3. Anonymous says:

      There is plenty of reason why Assad’s forces would resort to using sarin, if you are familiar with the details of the sectarian conflict there:

  2. aairfccha says:

    2 December 1943, air raid on Bari harbour followed by numerous mustard gas injuries.

    Turns out the reason was mustard gas being shipped in on one of the attacked ships.

    1. Kent G. Budge says:

      That was a nasty business. The Allies had gotten intelligence, through their Italian “cobelligerents”, that the Germans were preparing to use chemical agents. (The intelligence was almost certainly mistaken.) So they decided to move some stockpiles of gas into the combat theater so they would be ready for immediate retaliation if necessary. There was, after all, some reason to think the Germans were willing to use such agents.

      The German raid on the harbor with the ship carrying the chemical munitions was almost certainly coincidence, but coincidence has caused a lot of tragedies in history.

    2. Jeff Katcher says:

      Though it did have a strangely positive result. The survivors were observed to have a decreased number of lymphocytes, leading to the first (nitrogen mustard based) effective chemotherapies for liquid tumors (leukemia, Hodgkin’s).

  3. anon says:

    Where is the evidence that it was done by Syrian government? Some witnesses, ground workers etc. There is nothing to gain for the regime with an attack like this. I am sorry but I find it hard to believe that the regime is behind the attack. I remember the last time there was enough “evidence” about WMD. Look where we are now.

    1. anonymous says:

      WTF? We are not talking about some complex mathematical proof or some complicated physics problem for proof! The proof is all over Syria. The Syrian government along with their Russian cohorts would have us believe that it was done by rebels when they blew up the storage site housing these chemicals. But, $%(*$ experts can see craters on the ground. So do not get me started on this. Every time there is some crime related to war or terrorism, they all want proof. What if they leave no proof and the evidence is circumstantial because that is the way the people who perpetuates terror operates. Grow up and smell coffee.

      1. anon says:

        Do you know how many times “rebels” (including ISIS) have been accused of using chemical arms in the last 3 years (confirmed by the US by the way)? These are people who use children as human shields and don’t hesitate to kill innocent people. Why wouldn’t they use chemical arms and blame it on the usual suspect? It makes perfect sense.

    2. Mark Thorson says:

      Logically, it makes no sense at all for the Assad regime.
      Something smells very fishy about this putative attack.

    3. Nick K says:

      Reluctantly, I have to agree. Assad’s regime is (or was) winning both the ground war and the PR war. Why would it jeopardize its gains with a pointless sarin attack?

      1. Hap says:

        Reality doesn’t have to make sense, though. It’s possible that the absolute power thing has gotten to Assad, that it’s a false flag operation (unlikely, but possible), that it was an accident (the people dropping the bombs and the people keeping Syria’s stores of chemical weapons weren’t talking, although Syria having the weapons is a problem in itself), or something else.

        It’s likely that this doesn’t make sense because we’re missing lots of information; you go with what you have, try to get more, and understand that your model of reality is contingent.

  4. Glen Weaver says:

    How do you make the consequences of using chemical weapons worse than the consequences of losing a war? Various economic sanctions may be detrimental to national economic development, but rarely put the nation’s leadership into want.

    General military measures to bring the leaders to trial are rarely successful, and will involve many casualties. Would the deaths of ten percent of the population of Damascus be an acceptable cost to bring a handful of surviving government officials to trial? Keep in mind that those you seek to punish will be difficult or impossible to find.

    While I find the morals to be repulsive, a better answer might be the voluntary removal of the leadership to a place of exile . A Black Sea palace and a share of the national treasury might be the lowest cost way to end the war-and thus the use of such weapons.

    1. fajensen says:

      Agree! That is exactly how things worked back before in the 1990’s: The former dictator got a trust fund, some nice real estate in the south of France and scholarships for his children.

      The moral foundation for “letting it slide” as it were would be that in the majority of these cases, the former dictator was “our bastard” so whatever terror he inflicted was also done with “our” tacit permission and support.

      Then during the 1990’s we suddenly went all into neo-moralist, world-improver lala land.

      For a brief period those dictators just had to be dragged off and prosecuted at the Hague, then finally we skipped all that due process and stuff too and basically settled for “dictator and relatives lynched by baying mob of barbarians” as “Justice”.

      I don’t know the reason for the change in our behaviour*, but, there it is. Why should all dictators chose to not burn their land to the ground to keep from being lynched and watching their family exterminated? There is Nothing to gain in compliance for them.

      The world is much more crazy than it was, IMO.

      I do speculate that “our leadership” has evolved into only caring about other leadership, people like their own class. In the dictator removal business this comes out as the firm belief in spite of … like about 30 years of failure … that “removing” just one leader figure always will cause their cause to immediately collapse and become abandoned (“one more milestone in the war on terror”). And a total disregard for what happens to “the collateral damage” – the normal people.

      That the followers will just pick a replacement and carry right on – possible with an organisation smarter and harder than before – never seems to enter the heads of our leaders; For those brainiacs in charge, leadership is always inherited or handed over proper people, with credentials, 3’rd generation flunkies. Not something anyone with drive and ability can pull off – except they can.

  5. milkshaken says:

    while many signs are typical organophosphate poisoning, others (strong bleach-like smell of victim bodies, bleeding from mucosa upon administration of oxygen) point towards use of chlorine. Maybe it was a combination of the two – and improvised way to volatilize sarin and to stretch its limited quantity. Also, properly-done surprise air raid with sarin on unsuspecting civilians in their sleep would probably generate order of magnitude more victims if they had dropped high-grade chemical weapons – whereas this sounds rather like “barrel bombs” and other improvised nasties they have been using

    1. lynn says:

      I saw video of a doctor on site saying that there was no smell of chlorine, that they were familiar with chlorine – and this wasn’t chlorine.

  6. Kent G. Budge says:


    That might work for this case. What incentive does it create for future war criminals?


    Chlorine and sarin really don’t mix. In fact, the standard U.S. Army instructions for improvised chemical agent decontamination is to use bleach, straight out of the bottle.

    Which does not entirely rule out separate strikes with separate agents at different times.

    1. milkshaken says:

      bleach is aqueous and strongly alkaline, pH >11. I was proposing anhydrous liquified Cl2. If you look at the structure of sarin, there is nothing liable to oxidation, in principle you could do photochlorination so the admix would not be storable over very long time, but certainly would last in a tank until the next morning

  7. Curious Wavefunction says:

    With the recent poisoning of Kim Jong Un’s cousin using VX and Assad’s Sarin attacks, it looks like chemical weapons are back on the table. We live in troubling times indeed, and it’s at times like these that we should remember Nixon who unilaterally dismantled the U.S. chemical and biological weapons program (while the Soviets merrily kept on stockpiling till the end).

  8. gippgig says:

    I may have mentioned this before, but nature invented nerve “gas” long before us. Look up anatoxin a(s).

    1. tangent says:

      Aw, that’s nerve gas like tobacco is nerve gas. Go for physostigmine, an actual AChE inhibitor.

      Reversible, though. Are there naturally-occurring covalent AChE inhibitors?

      1. SimBot says:

        Not that I know, but there is one almost irreversible AChE inhibitor that is a snake venom toxin with almost negligible off rate. It’s Fasciculin. It sits like a cork on top of AChE’s entry to the active site gorge.

  9. Don't Be Fooled says:

    This is more than likely a false-flag style attack and a last-ditch effort to get the USA into Syria to do Saudi Arabia’s dirty work of toppling Assad. The geopolitical situation is neatly summed up here:

    1. misty says:

      Holy cr*p, even Derek’s blog is infested with Putintrolls. We were all sorry to hear of the metro attack in St Petersburg and please would you leave us alone with your conspiracy theories, tovarisch?

  10. Rhenium says:

    I see the Russian internet brigade has arrived in force…

    1. Don't Be Fooled says:

      The only internet brigades commenting on US websites in actual force are David Brock’s ShareBlue trolls.

    2. Hap says:

      Boy, you’re cynical. I’m sure they’d never do anything like that….

      1. Don't Be Fooled says:

        It was Hillary Clinton and her donors who paid trolls to crap up message boards and comment sections across the Internet (and continue to)

  11. Mateus says:

    Derek, could you put the links of your other posts about the nerve agents from 2002?

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      It’s just those two on the nerve agents. The rest of them should be here:

  12. Phil says:

    IMHO this comment thread has now definitively jumped the shark.

    I read this blog for expert commentary on drug chemistry (like AChE inhibitor resistance to heat/explosion or perhaps difficulty of manufacture of the same thing with presumably restricted ingredients, I dunno) and now I’m seeing “false-flag” and “what is to be gained…” and, worst of all, “geo-political”. Are there a bunch of geo-politicians around, or can anyone play?

    1. Don't Be Fooled says:

      Start making an actual argument anytime.

      1. skeptical says:

        You first. And rehashing ridiculous alt-right claims doesn’t cut it.

    2. tangent says:

      Unfortunately there are a lot of shark-jumpers floating around the net to latch onto things, some professional but mostly amateur. I can say I don’t personally recognize a lot of the account names commenting.

      And okay, it’s not surprising to get armchair speculation from real blog readers too, along the lines of “gosh, awfully brazen, would Assad think Trump and Putin would overlook that?” I hope everyone is up on the history,

      For the real commenters, do you believe Ghouta was also carried out by rebels? (let’s leave the Soros agents out of this)?

  13. Anon says:

    2 serious questions:

    1. It’s a civil war anyway, so what does this have to do with any other country?

    2. What’s wrong with genocide anyway, as long as it’s not you and me?

    The population is big enough as it is, so if people want to kill each other let them. No point actively escalating it into a world war if it won’t left alone by itself.

    1. Pennpenn says:

      1- Other countries are already heavily involved. Some are involved because they think it will give them a foothold with the side they are supporting if they win. Some get involved to counter that. Some get involved for strategic or humanitarian aid. Seriously, other nations have been involved in the civil wars of other nations ever since the concept of civil wars existed, and given the world we live in there’s no way that’s going to lessen or go away.

      2- Because not everyone is as indifferent to human suffering as you appear to be? (correct me if I’m wrong) I wonder if you’d still say “oh people shouldn’t get involved” if it really was you and me in that situation… Anyway, the time of other nations not getting involved has been over for a very long time.

      1. Anon says:

        But surely others getting involved is precisely what has been increasing human suffering. Look at Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and now Syria. It’s hardly a good argument to say others have gotten involved so we should too. That’s exactly how world wars start. Or do you think starting world wars is less indifferent to human suffering?

        1. Pennpenn says:

          It’s not like “getting involved” is some singular thing with only one motivation and mode of operation. Different people/groups/nations got involved for different reasons, many of those not caring about the suffering they caused. Anyway, I was replying to “why does it affect other countries?” not “why should we get involved”, and I was saying that in many ways we’re already involved anyway, have been for decades especially when you factor in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya.

          And really, I wasn’t going to let the “Who cares about genocide as long as it’s not me” comment slide.

          1. TJ says:

            “Who cares about genocide as long as it’s not me”

            Well the West only seems to care about Genocide, when our political leaders don’t like the person performing it…

  14. Janex says:

    At this point we simple don’t have the information to KNOW who did. All we can do is go by probabilities based on past behavior. So far the theories floated

    1) Assad and/or one of his minions did it. That is the most likely solution based on his past behavior and ease of delivery

    2) The accident alluded to above. That assumes Assad and/or his dad hide chemical weapons in a residential area and they were accidentally released by an air attack. They did routinely hide military assets in civilian areas to make them more problematic for western militaries to target, so it’s possible.

    3) A false flag operation. Probably the least likely based upon ease of delivery. It wouldn’t be easy to pull off. But difficult doesn’t equal impossible, so it could have happened.

  15. Warpig. says:

    We all know that you are not a fan the Donald, Nor am I, but the dude has the balls to send a message to Assad with the Tomahawks tonite. Nothing to do with chemistry, but all to do with humanity. It take a long time to move something with inertia like our political climate towards some sense of normalcy.

    1. Hap says:

      The problem is, with the relationship between President Trump and his intelligence people, it’s possible that this isn’t a good idea (if POTUS and the intelligence people aren’t in agreement on the likelihood of Syria’s involvement or the strength of evidence). On the other hand, if POTUS and Congress have some agreement on what to do about Syria, then it might be easier to do something useful (or something bad, I guess).

      If we don’t think Assad should be in power, then we need to figure out someone who could be and a way to get Syria there. As Clinton found out, sending missiles doesn’t really solve the problem. There’s a lot of moves between here and there.

    2. fajensen says:

      Rubbish! To have “balls” one needs to be seen taking a personal risk.

      It is very easy to make “hard decisions” when one will never feel consequences flowing from these decisions – other than someone ghost-writing a book for you that one can call “Hard Decisions” to show how a great leaderhip-person “you” think “you” are.

      The Donald sitting 12000 km away, stuffing himself with dessert, and telling some toady to launch has exactly Zero skin in that game, what are the odds that someone will successfully return fire and nail the Whitehouse?

      Or even punch the president on the nose?

      Nil! I’d say that any bum right off the street could call that very same mission (and he would still be a bum after having spent zero personal effort on this “work”).

  16. RFUMS says:

    Is there enough evidence to dismiss the official Russian/Syrian account that the Syrian Air Force was carrying out an aerial bombing of rebel-held areas and one of the bombs hit chemical weapons stored by the rebels. Chemically speaking, is this possible? Or would sarin degrade at such high temperatures?

    1. Shazbot says:

      What is known is the city was bombed by pro-Assad forces. As a result of that bomb attack, hundreds of people were gassed.

      This is a claim that the two attacks were unrelated; the bombs had nothing to do with the gas. This is akin to watching a string of ordinary bombs dropped, seeing the resulting chain of explosions, and then claiming that the chain of explosions was a series of large gas leaks that were set off by sparks and the bombs were dummy concrete bombs.

      In short, it’s an absurd claim presented with zero evidence. It’s also very demonstrative of the techniques of propaganda.

      1. Deny everything. Even if nobody believes the denial, it is still useful to cloud the issue and distract people from the facts.

      2. Shift blame. In this case, the hundreds of civilians killed or injured in the gas attack were the ones responsable for them getting gassed. It’s absurd and morally reprehensable, but portrayed in a way where the absurdness isn’t quite as obvious as it should be.

      3. Change the topic. Instead of discussing the unjustified attack on hundreds of people, change the topic to a discussion of an extremely absurd claim presented without the slightest bit of evidence.

    2. Obvious Puppet says:

      There’s more to attacking with these agents than just opening a bottle. They aren’t gases, they’re high boiling point liquids, and getting a dispersion in air for an effective “dose” is probably challenging. Its noteworthy how unsuccessful the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attacks in the 1990s were despite access to the right chemistry – it suggests there’s a bit more to it. Bursting shells of it at ground level probably wouldn’t give a wide area of effect like the footage would suggest happened.

  17. JG4 says:

    It might be helpful to look up the picture of Rumsfeld hugging “Chemical” Ali back when Saddam Hussein was an ally.

    see also

  18. Noni Mausa says:

    I’m sad to say the whole incident looks like a win-win-win for Assad, Putin and Trump. Assad gets to terrify his citizens. Trump gets to look presidential and compassionate, and drop some manly bombs, and give the appearance of defying Putin. Putin gets to give the appearance of not controlling Trump, and they all get to claim the rebels are to blame for keeping sarin gas around, whether they did or not. I suppose the rebel leaders also benefit by this proof of their enemies’ depravity.

    The whole Syria thing is like a four-way arm wrestling contest, with Syria the flimsy table being bent and splintered under all the muscular tussling. What, I ask myself, would the superpowers do if not for convenient smaller nations to act as arenas for their pant-hooting displays?

    Ahem, sorry. I’ll get back to reading chemistry now.

  19. Science unless Politics says:

    Nice scientifically driven point of view you have there.

  20. annonymus says:

    By definition there are never any winners in civil wars, everyone loses. Assad is in a position to conduct a scorched earth campaign because he has nothing to lose by doing so. Also, I believe that the U.S. had aerial intelligence data that confirmed that the air base from which the attacks were launched contained a chemical weapons storage facility. The results of the raid were certainly horrific but, short of enforcing a no-fly for Syrian aircraft, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. can or should do anything further.

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