United Nations investigators embarked on a hunt of everything from bomb craters to blood samples for evidence of chemical weapons in Syria, even as officials from the U.S. and U.K. said it was indisputable the agents had been used.
Video footage of the aftermath of a suspected chemical attack Aug. 21 on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta shows people with symptoms such as narrowing of the pupils, excessive salivation and convulsions that point to exposure to sarin or another nerve agent, according to a weapons expert.
Investigators will be combing rubble for shell fragments and taking blood samples from survivors as they try to confirm that chemical weapons were used, and which ones, said Ralf Trapp, a former scientific adviser at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The video also indicated the possible use of a strong harassing agent such as a tear gas, Trapp said in a telephone interview yesterday.
The work is hampered by the amount of time that has elapsed, as chemicals dissipate quickly and the area has continued to be shelled. The UN team also came under sniper fire yesterday that briefly delayed its work. That prompted it to postpone a visit to another, more difficult-to-access site today, the UN said in an e-mailed statement.
With pressure building on the U.S. and its allies to take military action against Syria, a confirmation that chemical weapons were deployed could spur an international response. Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. would hold the Syrian government accountable for “the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians” and accused it of trying to cover up the use of chemical agents.
“The best evidence you can find is an actual weapon, even if it’s exploded or broken up and the liquid is gone,” said Trapp, who’s been studying chemical weapons for 30 years. “If you find a weapon you can tell whether it was something that was designed to deliver a liquid, and you will have residual contamination.”
The video footage of victims posted on the Internet is convincing to Trapp. “It’s a scale where you cannot stage it,” he said.
Doctors Without Borders said three hospitals it supports in Damascus had treated about 3,600 patients with neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours on Aug. 21, and 355 died. Syria’s opposition has accused President Bashar Al-Assad of the attack, while Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has dismissed the accusations as “nonsense” and said rebel fighters were behind the attacks.
The episode led UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to demand Assad allow a team of inspectors to visit the site. The team, which was already in Syria to probe previous claims of chemical weapons use, visited two hospitals, interviewed witnesses, survivors and doctors, and collected some samples, Ban told reporters in Seoul yesterday.
Ban said it’s too soon to have an initial view from the group, which is led by Ake Sellstrom of Sweden. The team consists of nine OPCW investigators and three experts from the World Health Organization.
Developed in Germany in the 1930s as a pesticide, sarin is delivered as a clear, odorless liquid that evaporates rapidly into a vapor, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People can be exposed through the eyes or skin, by breathing contaminated air, or by touching or ingesting contaminated food or water.
Longer-lasting byproducts of sarin may be found in soil, rubble or animal corpses, Trapp said.
“What you’re looking for basically is characteristic degradation products that are really not found in nature but are specific for the agent,” he said.
Past sarin attacks proved deadly. In 1988 as many as 5,000 ethnic Kurds were killed in the northern Iraqi city of Halabja when Saddam Hussein’s forces bombed it with chemical weapons including sarin. In 1995, members of a Japanese cult used sarin in a series of attacks on Tokyo’s subway system, killing 12 people. A year earlier the group killed seven in a sarin attack in the city of Matsumoto.
Sarin interferes with cholinesterase, an enzyme in the body that regulates the movement of muscles and glands. Victims typically suffer convulsions and the loss of control of bodily functions, leading to vomiting and involuntary urination and defecation. The chemical can also incapacitate the muscles in the lung or the part of the brain that controls breathing, leading to asphyxiation. Victims can survive if treated quickly enough with antidotes such as atropine.
Doctors Without Borders said medical staff at its hospitals in Damascus reported large numbers of patients arriving with symptoms including convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress.
The UN investigators may be able to test survivors at the site for depressed levels of cholinesterase, a clear indication of the use of a so-called organophosphate, but not which one, Trapp said. For that, blood would need to be sent to one of about 20 laboratories worldwide for testing, he said.
Switzerland’s Spiez Laboratory is available to help with the investigation, Foreign Affairs Minister Didier Burkhalter said yesterday in a meeting with Ahmed Uzumcu, the OPCW’s director-general.
The WHO personnel in the investigation will be studying the public health, clinical management and epidemiology aspects of the situation, Fadela Chaib, a spokeswoman for the Geneva-based agency, said by phone yesterday. Michael Luhan, a spokesman for The Hague-based OPCW, declined to comment. The OPCW is a multinational group established to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention, which went into force in 1997 and bans the development, stockpiling, transfer and use of chemical arms.
Several world leaders called for action to punish Assad for what they said was his use of chemical weapons. U.S. President Barack Obama will make an “informed decision” about the Syrian government, Secretary of State Kerry said yesterday. U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said yesterday on BBC Radio 4 that he’s convinced Assad’s regime used the arms and that “cannot go unaddressed.”
History suggests a thorough scientific analysis is needed before the U.S. and its allies decide whether to take military action against Syria, said Matthew Meselson, a professor of biochemistry at Harvard University and the co-director of the Harvard Sussex Program on Chemical and Biological Weapons.
While initial reports of Iraq’s chemical attack on Halabja proved correct, U.S. accusations in 1981 that Russia had supplied a chemical agent that communist forces in Vietnam and Laos dispersed over Thailand were false: the so-called yellow rain turned out to be honeybee droppings, Meselson said.
“It’s essential that any head of state or government official who’s making momentous decisions on the basis of chemical analysis must talk not just with other political figures or subordinates, but with individuals who are deeply knowledgeable about the science itself,” Meselson said by phone yesterday. “There’s much opportunity for miscommunication between people who are technically trained and those who are politically responsible.”