Historian and terrorism expert MICHAEL BURLEIGH answers key questions about Syrian airstrikes
Those white helmets… Immune to sarin.. Amazing isn’t it..
Was sarin gas actually used in Tuesday’s attack?
The evidence for sarin use largely comes from reports from Turkish doctors treating survivors of the Syria attack.
Victims in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun were choking, foaming at the mouth, defecating and vomiting – all of which is consistent with sarin use.
Sarin, a colourless, odourless liquid at room temperature, is expensive and complex to manufacture.
The two key chemical compounds – a phosphorus variant and isopropyl alcohol – are mixed near the point of use, usually hours before it is released.
This is to avoid accidents and degradation in storage. The level of sophistication required in handling sarin would suggest state involvement.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was supposed to have surrendered his entire chemical weapons stockpile – including sarin – to Russia after an earlier attack on an opposition-held area near Damascus in 2013. More than 1,000 victims died and only a Russian-brokered deal – with Assad agreeing to give up his chemical weapons for destruction – prevented US air strikes then. According to some reports, a consignment of sarin was missing from the stockpile handed over.
Syria Hoax : Another Syrian ‘victim’ caught laughing on camera after pretending to be hurt from the “chemical attack” today:
At the same time, Assad signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention, a group of states which ban these weapons. However, chlorine gas, which produces similar symptoms to sarin, was not covered by the removal deal. And unlike sarin (which is 3,000 times more lethal) chlorine is easily accessible and has many everyday uses.
Medecins Sans Frontieres doctors, who treated some victims, said that both a toxic nerve agent and chlorine may have been used. But until impartial experts establish whether, and what, chemical weapons were involved, reliance on the observations of doctors is insufficient.
Why would Assad use chemical weapons in a war he’s winning?
This is indeed a perplexing question. Since September 2015, when the Russians first intervened in Syria, Assad’s regime has made steady progress in defeating various rebel opponents, notably when his forces took Aleppo in December.
In recent days the US has strongly suggested it was prepared to leave Assad in power, as it saw him as a potential ally in the fight against Islamic State. Syria’s military has categorically denied it was responsible for the attack. Of course, Assad has used various weapons indiscriminately against civilians, including barrel bombs (dropped from helicopters) and unfocused artillery bombardment. He has also ‘weaponised’ gases – for example, putting tear gas in shells used by police to quell rioters.
I believe, however, that he would have to be insanely overconfident to have brazenly used sarin, not least because of the risk – since realised – of US reprisals and greater involvement in the area.
All the evidence is that this cruel and calculating man is not insane.
He is intent, though, on corralling the remaining rebels in this area of Idlib province. This act of terror may have been a signal that he felt he could act with impunity, following the US ambassador to the UN saying last week that America was dropping calls for the Syrian president to stand down.
If not Assad, then who was it and why?
Charges of using chemical weapons are a very useful propaganda tool to blacken the reputation of any opponent, however dark already. Conspiracy theorists will see various nefarious hands at work.
The Russians, who back Assad’s regime, claim the Syrian air force bombed chemical munitions held by rebel forces in a warehouse, which then exploded. Another claim is that it was a gas manufacturing plant.
Such a strike would probably have destroyed what sarin there was and distributed the rest over a smaller area, affecting fewer victims.
Given that the highly flammable isopropyl alcohol is one of the chemicals in sarin, a fireball might have been expected but there are no reports of this.
The numbers of women and children caught up in the attack would also rule against a rebel-held munitions depot in the immediate area.
Sarin can be delivered via shells, but some witnesses saw ‘chemical bombs’ falling. The first reports from the site described a crater where a chemical-bearing rocket was said to have landed. There were no structural remains suggesting an explosion at a warehouse.
While it is possible that rebel forces acquired the chemicals to make sarin, or other nerve agents, these are unlikely to have been in large enough quantities to cause so many casualties.
Could Western spy agencies be involved?
Some of the more outlandish conspiracy theories suggest that Western intelligence forces, such as the CIA, might have been responsible for the gas attack – possibly as a way of distracting from the Trump administration’s alleged Russian links.
Certainly, Russia has responded to the air strikes on Syria with some tough talk. But this speculation owes more to spy fiction than fact.
IS has also been suggested as the culprit, but the terror group is not present in any meaningful way in this area of Syria.