A flurry of questions followed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s announcement Thursday that chemical weapons — in particular, the nerve agent sarin — were used in Syria. But since no one knows how the sarin was used or who exactly used it, let’s start with the basics about Syria’s sarin stockpile.
What is sarin and how deadly is it?
Sarin is an odorless, colorless gas that’s 500 times more toxic than cyanide and deadly in doses of 0.5 milligrams and larger. If you’re exposed to it, you may begin vomiting immediately or start convulsing — or, in less severe cases, get a runny nose. Besides potentially killing you within 10 minutes of inhalation, the gas can cause paralysis and environmental damage.
How much sarin does Syria have?
Estimates vary, but as a whole, Syria is known to have the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the Middle East and the fourth-largest stockpile in the world. Mideast weapons proliferation expert Laicie Heeley tells Foreign Policy that most estimates for the actual sarin stockpile hover around “the high hundreds of tons, possibly over 1,000.”
Has Syria weaponized its sarin stockpile?
Yes. “By the mid-1990s it was estimated that Syria had developed between 100 and 200 warheads filled with sarin for its Scud-B and Scud-C missiles, and thousands of chemical bombs filled with the nerve agents VX and sarin,” Dina Esfandiary of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, tells FP. “Presumably, these numbers will be higher today.”
How might Syria use its sarin stockpile?
It depends. From a purely tactical standpoint, sarin is not a natural tool for the Assad regime in the context of the urban warfare it’s engaged in. “Nerve agents are effective in open spaces (battlefields) … and as a terror weapon,” James Lewis of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, tells FP. “Strategically, they are not particularly useful in urban warfare.”
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