The nerve agent sarin, colorless and odorless, kills by being exposed to the skin or inhaled. The victim initially suffers from what appear to be mild symptoms of a running nose and chest tightness, perhaps with pupil constriction, but thereafter undergoes loss of bodily functions, violent vomiting, defecation, and convulsions. He or she then enters a coma and eventually suffocates to death. Sarin is thought to be hundreds of times more toxic than cyanide.
It is also one of the chemical substances that the U.S. intelligence community has reported with confidence in the past to be in possession of, and weaponized by, the Syrian government.
Weapons of mass destruction experts and government officials also think the regime of Bashar al-Assad has worked over the past decade to develop -- and may now possess -- other chemical weapons like VX, mustard gas, and tabun.
VX, another nerve agent, causes violent contractions, paralysis and death by asphyxiation; tabun also kills by asphyxiation after doing pretty much the same thing to the body; and mustard gas, frequently used in World War I, also kills by disabling the respiratory system as well as causing up to third-degree burns.
Whether those substances, in chemical or weapon form, are now being adequately secured by the Syrian military amid the ongoing civil war in that country is a matter of intense debate. Whether the government would ever intend to use those weapons against domestic targets (which it adamantly denies) or a foreign aggressor (which it has suggested it would) is now causing uproar in the international community -- including from Syrias' staunch ally Russia and throughout the West.
In 2002 and 2003, open testimony to the Congress from the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency revealed that Syria was actively seeking chemical weapons technology from abroad, but remained dependent on foreign sources for the precursor elements needed to assemble those weapons. Nevertheless, those reports indicated that Damascus already held a stockpile of the nerve agent sarin, but apparently has tried to develop more toxic and persistent nerve agents ... Syria probably also continued to develop a BW [bacteriological warfare] capability.
As recently as 2011, the Director of National Intelligence gave a strikingly similar, updated statement to Congress, saying that Syria continued to seek dual-use technology from foreign sources and has a stockpile of CW [chemical warfare] agents, which can be delivered by aerial bombs, ballistic missiles, and artillery rockets. (The country remained dependent on foreign precursor chemicals.)
That brings us to the mess now engulfing the countr,y in mid-2012. As troop defections increase and the chain of command withers, observers are wondering whether Syrian forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad are up to the task of securing the country's chemical weapons arsenal, one of the Middle East's most extensive and lethal, thought to include thousands of munitions and many tons of chemical agents.
Would they flee the country with them? Leave them deserted, to be picked up by opposition forces? Would they destroy them? Would the opposition contemplate using them? Would they be sold, transferred to, or stolen by terrorist groups? And would any rogue parties ever lash out at others in the region by using them?
On July 13, statements from the Pentagon revealed that U.S. defense officials remained largely confident that the Syrian government would keep its responsibilities and secure the weapons. The Syrian regime has control of its chemical weapons stockpiles, said a Pentagon spokesman.
But that was days before the Syrian regime's top defense leaders were annihilated in a bomb attack on the country's national security headquarters by opposition forces, exposing serious gaps in the country's security structure, even at the very top.
On July 23, the U.S. State Department cautioned that The Syrian regime has a responsibility to the world, has a responsibility first and foremost to its own citizens to protect and safeguard those weapons.
In 2005, Jane's Defense Weekly noted that an anonymous diplomatic source affirmed that Iran was working closely with Syria to assist in the expansion and self-sufficiency of its chemical weapons program, including the import of hundreds of tons of precursor chemicals and equipment for creating mustard and nerve gases.
In the 1990s and 1980s, before stricter enforcement of chemical compound exports to Syria, European nations like the Nertherlands, Austria, Switzerland, France, and Germany were among the top suppliers of technology and substances used by Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad, to assemble the country's stockpile and infrastructure.
Experts believe that since the very beginning, Syria's development of the weapons lay in its defense calculus vis-à-vis Israel, after time and again being defeated by the latter's more capable conventional forces. Syria has never signed nor ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international agreement to ban the building, storing, or use of the terrifying arms. It has signed, but never ratified, the Biological Weapons Convention.
Many of the country's chemical weapons are thought to be capable of being put into artillery shells, added to the 100 or so warheads estimated to exist for the country's Scud ballistic missiles, or to bombs and rockets to be used from helicopters or airplanes.
If Syria's unconventional weapons are ever taken out of holding facilities and moved outside of Syria to Lebanon, it would increase suspicions that they would fall into the hands of Damascus' Hezbollah allies based there.
Israel, unsurprisingly, has begun warning that it would make preparations for attacking and eliminating the arsenal if that should ever happen. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Israeli television last Friday that he had ordered the Israeli military to prepare for a situation where we would have to weigh the possibility of carrying out an attack against Syrian weapons arsenals. And Sunday, he added that Israel cannot accept a situation where advanced weapons systems are transferred from Syria to Lebanon.
Syria is thought to have five major chemical weapons facilities for processing or production, two near the capital, one at Homs, one in Hama, and one in Latakia (all areas that have seen intense fighting during the conflict). But where the weapons are actually stored is anyone's guess.
Leonard Spector, the Deputy Director of the Monterey Institute of International Studies' James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, presciently wrote about the chemical weapons challenge in Syria almost a year ago in August 2011 in Foreign Policy Magazine.
Spector noted that Syria showed restraint in the past in the 1982 Lebanon War and refrained from offering chemical weapons to Hezbollah, treating its chemical arsenal with considerable care. Nevertheless, he suggested that confiscation of the chemical weapons by a radical new national government or sale of the weapons as war booty to organized non-state actors or criminal groups remained a possibility in the present conflict.
An Israeli, Turkish, or even a broader NATO attempt to eliminate the arsenal carries the risk of incompletely destroying the weapons, leaving bunkers open to expose their leaking contents to the surrounding environment.
A large scale foreign intervention, with massive air raids and precision strikes, may decimate Syrian loyalist forces, but in the ensuing chaos, that could provide the opportunities non-state criminal and terrorist groups seek to sneak in and pilfer chemical facilities.
The rebel Free Syrian Army said in a public statement on Tuesday that Assad forces were moving chemical weapons to airports located near the country's borders, in an attempt to dissuade foreign parties from intervention.
The FSA added that it knew very well the locations and positions of these weapons.
The above information, unsubstantiated by Western or Syrian governments, also follows anonymously provided details from U.S. intelligence officials saying that Syrian forces had already moved portions of chemical weapons stocks away from the worst conflict zones, under heavy armed protection.
Where they are headed, how much protection they would be given, and whether those weapons would ultimately remain in Syria is highly speculative.
The only assurance at the moment is that chemical agents like sarin, especially if impurely mixed, tend to degrade quickly, even within several weeks to months. So if production had already been put on hold over the past months, there's a possibility those weapons are now less effective than they used to be. But nobody knows whether the chemical weapons facilties in Syria are still running.