The science behind Syria’s deadly chemical weapons

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Medical staff at Syria’s Damascus Countryside Specialised Hospital hold placards condemning a suspected chemical weapons attack


Syria’s alleged chemical attack on April 7 killed at least 70 people and injured many more when large barrel bombs of toxin were dropped in the rebel-held town of Douma.

Distressing preliminary reporting of the victims’ conditions suggest that the man-made chemical sarin was used in the attack.

Official confirmation of the chemical is still pending investigation from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has been consistently blocked entry to the region by Syrian officials.

Amnesty International called on the Syrian government to grant access to the investigators, and according to Syrian news outlets, this permission was finally granted 11 days after the attack.

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The wreckage of Douma.

What is sarin and how does it affect the human body?

Sarin is classified as a nerve agent and has no colour or odour. Exposure through skin and eye contact or breathing immediately leads to death, according to Martin Boland, senior lecturer in Medicinal and Pharmaceutical Chemistry at Charles Darwin University.

Nerve agents contain organophosphorus compounds, which disrupt the transmission of nerve signals in our bodies.

Martin Boland

“The synapse keeps firing messages … the muscles keep contracting and the messages keep on coming,” he said. This prevents the muscles from relaxing, and when it comes to breathing, this can be fatal.

“Your diaphragm keeps getting told to breathe in constantly until it gets so tired, it just stops, at which point you can no longer breathe. So depending on how much you have been exposed to and a few other factors, you will either die, or you breathe in and you cant breathe out, or you have got to a point where your diaphragm has stopped working and now you breathe out and your body refuses to breathe in,he said.

Nerve agents are extremely toxic and exposure to even small amounts of sarin can have catastrophic consequences on the human body.

“All it takes is 100mg, [which] is one-50th of a teaspoon of sugar. One-50th of that would be sufficient to kill you,” Mr Boland said.

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A man holds a photo of a victim baby as he and other demonstrators gather to protest against Assad regime forces’ alleged poisonous gas attack.

Is the use of sarin realistically punishable?

Even if it can be proven that the Syrian government carried out the recent chemical attack in Douma, holding them legally accountable to the crime may be more difficult.

Syria acceded the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013, which stipulates that all parties to the treaty must cease from production and destroy all existing stockpiles of specific chemicals deemed to be dangerous and which have “little or no use for peaceful purposes in commercial or industrial activities”. Sarin is included in this category.

Eric Wilson

According to Dr Eric Wilson, a senior lecturer in International Law at Monash University, a state can only be held legally accountable if they have signed and ratified the treaty. This goes beyond simply “agreeing” to the terms of the treaty. It involves actually taking steps to effectively implement the terms of the convention within the domestic legislature.

“[It exempts them] up to a point … I would say that Syria will stand upon the somewhat legalistic device of insisting, correctly, that it is not formally bound by the treaty, therefore it has not violated the treaty, and that importantly, the enforcement mechanisms contained within the treaty are unique and pertain only to the treaty and its members, in the event of a perceived breach,” he said.

However, he said that the chances of even bringing the Syrian government to the International Criminal Court were unlikely to happen in the first place.

“I do not believe you could use the treaty mechanisms of enforcement contained within the treaty, whatever they are, because crucially, Syria is neither a signatory nor a party to the treaty,” he said.