About a month ago, Al Jazeera reported
Seven people have died in Homs after they inhaled a “poisonous gas” used by government forces in a rebel-held neighbourhood, activists said.
There are a couple of warnings right up front: It’s on a breaking-news blog, and “activists said.”
Breaking news, especially in conflict zones, is always dicey. Reporters talk to a few people on the ground who have bits and pieces of information and add in their own expectations and experience. What eyewitnesses say may have little to do with what actually happened.
Activists, by definition, have an agenda. Best to consider that when you read or report what they say. The use of chemical warfare agents seems to be a red line for intervention. Activists who want outside intervention have a motive to play up the idea of attack with “poisonous gas.”
The Al Jazeera report included a conclusion by Raji Rahmet Rabbou, an activist in Homs, that the “gas” was probably sarin. He said that they did not have enough facemasks. A couple of videos were included. The symptoms displayed in the videos were mostly breathing difficulties, which are more characteristic of riot control agents than sarin.
Medics and aides treating the victims were protected only by gauze facemasks and gloves. Gauze facemasks do nothing to protect against gases or chemical warfare agents. Gloves are insufficient to protect against sarin.
Sarin is not a gas. Its boiling point is well above water’s, at 158 C. As a weapon, it is dispersed in fine droplets. Think about the greasy mist that settles on your skin and clothes when you fry bacon. The victims would have a greasy mist of sarin on their skin and clothes that would be transferred to the people carrying and treating them. A droplet is enough to kill. Hazmat-type protective moon suits are needed to keep those people from being affected too.
There have been no reports of effects on rescuers and medics. Therefore the agent was not sarin. Therefore the person who concluded that the material was sarin didn’t know what he was talking about, had an agenda, or both.
Backing up a bit, we have to ask whether the incident occurred. An account on Facebook claimed that the whole thing was a hoax. I don’t know the reliability of that report either. It’s also possible that a rebel faction released the agent in an attempt to make it look like government action. That seems less likely, but it’s not impossible.
Let’s say that the Syrian government fired something at the activists and that it did kill and injure some of them. Difficult breathing is a symptom of numerous riot control agents, like teargas. There are many riot control agents – irritants, nauseants, and disorienting agents. They’re nasty, and breathing too much of them can kill people.
Fast forward to Tuesday night (January 15). Josh Rogin publishes a diplomatic cable from the American consul in Istanbul suggesting that the agent was BZ, or possibly Agent 15, which cause hallucinations and other unpleasant symptoms. BZ is listed as a Schedule 2 chemical weapon under the Chemical Weapons Convention.* Why the cable settled on those two was unclear. No chemical diagnostics were cited, and it appeared that the conclusion was based on a report of symptoms, possibly from the same source cited in Al Jazeera. BZ and Agent 15 have not been believed to be part of the Syrian stockpile. Nonetheless, Rogin and his editor (who presumably wrote the headline) claim that “chemical weapons” were used.
We all, Rogin included, should have learned from Wikileaks that cables of this kind are reports back to Washington of what is going on and what people are saying. They are raw data, not a finished intelligence assessment. They are often wrong. During the Twitter reaction, Andy (@entropy68) did a good job of pointing this out and interpreting the rapid White House response.
A White House statement on Tuesday evening discounted the possibility that poison gas had been used. But White House and State Department officials declined to comment directly on the cable. Nor did they rule out that some form of chemical agent may have been used.
“The reporting we have seen from media sources regarding alleged chemical weapons incidents in Syria has not been consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons program,” the White House statement said.
The first paragraph seems to be Michael Gordon’s interpretation of the quote from the White House. It’s consistent with what Andy and I think the quote meant. Also consistent with riot control agent.
On Wednesday, the State Department made a fuller statement, reported by Rogin. The bottom line seems to be what Gordon, Andy and I figured out on Tuesday night: something happened, whatever was used was not sarin, and probably not BZ or Agent 15 either.
CNN has a report that relies on descriptions of symptoms by a single doctor, although they bring in information that conflicts with what he says.
Raffi Khatchadourian wrote a long article and several long blog posts on the testing of chemical weapons during the 1950s and 1960s. So his New Yorker editors assigned him to sort out the Homs incident. Unfortunately, he takes both the Al Jazeera report and the Istanbul cable at face value. They are mutually contradictory, as he eventually figures out, after trying to drag in earlier reports of Syria’s mixing sarin up for use. There’s no point in working out the technical details if the reports aren’t reliable, and there’s no reason to believe Al Jazeera’s activist sources or the conclusions of the Istanbul cable.
My take: The Syrian government fired something at a crowd in Homs, most likely an extra-potent form of teargas. It was not sarin or any other nerve agent.
*Corrected per tweet from Daniel Feakes (@dfeakes).