Sarin is a chemical whose production and stockpiling has been outlawed for 20 years. It attacks a person’s nervous system, causing the individual to lose control of bodily functions, jerk uncontrollably and then suffocate because the lungs stop working. Death can come as quickly as one minute after sarin is ingested.
The gas doesn’t have to be inhaled; it can be absorbed through the skin. Anyone who comes into contact with a person shortly after that person has been exposed can become contaminated as well. Those who do not receive a lethal dose of the nerve agent can suffer permanent neurological injury if not immediately treated.
It is a horrible weapon, one that no government of conscious would use, particularly against its own people.
President Barack Obama has said that use of chemical warfare against opposition forces by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would be crossing a “red line,” ostensibly one that would result in America stepping up its involvement in the Syrian civil war.
The statement Thursday by the White House caught many by surprise, since administration officials such as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had downplayed Israel’s contentions that chemical agents had been used by Assad’s regime. Indications are that the Israeli intelligence was based on photographic evidence that was consistent with the effects of chemical poisoning. Britain and France also have concluded that Syria is using chemicals against the opposition.
If sarin has been used, it has been limited. Intelligence officials have noted a lack of mass casualties that might be expected from use of chemical weapons.
Thursday’s announcement was enough for some, including U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to call for U.S. action, but the line that was crossed wasn’t red enough for the administration, which says U.S. intelligence has “varying degrees of confidence” that sarin is being used.
What’s come into play is this: The Obama administration doesn’t want another Iraq, a 10-year-long war that was launched on faulty intelligence that Saddam Hussein was in possession of chemical, nuclear and biological weapons.
Obama is looking for irrefutable evidence that chemical warfare has been employed. Indications were that the U.S. has more than mere photographs as far as evidence, but not enough to convince Obama to do anything. At least, not yet.
The United States certainly doesn’t want to make a misstep here, but neither can we turn our back on our allies. If the line is blurry now, it will sharpen. Obama has clearly stated that use of chemical weapons in Syria is a game-changer, and there is no way to back away from that commitment.