A Huffington Post piece (9/1/13) carries this description of the effects of sarin gas or similar agents that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has employed, not once but several times, against his own civilian population:
Inhaled or absorbed through the skin, the gas kills by crippling the respiratory center of the central nervous system and paralyzes the muscles around the lungs.
The combination results in death by suffocation, and sarin can contaminate food or water supplies, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which notes that antidotes exist.
“Sarin is 26 times more deadly than cyanide gas. Just a pinprick-sized droplet will kill a human,” according to the World Health Organization.
Exposure symptoms include nausea and violent headaches, blurred vision, drooling, muscle convulsions, respiratory arrest and loss of consciousness, the CDC says.
Nerve agents are generally quick-acting and require only simple chemical techniques and inexpensive, readily available ingredients to manufacture.
Inhalation of a high dose — say 200 milligrams of sarin — may cause death “within a couple of minutes,” with no time even for symptoms to develop, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Exposure through the skin takes longer to kill and the first symptoms may not occur for half an hour, followed by a quick progression.
Even when it does not kill, sarin’s effects can cause permanent harm — damaging a victim’s lungs, eyes and central nervous system.
The latest attack killed an estimated 1400 civilians including hundreds of children.
Poison gas is a largely ineffective military weapon but against civilian populations it is devastating, both in its ability to kill or maim and as a weapon of terror.
In a war zone where heavy artillery shelling is a daily fact of life, civilians instinctively heading for the relative safety of cellars are actually entering death traps because sarin and other gases are most lethal at ground level and below. For maximum effect, Assad’s army would shell a target area with conventional munitions initially and then follow up with poison gas to catch more people taking shelter in cellars.
There are geopolitical as well as humanitarian reasons why President Obama must win the vote in Congress for the authorization to strike Syria. America’s credibility is at stake whether we like it or not. Inaction in this case will not only embolden Assad but send a message to other tyrants and totalitarian regimes that the world lacks the will to intervene when weapons of mass destruction are employed. Iran will no doubt take note of America’s reluctance to act.
Ironically, we will have gone from invading a country based on merely the suspicion of possession of WMD by one tyrant to turning away when another actually employs them against women and children.
Many in America ask: why us yet again? The obvious answer is that there is nobody else. We have the military power. We’ve paid for it and we’re proud of it. We’ve given this gold-plated military an ability to strike with massive land and sea-based airpower that is unrivalled.
We’ve also assumed a leadership role in the world. It would be nice if others could step up: Canada maybe, or Britain or Sweden. Somebody. But they are all shielded from confronting a singular evil such as Assad’s poison gas attack on his people by their military weakness even if they had the will to act – which they do not. If we want to escape the responsibilities we’ve assumed in the world then maybe we should slash our defense budget so we can be similarly shielded.
Another objection is that Syria’s agony will continue whether we strike or not; that 100,000 have died and nearly all of them through the use of conventional munitions: artillery shells, machine gun bullets, bombs. Why is gas different they ask? My answer: Because it is.
The world has not outlawed war but it has deemed that the use of poison gas (the terms chemical weapons is rather anodyne in describing what we’re really talking about) is beyond international norms and its use constitutes a monstrous act against humanity.
I understand the reluctance to become embroiled in yet another Middle East war particularly after being bamboozled into invading Iraq in 2003 for bogus reasons. I understand the slippery slope fears. And nobody understands better than President Obama who has been accurately termed the reluctant warrior. He has wound down our involvement in one war started by his predecessor and is the process of winding down a second.
These are plenty of excuses we can conjure not to act. But Assad and his army must be punished because their actions cannot be allowed to stand. More importantly, they must be deterred from ever using poison gas again. And if the first strike doesn’t do it then we’ll need to follow up with more until he gets it. I also agree (gulp!) with Senator John McCain that any strikes must be more than pinpricks. They must do serious damage to Syria’s military capability to deliver poison gas and, as a bonus, do something meaningful to assist the Syrian Free Army. That means going beyond cruise missiles.
I didn’t have much time for Margaret Thatcher’s political philosophy but at times like this I wish she was still around. She would have been appalled at the parliamentary vote in Britain rejecting a military strike against Syria. “Britain may have gone wobbly” she might have said to America at this difficult time, “but for all our sakes don’t you.”