Chemical weapons 101: Six facts about sarin and Syria’s stockpile

Bashar Assad almost certainly crossed a 'red line' by using sarin or some other chemical weapon against his own people, President Obama said in April. The casualty toll from the latest suspected use suggests sarin henceforth will be associated with Syria and Mr. Assad. 

6. Hasn’t Assad said he would never use chemical weapons against his own people?

Last September, the Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, declared the regime would only use chemical weapons in the case of an “external aggression.” (Since then Mr. Makdissi has fled the country). The declaration was noteworthy because it was the regime’s first acknowledgment that it possesses chemical weapons stockpiles – but also because it offered some reassurance that Assad had his own “red line” about using his stockpiled sarin and mustard gas against Syrians.

But some skeptics of the regime’s intentions say it’s worth keeping in mind that Assad, who seems to have had no qualms about raining down Scud missiles and explosives from helicopters and bombers onto Syrian neighborhoods, has also made a point of describing the rebels fighting him as “terrorists,” and in some cases as terrorists who have come from outside Syria to fight.

As evidence of the August attacks spread around the world, Syrian officials followed the regime’s established pattern: It was “illogical” to think the government would attack the Damascus suburbs with chemical weapons, they said, but they also repeated the regime’s characterization of its opponents as “terrorists.”

George Lopez, a former UN sanctions expert now at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., says that not only does Assad insist that the uprising is coming from “foreign terrorists,” but US and other experts now agree that foreign extremists are increasingly involved in the fighting.

Put those factors together, he says, and one can see how Assad’s “sick logic” would “excuse and explain” the use of chemical weapons.

After the March attacks Professor Lopez echoed those who said Assad might have launched a small-scale chemical weapons attack as a test for something bigger, adding, “We should be very, very worried.” The August attacks might be the kind of thing he was warning about.

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