Is there a main degradation component that you look for when you’re looking for evidence that sarin may have been used in an attack?
The main one is IMPA, or isopropylmethylphosphonic acid. That’s the main chemical marker. There are others that exist, but as far as my research goes that’s the one I focus on.
Some experts have said it looks like a combination of the nerve agents sarin, used in two terrorist attacks in Japan in the 1990s, and VX, which some suspect was used in the Iran–Iraq War in 1980–88. Is that possible? Do you agree?
With VX we’re not sure. Some scientists think it’s more persistent, meaning it sticks around, but there’s also evidence that maybe it doesn’t. To my knowledge VX was not used in the Iran-Iraq War. What we do know is that VX can be up to 100 times more toxic than sarin. If we look at the history of chemical warfare, it used to be that you’d either want an agent that was persistent and did its business on the surface or you’d want a gas agent that did damage in the air quickly and dispersed. If VX were both of those things, that would be a game changer.
How easy is it to make these types of weapons?
It’s very challenging. Take Libya, for example. They had a chemical weapons program. The first thing they made in high quantities was mustard gas, which is poisonous and lethal, but is not terribly difficult to make. Then they tried nerve agents. That was just a bridge too far for them. One of the things that made it so difficult was that the U.S. was interfering with their ability to get the precursors, the materials they’d need to make the weapons in the first place. In the end they abandoned the effort and chose to rely on their nuclear program.
Syria and Israel are among the only countries not to have signed or ratified the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (Syria signed but never ratified and Israel never signed), which required signatories to stop bioweapons work and destroy existing stockpiles. Did this play a role in the attack?
There are seven states that have not signed. The significance of the Convention is its role in upholding a social construction of reality in which these sorts of weapons are viewed as beyond the pale, as taboo. The more people that adopt that narrative, the bigger the taboo becomes.
Syria was not a member, but it made sense for them not to be. They wanted a form of defense against Israel. They created a stockpile for defense against other states. I really don’t think they would ever have envisioned using it against insurgents. But because they are not a part of the Convention, and there’s no world government, they didn’t feel compelled not to use chemical weapons.
There are only three reasons I can think of that the regime would’ve done this: One, they have an incredibly complicated chess game that’s out of this world and somehow part of a rational strategy that I can’t understand. Two, this was an element of Pres. Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Or three, the regime itself is beginning to lose touch with reality, which can happen if you’re isolated. We’ve seen it happen to terrorist regimes over and over.
You can’t automatically accept any of the answers. So then you look at the opposition—they had a lot more to gain through the use of chemical agents. From their perspective, [the opposition] likely understood that it would trigger a large-scale U.S. intervention. So you could have had a situation where they said yes, people are going to die, but more will die if we don’t do this [to] trigger U.S. intervention.