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Chemical weapons in Syria: who, what, where, when, why?

It’s been a little more than a week since reports surfaced of a large-scale chemical weapon attack in Syria. Governments in Europe and the United States have accused the Syrian government of attacking…

UN inspectors will face several problems determining what has happened in Damascus. EPA/STR

It’s been a little more than a week since reports surfaced of a large-scale chemical weapon attack in Syria. Governments in Europe and the United States have accused the Syrian government of attacking their own people, while the Assad government has pointed the finger at its opponents.

The United Nations currently has inspectors in Damascus, who have been tasked with finding out if chemical weapons were used and, if so, by whom.

It’s not a simple matter to decide if a chemical attack has occurred. The inspectors will be looking for evidence to support or refute one of several possibilities:

  • a non chemical cause, such as mass hysteria
  • a chemical cause not related to chemical weapons
  • an attack using chemical weapons, but an improvised delivery system
  • a military chemical weapons attack using artillery or bombs.

In media interviews, former weapons inspectors have said that the symptoms are in line with a nerve agent such as sarin rather than the effects of a blistering agents such as sulphur mustard.

Looking at video purported to be from the site (see below), there is none of the usual blistering associated with mustard gas attacks, although that is not always immediate, while the combination of contracted pupils, uncontrolled mucus from nose/mouth and ataxia (uncoordinated movements) would suggest nerve agent or similar poisoning.

WARNING: this video contains graphic images.

What are nerve agents and how do they work?

Nerve agents are organophosphorus compounds that interfere with the transmission of nerve signals. Nerve signals are how the brain receives information and sends commands to the body. Signals are electrical impulses that travel along cells such as those in the spinal cord. When the signal reaches the end of one cell it must cross a gap, called a synapse, to reach the next nerve cell.

The signal is transmitted across the synapse by chemicals called neurotransmitters. These are released from the end of a nerve cell, travel across the synapse and bind to a protein switch on the beginning of the next nerve cell, which in turn generates a new electrical impulse.

The transmission process does not destroy the neurotransmitter. Instead, the neurotransmitter will remain in the synapse, binding to the switch over and over again until it is either destroyed or removed from the synapse.

One neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, is destroyed by an enzyme called acetylcholine esterase. Nerve agents bind to and block the action of acetylcholine esterase. Without the enzyme’s action, the amount of acetylcholine in the synapse never decreases.

Large amounts of acetylcholine repeatedly activate the protein switch leading to a constant stream of nerve signals.

If the nerve is one leading to a muscle, the continuous nerve signals prevent the muscle from relaxing. In fact, the muscle is continuously activating (contracting). When this occurs in the muscles that control breathing, they can only breathe in (the diaphragm contracts when we breathe in). As the victim cannot breathe out they asphyxiate.

A photo made from a handout video released by the Syrian opposition Moadamiyeh media centre is said to show UN inspectors collecting samples from a victim who was allegedly affected by a chemical gas weapon, in Moadamiyeh suburb, Damascus, Syria, on August 26. EPA cannot provide confirmation of content, authenticity, place, date and source. Moadamiyeh Media Center/EPA

Causing victim’s nerves to constantly signal to contract muscles leads to the symptomatic contraction of the pupils and “twitching” seen in cases of nerve-agent poisoning. In practice, this effect is usually seen in the later stages of poisoning, earlier symptoms being a runny nose and confusion.

There are several nerve agents that have differing physical and chemical properties. Some have the consistency of motor oil, while others will readily evaporate at room temperature. All are lethal in very small doses. A few tenths of a gram will kill an average man. Lethal exposure can be via ingestion (eating/drinking), skin contact with the liquid or by breathing in the agent as a gas.

Sulphur mustard’s molecular structure. Wikimedia Commons

Determining the presence of nerve agents

The UN inspectors will face several problems determining what happened in Damascus. Nerve agents are unstable in the normal environment and will break down readily. The breakdown products are non-toxic and not particularly notable in the environment of an industrial civilisation. This means it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to detect the use of nerve agents in the air or in substances on the street.

All known military nerve agents are organophosphorus compounds to the extent that certain groups of phosphorus compounds are outlawed for production and storage by the 1993 chemical weapons convention (which came into force in 1997, but Syria is not a signatory).

Many of the materials that are necessary, known as precursors, for production of the lethal compounds are similarly outlawed. But some precursors are themselves useful industrial chemicals, with uses in agriculture and chemical processes.

It is unlikely that the inspectors will find residual nerve agent in the environment. The more volatile agents would have blown away with the wind within hours of the incident. Compounds such as sarin break down within one and two days in the open.

On August 26, UN weapons experts set out from Damascus to Eastern Ghouta, the area on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, where chemical weapons were allegedly used and over which West has warned of consequences for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The opposition said the August 21 bombardment by government forces using a poisonous gas left 1,300 people dead. The government has vehemently denied the claim. STR/EPA

Similarly, the compounds are metabolised in the body. A blood sample taken from someone several days after receiving a non-lethal dose will probably not contain any nerve agent. It is also important to remember that the toxic dose is minute compared with the mass of the body. Samples taken a day after the Tokyo subway sarin attack contained ~100ng/mL (approximately 1 part in 10 million).

Instead of looking for the agent itself, the inspectors test for a metabolite (breakdown product) of the compound. The metabolites that will be sought are specific and can be used to identify exposure a particular compound.

The molecular structure of sarin. Wikimedia Commons

This would be achieved by taking urine or blood samples from victims and sending those to a laboratory equipped with appropriate gas or liquid chromatographs (equipment which separates mixtures) connected to sensitive mass spectrometers.

It is also possible to detect the nerve agent bound to the acetylcholine esterase. This method is similar to that for detecting metabolites. It potentially could be used up to two months after an attack. But each of these methods relies on a sufficiently high dose being received by the victim, which clearly suggests that they would be killed by the effects of the nerve agent and may have since been buried.

Other physical evidence the inspectors will look for will include expended shell or bomb casings that could have contained chemical weapons. They will also study the pattern of injury and death that the incident left on the ground. Release of a compound from containers at ground level will have a different dispersion from artillery bursting in the air.

If the UN inspectors can get sufficient blood and/or urine samples from victims, they should be able to determine the cause of the incident.

But if a chemical weapon attack is confirmed, it may be somewhat harder to positively identify the perpetrators.

Join the conversation

78 Comments sorted by

  1. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    It is not correct to imply that sarin is only detectable in lethally dosed people.
    There is a relatively crude test for acetylcholinesterase activity that is easily sensitive for people receiving a non-lethal dose. As this paper suggested
    http://dlawer.blogspot.com.au/2007/02/poisoning-of-kurdish-refugees-in-turkey.html
    Unfortunately it doesn't select against pesticide poisoning as this paper, also out of Turkey, reveals where the acetylcholinesterase activity levels were even lower than those…

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    1. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      This is one of the few times I completely agree with Sean. Beliefs inform actions, actions have consequences and consequences have more consequences.

      Beliefs should be aportioned to the evidence

      What is the eivdence we have - someone used chemical weapons in Syria

      we don't know who, we don't know why.

      The CIA has admitted to overthrowing the Democratically Elected Prime Minister of Iran in the 1950's through various false flag and propaghand techniques

      So we have seen similar things done before and all we can say is we don't know, this BS from the Obama Admin is just more BS from the Obama Admin, I don't know how they could be so wrong on so much for so long and the majority still accept uncritically that what they are saying is truth.

      We don't know *Tap Nose

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    2. Henk van Leeuwen

      author, philosopher, greenie

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Indeed "we don't know who, we don't know why". Things are rarely what they seem in the Middle East. But we can ask, who is likely to benefit from the attack? Surely not Assad, just when inspectors have turned up and when he seems to be gaining the upper hand. The more radical elements of the Opposition, who are already known to have also carried out serious war crimes, certainly would not hesitate to use any means to draw in the US and the UK, whose brilliant leaders have been itching to blunder in once again, so they can demonstrate their military might while having not the slightest idea of what the outcome might be. All they needed was "the evidence", which a la WMDs in Iraq has now conveniently turned up.

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    3. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Henk van Leeuwen

      Henk,

      I've been reading some rather disturbing stuff from the Arab press (Sunni) suggesting that there are factions in Syria which believe the only answer to this crisis is breaking Syria into several ethnic (meaning ethnically cleansed) bits.

      In that context it sends a clear message to those Sunnis (and maybe others) killed by gas - that they will be exterminated like insects and that they should head off elsewhere pronto.

      I doubt that is Assad's position but it could easily be some of the more insane of his Alawite military, or for that matter it could even be Assad - but I doubt he's ready to destroy Syria in order to save his regime.

      Still holes but it is some sort of 'logical' explanation for an act that seems to defy any sort of normal strategy.

      I'd be looking at what happened in Yugoslavia as a model for what we're watching rather than elsewhere in the middle east.

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    4. Martin Boland

      Lecturer of Medicinal Chemistry at Charles Darwin University

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Thanks for the comment Sean.

      As you note, acetylcholine esterase activity is a good diagnostic tool for organophosphate poisoning. However, because it is non-specific, it is not a good choice for a forensic investigation into the particular cause or agent.

      Fluorine is another non-specific marker of sarin poisoning. F- is a potential metabolite of many drugs, particularly fluorinated anti-depressants. According to the data in the paper you reference, the F- ion concentrations are somewhat noisy…

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    5. Henk van Leeuwen

      author, philosopher, greenie

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      All well worth keeping in mind, Peter, but our great leaders prefer to keep it simple, i.e. goodies versus baddies.

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    6. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      If you look at what the CIA did in Iran in 1950 that also provides a very logical explanation of what's happening - it was done as an act of US foriegn policy in order to weaken any soviet friendly nations

      Syria is considered to be allied with Iran and important to Russia in the same way that Israel is important to the US

      Also if you look at it from a fundamentalist rebel's perspective - if a small group of rebels did do this then they have succeded in getting the west to do their bidding and attack Asad

      There are logical explanations everywhere, that's not the problem, the problem is we have no idea which is more likely to be true

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    7. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Martin Boland

      Again you are vastly over-stating the difficulties and also don't seem aware of the benefits of using non-specific tests.
      While acetylcholine esterase may not be specific for Sarin, if alleged victims have completely normal acetylcholine esterase activity then we can safely rule out sarin. The advantage of the flourine method in urine is it gave information of the purity of the product - by the high levels of unreacted precursor products that were found in the urine. That is important additional…

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  2. Adam Mansbridge

    IT business analyst

    "The metabolites that will be sort are specific..."

    I presume you mean sought rather than sort.

    Pedantry aside, thank you for an informative article.

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  3. Joseph Bernard

    Director

    Wonder if the facts will really make any difference?

    It seems like the US and UK and France have already made up their minds!

    Wonder if Japan is the next country to be attacked? the radiation from Fukushima is a million times worse and if the catastrophe waiting to happen with 1100 spend fuel cells will wipe out Tokyo and irradiate the states then the rest of the planet. whoops

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    1. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Joseph Bernard

      Moderators ... please, why allow this kind of silly anti-nuke trolling?

      Fukushima radiation death toll? Zero.

      Net impact of the reactors? Perhaps a thousand people at the 10 reactors in 4 plants along the coast owe their lives to working at a nuclear reactor. Had they been working in some other coastal industry, many would be dead.

      Global toll from any fuel cell accident anywhere ever? zero.

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    2. Joseph Bernard

      Director

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      @Geoff,

      the current premise for war is the number of people that will die from a WMD.. .. you know 'war' go out spend billions of dollars in man power and weapons to kill people to somehow save lives.

      not sure if you get the perspective here. Syria there are and will continue to be more people dying due to people and their respective thoughts.. These people are determined to kill those that do not agree with them and we is the west are seen as part of the problem and they would…

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    3. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Joseph Bernard

      The people in Syria are suffering here and now. There is no evidence at all that anybody in Japan would have had any detectable increase in cancers ... even if they'd stayed living around Fukushima. This is the scientific evidence from Chernobyl and the WWII bombings. In the case of Chernobyl, you can go and check globocan for the cancer stats in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Over the past 27 years they've had 14 million cases of cancer. If they'd have had Australian cancer rates they'd have had…

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    4. Joseph Bernard

      Director

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      Yes the people of Syria are suffering right now..

      Please explain how bombing Syria and killing more people will help save lives? The war will continue now and well into the future! The only winners are the most ruthless that feel justified in the kill, so give them more guns and fire power.

      I know that before the war.. Syria was relatively prosperous and had Christians, Shites, Sunis and kurds all living together peacefully. NOW WHAT?

      Do you know that the Kurds are leaving on mass because…

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    5. Iain Wicking

      Director

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      Grated the comment is off conversation. However, your response is head in the sand. The likely impact of the Fukushima radiation which flows into the environment each and every day (and will do so for a couple of decades) will be very significant in terms of its leaching into the environment, food chains, etc. This will result in many thousands of deaths over the medium to long term (we have a case study in Chernobyl). There are plenty of reasons to be critical of the nuclear industry in Japan (and elsewhere) - plant built on a known fault-line, ignored a report the predicted the sea walls were too low (could have moved the diesel generators to the high ground), running reactors beyond their design life, storing large amounts of wet waste, lies about the amount of irradiated water that is flowing into the Pacific Ocean, etc.

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    6. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Iain Wicking

      We do indeed have the Chernobyl case study ... (plus Hiroshima+Nagasaki) which is exactly why we can be confident that very little, and most likely nothing, will happen.

      Agreed sea walls were too low. But why is it that nobody says a word about all the other sea walls that were too low? The incompetence behind those other sea walls resulted in thousands of deaths ... unlike the sea walls at Fukushima (3 deaths). Where is the concern about the sea wall failures which actually killed people? Where is the investigation into the evacuation which killed many people despite being totally unnecessary?

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    7. Iain Wicking

      Director

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      Not clear cut. Conclusions of a number of studies (one highlighted below) is guarded with some heightened increase in cancer types observed. This may be attributable to changing medical practices/recording. However the authors of this and other similar reports are careful to point out that this is really a short term view and reasons for increases in cancers in the immediate area of Chernobyl requires further longer term investigation.

      Not interested in wasting brain cells arguing the point - from a personal perspective and if I have a choice I'd rather lived in an environment that has not been flooded with radiation as a result of human mistakes and has tons upon tons of nuclear 'wet waste' that has to be constantly cooled.

      http://depts.washington.edu/epidem/Epi591/Spr09/Chernobyl%20Forum%20Article%20Cardis%20et%20al-1.pdf

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    8. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Iain Wicking

      Nobody wanted Fukushima. It's obviously regrettable, but that doesn't mean people's livelihoods and futures should be forcibly thrown on the scrap heap because of cancer risks far, far smaller than regular consumption of lamb chops and bacon. That's just cruel and stupid.

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  4. Peter Ormonde

    Farmer

    I have a dreadful fear that what we are witnessing in Syria is not only the early stages of the collapse of the regime - but that it is already happening... that Assad has limited control of his forces and that place is disintegrating into a shattered collection of rabid religious and ethnic zealots armed to the teeth.

    My fear comes from the utter lack of military significance in what was purportedly done... a guarantee of global outrage for what gain - a hundred meters of urban street? a few…

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    1. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      No such thing as truth in this neck of the woods Gavin ... one chooses the best truth to suit one's presumptions ... all rumour, lies and dust - take your pick.

      But it could have been anyone - games within games within games ... and little is as it appears. I just cannot understand the why let alone the who. Much more benefit to some faction of the rebels than Assad. I wonder what the religious/ethnic affiliations were of those killed?

      Something very disturbing about all this.... strategically, tactically, politically, militarily - nothing adds up.

      Looking very genocidal.

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    2. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      I agree with that Peter. Which makes punishment or deterrence so problematic. Who is one deterring? I can't see what the US, UK or France can usefully do. Perhaps a little humility is in order: accept that this is a problem for which the west has no solution.

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    3. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Mmmm - in the trade, Gavin, we call these sibs - short for sibilants. These are rumors we propagate deliberately in order to find a plausible explanation for something that appears completely implausible. We can generate clouds of these and when they have finally been dispersed generally we have achieved our policy outcomes.
      Usually such sibs will be delivered with much tapping of noses; winking and nudging. "You know the intelligence reports I have seen which I could tell you if only you had sufficient security clearance. Hair-raising my dear chap, utterly hair raising. Of course, I can only hint in general outline, but there is definitely more to this than meets the eye. Some senior generals are very unhappy with Assad and if only we give a little nudge they are sure to topple him. Mind you, this is completely off the record you understand. Top level security source, eh what."

      How long do we have to put up with this utter drivel, O Lord. How long?

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    4. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Here's a very carefully worded piece from a fella who knows his Damascus a Jordanian journalist Raed Omari http://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2013/08/28/Assad-to-be-punished-not-removed.html

      More interesting for what it doesn't say actually ... no specific allegations against Assad but only by 'forces loyal to Assad' ... not necessarily the same thing at all...and I suspect signalling the underlying collapse of central military control.

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    5. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      "More interesting for what it doesn't say"
      For example, it doesn't say it is a TV channel established by the Saudi royal family.
      Tap nose...lack of central control...tap nose....rogue Assad forces....tap nose....no explicit orders....tap nose...but intelligence sources, which (tap nose) I can not possibly reveal, are clear this came absolutely from the regime's side

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    6. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      You're absolutely certain of that Sean ... like just so todally dude... just obvious innit?

      As you might recall I'm no fan of the despotic theocrats running the Saudi peninsular. But it's a pity you haven't deigned to read any of Omari's analysis over the last two years. Far from toeing any Saudi or Sunni line.

      But of course this is the Middle East - all truths are lies, all facts are lies, all lies are truths... much better to rely on some pimply US intelligence officer sitting in Washington ... you know those seekers of objective truth who promised us WMDs?

      You're absolutely dead certain that Assad ordered his soldiers to use chemical weapons ... well in front of Obama and the rest of the world Sean. Such prescience.

      Dunno why we bother sending UN teams over really when they just have to ask Shorn here...

      Always easier the further one is away.

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    7. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Oh Peter, you are way too clever for me.
      You ought to work for HRW or AI, you would fit right in. They all ooze compassion, murderous compassion.

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    8. Steve Hindle

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      You make good points Peter. It is difficult to look at pictures of lifeless young children scattered down alleyways and decide to do nothing. At the same time the outcome of any military action has "unintended consequences" written all over it.

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    9. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Sean,

      Are you insinuating I have said anythin g to suggest I am p[icking which p[artuicular murdere to support in Syria ... unlike yourself who seems to have lined up with the Sunnis and Al Qaeda...

      No Sean, I'm far too smart to have a crack at picking the goodies and baddies from this distance based on incomplete information and the blatherings of 'intelligence agencies'. Unlike yourself, aparently - some inbuilt truth detector probably..

      Glad to see you've found a team to barrack for though .... must be very morally reassuring.

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    10. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Peter, you are too cute.
      But look your very own analysis is being repeated almost word for word by veritable skanky ho for US militarism.
      http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/08/27/exclusive_us_spies_say_intercepted_calls_prove_syrias_army_used_nerve_gas

      "It's unclear where control lies," one U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. "Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?"

      Taps nose.

      "Perhaps it was a lone general putting a long-standing battle plan in motion; "

      Taps nose.

      "We don't know exactly why it happened," the intelligence official added. "We just know it was pretty fucking stupid."

      Hell forget HRW or AI, Peter you would fit right in in the Obama administration.

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    11. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      For those unaccustomed to sifting through dubious Arab press reports, here's one hot off the wire from the Independent's Robert Fisk - perhaps the western world's best commentator and public analyst on such matters ....(4 hours old)

      http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/does-obama-know-hes-fighting-on-alqaidas-side-8786680.html

      His conclusion: 'Sure, we are told that it will be a short strike on Syria, in and out, a couple of days. That’s what Obama likes to think. But think Iran. Think Hezbollah. I rather suspect – if Obama does go ahead – that this one will run and run.'

      And here's a really excellent piece of analysis just charting the absurdity of the current situation all over the Middle East....

      http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/fisk/death-is-noweveryday-among-arabs--butculprits-and-facts-are-rare-8784453.html

      What's that ticking sound?

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    12. Iain Wicking

      Director

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Just follow the money....the whole mess is being funded by Qatar and the Saudis to the tune of billions with the CIA, etc, joining in. The majority of the rebels are foreigners and not Syrian. Would be very difficult to call it a civil war.

      There is a lot of non mainstream information (i.e non propaganda from the Western media organizations) that now points to the so called rebels setting it all up. Presumably to broaden the conflict. As you comment - lies within lies and plots within plots.

      It is the great game revisited with a potential showdown looming between West and East - the Middle East is the fault-line.

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    13. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Iain Wicking

      I'm not sure it'll be an East West global sort of conflict - might do but not necessarily... maybe if this had happened before Iraq - the arrogant powers might have waded in without looking carefully.

      The tragic position the yanks and the west have got themselves into now means that to act against Assad they inevitably boost the al Qaeda/ Sunni militias. No winners - no positive outcomes - in any option on offer.

      The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

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    14. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      While the idea of being attacked by chemicals chills me to the bone, doesn't anybody find it freaky that the UN is in Syria sniffing around about the 1,000 alleged deaths to "chemical" weapons, but silent on the 40,000 killed by ordinary old gunpowder?

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    15. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      "I have a dreadful fear that what we are witnessing in Syria" is just another reverberation of the collapse of imperial Communism.

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    16. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to David Thompson

      Excellent ... it's the end of history isn't it?

      The global geopolitics of The Great Game continue as they have for hundreds of years.

      It is not so much that the former USSR was imperial 'communism' - it was Russian. It still is. Not spreading the power of the soviets David, but spreading Russian national dominance and power ... a Russian Empire dressed up like a socialist utopia.

      But if you are correct - that the collapse of the USSR and the Soviet Bloc has - quarter of a century later - given us Syria, or Egypt or anywhere else for that matter... enlighten us as to how.

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    17. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Peter, NO empire in history - especially one as gigantic as the Soviet empire - has ever "collapsed" in a mere 25 years. Admittedly, this one was felled with unprecedented precision and finality, but even Soviet Communism's collapse will take a few years yet to heal.

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    18. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to David Thompson

      Yes David but is the problem Russia and it's long-term geopolitical interests - or is it 'communism' and it's poisonous principles ...

      I'm not aware of much 'communism' in Syria ... but I know the Russians have a very clear and continuing interest in meddling and rigging the landscape.

      But the Russians aren't running around quoting marx and calling for the social ownership of the means of production - or for that matter democracy - despite of course throwing off the shackles and now being free…

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  5. Ayman S

    Artz

    Interesting article. Having said that, as the symptoms from the alleged chemical attack seem to be akin to irreversible inhibition of acetylcholinesterase inhibition, why is it that everyone is jumping to the conclusion that it is due to a weaponised nerve agent i.e. Sarin?

    Organophosphates (e.g. parathion and malathion) are common insecticide that are used worldwide. In a country such as Syria, that due to it's relatively underdeveloped agricultural sector, one would expect that organophosphate…

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    1. Martin Boland

      Lecturer of Medicinal Chemistry at Charles Darwin University

      In reply to Ayman S

      In the article i have mentioned a blood test for compounds bound to the acetylcholine esterase. That test is very specific for the compound used and would be among the most telling pieces of data pointing towards the use of a chemical weapon rather than a pesticide.

      As you noted, organophosphates that are used as insecticides tend to have slower onset of acute symptoms. The rate of onset and the distribution of cases will be other factors that the OPCW inspectors will take into account.

      The article was written to bring to a general audience some of the factors that the OPCW team will be thinking about when trying to determine the cause of this incident.

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  6. David Wright

    Electrician

    There is only 2 words that are relevant to this.

    "WHO"

    and

    "CARES"

    This is NOT our country.

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    1. David Wright

      Electrician

      In reply to David Wright

      We can NEVER get involved in this.

      There is nothing good in getting involved in this.
      There is nothing in it for us.

      Please, do not call for action on this... It will mean the unnecessary death of our own people.

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    2. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to David Wright

      For me it's not that simple. We have a lot to credit these countries with. Walnuts, almonds, peaches, pears, pistachios, citrus, wheat, the list goes on. Architecture in it's most contemporary sense is reminiscent of middle eastern architecture. I have an iris which is about to flower, Iris hermona, which is endangered, from mount hermon in the golon heights. One day soon they may be bombed to smithereens. Syria also has many extremely beautiful plants, but when I look any of them up, all I see is…

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    3. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      What if it turns out the US was behind the attack? it has happened before

      And you are asking us to do something? do what? to who? if we attack Syria and it turns out to have been the rebels or the US or someone else will you still feel so self rightous?

      Some one attacked someone in syria, we don't know who but we should kill government officials anyway - it doesn't make any sense

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    4. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to David Wright

      Applying Occam's razor, this post is the most incisive of the whole thread/

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    5. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      "So even on this narrow view you wouldn't be concerned about an increase in asylum seekers from Syria?"
      Gavin, a perfectly reasonable response to this would be "who wants these people importing all their bullshit into our society". I don't hold this view myself, but it is a perfectly view to hold.

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    6. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to David Thompson

      Er,but it is a perfectly reasonable/rational view to hold.

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    7. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to David Thompson

      Exactly ... I have exactly the same feelings about the English myself ... bringing their rubbish queenly notions and racist bigotry in here... who needs 'em.

      Give me a mob of real victims anyday.

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    8. David Wright

      Electrician

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      I'm convinced that if the West becomes involved there will be irresistible pressures from the left to take asylum seekers.

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    9. David Wright

      Electrician

      In reply to David Thompson

      Thanks mate. Great to get a positive boost once in a while.

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    10. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      "I have exactly the same feelings about the English myself"
      A bit of an ingrate, aren't you, given they gave you the power of communication?

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    11. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to David Thompson

      Not really - they took away my perfectly decent gaelic and have forced me to speak this common coarse germanic grunting, which far too many riff raff around the world understand.

      I can count the benefits the English bestowed on Ireland with one upturned finger.

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    12. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Peter, by the time you were born, Australia had not been a colony of the United Kingdom (England and Scotland) for about 100 years. Somehow, I think the only "Gaelic" culture your were attached to was Bonny Tyler and the Bay City Rollers.

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    13. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to David Thompson

      You mean Australia isn't an English colony? Jings... I wonder whose colony we are now then.

      Actually at a personal level I have no animosity to an entire nationality ... just trying to make the point that when some folks come here they bring stuff with them ... particularly folks who come thinking they are coming to some Anglo version of South Afric - a wide brown gated community with no darkies, wogs and riff raff.

      You know the type... get off the plane and start telling us who we should be treating as humans while the jet lag wears off.

      Strangely less so the folks who came to get away from this horrible intractable insoluble hatred.

      I have sat down to dinner with muslims, copts and jews at the one table. That's what Australia offers to the wise and the war weary.

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    14. Graeme Smith

      Citizen

      In reply to David Wright

      Britain is (overtly) out of it. British MPs have voted against military action in Syria. Sensible of them... a letter to the Financial Times from a Mr K N Al-Sabah shows just how futile it is to get involved:

      ‘Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad!

      ‘Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi.

      ‘But Gulf states are pro Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood!

      ‘Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the US!

      ‘Gulf states are pro US. But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf States.

      ‘Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.‘

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    15. Graeme Smith

      Citizen

      In reply to David Wright

      Irish immigration is up by %400 in just the last few years. 40,000p.a. and rising.

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    16. David Wright

      Electrician

      In reply to Graeme Smith

      We want people similar to us that speak English, have been trained in similar ways, at a similar level of economic advantage, and not likely to sponge off our system. If we were talking Ireland in 1850 that would have been a problem. Ireland in 2013? No.

      My reasoning is consistent.

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  7. Gerhard Lohmann-Bond

    logged in via email @live.de

    I didn't believe the Blair government's assertions concerning WMD in the run-up to the war against Iraq and I don't believe that Assad would have been foolish enough to use chemical weapons against the Syrian opposition without a pressing need. The question of motive plays a crucial role in any criminal investigation. I can see plenty of motives to get involved on the side of the Western powers, none on Assad's side to get them involved in Syria any more than they already are. As before, the USA and their closest allies seem to look for an excuse to get stuck in, rather than a valid reason. Onwards and upwards to new war crimes.

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    1. Gerhard Lohmann-Bond

      logged in via email @live.de

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Max Hastings asked an interesting question on Radio 4 yesterday: what makes chemical weapons so much worse than cluster bombs (or, I might add, shells full of depleted uranium or land mines). The so-called line in the sand is entirely arbitrary.

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    2. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Gerhard Lohmann-Bond

      Gerhard, yaaiirrrssss, I think the experiences of all the lies spun about Iraq will make it difficult for these boys to get the thumbs up from me.

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    3. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Gerhard Lohmann-Bond

      Gerhard, I asked this same question above. Why are 1,000 alleged deaths by chemical weapons, so much worse than 40,000 deaths by gunpowder?

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  8. Geoff Russell

    Computer Programmer, Author

    Thanks for an informative article Martin.

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  9. Eddy Schmid

    Retired

    I confess, I'm totally dumb founded ! I was under the impression this site was run by well intentioned folks and posters were intelligent and aware of the reality facing us in today's World.
    Sadly, going by most of the inane remarks I've found on here, I have been suffering from a false allusion.
    I would suggest many of the posters here, obtain a map of the World and focus on the middle east. In particular the countries that have been destroyed deliberately over the last 10 years, such as Iraq…

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    1. Peter Dawson

      Gap Decade

      In reply to Graeme Smith

      Thanks for the link. I only discovered yesterday that there were elections on in Turkey, and I hadn't heard of the battle going on with Gulen until now.

      Apparently the whole of YouTube and Twitter within Turkey was shut down by Erdogan in order to stop news of the leak spreading. He claimed it was to stop treasonous national destabilisation from spreading. And the Western media bent over backwards to avoid reporting the truth:

      https://twitter.com/_nasdaf_/status/449651980470722561/photo/1

      What we don't know can't hurt them.

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    2. Graeme Smith

      Citizen

      In reply to Peter Dawson

      Twitter or not, whose news is it there Peter? Gulen apparently owns and runs the Turkish media.

      The emerging Gulen developments in Turkey dramatically show where LNP policies already being implemented for charter schools, independent public schools, whatever-you-call-it-neoliberal-schools here will lead.

      Christopher de Bellaigue's NYRoB report http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/apr/03/turkey-goes-out-control/?page=2 carries a very timely warning for Australian primary and secondary…

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