For Weapons Use In
By Yoichi Shimatsu
| The prime cause
for agonizing over Syria, sarin is the bogeyman of chemical warfare because
it is odorless, lethal and vaporizes without any dispersant, yet it is
too cumbersome and risky for use in street combat in a low-tech battlefront
like Syria. Much like a child’s worst nightmare, this chemical warfare
agent is a low-probability threat, if at all, especially in areas without
refrigeration support systems and personnel with extensive training in
handling toxic chemicals. Sarin makes for splendid propaganda, but is
practically useless in ground combat for or against guerrillas, which
is why it has rarely, if ever, been used for tactical purposes.
The last time that sarin was allegedly dispersed for mass murder was in the Tokyo subway gassing of March 1995. As the only journalist present with training in chemistry, I covered that case for more than a year as head of the investigation team for The Japan Times Weekly and consultant to the Takarajima-30 magazine, the only two publications that dared challenge the official government cover-up. To put it bluntly, sarin was not used against the subways, and if anyone did try to unleash it in Syria, it would likelier kill the would-be assailant than his enemies.
For the laymen without highly specialized training, opening a container of sarin is suicide. Recent reports from Gouta indeed indicate that rebels unwitting opened a cylinder of sarin shipped by Saudi intelligence agency without instructions, killing themselves and civilians in the vicinity. Had the Syrian armed forces fired binary artillery shells that burst over target sites, many more thousands of people would died in Gouta. One micro-drop of sarin exposure on the skin, much less through respiration, will kill the victims. Therefore, the video clips of civilians fleeing from buildings with handkerchiefs over their noses are a sign of panic. Anyone who was exposed to the accidental release would have died quickly. Sarin does not wound, it kills.
Exploding Media Myths
The first myth that had to be exploded in Tokyo was the Japanese government’s claim that sarin was used in the rush-hour attack on 200,000 commuters traveling underground. The Weekly was the only press to interview the chemical warfare unit of Japan’s Self-Defense Force. These fearless soldiers descended into the subway stations with detection gear (NATO standard, U.S. made). Their air sampling indicated that the toxic agent was mustard gas (chlorine). In fact, the symptoms of profuse bleeding from mouth and nose were consistent with mustard gas and not sarin. (No such symptoms of bleeding have come out of Syria.)
Only later in hospitals did physicians detect in a minority of patients the effects of a weak organophosphate chemical with symptoms similar to those from sarin, apparently caused by one packet of insecticide.
One of SDF soldiers climbed back to the street and announced his team’s finding to a circle of reporters. Then, in the first sign of a cover-up, a bureaucrat with the Tokyo Police press club stepped forward and ordered the reporters to strike the soldier’s comments from their notes. The press officer then said: “The gas is sarin.” With those words, the battle was on, journalistically speaking, which eventually resulted in the silencing by imprisonment of a high-ranking politician on vaguely related charges.
Branded as a Nazi
Sarin, a weapon of mass destruction invented in Nazi Germany, is a “trigger word” that can invoke press censorship among all NATO-allied countries, including Japan. Trigger words are a key to information control and protection of clandestine operations from exposure during a crisis. Once again, in the current Syria crisis, the bogey word “sarin” is being deployed to prevent the international press from reporting on the complexity of a political conflict involving state-sponsored terrorism and religious sectarianism, two other legacy taboos from the postwar denazification era. Predictably pushing buttons of guilt and hysteria, the Israel intelligence service Mossad and its Zionist supporters in Washington have been manipulating the Syrian sarin claim in an attempt to equate the Baathist regime with the Nazi party.
As stated in 1995 by one Russian toxicologist, after watching the broadcasts from Tokyo, “if sarin had been used, hundreds of thousands of commuters would have died immediately, and so the gas could not have been sarin.” The same can be said about the Damascus suburbs. A missile load of sarin should have wiped out the entire neighborhood, leaving few if any survivors. If sarin was indeed the agent, then the poisoning had to be self-inflicted, due to the inability of the rebels to properly handle the highly volatile material. As for the earlier reports of poisoning across Syria, the science-based conclusion is the same as in the Tokyo subway case: Less lethal pesticides were used.
The flaw in sarin, from a military point of view, is that it decomposes too rapidly. Whatever so-called experts might claim to the media, dilute or “weak” sarin is nonsense. Once decay begins, the entire batch soon loses its punch. The organophosphate agent has to be frozen to prevent its breakdown into lesser fluoride and sulfide components. Power blackouts across Syria ensure that any heating of sarin gas will soon kill those who possess it.
This inherent chemical instability means that sarin has to be stored and delivered as two separate precursor liquids and mixed en route to target. Sarin is thereby produced quite literally in midair, requiring an explosion of a binary artillery shell or rocket with its precursors divided into two compartments.
The other method of mix-and-spray nerve gas is a canister with flap doors, dropped like a bomb from an aircraft. This type of long canister was discovered at an Iraqi arsenal at Balad Air Base by a U.S. National Guard squad, as told to me by its medical officer, with markings that indicated it was the organophosphate VX produced by ConocoPhilips and shipped from Houston after the First Gulf War. The covert delivery of nerve gas to Saddam Hussein after his first defeat to bolster deterrence against Iran revealed the leading role of the U.S. government in proliferation of chemical weapons worldwide.
In the recent Damascus case, the poisoning victims heard the whoosh of a rocket, but missiles move too quickly for mixing the precursors by aerial dispersal. If sarin has indeed been smuggled into Syria by Qaela-linked guerrillas, as claimed by local residents, then the main danger was to their own lives. The handling of sarin is much too complicated for layman, and just by opening a container of liquid or trying to mix a binary formula, the insurgents would kill themselves and nearby civilians. That is a probable cause of why so few deaths, less than 400 fatalities according to doctors, were reported inside a small radius. By comparison, aerial dispersal by rocket would have taken thousands of lives.
The recent incident, however, was not the only instance of poisoning in Syria. Several other cases have since April. To understand the science behind these smaller-scale incidents, one has go back to the Aum Shinrikyo case.
Sarin was never used against Tokyo commuters and likely is not being widely deployed in Syria by either side with any military success for far. What then could account for the symptoms of nerve-gas poisoning reported among the victims pinpoint eye iris, palpitation in breathing, fainting and hallucinations?
The best response to this question is another query: Why is the antidote to sarin known as atropine so available in the hinterlands of Syria and Japan with enough syringe doses for most victims in both cases?
In the years prior to the Tokyo subway gassing, an annual 500 rural residents people Japan suffered acute organophosphate poisoning. The cause of poisoning is organophosphate pesticides used in agriculture, the commonest ones being diazanon and malathion. Any adult who has done gardening is likely to have used these compounds against insects such as plant lice and fruit flies. Organophosphates are also used in animal husbandry, for example, in sheep dips to eradicate fleas and ticks.
This is why vials of atropine had to be rushed from countryside clinics across the Kanto Plain to Tokyo to treat the subway victims. Luckily, extensive farming is done on the outskirts of Damascus, so most of the affected victims received treatment. A minor point to note is that sarin was invented in German labs as an insecticide and only later considered for warfare.
How Sarin Became a Household Word
The Aum Shinrikyo sect, which became synonymous with “sarin”, first became aware of organophosphate poisoning when their compound near Mount Fuji was allegedly attacked with nerve gas, sickening many cult members. Aum’s science team then began extensive research into this toxic compound. Guru Shoko Asahara, who was encouraged by his mentor the Dalai Lama to be an admirer of Adolf Hitler, was thrilled by discovery of the Nazi connection to sarin. In the crazed worldview of these religious extremists, nerve gas could be a perfect “super-weapon” in the final war to defend Buddhism, as prophesized in the Kalachakra Tantra.
At the time, Aum’s suspicions were focused on U.S. military helicopters in their vicinity. Instead of dispersing sarin over the Kamikuishiki compound, these over-flights were actually part of the joint military exercises in Gotemba, on the slope of Fuji-san. There is nothing like sarin to bring on paranoia among politicians, spies, publishers and other cultists.
The Farmer’s Choice
The more probable cause of poisoning at the Aum compound was agricultural chemicals spread from passing farm equipment by an angry group of local farmers who reviled the weirdly dressed cultists. Pastoral idylls are for city dwellers. Farmers can be cruel, clever and vindictive on their own turf. As a part-time organic farming enthusiast and later rural consultant for most of life in the American Midwest, Japan, China and Southeast Asia I have seen rural folk engaging in criminal activities against the environment, animals and humans that would shock any urban shopper at Whole Foods.
In a communal conflict with religious overtones, as happened on a small scale near Mount Fuji, farm folk are capable of using every weapon at their disposal and pesticides top the list. In Syria, poisoning has been reported on both sides of the barricades, allegedly killing soldiers and civilians. Militiamen from rural areas on either side are doing the brunt of the fighting on the ground, and they can be expected to use every means to wipe out their enemies as if they are pests.
Roundup Ready Nation
For the U.S. to go to war over chemical abuse is ironic to say the least. If such an intervention is really necessary, then the first act of war should be to ban Roundup Ready, which requires extensive use of herbicides. The USA is the biggest promoter of agricultural chemicals, so this war on toxic chemicals should start at home. The much-needed regime change is to depose Mr. Monsanto, a title that comes with winning the presidency.
Organic farming could eliminate most, though not all dangerous chemicals from the farm communities. (Organic farming has its own dirty secret called neem, a natural pesticide harmful to the female reproductive system). Instead of settling grudges with a dose of malathion or achieving regime change through diazinon, farm folk would be too preoccupied with pinching bugs to be wasting time on killing their neighbors.
Syria has a stockpile of sarin and missiles to deliver toxic warheads for one purpose only as a “poor man’s” deterrence against an Israeli nuclear strike. It is unlikely therefore to divert their difficult-to-maintain stockpile on ragtag bands of rebels, when tank artillery and rockets are more effective against insurgents.
This deterrence issue then, makes it clear why the pro-Israel coalition, which includes Turkey, Qatar and President Barack Obama’s advisors who hatched the Arab Spring, aim to defang Syria’s only countermeasure against Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the region. Exposed now in its own big lie on the sarin claim, israel is trying to escalate the war hysteria by moving Iron Dome anti-missile units toward the Golan Heights.
Sarin is the bogeyman that equates Bashir Assad with Adolf Hitler, and gas of course is the historical nemesis of world Jewry. A similar public trial by mass media convinced the world that a crazed Aum Shinrikyo and not the Japanese government was the buyer of weapons of mass destruction from Russia during the Yeltsin administration. A scapegoat is always needed by the merchants of death and war parties in Washington, London, Paris, Tokyo, Moscow and Beijing to sell their weapons.
As the White House gardeners spray aphids in the Rose Garden, President Obama preaches about the threat of “sarin” between free-trade talks that would enable Dow Chemical and Monsanto to ship their chemical weapons to every farm and backyard around the globe. Meanwhile, a White House apology has never been given for the 16,000 deaths by gassing, and injuries to 40,000 Indians in the Bhopal industrial gas accident. The culprit Union Carbine was not bombed with Tomahawk cruise missiles and never hit with sanctions. On the contrary, Washington protected the U.S. chemical corporation from extradition and prosecution.
Even worse, the U.S. sprayed thousands of tons of Agent Orange herbicide over much of Vietnam and Laos, poisoning food and water, while causing untold numbers of birth defects to this day. Washington has never offered the Vietnamese people medical care or compensation for this monstrous crime of chemical warfare. For two decades until congressional passage of the Agent Orange Act, the White House and Pentagon ignored the plight of a generation of American veterans who were exposed to the toxic agent. As a Vietnam veteran whose swift boat crew was undoubtedly exposed to the dioxin spraying, Secretary of State John Kerry was silent about the issue during his military career. Perhaps that failing motivates him now to jump to conclusions about sarin use in Syria before a U.N. inspection team conducts its lab tests. Blaming the Syrians or the long-gone Nazis is one way to get off the hook for your own crimes.
The bogeyman is not just coming here, kids, he’s already under your beds, so hide behind your gas masks until the U.S. cavalry rides in to your rescue.
Yoichi Shimatsu, a Hong Kong-based science journalist, served as general editor of the Japan Times Weekly in Tokyo.
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