Over the long holiday weekend Secretary of State John Kerry made the Sunday show rounds delivering the news that the US identified the gas used in last month’s chemical weapons attack in Syria as sarin. While sarin is incredibly deadly, giving the Syrian regime an opportunity to kill many more civilians if it decided to fully utilize its stockpile, the nerve-agent does have one silver lining: it has an exceedingly short shelf-life.
Sarin is not a new weapon, developed decades ago and in the possession of a number of unstable governments since then. Famously Iraq had a stockpile that it tapped into in its attacks on its Kurdish population. But Iraq’s experience also shows another side of the sarin equation, as the country consistently had problems with contaminants meaning the sarin it produced could only last a couple of weeks before decomposing.
More pure versions can last several months, but still decompose rather quickly.
Rumors are also surfacing that the Syrian regime is busy moving its stockpiles to make targeting them more difficult in the event of an American led intervention. That follows a model employed by Pakistan, which regularly moves its nuclear weapons to keep the US guessing. (Here’s a description from The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg)
But the big difference between the two lies in the shelf-life. Nuclear weapons can remain functional for decades, meaning that in the event of a disintegration of Pakistani government control other groups could use stolen bombs. Sarin on the other hand simply won’t last that long.
And given that administration officials continue to insist that no ground force would be used in an intervention, the decomposition of the sarin makes that decision easier. If production facilities can be destroyed, the sarin will destroy itself over time leaving no sarin in regime hands.
In the case of Pakistan the administration maintains snatch teams ready to fly into Pakistan and secure the roving nuclear weapons, often in a constant pattern of movement on the backs of less than secure trucks. When it comes to Syria and sarin, that might not be necessary.
To be sure sarin isn’t the only chemical weapon that Assad’s military has, but it may well be the most potent. And the potential death toll from the weapons could swell from the already staggering 1,400 that have apparently fallen from its effects. But from a strategic perspective, the relative volatility provides a way to eliminate Syria’s sarin stockpiles without even knowing where they are.
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