In the nearly two years since the start of the Syrian Civil War, the international community has steadfastly refused to directly intervene—despite reports of atrocities ranging from horrific detainee abuse to indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling against civilians. However, the Assad regime may have finally crossed the "red line" by unleashing a deadly nerve agent against residents of Homs. In doing so, the government may be courting a full-scale NATO retribution.
In a secret state department communication leaked to The Cable yesterday, Scott Frederic Kilner, the U.S. consul general to Turkey, presented a report on his recent investigation into accusations that the Syrian military used banned chemical agents in the city of Homs last December. In it, he interviews a number of civilians, doctors, and rebels present during the attack, as well as the former general and head of the Syrian WMD program, Mustafa al-Sheikh. His findings appear to all but confirm that these weapons were used. According to an unnamed Cable source with access to the document, "Syrian contacts made a compelling case that Agent-15 was used."
Dr. Nashwan Abu Abdo, a neurologist in Homs, is certain. He tells The Cable, "It was a chemical weapon, we are sure of that, because tear gas can't cause the death of five people."
Per the eyewitness accounts of Abdo and others, the chemicals were launched from a tank, most likely one of the more than 4,000 T-72 main battle tanks in Assad's arsenal. The symptoms experienced by the people exposed included nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, delirium, seizures, and respiratory distress—the deceased reportedly choked to death on airway constriction and bronchial secretions. Based on the type of symptoms, their persistence, and the number of people afflicted, Consul Kilner's report strongly suggests that the weaponized compound Agent-15 is to blame.
"They all had miosis—pinpoint pupils. They also had generalized muscle pain. There were also bad symptoms as far as their central nervous system. There were generalized seizures and some patients had partial seizures. This actually is proof that the poison was able to pass the blood-brain barrier," Abdo told The Cable. "In addition, there was acute mental confusion presented by hallucinations, delusions, personality changes, and behavioral changes."
Developed in the 1960s by *sigh* the United States, Agent-15, chemically identified as 3-Quinuclidinyl Benzilate and known in NATO literature as BZ, is some severely nasty stuff. Among the most potent hallucinogenic chemical warfare compounds ever developed, it's an odorless, colorless incapacitating agent that is easily aerosolized and can be absorbed into the central nervous system through respiration, ingestion, or through skin contact. Exposure to just 6.2 micrograms per kilogram of body mass is enough to incapacitate 50-percent of those exposed. Ingest roughly 100mg, and you've got a 50-50 chance of death.
The chemical is a cousin of atropine, a deliriant commonly used to counter to nerve agents like VX or Sarin. This property makes BZ especially insidious—a doctor might be tempted to treat exposure with another atropine-based countermeasure, but that will actually amplify symptoms and hasten death. Only Physostigmine has shown to be an effective antidote. But it's not like there's a lot of that on hand in Syria these days.
UPDATE: This morning the White House has hedged its stance on the validity of the information cited in the Consulate general's report. "The reporting we have seen from media sources regarding alleged chemical weapons incidents in Syria has not been consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons program," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told Yahoo News. Us officials haven't completely ruled out the possibility that such an attack occurred, mind you, they're just are not treating this report an immediately damning incrimination of the Syrian regime.
UPDATE 2: US officials are now fully denying the use use of chemical weapons in Homs last month. "At the time we looked into the allegations that were made and the information that we had received, and we found no credible evidence to corroborate or to confirm that chemical weapons were used," said State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. [Wired]