On June 23, officials announced that the final 8 percent of chemical weapons were removed from Syria. The landmark announcement marked the final shipment of Syria’s 1,300 ton stockpile of weapons, which included mustard gas and raw materials that could be used to create the sarin nerve gas.

The removal of this last shipment of chemical weapons finally arrived after multiple missed deadlines that were originally set by the U.N. The most recent ones were at the end of February and the June 30 deadline to have all of the weapons destroyed. In February of this year the international watchdog group, called the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said that Syria had only shipped out 11 percent of their chemical stockpile. Many of these delays were largely thanks to the threats and actual attacks from both rebel groups and pro-Assad militias.

While this achievement certainly is a step in the right direction, many questions still remain about how many chemical bombs are still in Syria outside of those that were officially declared by the Assad regime. Ahmet Uzumcu, chief of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said, “We cannot say for sure it has no more chemical weapons. All we can do is work on the basis of verifying a country’s declarations of what they have. I would not make any speculation to possible remaining assets, substances, chemical weapons…”

After departing Syria, the chemicals will be shipped out to Norway and Denmark via Italy, where they will then be destroyed off the coasts of the UK and Scandinavia in international waters.

There still is an ongoing investigation into President Assad’s use of chlorine, which Ahmet Uzumcu said “may take a little more time.” While chlorine is not lethal and excluded from the list of prohibited toxic chemicals thanks to its widespread commercial use, the gas can still cause a considerable amount of harm and negative health effects. The use of chlorine as a weapon would also violate many international laws and conventions that Assad has previously signed.

Even though the removal of this many chemical weapons will help the situation, the civil war in Syria still continues unabated and with drastic human rights consequences. According to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, “We are always going to remain truly appalled at the level of death and destruction that continues to consume Syria, notwithstanding the removal of these weapons.” His words come at a time when 2.5 million people are denied water by opposition groups, 90,000 people lack medical assistance and nearly half of Syria’s population of 22 million have been displaced. While the removal of chemical weapons helps, violence throughout the country sill rages on.

— Andre Gobbo 

Sources: BBC, Huffington Post, CNN, The Borgen Project (1), The Borgen Project (2)
Photo: Press TV

Human Rights Watch is currently investigating whether the Syrian government used chlorine bombs in recent attacks. Last September, Syria complied to dispose of its chemical weapons, around 1,300 metric tons, after external threats from the United States and Russia. Yet, many believe that chlorine was used in recent attacks in the country through barrel bombs.

The barrels, which are stuffed with nails and explosive material, are pushed out of airplanes into areas of rebel, and civilian, congregation — including schools, hospitals and civilian facilities. While the Syrian government has blamed the attacks on terrorist groups, Nadim Houry, the Deputy Director for the Middle East at Human Rights Watch, thinks otherwise.

Since the Syrian government has sole control over the air, Houry believes these attacks are meant to push residents away from these rebel areas. Causing panic amongst the civilian population, it causes them to flee and, subsequently, allows the government to advance more quickly.

While chlorine is not lethal, it can cause serious health problems for those affected. The Chemical Weapons Convention chalks chlorine’s exclusion from the list of prohibited toxic chemicals to its widespread commercial use, which is most commonly used for water purification and bleaching purposes. Yet this notion has been met with criticism; Charles Duelfer, who was head of Saddam Hussein’s investigation under weapons of mass destruction, claims that the magnitude of chlorine bombs equivocates the problem to other chemical munitions which are currently being destroyed.

Syria, which will be holding an election this upcoming Tuesday, has been in civil uproar since 2011, leaving many in rebel areas hopeless. Now, with voting only allowed in regime-controlled areas and set to virtually assure victory for the incumbent Bashar al-Assad, those in impoverished areas of the country are having trouble remaining hopeful.

Ahmed, a young rebel fighter from a now-besieged Deir Ezzor, is just one of many clinging to survival.

“Deir Ezzor is surrounded by the regime and [ISIS] has cut off the only way out,” Ezzor said.  “We will all be killed.”

– Nick Magnanti

Sources: CSMonitor, NPR, VOANews
Photo: Vice News

It is still unclear what exactly happened on Friday, April 11,  in the rebel-held village of Kfar Zeita, 125 miles north of Damascus. A number of reports and video clips reveal that the rural village fell victim to a poisonous gas attack which injured a number of people.

This chemical attack occurs in the midst of an ongoing international effort to rid Syria of all of its chemical weapons.

It is yet unknown who attacked the village or how many citizens were injured but a number of reports have come out making claims.

The Syrian National Coalition said that the poisonous gas attack injured dozens of people but did not identify the gas used. They also urged the UN to conduct a “quick investigation into the developments related to the use of poisonous gas against civilians in Syria.”

The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights claims that the attack occurred during air raids and reported many people suffering from suffocation and breathing problems.

A Syrian television network blamed the attack on members of the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front rebel group, saying that chlorine gas was used to kill two citizens and injure more than one hundred.

All of these reports remain unsubstantiated but a number of online videos have also appeared, documenting the aftermath of the attack. One video posted by rebel activists show pale-faced men, women and children gasping for air at a field hospital in Kfar Zeita. Another video showed a hospital room in Kfar Zeita that was packed with women and children crying, some of them wearing oxygen masks.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power notes, “We are trying to run this down. So far it’s unsubstantiated, but we’ve shown, I think, in the past that we will do everything in our power to establish what has happened and then consider possible steps in response.”

The gas attack comes at a time when the international community is attempting to eliminate chemical weapons from Syria once and for all. All chemical weapons are supposed to be removed by June 30th, however the Syrian government continues to miss key deadlines.

– Mollie O’Brien

Sources: The Guardian
Photo: Reuters

The Damascus district of Moadamiyeh has been the center of much scrutiny after the chemical weapons attack in August that left hundreds injured and dead throughout Syria. Reports of starvation and disease after this attack forced approximately 5,000 Syrians to evacuate the town of Moadamiyeh and stay in temporary shelters since the August attack. Moadamiyeh was under siege by the Assad regime for several months, as Syrian troops stopped food and supplies from entering in an attempt to weaken the rebel fighters.

The religious restrictions by the Islamic law decreeing a ban on eating cats and dogs was lifted by Muslim clerics for residents of neighborhoods under siege, including Moadamiyeh. Poor families were forced to live off of tree leaves, rotting animal carcasses, and stray pets. With strict regime members blocking all entry roads with snipers and tanks, malnutrition was inevitable for the residents. Mothers with limited food access would give whatever they could find to their children and in doing so were unable to produce milk for their babies. Several cases of child deaths have been reported due to acute malnutrition. Children who were checked into clinics were found to have low blood pressure, dizziness and very low white blood cell amounts.

After finally reaching a rare agreement with authorities, the Syrian Red Crescent and International Committee of the Red Cross were able to gradually evacuate the residents of Moadimayeh. Children, women, and the elderly were the first to evacuate. Several of the residents left in tears while young children clutched the food distributed by aid workers. Men were forced to stay in separate lines while they were questioned about their involvement in the war. Thousands of innocent lives have been spared in Moadamiyeh, but plenty of war-torn towns are still under siege and face heavy bombardment while thousands of civilians wait in silence.

– Maybelline Martez

Sources: BBC, UNHCR, The Telegraph
Photo: Yalla Souriya

On this past Halloween, Senators of the Committee on Foreign Relations met to address the real horrors faced in Syria with a definitive agenda of calling America to action. Ever since the use of chemical weapons by President Assad’s regime on August 21, 2013 was confirmed, the national and international community have been wondering when and if the Obama administration will act. The use of chemical weapons was Obama’s self-proclaimed “red line” for military action, and senators across party lines last Thursday sought to remind him of that.

The Committee heard from two panels of speakers who all called for increased US assistance in Syria, given the humanitarian nightmare that has ensued there. Some of the gross figures quoted were 100,000 deaths since the onset of the war, 1,400 dead from the sarin gas attack alone, and over 2 million refugees with 6.8 million still in Syria in need of assistance. While these fatality numbers do reflect higher end estimates, there is no question the affect of war on Syria’s civilian populous has been catastrophic, and the situation is only worsening.

U.S. ambassador to Syria, Thomas Ford, had this to say: “There is no military solution to the conflict in Syria. Neither the regime nor the opposition has the wherewithal to militarily defeat the other.” Ford favors a diplomatic solution to ending the conflict that removes Assad from power. Peace talks scheduled to take place in Geneva later this month have already been delayed, and Assad has publicly denounced any claims he might relinquish control. Additionally, with the rife division in ideals and goals within the opposition, known loosely as the Free Syrian Army, a peaceful solution seems to have slim hope.

Republican senators were the harshest critics, acknowledging the grim forecast of the situation and criticizing the aid efforts as being too little. Though there were no direct calls for military intervention, the insistence on creating a clear strategy and claims the current policy is “fleckless” and should be “embarrassed” seemed to imply such action would be appropriate.

Early in September, Congress approved a resolution granting Obama the authority for a military strike although quite limited in scope. No ground troops are to be used, according to the resolution, and military action will have a deadline of no more than 90 days. Given these limitations, analysts think the US would employ cruise missile attacks and air strikes if military intervention was ordered. These limitations, though, could mean very little as Obama has the executive power to act without congressional approval, and it is unlikely Assad and his forces could be removed without a ground presence.

Being embroiled in a situation of military occupation that mirrors Iraq, though, is the last thing the president or many law-makers want. With increasing UN involvement and the threat of chemical weapons virtually neutralized, patience combined with continued humanitarian support seems to be the current strategy – though one must wonder for how long.

– Tyson Watkins
Sources: CNN, ABC News, Yahoo News, United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Huffington Post, Aljazeera America
Photo: New York Times

Effects of Mustard Gas
Given the recent events in Syria, many questions have been raised regarding the nature of chemical weapons.  One of the most infamous of these weapons is Sulfur Mustard, or mustard gas, as it is more commonly called.  Its use as a weapon originated in World War I, and its history, including both short-term and long-term health effects, has been well documented since.

Mustard gas can best be described through the eyes of a first-hand witness.  Harry L. Gilchrist, Medical Director of the Gas Service, U.S. Army Expeditionary Force during World War I, said of his soldiers’ exposure to the toxin that, “…in the course of an hour or so, there was marked inflammation of their eyes.  They vomited, and there was erythema of the skin.(…) Later there was severe blistering of the skin.”

Despite these less than pleasant effects, mustard gas is not generally fatal.  It can, however, cause mild to severe health complications depending on the length of exposure.  Symptoms of mild exposure do not manifest immediately, and indeed may not be seen for up to 24 hours – while symptoms of a more prolonged or extreme exposure will be seen almost immediately.  Any part of the body that the gas comes in contact with will be affected, including but not limited to, the skin, eyes, respiratory tract, digestive tract, and bone marrow.

In terms of short-term symptoms, limited exposure will cause both skin irritation and itching, while prolonged exposure can cause severe blistering (as noted by Gilchrist).  Pain, swelling, and tearing of the eyes are all common, and temporary blindness lasting up to 10 days has also been recorded.  Irritation of the respiratory tract can cause pain, shortness of breath, and a cough, among other symptoms, while exposure of the digestive tract can result in pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, and diarrhea. Perhaps most seriously, exposure of the bone marrow to mustard gas can cause anemia and decreased blood cells, which can cause prolonged bleeding and makes the victim more susceptible to infection.


Effects of Mustard Gas


Long-term health implications of exposure to mustard gas parallel its short-term effects.  Severe burns can lead to widespread scarring, and extensive second- and third- degree burns can lead to death.  Blindness can become permanent if the eyes are exposed to too much of the gas, and respiratory problems may become chronic.  Similarly, exposure to mustard gas may increase the likelihood of contracting cancers of the respiratory tract.

Although contact with mustard gas is not usually deadly, each of these symptoms can be exacerbated by a poor healthcare system, or lack of access to aid due to political unrest, economic situation, or any other number of possibilities.  For the citizens of Syria this is an all too possible reality.  The government is suspected of having stockpiles of mustard gas in addition to the nerve gases with which the recent attacks were allegedly committed.  In the event that mustard gas should become dispersed, any symptom, no matter how seemingly minor, can become fatal if proper treatment is unavailable.

– Rebecca Beyer

Sources: The CDC , The Washington Post , National Center for Biotechnology Information

Since 2011, Syria has been embroiled in a civil war between rebel forces and its longstanding regime. The Assad family has been in power since 1971 and has failed to deliver on decades of promising political and economic reform.

Following the arrest of a group of teenagers who spray-painted graffiti denouncing the state, public outcry peaked. Protests sprang up all over the nation as citizens asked for President Bashar-Al Assad to resign. Reminiscent of Beijing’s Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, those in rule provided swift repercussions as they sent tanks out to literally crush civil disobedience. Several bombings followed in 2012 as social unrest and violence escalated.

Throughout the conflict, both sides have blamed the other for civilian casualties. More recently, American and French authorities have accused the government forces of using chemical weapons in Syria after conducting lab tests that ascertained the presence of Sarin on battlegrounds. The Syrian government has since admitted to owning chemical weapons, but has denied using them during any domestic scrimmages.

Instead, state media alleges only that chemical warfare has been waged by opposing terrorist forces. Although questions remain as to how Syria acquired its chemical weapons and how much it holds within its stock, it is important to ask what Sarin is with 22.5 million lives at stake and over 100 thousand casualties from the war.

So what is Sarin? –Sarin is a toxic nerve agent that serves as a man-made chemical weapon. Among chemical weapons, nerve agents are the most deadly. Originally developed as a pesticide by German researchers shortly before the start of World War II, the toxin has since been used in two terrorist attacks in Japan.

Sarin is colourless, odourless, and tasteless—as well as water-soluble, rendering it an invisible killer. In its natural state, sarin appears in liquid form but it can also manifest itself as a gas and spread through the atmosphere. Since the nerve agent is denser than air, it can sink lower to the ground and lend itself to greater exposure.

Sarin can even linger on and be released from fabric, allowing those initially exposed to contaminate others around them through their clothes. Within seconds of limited exposure via the eyes, skin, respiratory system or digestive tract, individuals may develop the following symptoms—difficulty breathing, fatigue, blurry vision, shrunken pupils, rhinorrhea, etc. In greater doses, sarin may cause foaming at the mouth, involuntary muscle spasms, paralysis, loss of consciousness, respiratory failure, and in the most extreme cases, death.

Although it is best to avoid contact altogether, should one be exposed to sarin, treatment should be implemented as soon as possible. In between seeking medical care, one should immediately seek higher ground, thoroughly cleanse the body and face with soap, rinse the eyes for 10 to 15 minutes, change clothes, and dispose of the old set in an airtight bag.

With the advancement of modern technology in warfare comes the heightened responsibility of all who wield its power to ensure civilian welfare. Although it may seem more instinctual to ignore the chaos of another nation, it is imperative that members of the international community collaborate and collectively seek the best solution to end the suffering of millions.

Currently, the UN awaits approval from President Assad to provide more humanitarian assistance and aid to millions of displaced Syrians and refugees—many of whom have sought asylum in Lebanon and other neighboring states.

– Melrose Huang
Sources: BBC, CDC, Bloomberg, Euronews

Photo: CS Monitor

Amid recent claims of a Syrian government crackdown near Damascus, the international community is mounting pressure on the Assad regime to cooperate with U.N. investigators. Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, announced that the U.N. has sent a formal request for investigation to the Syrian government, and is now awaiting a response.

“Use of chemical weapons is a violation of international law and international human rights law,” Ban stated to the press. This news comes as the U.N. put a number on the many Syrian children displaced by the war: two million children are displaced within the country and one million are now refugees.

Government forces allegedly attacked neighborhoods near Damascus with chemical weapons in August. While both sides of the war have accused the other of using chemical weapons, no proof of such use has surfaced, as the government continues to stand in the way of investigations. The U.N. team is hoping to investigate this case, but has yet to receive access to the areas in question. According to Ban, if evidence of chemical weapons are found after a “thorough, impartial and prompt investigation,” it will then be up to the international community to determine the next steps towards justice.

Leaders from the Gulf, Europe, and the U.S. continue to press the Syrian government for open accessibility in order to investigate. Also among those involved are leaders from Russia and China, who have finally released statements calling for some transparency. If evidence of the use of chemical weapons is found, then Syria will have crossed a “red line,” which U.S. President Barack Obama has indicated could mean intervention.

As the media flurry over investigations continues, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and UNICEF released another report describing the haunting state of Syria’s children. Among the two million children displaced within Syria are those facing death, starvation, and recruitment as fighters as the war rages on. As for those forced out of the country, Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, states that “even after they have crossed the border to safety, they are traumatized, depressed, and in need of a reason to hope.”

– Lina Saud
Sources: Reuters New York Times
Photo: BBC

Earlier this week, an attack utilizing chemical weapons in Syria may have left 130 people dead. According to opposition groups, Assad’s government launched rockets with chemical warheads into Damascus suburbs on Wednesday. The government sent further warheads into the suburb on Thursday. Photographic evidence from Wednesday’s attack shows the telltale symptoms of the use of some toxic chemical: difficulty breathing, vomiting, constricted pupils, skin rashes and loose bowels. Western experts believe that sarin gas, an organophosphate agent, was used in the attack.

Secretary Ban Ki-Moon has urged an investigation into the attack, saying that there would be ‘serious consequences’ for those responsible. Ban urged the government to cooperate with the international body, saying,“The time has clearly come for the parties to stop shooting, and start talking. I am determined to do everything I can to assist the victims and move towards a political solution. That is the only way this crisis will be resolved.” Currently, a UN team is in Syria spending up to two weeks investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons by the government. The mandate granted the UN team access to only 3 of 13 sites identified as suspicious before the attack on Wednesday. Angela Kane, the top UN official on disarmament, is expected to arrive in Damascus on Sunday. Kane will push to give UN inspectors access to the affected region.

The Syrian government has not responded to UN requests. Thus far, Syria has not granted UN inspectors access to sites supposedly affected by chemical weapon. Russia, Syria’s arms supplier, said that it was the rebels, not the government, who were preventing UN inspectors from investigating the region. In response, Syrian rebels pledged to guarantee the safety of UN inspectors. Thus far, the rebels have been compliant with these investigations, even sending tissue and blood samples for further inspection.

The international community is conflicted over how to respond to these claims, if they are indeed true. France said that, if the allegations against the government prove to be true, the international community needs to respond with force. Similarly, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that a ‘red line’ had been crossed in Syria. Although Washington previously said that chemical weapon use was its ‘red line’ in Syria, the Obama administration stated that it was appalled by the allegation and no further plans of retaliation have been put forth. European officials say that there are options, but that they become limited without US support. Furthermore, there is little the international community can do without the support of the Security Council. Russia, Syria’s greatest ally to the Security Council at the moment, went so far as to suggest that the opposition had staged the attack.

According to Ki-Moon, “Our challenge remains: achieving a complete cessation of hostilities, delivering humanitarian assistance and getting the Government and the opposition to the negotiating table in Geneva as soon as possible.” The Joint Special Representative of the UN and League of Arab States for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi said that planning for the second Geneva conference is underway, but that it should take place in September. The last conference in Geneva was held in June with the United States and Russia present. The conference in September would hope to bring a political solution to the conflict. According to Brahimi, a solution is necessary because Syria is “without a doubt, the biggest threat to peace and security in the world today.”

– Kelsey Ziomek

Sources: UN, Al Jazeera, Reuters, Washington Post
Photo: Urban Times