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By Anthony H. Cordesman

03 Sep 13. If the U.S. takes action in Syria, it should not be on the basis of an abstract principle based on an arbitrary red line tied to the use of chemical weapons. The real level of suffering is vastly higher than the number of dead from chemical weapons would indicate, and any effort to use force – to create some kind of viable end state – must take that into account.

The Limited But Uncertain Lethality of Chemical Weapons

There still is no clear picture of the level of casualties that came out of the Syrian use of chemical weapons on August 21st, and there are no estimates at all of the total impact of the use of chemical weapons during the civil war. Media sources are reporting something on the order of 1,400 dead, and avoid estimating the number of wounded or those who are recovering with any lasting side effects.

There is no agreement among intelligence or official estimates. The British Joint Intelligence committee issued an intelligence report referring to “at least 350 fatalities.” Secretary Kerry seems to have been sandbagged into using an absurdly over-precise number like 1,429 dead (of which an equally precise 426 were children). Put simply, there is no way in hell the U.S. intelligence community could credibly have made an estimate this exact.

It is unclear, however, that these figures really had an intelligence source. Some sources indicate they may have actually come from a Syrian source called the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) which, at the time, did not agree with other Syrian opposition sources like the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which some feel has a reputation for giving exaggerated estimates – neatly repeating the kinds of mistakes in the misleading data on Iraq given to Colin Powell a decade ago. President Obama was then forced to round off the number at “well over 1,000 people” without any explanation.

There is no estimate at all of those affected with short-term symptoms or who may have long term effects. The number is probably much larger than the number killed, but it is unlikely there will ever be an agreed-upon figure; the examination of the impact of Iraqi use of chemical weapons in the Kurdish town of Halabja never produced a credible estimate of the long-term effects of Saddam Hussein’s use of poison gas because the estimate became so politicized that it was impossible to distinguish the exaggerations from the facts. Many of the reported symptoms also create questions about the purity of any Sarin used in Syria, the lethality of its distribution in any given area and whether some other agent may have been present.

Moreover, if relatively pure nerve gas of any kind was used, most data on its effects indicate it tends to either kill quickly or produce only temporary effects. People who talk about the “horror” of chemical weapons go back to different weapons used in World War I that had more lingering effects, and do not seem to have any idea of the impact of artillery in producing the maimed and disabled or the suffering a major body wound with a bullet, shell fragment, grenade, mine, IED, or serious burn can produce. War is not surgery, it is butchery, and butchery that often leaves the victim alive.

Speaking for All the Dead

What is also clear is that chemical weapons scarcely represent a meaningful measure of the suffering in the Syrian civil war or the need to find some solution. If one only considers the possible number of total dead, in the fighting, there are no clear estimates of what has actually happened. The UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) does, however, put out conservative estimates which it notes are, “Unfortunately…(the) most likely a minimum casualty figure. The true number of those killed is potentially much higher.”

The suffering was grim long before anyone tried to enforce red lines about chemical weapons. The UN issued a report on June 13, 2013 that estimated 60,000

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