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Exodus from Damascus - Dr Steve Wright

As the civil war in Syria continues, Dr Steve Wright, Reader in Applied Global Ethics, reacts to the news that two million people have fled the conflict as a result of execution, torture and chemical agents.

Last Friday, I attended a Board meeting of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), which removes explosive remnants of war from conflict zones. Two million people have fled the Syrian conflict, half of them children. MAG told us 10,000 left in a single day in August as they cleared an area equivalent to 90 Wembley-sized football pitches to facilitate the development of the Domiz refugee camp. MAG provided Risk Education to over 55,000 Syrian men, women and children at the Shilikye crossing in Dohuk governorate, which runs by a known minefield.

The horrors which have driven them out include mass execution, torture, and now a Sarin attack on a suburb of Damascus, by what is almost certainly the Assad Regime. Some members of the UN Security Council meeting at the fruitless G20 conference in Moscow are certainly aware of this – they have the receipts for the requisite precursor chemicals. Sickening images of human liquidation we thought were part of WWI history, (whose 100th anniversary commemorated next year), speak of what Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘expendable people.’

But the World War I chemical agents like mustard gas and chlorine were very much weaker and included so called tear gases. (These can kill in enclosed spaces and were responsible for near 70 fatalities in a police van in Egypt last month, when the police lobbed a gas grenade to pacify the detainees) .

Sarin (and Tabun) are organo-phosphates similar to insecticides. Originally designed by Nazi scientists in WWII to disrupt the human nervous system, they are 500 times more toxic than cyanide. At the end of the war, the Nazi scientists were spared execution and enrolled by both Russia and America to create an arms race in chemical biological weapons: hundreds of thousands of which remain despite the Chemical Weapons Conventions. A few drops inhaled or on the skin can kill in minutes by over-stimulating the muscles around vital organs.


Abdullah Ahmed, 10, who suffered burns in a Syrian government airstrike and fled his home with his family, stands outside their tent at a camp for displaced Syrians in the village of Atmeh, Syria, on December 11, 2012. This tent camp sheltering some of th

Unfortunately, we have not seen the last of chemical and biological warfare. Whilst so called “Weapons of Mass Destruction” are tagged as terrorist tools to worry about, governments still hold the largest stocks. And research has not ended, In addition to the vessicants, incapacitants, blood, vomit and choking agents, nerve and blistering gases of yore, we now have anaesthetics like fentanyl used in the 2003 Moscow Theatre siege. Experts like Malcolm Dando have warned of a new generation of agents based on bio-regulators which can disrupt heart and breathing functions or induce paranoia and fear. Synthetic biology is becoming melded with chemistry which one day may yield weapons targeted by genotype.

As President Obama has accurately pointed out, these hard-won treaties become worthless unless enforced, but post-Iraq we are all very wary of cruise missile diplomacy and its aftershocks. Outlining what might need to be done to completely remove Syria’s chemical weapon production facilities, New Scientist identified five suspected production sites at Al-Safira, Latakia, Hamah, Homs and Palmyra (7Sept, 2013). It said the US has been developing special cluster bomb munitions to attack chemical agent plants (such as the CBU-107 and the BLU-119/B Crashpad) which puncture vessels with 3700 steel and tungsten rods or rupture storage vessels entirely. Alas, the US does not have a good track record on humane use of cluster munitions dropping more illegally on Laos than bombs were used in WWII. And half a century later, MAG are still de-infesting the fields of Laos, to make it safe for humans.

As Jeannette Rankin, first woman member of US Congress has so presciently said: "You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake." Any miss-targeting of such chemical stockpiles in Syria would yield additional fall out of urban casualties if toxic chemicals became airborne in an unfavourable wind.

What remains are “uneasy ethics.” Whatever is decided post-UN inspector reports, thanks to the wonders of social networking we are all liable to bear witness to what happens next. Certificate U censored versions for the BBC with decent regard for public taste and X-rated horror shows for Al Jazeera to further fan the flames of a relentless war.

- Dr Steve Wright

Image used by Creative Commons License, courtesy of FreedomHouse.

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Carrie Braithwaite

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