Facing the threat of U.S. military action, Syria said Monday that it welcomes a Russian proposal to hand over its stockpiles of chemical weapons.
The United States has accused Syria’s government of using those weapons in an August 21 attack outside Damascus, a strike Washington says killed more than 1,400 people. Syria denies the accusation and says its own troops have faced poison gas attacks by rebel forces in the civil war that began in 2011.
Here’s a quick look at what Syria is believed to have and what may be involved in its elimination.
What’s in Syria’s arsenal?
• International observers believe that Syria has both blister agents such as mustard gas, which inflicted horrific casualties in World War I, and the nerve gases sarin and VX, which cause convulsions, paralysis and respiratory failure.
• Syria confirmed its possession of some unconventional weapons capability in 2012 but provided no details.
• U.S. intelligence believes that Syria has about 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, most of it sarin and VX stored as unmixed components, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday. But it also includes finished mustard gas, rockets and shells filled with sarin and “other things I can’t go into here,” Kerry told the House Armed Services Committee.
What do those weapons do?
• Mustard gas, also known as sulfur mustard, inflicts chemical burns on the skin, eyes and lungs. While mustard gas can be fatal, it also can disable victims and can cause cancer or permanent blindness. It can also remain in the environment for days or even weeks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
• Sarin, which is suspected in the August 21 attack that triggered the current crisis, evaporates quickly, mixes easily with water and can contaminate food, water and clothing, according to the CDC.
• VX is considered the most toxic nerve agent and poisons more easily through skin contact than sarin, the CDC says. It evaporates very slowly, at about the same rate as motor oil. Like sarin, it can be emitted from clothing for up to half an hour after exposure.
How much does Syria have?
• Before the war began in 2011, Syria had research and production facilities near Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Latakia and Hama that turned out hundreds of tons of chemical agents a year, according to the U.S.-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which catalogs the world’s arsenals of weapons of mass destruction.