Chemical weapons have been a focus of discussion in Syria ever since the day in August 2012 when President Barack Obama announced that the use of such weapons was a red line that would trigger possible U.S. military involvement. Since then, rebels have reported the likely use of chemical agents on dozens of occasions with varying degrees of credibility.
Only one detailed independent report of a chemical attack has surfaced in that time, however a lengthy report in the French newspaper Le Monde last month that triggered both French and British letters to the United Nations.
Zanders, however, said that much about that report bears questioning. Photos and a video accompanying the report showed rebel fighters preparing for chemical attacks by wearing gas masks. Sarin is absorbed through the skin, and even small amounts can kill within minutes.
He also expressed skepticism about the articles description of the lengthy route victims of chemical attacks had to travel to get to treatment, winding through holes in buildings, down streets under heavy fire, before arriving at remote buildings hiding hospitals.
Zanders, who also has headed the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and was director of the Geneva-based BioWeapons Prevention Project, noted that had sarin been the chemical agent in use, the victims would have been dead long before they reached doctors for treatment.
Zanders also said hes skeptical of sarin use because there have been no reports of medical personnel or rescuers dying from contact with victims. Residue from sarin gas would be expected to linger on victims and would infect those helping, who often are shown in rebel video wearing no more protection than paper masks.
Le Monde reported that one doctor treated a victim with atropine, which is appropriate for sarin poisoning. But that doctor said he gave his patient 15 shots of atropine in quick succession, which Zanders said could have killed him almost as surely as sarin.