About two in the morning, August 21st, 2013, hundreds in the suburbs of Damascus were awakened by the panic of their last breath stuck in their throats. Neighbors carried neighbors to makeshift clinics.
Victims were stripped and washed. Everything was tried but nothing could be done. There was no forcing life into lungs that could not accept it. Their nerves, electrified by sarin, fired non-stop. Muscles seized until death released them.
Sarin has no color, no odor. Often the dead drop never knowing what happened. But their eyes bear witness. The seizures draw the pupils tight. And the world goes dark--which might be a blessing.
This father had willed his daughters through months of hunger. Now he's shouting, "Do you know what they said before going to sleep? I gave her food. She said, 'Dad it's not my turn to eat, it's my sister's...,'" he goes on, "What should we do good people? What are we to do? Look at that face, look at that face."
The history of sarin begins in the 1930s. It was a Nazi weapons program. The name is an acronym of the scientists' last names. In 1997, sarin, and other chemical weapons were outlawed. And, the world set up the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Scott Cairns is a chemist and lead inspector for that organization.
Scott Pelley: A person who is exposed to sarin, what do they experience?
Scott Cairns: A number of physical symptoms and some psychological effects. You get this overwhelming sense of doom and hopelessness and fear.
Scott Pelley: And what causes death?
Scott Cairns: Typically, it's the paralysis of the respiratory system eventually. Your muscles don't work. You lose the oxygen to your brain. It just puts you into overload. It's a very horrible way to die.
Scott Cairns: I'd just gotten up and what I thought I'd heard was another regular bombardment of conventional weapons to the east of Damascus.
He had heard the rockets in route to the largest sarin massacre of civilians since Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 1988. Cairns demanded access. They raced in, in U.N. trucks and the shooting started.
Scott Pelley: What happened?
Scott Cairns: The gunman was firing on the first two vehicles.
Scott Pelley: So, the vehicles were hit?
Scott Cairns: Oh, the vehicles were hit. The first vehicle was disabled.
Scott Pelley: Did you find out who was shooting at you?
Scott Cairns: No.
Scott Pelley: Why do you think they were shooting at you?
Scott Cairns: They were shooting at us just to tell us, send us a message. If they wanted to kill us, they would've killed us. At no point was there any interest in the turning around and going back to the hotel.
Scott Pelley: Finding and documenting the truth was worth risking your life for.
Scott Cairns: Yes.
Scott Pelley: How'd you go about your work?
Scott Cairns: Very quickly. We didn't have a lot of time. We had places where we could set up our interview stations. We could take samples. Biomedical samples from people. Blood, urine, hair.
They also collected cellphone videos and swabbed samples from mangled rockets. Days later, in a community called Zamalka, they discovered the rockets were much larger and had delivered even more gas. Never before had investigators arrived at a chemical crime scene so soon.
Scott Cairns: Well over 90 percent of the samples that we took tested positive for Sarin.
With the threat of airstrikes, President Obama forced Assad to give up his chemical arsenal. But if Assad was the triggerman there is one thing odd about the timing.
Scott Pelley: Why would anyone launch the largest chemical weapons attack in decades while chemical weapons inspectors are in town?
Scott Cairns: I ask myself that a lot. I don't know.
Scott Pelley: We don't know why.
Scott Cairns: No. I don't think we'll ever truly know.
As for training the Syrian rebels, the process has been slower than molasses. It was initially reported by Josh Rogin of Bloomberg that Major General Michael Nagata, who’s been leading the mission, was leaving his post. He updated his article after Central Command informed him Nagata would remain with the Syria mission. Yet, one of the problems the mission is facing is that we aren’t currently projected to hit our goal of training 5,000 men [emphasis mine]:
The nascent program has a slew of other problems. For one, the U.S. has not been able to recruit enough fighters to achieve the goal of churning out 5,000 battle-ready Syrians to fight against the Islamic State in the first year. The U.S. is also not sure it can convince the fighters, once trained and armed, to actually fight the jihadists instead of their prime enemy, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The theory is that the fighters will be dependent on the U.S. military for logistical and intelligence support, and therefore will have to obey U.S. instructions to point their guns only at the terrorists. But nobody knows if that will play out as envisioned.
In addition, there’s no real agreement with the countries that are supposed to host the training camps, which include Jordan and Turkey, as to what the program's goals are. The Turks, in particular, still want the force to fight the Assad government. Until the U.S. agrees to broaden the mission, Turkey is limiting its overall involvement in the coalition fighting inside Syria.
Perhaps most disturbingly, the White House has not yet decided if and how it will protect the newly trained Syrian rebels when Assad's forces attack them, as the Syrian leader has promised. The current plan is to keep the rebels in areas where the Syrian regime has no ground forces. But this won't protect them from Assad's air forces, infamous for using crude "barrel bombs" filled with explosives.
In previous years, when the CIA armed and trained Syrian rebels, the program was secret and nobody was able to judge success or failure, although most of the U.S.-supported groups have now been defeated. This new program, run by uniformed military, was supposed to be more transparent. Yet the administration holds close any details about its progress or trajectory.
This has led some in Congress to doubt whether White House is really serious about it in the first place. The suspicion is that the administration no longer thinks Assad’s departure is good, at least in the near term, and worries the rebels will fight Assad no matter their U.S. overseers tell them. Yet the administration benefits by keeping the program alive, if only because it is Obama’s alibi when people accuse him of not having any strategy in Syria at all.