Over the weekend protesters in Yemen became convinced that the government was using some sort of nerve agent against them. They’ve even filed an official request for the WHO to come investigate, though the chances of that happening whilst there is tense and active violence remains small. The evidence for this claim is, typically, fairly thin:
“The material in this gas makes people convulse for hours. It paralyzes them. They couldn’t move at all. We tried to give them oxygen but it didn’t work,” said Amaar Nujaim, a field doctor who works for Islamic Relief.
“We are seeing symptoms in the patient’s nerves, not in their respiratory systems. I’m 90 percent sure its nerve gas and not tear gas that was used,” said Sami Zaid, a doctor at the Science and Technology Hospital in Sanaa.
Mohammad Al-Sheikh, a pathologist at the same hospital, said that some of the victims had lost their muscular control and were forced to wear diapers.
“We have never seen tear gas cause these symptoms. We fear it may be a dangerous gas that is internationally forbidden,” Al-Sheikh said.
Those symptoms generally match with some symptoms associated with exposure to nerve agents. But it sounds wrong—sarin exposure, for example, usually starts with pupil contraction and shortness of breath, then leads to involuntary bodily functions like salivation, urination, and defecation, and eventually to convulsions which result in asphyxiation, coma, and death. I hate to say it like this, but if someone got a dose of nerve agent that was strong enough to knock them into a coma for several hours, they wouldn’t be angrily giving quotes to reporters soon afterward.
That doesn’t rule out any nerve agent, it just sounds weird (contrasted with Aum Shinrikyo attack on Tokyo’s subway, for example, the symptoms sound dissimilar). There are nerve agents beyond sarin, and it’s worth investigating.
What’s more worrying is how this is subtly changing the tone of the protests. Even accusations of using chemical weapons moves the conflict across some sort of red line, and when we consider those still-uncorroborated stories with the government’s expulsion today of four foreign journalists, it’s hard not to wonder what’s coming down the line. Those reporters had been covering, in depth, the violence the Saleh regime has used against protesters.
So, assuming both events a) happened and b) have meaning, what can we actually expect in Yemen? It’s not yet certain. What seems inescapable, however, is that the U.S.’s policy of detached neutrality probably makes less and less sense as events proceed.