Three weeks ago this Wednesday, on August 21, an apparent chemical weapons attack in a suburb outside of Damascus changed the scope of the Syrian civil war from a mostly internal affair with limited involvement from outside the immediate region to an international incident. The attack violated several international accords banning the use of chemical munitions and killed hundreds, perhaps as many as 1500, Syrian civilians. Several members of the international community have condemned the use of chemical weapons, though of course the international community isn’t going to do anything about that attack, even to enforce its own norms on the use of chemical weapons, mostly because Russia has a veto on the UN Security Council and is blocking any international action against her ally, Bashar Assad. The United States has pledged intervention with or without international support, though in an “unbelievably small” way, so it’s not clear what that intervention would accomplish or why it would be worth doing at all.
What’s all the fuss about? Let’s take a look at some of the key issues around chemical weapons and the ban on their use.
What are chemical weapons?
The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention defines “chemical weapons” as:
(a) Toxic chemicals and their precursors, except where intended for purposes not prohibited under this Convention, as long as the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes;
(b) Munitions and devices, specifically designed to cause death or other harm through the toxic properties of those toxic chemicals specified in subparagraph (a), which would be released as a result of the employment of such munitions and devices;
(c) Any equipment specifically designed for use directly in connection with the employment of munitions and devices specified in subparagraph (b).
What is the history of chemical weapons?
It’s long, is what it is. Consider that, per the above definition, a “chemical weapon” is anything whose effects depend on the action of a chemical or chemicals, then every prehistoric belligerent who smeared poison on his arrowheads was engaging in chemical warfare. Ancient Indian and Chinese texts offer recipes for toxins that can be used on the battlefield, by directly poisoning weapons, by creating fire weapons, and, crucially, by burning the right materials to create toxic smoke. During the Peloponnesian War both Sparta and Athens employed tactics that could be described as “chemical warfare,” like the use of heavy smoke against soldiers or poisoning water supplies. Alexander the Great encountered poisoned weapons and fire weapons in India. There is archeological evidence that the Persians employed toxic gas weapons against Roman soldiers. Perhaps the most famous of the pre-Renaissance chemical weapons is the incendiary compound known as “Greek fire,” the famous (infamous) compound that was so important to the Byzantines in the defense of the empire against the Arabs that its creation was thought to have been divinely inspired.
In more modern times, the use of poison gas weapons was outlawed by the Hague Declaration of 1899 and the Hague Convention of 1907, so when the French started using tear gas against entrenched German positions in World War I, they probably felt real bad about it. It wasn’t until 1915, in the Second Battle of Ypres, when modern chemical warfare made the jump from irritating to lethal, as the Germans employed chlorine gas against French and allied forces. All told, it’s estimated that something like 90,000 WWI deaths can be attributed to chemical weapons. In the interwar years poison gas weapons were mostly used by imperial powers against indigenous rebels, like the British on restless Kurds and Arabs in Iraq, the French on Berber tribes in North Africa, and the Italians in Ethiopia. In 1925 the European powers signed the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, which bans the use of chemical and biological weapons, though not the research, production and storage of them. It doesn’t even really ban their use, since it says nothing about using chemical or biological weapons against non-signatory nations, against internal rebellions, or as a response to a chemical or biological first strike. 138 states have signed the Geneva Protocol, including Syria.
There are only a couple of cases of battlefield chemical weapons use in World War II, the most egregious being the use of mustard gas against Chinese forces by Japanese invaders. The Germans may have pumped poison gas into caves occupied by Soviet soldiers in the Crimea in 1942, but otherwise did not employ chemical weapons on the battlefield. “On the battlefield” is an important qualifier, since we are talking specifically about chemical warfare here; the most notorious use of chemical weaponry in history occurred not on a battlefield, but in Nazi concentration camps.
Since WWII the use of chemical weapons has been scattered. The Yemen Civil War in the 1960s saw considerable use of very low-tech gas munitions, mostly blister agents (mustard gas). It could certainly be argued that the US military’s use of napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam qualifies as chemical warfare, although Agent Orange was at least ostensibly intended as an herbicide whose toxic effects on humans were secondary and (maybe) unexpected–i.e., it wasn’t “specifically designed” to cause death or other harm to humans. The Soviets probably used chemical weapons in Afghanistan, and of course there was the accidental (at first) development of VX by the British, the most toxic nerve agent ever created. But the most infamous use of chemical weapons in the Cold War period was Saddam Hussein’s repeated use of tabun and mustard gas against Iranian soldiers and Iraq’s own Kurdish civilians during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. The Chemical Weapons Convention, signed by 165 nations in 1993 and put into effect in 1997, bans the use and stockpiling of chemical munitions. 189 nations are currently party to the treaty; Syria is one of five that have not signed it.
More after the break.
Are chemical weapons more lethal than convention weapons? How and why would they be used?
We group chemical weapons along with biological and nuclear weapons under the heading “weapons of mass destruction,” but this is a misleading category that makes chemical weapons seem more terrible than they really are. Don’t take that they wrong way; chemical weapons are nasty business, but so are conventional weapons and we don’t have any plans to ban or even really stigmatize those as we have with chemical weapons. Casualty figures would seem to confirm the notion that chemical weapons, unlike massively destructive nuclear weapons or dangerously uncontrollable biological agents, are at best of comparable lethality with conventional arms. The ~90,000 killed by chemical weapons in WWI sounds like a lot until you put them in the context of the 16.5 million who died in that conflict in total. Estimates from the Iran-Iraq War are that some 20,000 Iranian soldiers were killed by chemical attacks on the spot (as opposed to dying from the long-term effects of exposure), compared to anywhere from 180,000 to 600,000 Iranian soldiers who were killed in total. So far in Syria, the highest estimates are that just under 1500 died in August’s chemical attack, as compared to 100,000 or so who’d already been killed by conventional arms.
So chemical weapons don’t kill a disproportionately high number of people as compared to conventional weaponry, nor can they be passed on as infections to larger and larger populations, as biological agents (which presumably wouldn’t kill many targets “on the spot” either, although if someone ever manages to weaponize a hemorrhagic fever…) can. They can serve as “area denial” weapons by creating contaminated zones that an opposing force has to avoid, although against armies that are prepared for them and/or that are in vehicles that can move through a contaminated area quickly and in proper gear, that capability is questionable. Against a dispersed irregular insurgency, like the Syrian rebellion, they’re basically useless; you’ll never kill as many rebels as you will average civilians, and killing civilians just makes it that much harder to put the rebellion down. Basically chemical weapons are effective against massed infantry that doesn’t have proper MOPP gear, and against civilians.
Why are chemical weapons banned, then, if they’re not especially lethal?
The chemical weapons ban grew out of the supposed horrors of chemical weapons use in World War I, although as we’ve seen chemical weapons were responsible for a very small percentage of casualties in that war. The only explanation for the stigmatization of a weapon that was responsible for all of about 0.5% of the total deaths caused by WWI is that the manner in which that weapon kills elicited a visceral or emotional revulsion in those who experienced it. Conventional weapons–shells, bombs, firearms, even knives–kill and kill in ugly, violent ways, but chemical weapons are uglier still. The psychological effect of those weapons on the combatants in WWI must have been enormous, otherwise why the push to ban those weapons after the war?
Almost a century removed from the horrors of WWI, we might expect modern nations to take a more rational view of the idea of chemical weapons as WMD, particularly when wars are being fought over the supposed WMD stockpiles of particular nations who shall remain nameless. The justification for tightly controlling the proliferation and use of nuclear and radiological weapons seems abundantly clear. Biological weapons, although they make for lousy direct fire weapons since you have to wait for the target to get sick, are nonetheless incredibly scary since they don’t dissipate; weaponize the right pathogen and you could theoretically cause a pandemic that could kill millions of people. But chemical weapons have neither the immediate lethality and destructive force of nuclear and radiological weapons nor the long-term threat of biological weapons. They are much closer to conventional weapons than either nukes or germs, and there’s a healthy debate going about whether or not their use warrants the kind of response it has received. It seems to me there are a few reasons why chemical weapons continue to be banned and feared, and at least one of them is a pretty sensible one:
- Chemical weapons kill horribly. This is just the continuation of the WWI-era revulsion about how these weapons kill, the amount of agony they put the victim through, coupled with our disgust at the Nazi gas chambers. Yes, it is possible to suffer terribly from a conventional strike, including long-term disability, but being hit with chemical weapons guarantees that the victim will suffer terribly; even those who aren’t killed by the attack will likely suffer debilitating ailments for many years if not for life. While rationally-speaking this doesn’t seem to justify banning these weapons but not conventional armaments, since dead is dead and disabled is disabled, we as a society do place value on the manner of death and the intent of the weapon. Regardless of your feelings about the death penalty, and I’m not taking a position on it here, we have chosen to employ lethal injection rather than, say, disembowelment or (notably) poison gas (although it hasn’t been banned, the last person to die in the gas chamber was executed in 1999) because we think lethal injection causes less suffering to person being executed. They’re still dead, but “humanely” so, I guess.
- Chemical weapons are imprecise. Our smart weapons aren’t as accurate as we’d like them to be, and using conventional weapons will always result in unintended civilian casualties, but a cloud of poison gas is imprecise on a whole other level. When these weapons are released, the danger zone is dependent on environmental factors just as much as anything else, so on the right day a chemical gas shell that’s intended to kill people in a single urban neighborhood could have much, much greater range and deadliness. That lack of control over where the effects of the weapon will be felt is troubling.
- Chemical weapons have no military purpose other than killing people. Similarly, we value the intent of the weapon, and we tend to disapprove of weapons whose sole purposes is killing people (as opposed to weapons that can be used to, say, blow up a tank or take out a command-and-control site). Chemical weapons can be used for area denial, but so can conventional firepower. This certainly explains why biological weapons are banned internationally, and I think helps explain the aversion to chemical weapons as well.
- Chemical weapons, for all their limitations on a battlefield, are very appealing to terrorists. Precisely because their best use is to kill unequipped people (civilians, in other words) and to do it in very nasty, frightening ways, chemical weapons are presumably the kind of thing that terrorists would be very keen to acquire. A chemical weapon used against a civilian population in close quarters can kill considerable numbers, including unprepared first responders, and can have a devastating psychological effect, hence Winston Churchill’s fondness for using gas (although in his defense he was talking about tear gas, not more lethal gasses) weapons against “uncivilised tribes.” Biological weapons would be even more desirable, but not nearly as easy to acquire or disburse, and nukes would be tougher still.
- Chemical weapons can be a effective in asymmetric warfare. This is related to the previous reason but specifically refers to state actors whose forces are not able to challenge ours in a conventional war. America has a massive edge on the rest of the world in terms of conventional arms, but it doesn’t take the most modern or expensive weapons program to put together something that was killing people a century ago in World War I. Countries at the top of the world’s conventional military power structure, America chief among them, are naturally going to support a ban on weapons that even relatively a relatively weak or outdated military could use against them.
Next time we’ll talk about what did or didn’t happen in Syria, and whether or not the proposed American intervention can serve as an effective deterrent (SPOILER ALERT: I don’t see how it can).