What’s the Deal With Chemical Weapons?

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. An investigation will be required if we’re to determine to any certainty who was responsible for the attack, and even then it’s not likely to be conclusive. 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 it, because if the rebels were responsible there’s no appetite to punish them and if it was the Syrian government they’ll be protected by Russia. 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.

Without digging in to the still very unclear details about this particular incident (we can save that for another time), 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.

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, they’re not very helpful from a practical standpoint because you’ll never kill as many rebels as you will average civilians. Of course, if you don’t mind killing civilians are even want to kill civilians, maybe to discourage them from supporting the rebels, then they work just fine.

Why are chemical weapons banned, then, if they’re not especially lethal?

The chemical weapons ban grew out of the horrors of chemical weapons use in World War I. The only explanation for the stigmatization of a weapon that was responsible for all of about 0.5% of the total deaths in that war is that the manner in which that particular 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, which explains the post-war push to ban them.

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. We’ve already covered this. Yes, it is possible to suffer terribly from a conventional attack, 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. Though it may seem odd if you give it any serious thought, as a society we 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. On the other hand, that imprecision can also limit the effect of the weapon–drop a chemical shell on an unpopulated area and the gas could dissipate before it has a chance to harm anyone.
  • 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 purpose 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), 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. 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.

What is the history of Syria’s chemical weapons program?

Syria signed (in 1968, better late than never) the 1925 Geneva Protocols banning (sort of) the use of chemical weapons in combat, but it had refused to sign the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which aside from a much more robust ban on their use also bans the manufacture and storage of chemical weapons. It finally did sign that convention in the wake of this incident. The origins of Syria’s chemical weapons program go back to the 1970s, when chemical weapons became Syria’s answer to Israel’s NBC (nuclear, chemical, and biological) weapons programs as well as a threat to Syria’s other regional antagonists (chiefly Iraq and NATO, in the form of Turkey). Syria’s stockpiles are said to include the usual suspects: blistering agent mustard gas as well as nerve agents Sarin, Tabun, and (nastiest of all) VX. Syria has consistently denied possessing chemical weapons, which is the kind of thing you do whether you have them or not.

Assuming Bashar al-Assad was behind this incident, would a US military strike deter him, or the next dictator facing a similar situation, from using these weapons in the future?

That’s a big assumption, but since we may proceed straight to a retaliatory strike without waiting for an investigation I think it’s appropriate to consider the hypothetical deterrence factor of such a strike. Which I suspect isn’t terribly high.

I’m no military expert, but let’s say you were a dictator in a country where a sizable portion of the people had decided that they’d pretty much had it with you to seriously threaten your regime’s continued existence. You’re a fairly cosmopolitan guy, so you’d heard about, say, what happened to Muammar Gaddafi after his people toppled him, so you don’t have a lot of hopes for transitioning to a peaceful, well-funded exile. Your most powerful ally, Russia, might help get you out of the country, but then again it might leave you there to be killed because it gives them a grievance to use in international politics. If you think your situation comes down to “gas the rebels or die,” is there any amount of potential international condemnation or western military reprisal that would cause you not to gas the rebels? I’m struggling to come up with any way that question could be answered “yes.”

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