Syria, accused of launching a chemical attack against its own people last month, is one of a shrinking group of nations to retain a form of weaponry that the rest of the world abandoned over the past 20 years.
Syria is one of only five countries not to have signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development, stockpiling, transfer and use of chemical arms. The others are Egypt, North Korea, South Sudan and Angola. Israel and Myanmar have signed the convention but not ratified it. Libya became a party to the convention in 2004 and Iraq in 2009.
One reason for the appeal of chemical weapons is cost. Because they are relatively easy to make, chemical agents cost a fraction of the investment needed to develop nuclear arms, said Gunnar Jeremias, head of the Research Group for Biological Arms Control at the Center for Science and Peace Research in Hamburg. And compared with biological weapons, chemical agents are easier to control, he said.
“Many biological agents cause contagious diseases,” Jeremias said in a telephone interview. “If you use them close by your own territory, you could never be sure that the effects would not come back to you. That’s not the case with chemical weapons.”
The use of chlorine gas by German forces at Ypres, Belgium, in 1915 led to the development of the Geneva Protocol of 1925, the first international agreement to ban the use of chemical weapons. Syria signed the protocol in 1968, while the U.S. didn’t ratify it until 1975. Still, the pact didn’t prevent countries from developing, producing or possessing such weapons, or from using them in retaliation.
That created an environment for global superpowers such as the U.S. and Russia to stockpile them, said Jeanne Guillemin, a senior adviser at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program.
“The allure of chemical weapons, like that of nuclear ones, was that the major powers possessed them,” she said in an e-mail.
While chemical weapons aren’t that difficult or expensive to amass, dispersing them is far more complicated. In one method, called the unitary method, the liquid sarin is kept isolated within an artillery shell by a diaphragm that is pierced right before or during flight. In the second method, the components are kept isolated from each other and mixed in-flight, and released when the shell or canisters land.
“It is much, much more difficult to aerosolize and disperse and use these chemical weapons than people understand,” said David Roberts, the Qatar-based director of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies. “From what we understand, for this kind of attack, you would have needed vast quantities of this sort of chemical.”
The complexities of aerosolizing and dispersing chemical weapons confounded the Aum Shinrikyo sect, which on two separate incidents killed fewer than 20 people in Japan, despite having access to hundreds of liters of sarin. In the 1995 attack on separate lines of the Tokyo subway, cult members carried the liquid on board trains in plastic bags or lunch boxes, and punctured them using sharp umbrellas before getting off the train, according to a Japanese government investigation of the incident.
Chemical weapons became less strategically important for the U.S. and Soviet Union in the 1970s as the two nations developed their nuclear arsenals, said Ralf Trapp, a disarmament consultant and former scientific adviser at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague.
The end of the Cold War brought about “a climate where it became possible to ban them,” Trapp said by phone. That led to the inauguration of the convention in 1993, under which most countries committed to destroying their stockpiles.
As of December 2011, a total of 51,505 metric tons, or 72 percent of all declared chemical weapons globally, had been destroyed, according to the OPCW, which was set up to implement the 1993 convention.
Only Russia, the U.S., Libya and Iraq have declared chemical weapons that are yet to be destroyed, according to the OPCW. The U.S. has destroyed 90 percent of its stockpiles, Russia has destroyed 60 percent, and Libya 54 percent, according to the OPCW. The group conducted inspections in Iraq for the first time in 2011, though the nation hadn’t yet started destroying its stockpiles.
Somalia became the most recent party to the convention in June.
Among the countries that either haven’t signed or ratified the pact, both Egypt and Angola have held informal talks with the OPCW, while political changes in Myanmar have raised hopes that the nation will join the convention in future, Trapp said.
“Israel is the one country in the Middle East that could join without any strategic loss, Trapp said. ‘‘They don’t want to be seen as weak or someone who gives in.’’
That leaves Syria and North Korea as the only two remaining countries to pose a serious chemical weapons threat, Trapp said.
A spokesman for Syria’s foreign ministry, Jihad Makdissi, said at a news conference in July 2012 that its chemical weapons would not be used against civilians ‘‘under any circumstances, no matter how the crisis would evolve.’’
‘‘All the stocks of these weapons that the Syrian Arab Republic possesses are monitored and guarded by the Syrian Army,’’ Makdissi said. ‘‘These weapons are meant to be used only and strictly and in the event of external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic.’’ Makdissi later defected, he said in a posting on Twitter.
United Nations investigators spent last week looking for evidence of the alleged chemical weapon attack in Ghouta, near Damascus. Doctors Without Borders said three hospitals it supports in Damascus had treated about 3,600 patients with neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours on Aug. 21, and 355 died.
Syria’s opposition accused President Bashar Al-Assad of the attack, while Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has dismissed the accusations as ‘‘nonsense’’ and said rebel fighters were behind the assault.
Video footage of the aftermath showed people with symptoms such as narrowing of the pupils, excessive salivation and convulsions that point to exposure to sarin or another nerve agent, Trapp said.
U.S. President Barack Obama is trying to rally congressional support for a military strike to punish Syria for the alleged use of chemical weapons. His decision Aug. 31 to seek Congress’s backing slowed the march toward war at least until Sept. 9, when lawmakers reconvene. Secretary of State John Kerry on Sept. 1 said hair and blood samples indicated the use of sarin gas by Assad’s forces.
Sarin, developed by German scientists as a pesticide in the 1930s, works by lowering the human body’s ability to regulate nerve impulses, according to the Federation of American Scientists. Victims suffer convulsions, lose control of their body and become comatose if exposed to a large enough amount.
It is relatively simple to make, especially for trained industrial chemists, since most of the ingredients are available commercially, and formulas have been in the public domain for decades.
Syria has also tried to gain nuclear weapons, according to Israel. In 2007 Israel bombed a suspected nuclear reactor in the Dair Alzour region of Syria that Assad’s government said was a non-nuclear military installation. The International Atomic Energy Agency said in 2011 that the site was ‘‘very likely a nuclear reactor” that “could not have served the purpose claimed by Syria.”
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