The first agreement to ban chemical weapons came in 1675. (France and the Holy Roman Empire forswore poisoned musket balls.) Three centuries and at least six international treaties later, they are still being employed. In August, sarin gas killed hundreds of Syrian civilians including children. Faced with the threat of U.S.-led military action, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria agreed to surrender the country’s chemical munitions, said by Western states to be among the largest stocks in the world. The power of chemical weapons in the public imagination was illustrated by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is destroying Syria’s stockpile on behalf of the United Nations.
The inspectors now in Syria will formulate a plan by Nov. 15 for destruction of the weapons. Syria’s stash, estimated by French intelligence at more than 1,000 metric tons of VX, sarin and mustard gas, should be demolished by mid-2014. That may prove difficult — the OPCW inspectors have never operated in a war zone before and the Syrian government says some sites are not under its control. Dismantling the munitions is a delicate process that may involve incineration or separating the chemicals from weapons using heat, water, caustics and pressure. The U.S. and Russia are still destroying weapons they promised to make safe 20 years ago.
Despite international treaties signed before the outbreak of World War I, Germany used poison gas on the Western Front in 1915. Everyone else joined in, leaving more than 90,000 dead and a million wounded in chemical attacks by the war’s end. That memory, and the 1925 Geneva protocol, deterred the use of chemical and still-more ghastly biological agents on the battlefields of World War II and most conflicts since then. Even so, Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks killed 5,000 Iraqi Kurds in 1988, while a sarin attack by the Aum Shinrikyu cult killed 13 people on the Tokyo subway in 1995. More recently, al-Qaeda has experimented with chlorine bombs in Iraq. And while the latest treaty, the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, has been signed by 190 nations, there are four holdouts: North Korea, Egypt, Angola and Somalia. Israel and Myanmar have signed but not ratified.
Almost everyone agrees on the need to ban chemical munitions — even Syria finally accepted the Chemical Weapons Convention under pressure in September. But they can’t agree how to do it. Russia and China don’t want to sanction armed force in Syria for this or any other reason, while fellow UN Security Council members the U.S. and France argue for a military response once the weapons are used. Russia says that’s an excuse for the U.S. to topple regimes like Assad’s, just like the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The proponents of a strike say the failure to follow through with an attack once it was clear chemical weapons were used has weakened deterrence.
The Reference Shelf
- The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international group that enforces the chemical weapons treaty, has a history of attempts to ban them.
- Syria’s chemical weapons and their recent history were described in this paper by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.
- Overview of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.
- A book by Edward M. Spiers, professor of strategic studies at Leeds University in the U.K., examines the proliferation and use of these weapons of mass destruction in “A History of Chemical and Biological Weapons.”
- A list of chemical agents and their effects from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- John Singer Sargent’s painting, “Gassed,” showing British soldiers blinded by mustard gas in 1918.