Chemical Weapons

Three Centuries of Trying to Stop the Poison Bomb

By | Updated Aug 25, 2016 10:12 AM UTC

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 2013, sarin gas killed hundreds of Syrian civilians in a Damascus suburb. Faced with the threat of U.S.-led military action, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad agreed to surrender the country’s chemical munitions, said by Western states to have been among the largest stocks in the world. But there's widening concern chemical weapons are still being used, both by Assad and Islamic State, and there's little the world can do to stop it. 

The Situation

A series of gas attacks have been documented by independent monitoring groups. They include a suspected mustard gas attack in northern Iraq in March 2016. Reports that barrel bombs filled with chlorine gas were dropped on villages in northern Syria and the city of Aleppo have been denied by the Syrian government. Citing a report by inspectors into Syria's alleged use of chlorine gas, a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council said in August it was now impossible to deny the Syrian regime repeatedly used industrial chlorine as a weapon against its own people. Chlorine has various industrial uses, and can also be used as a choking agent that burns the lungs. It isn’t listed in the Chemical Weapons Convention, the global treaty on chemical arms. Even so, any use of a lethal chemical as a weapon violates the pact and the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution in 2015 that puts chlorine in the same category as other agents. Syria didn’t include chlorine as part of its disclosure of chemical weapons production and storage sites, and there’s a debate about whether it declared its full stockpile of banned materials. Syria’s stash included about 1,300 metric tons of VX, sarin and mustard gas. Inspectors working in Syria have detected undeclared agents, according to a confidential report given to the Security Council which was also released in August and adds to concerns the regime lied about the size and extent of its chemical weapons program. 

Source: OPCW, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Syrian Accountability Project


The Background

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 Shinrikyo 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 192 nations, the holdouts include North Korea, Egypt and the newly independent South Sudan. Israel has signed but not ratified. The power of chemical weapons in the public imagination was illustrated by the award of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which destroyed Syria’s stockpile on behalf of the UN. The U.S. and Russia are still scrapping their own chemical weapons stores, in accordance with promises they made two decades ago.

The Argument

Almost everyone agrees on the need to ban chemical munitions — even Syria finally accepted the Chemical Weapons Convention under pressure. But they can’t agree on how to do it. After the 2013 attack, Russia and China didn't want to sanction armed force in Syria, while other UN Security Council members such as the U.S. and France argued for a military response. Russia labeled it 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 has weakened deterrence. Intelligence officials have raised concerns that Islamic State is training its foreign fighters in the use of chlorine gas as a terror weapon that could be used when they return home.

The Reference Shelf


(This QuickTake includes a corrected reference to the countries that have not signed or ratified the chemical weapons convention.)

First published Oct. 11, 2013

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Caroline Alexander in London at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Leah Harrison at