The Poison Bomb

Three Centuries of Trying to Stop Chemical Weapons


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 2013, 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 Situation

Syria’s chemical weapons storage and production sites were destroyed and all material was removed from the country by June. Working in Syria hasn’t been easy for the inspectors – the OPCW has never operated in a war zone before. The stash includes about 1,300 metric tons of VX, sarin and mustard gas. By August — a year after the attacks — three-quarters of Syria’s stockpile had been destroyed, mainly at a commercial facility operated by Veolia in the U.K. and on board a U.S. military ship sailing in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea. Dismantling the munitions is a delicate process that involves 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. Reports that Syria has been conducting chlorine-gas attacks have raised U.S., U.K. and French concerns that Assad has found a way to continue chemical attacks that indiscriminately kill and injure civilians. Chlorine gas has many industrial uses, and isn’t listed in the Chemical Weapons Convention, the global treaty on chemical arms destruction. Even so, any use of a lethal chemical as a weapon violates the treaty. Islamic militants in Iraq seized a dismantled chemical weapons complex in June, though remaining stocks at the site were useless.

Source: Nuclear Threat Initiative, United Nations
Source: Nuclear Threat Initiative, United Nations

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 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.

The Argument

Almost everyone agrees on the need to ban chemical munitions — even Syria finally accepted the Chemical Weapons Convention under pressure in September 2013. 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


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:

Jonathan Landman at