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 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 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

Attention is now focused on reports that traces of banned chemicals, including sarin, are still being found in Syria. There’s also evidence of widening use of chlorine gas in Syria and Iraq. A series of alleged chlorine-gas attacks have been documented by independent monitoring groups, raising U.S., U.K. and French concerns that Assad’s forces and other fighters have found a way to continue the use of chemical weapons that indiscriminately kill and injure civilians. They include reports of barrel bombs filled with chlorine gas dropped on villages in northern Syria — denied by the Syrian government — and chlorine in a suicide truck bomb used by Islamic State against peshmerga fighters in Iraq. Chlorine gas 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 treaty and the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution in March 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 all of the stockpile of banned materials was declared. Working in Syria isn’t easy for the OPCW inspectors — they have never operated in a war zone before. Syria’s declared chemical weapons stash included about 1,300 metric tons of VX, sarin and mustard gas. 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.

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


First Published Oct. 11, 2013

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Caroline Alexander in London at

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Leah Harrison Singer at

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