Insights into Editorial: Brutal war in Syria exposes the global cant on chemical weapons
Syrian government planes recently carried out a dawn raid on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun. This is suspected to be a chemical attack. The most likely poison is thought to be sarin.
What is a chemical weapon? Which chemicals are most commonly used?
Chemical weapons are specialised munitions that deliver chemicals that inflict death or injury on humans through chemical actions. Because they are relatively cheap and easy to produce, chemical weapons are referred to as the “poor man’s bomb”. Even though modern munitions, through precision of application and specialised use, can cause catastrophic damage, chemical weapons trigger unmatched horror and leave deep psychological scars.
Among the most commonly used chemical weapons are mustard gas, phosgene, chlorine, and the nerve agents Sarin and VX.
- Sarin: Doctors and first-responders at the recent attack site said symptoms shown by victims suggested use of Sarin. This odourless, colourless agent is extremely potent — even trace amounts can kill humans — but its threat after being released in the atmosphere is short-lived. The UN had confirmed the use of Sarin in the deaths of hundreds in a rebel-held Damascus suburb in 2013.
- Mustard gas: Possibly the world’s most commonly used chemical weapon, it was widely used in World War I, and gets its name from its distinctive odour of rotten mustard. It is slow acting, and only about 5% to 10% of people exposed to it usually die.
- VX: This is the nerve agent that was reportedly used in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un this February. In its original form, it is odourless, and appears as a brownish oily substance. It is very persistent — once in the atmosphere, it is slow to evaporate, and thus tends to cause prolonged exposure.
What are the international conventions against the use of chemical weapons?
Geneva Protocol: The horrors of chemical weapons during World War I prompted countries to sign the Geneva Protocol in 1925 to stop the use of “asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices” and “bacteriological methods of warfare”. The core elements of the Geneva Convention, which went on to have 35 signatories and 140 parties, are now generally considered part of customary international law. The Convention was, however, silent on the production, storage and transfer of these chemicals.
CWC: The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 1993, plugged the previous loopholes. The CWC outlawed the production as well as stockpiling of chemical weapons. 192 countries have so far agreed to be bound by the CWC — 4 UN states are not party: Israel, Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan. The CWC’s main objective is to get signatories to destroy their stockpiles of chemical weapons, and as of December 2016, an estimated 93% of the world’s declared stockpiles had been destroyed. The CWC is administered by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for its efforts to curb use of chemical weapons internationally.
India was one of the original signatories of the CWC in 1993, stating that it did not possess chemical weapons or the technology to manufacture it. However, in June 1997, it declared a stockpile of 1,044 tonnes of sulphur mustard, and promised to start the process of destroying it as per CWC guidelines. In March 20
How have chemical weapons been used in the Syrian war?
Early on August 21, 2013, rockets containing Sarin hit the Ghouta suburb of Damascus, causing around 300 deaths. Western powers, led by the US, accused Syrian government forces of the attack. Faced with the threat of international intervention, President Bashar al-Assad admitted to having chemical weapons. The stockpiles were destroyed by August 2014, paving the way for Syria’s entry into the CWC. American estimates from the time put the size of the stockpile at 1,000 tonnes of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, Sarin and VX. Latest incident, however, suggests there were more chemical agents in the country than had been officially declared and destroyed.
Doctors and experts have called for greater supplies of gas masks and the antidote to sarin to be sent to rebel-held areas of Syria to help limit casualties in the case of another attack. That response is in part recognition of the futility of international efforts to limit use of chemical weapons in Syria, after the initial outrage that followed the 2013 attack in Ghouta.
- Although Assad destroyed much of his stockpile then, there are allegations he kept some supplies. The military also has ready access to chlorine, which can be used as a weapon but is also an industrial chemical needed for peaceful uses, including water purification.
- After Barack Obama publicly abandoned his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, there has been little overt military threat to Assad for deploying powerful and once-taboo weapons against rebel-held areas.
- There has been no response, other than toothless censure, to UN reports confirming use of chemical weapons by government troops.
Chemical warfare has become an entrenched part of the Syrian civil war: jihadists are accused of having used various agents regularly, while the government is alleged to have used them in east Hama and Raqqa. In the absence of an independent investigation architecture, flat-out denial is the norm: Russia and Syria, for example, claim their jets hit a jihadist stockpile in Khan Sheikhoun.
Chemical weapons use, however, it is argued, crosses a red line that civilisation cannot countenance defiled, even during war.