NBC Weapons: A Century Later

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NUCLEAR, BIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICAL WEAPONS

September 16, 2016: In late August the UN released a new OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) report of what its investigators found while looking into numerous instances where it appeared that the Syrian government was still using chemical weapons. This would be in violation of a Russian brokered 2013 agreement to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons. It appears that Syria has not been using any of the weapons banned in 2013 bot rather dual-use chemicals that are not illegal. It does appear that battlefield use of chlorine as a chemical weapon in Syria is often the work of the Syrian government, not just Islamic terrorists trying to discredit the government. The UN cannot act on any of this because Russia is an ally of Syria and has a veto over UN efforts to punish anyone for using chlorine as a chemical weapon. But the UN inspectors don’t need Russian permission to investigate and if they can prove anything that violates the 2013 agreement the Russians will be, at the very least, discredited.

This study was prompted by the fact that there were reports of more than 150 uses of chemical weapons in Syria since 2012 and a third of those occurred since 2015. The new UN report concluded that there have been a lot of attacks using chlorine, some by Assad (Syrian government) forces. Non-chlorine attacks were few and it was unclear who was responsible. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) was known to have been working on producing mustard gas and may have succeeded but the UN inspectors had no access to ISIL territory, at least not while it was still controlled by ISIL.

Like everything else in Syria, this is not a simple situation. First of all although the first chemical weapon attack in modern history, in 1915, used 168 tons of chlorine gas, the current Chemical Weapons Convention does not recognize chlorine as a chemical weapon. Then, as now, chlorine proved to be an inefficient chemical weapon and was quickly replaced by more effective chemicals by the end of 1915. Like other toxic industrial chemicals chlorine in large quantities can be lethal to humans. Thus during 2015 the 66 known uses of chlorine as weapon killed 24 people but injured over 600. In March 2015 Syria agreed to abide by a new UN rule prohibiting the use of chlorine as a weapon. Yet nearly 90 percent of the known chlorine attacks in 2015 occurred after March.

Syria has not been caught using any substances covered by the September 2013 agreement that obliged Syria to destroy all its chemical weapons under UN supervision and that process was completed by January 2016. This deal was not vetoed by Russia because Syria was obviously responsible for a chemical attack in August 2013 that used nerve gas and killed over 1,300 people, most of them pro-rebel civilians. Some of the chlorine attacks since then apparently have been the work of ISIL but most appear to be the work of Syrian government forces using aircraft, artillery or mortars.

The agreed upon destruction of Syrian chemical weapons was completed by January 2016. Syria appeared to have had 700 tons of nerve gas (sarin) and 300 tons of mustard gas and all these were destroyed under UN supervision. The Syrian chemical weapons were out of Syria by mid-2014.

Nerve gas was first used in combat during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). Iran knows how to make it. The Assads knew that once they defeated the rebels they could rebuild the plants that manufacture the nerve and mustard gas and rebuild their pre-rebellion stocks in a few years.

 


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