Today's chemical warfare is history repeating itself


Picture of Raymond A. Zilinskas
Raymond A. Zilinskas

Raymond A. Zilinskas is Director of the Chemical & Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program, and Research Professor at the Graduate School of International Policy & Management at MIIS

When examining photos of the victims of the chemical attack in Idlib province in Syria, it is striking to note the similarities with those of Iranian soldiers and civilians during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 1988, and of thousands of Kurds in northern Iraq in 1988.

Chemicals used by Iraq during the 1980s had four purposes: to terrify the target population directly and indirectly; to drive people from sites that the government or armed groups sought to depopulate; to cause a large number of casualties without destroying buildings and facilities; and to deny the enemy of territory or routes of attacks.

It is possible that Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, and his closest circle have learned two lessons from Iraq’s use of chemical weapons.

First, Iraq’s chemical weapons had decisive military and psychological effects that resulted in Iran’s leaders suing for peace. This would probably not have happened if Saddam Hussein had not had access to chemical weapons.

In 1982 Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, pledged “Even if the Security Council orders, we will not make peace. Even if the whole world gathers, we will not make peace. Peace with the criminal [Saddam] is a crime against Islam.” But he had to break his word by July 1988, when Iran announced it would accept the United Nations Security Council’s call for a ceasefire.

Chemicals used by ruthless leaders can be very effective in suppressing uprisings by unprotected militias and their supportive civilians

When the president of the Iranian Parliament, Hashemi Rafsanjani, was asked why Iran had done so, he said that “the chemical weapons that Iraq used in bombing Shalamcheh were among the advanced weapons that even the Germans had not developed during World War II. […] Under these conditions, Iraq could make Tabriz, Esfahan, and even Tehran the targets of its chemical attacks in which case, like the tragedy in the town of Halabcheh [Halabja], all the people would die.”

Second, chemicals used by ruthless leaders can be very effective in suppressing uprisings by unprotected militias and their supportive civilians. An example of this is the Kurds, who were Iran’s allies throughout the Iran-Iraq War. In the 1980s, the Kurdish militia was able to occupy large parts of northern Iraq while the country’s focus was on Iran

But in early 1988 Saddam Hussein’s ruthless cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid ‒ nicknamed Chemical Ali ‒ was sent to northern Iraq to crush the Kurds with chemical weapons. Within three days the Kurdish fighters and leaders had fled to Turkey and Iran. By September 1988, thousands of Kurds had been killed and injured by chemicals.

It is likely that chemicals weapons will be used in the future for both internal and external purposes. As long as Assad remains in power in Syria, his military will use chemical weapons internally for the purposes stated above. But Assad is unlikely to use chemicals for external purposes against Israel, for example, because the country is well prepared to defend itself.

In Libya, the situation is somewhat similar: some of the militia leaders controlling the various territories or cities probably have access to caches of chemical weapons and, if so, would employ them for internal reasons such as reducing the strength of competing militias, settling scores between different ethnic groups, and/or bringing about international intervention.

Further afield, it is unclear how North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, might deploy chemical weapons, but it is probable that the weapons would be used for external purposes, possibly to harm and terrorise South Korea or Japan. As the American troops are well equipped to defend themselves from chemicals, it is doubtful that North Korea would attack them.

Until the UN Security Council can actually end violence resulting from the use of weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons are likely to be used in the future

And beyond recognised states and governments, we will probably see limited use of chemicals by the self-styled Islamic State (Daesh) and other well-organised international terrorist groups. To date, Daesh has not been effective using chemicals such as chlorine and mustard gas. Chlorine can be acquired by terrorists who capture urban areas with water treatment plants, but, except for terrorising civilians, chlorine is an inefficient chemical weapon and so not of high concern. Mustard gas might be found in leftover depots from Saddam’s chemical warfare programme, but will be mostly deteriorated or difficult to access.

The situation would change if Daesh or its other terrorist organisations were somehow able to acquire nerve agents. However, while Daesh might be able to recruit, or capture, chemical scientists, it would probably find it difficult to put them to work due to a lack of proper precursors and equipment.

While the world has an efficient body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), that can investigate real or alleged uses of chemical weapons, the major issue with chemical warfare is that it is up to the UN Security Council to decide on how to handle transgressors of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

As has been demonstrated numerous times since the Assad government first used chemical weapons in 2013, the Security Council has been unable to stop Assad from ordering one chemical attack after another because of vetoes wielded by Russia. Were North Korea to launch a chemical attack, the Security Council would probably again be blocked by one or more vetoes by its permanent members.

Until the parties of the CWC are able to work together to reform the Security Council so that it can actually end violence resulting from the use of weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons are likely to be used in the future – with serious consequences.

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