When it comes to weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons have long taken a backseat to nuclear weapons in the competition for public interest and non-proliferation scrutiny. But the Syrian civil war has flipped the status quo on its head, as the mere use of such weapons threatens to drag the United States into another military intervention. So when Barack Obama says "the use of chemical weapons is a game changer," what is he talking about, and why does it make a difference in a war in which 70,000 people have already died at the hands of conventional weapons?
The Science of Chemical Weapons
For starters, a chemical weapon utilizes the toxic properties of chemicals to inflict physical pain ranging from mild discomfort to death on an individual. This can include blister agents (nitrogen mustard, sulfur mustard, and lewisite) that cause eye, skin, and lung irritation; blood agents (hydrogen cyanide and cyanogen chloride) that prevent blood from transporting oxygen throughout the body; and nerve agents (tabun, sarin, and VX) that can cause instant death by shutting down the nervous system.
The type of chemical weapon is important, since not all chemicals technically qualify as "weapons" in the eyes of the international community. In this week’s widely covered attack in Syria, for instance, initial U.S. intelligence assessments have found that chlorine — not a nerve or blister agent — was used. "That would not be the same as using a chemical weapons, as defined by international treaties," notes CNN’s Barbara Starr. The difference, of course, is a chemical weapon will supposedly warrant a U.S. military response, while chlorine will only elicit more verbal hand-wringing.
Regardless, one of the main reasons the United States obsesses over the use of chemical weapons is concern about such weapons getting into the hands of terrorist groups.
The Impact of Chemical Weapons
It only takes a small amount of chemical weapons to have a devastating impact on a highly populated area. Because you get so much bang for your buck, chemical weapons have become, by far, the most widely proliferated and used weapon of mass destruction on earth.
"The military value of chemical weapons is such that the United States and the Soviet Union stockpiled tens of thousands of tons during the Cold War," notes the non-partisan Nuclear Threat Initiative group. "Countries traditionally have acquired chemical weapons before attempting to produce biological or nuclear weapons, because they are the least technologically demanding of the three. While 188 countries have joined the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and have agreed not to develop, produce, stockpile, or use chemical weapons, a handful of key countries-particularly in the Middle East-remain outside of the treaty."
Syria remains one of the countries that has refused to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles, which are considered to be significant, as FP‘s John Reed reported last year. U.S. military officials have said Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal is "100 times the magnitude we experienced in Libya," and it is thought to include hundreds of tons of mustard gas, blister agents, sarin, and VX. Strategically, the United States is adamant about those chemicals not getting in the hands of neighboring terrorist groups such as Hezbollah or al Qaeda.
The History of Chemical Weapons
Chemical weapons had their coming out party during World War I, when 124,000 metric tons were used by combatants to devastating effect. Since then, chemical weapons have been used by Italy during World War II, Japan during its invasion of China, Egypt during the North Yemen Civil War, Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, among other occasions.
But the primary example that terrifies security analysts to this day is the release of sarin by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo in the mid-90s. This proved that terrorist groups were capable of creating and using sophisticated chemical weapons to horrendous effect. "The scale of the Aum Shinrikyo chemical ambitions revealed that non-state actors are fully capable of organizing and financing chemical programs," notes the Nuclear Threat Initiative." Because many chemicals commonly used in industry are themselves very toxic, terrorist organizations may also achieve their goals through the sabotage of chemical plants and shipments."
That goes a long way in explaining why the White House is willing to threaten war — or something akin to it — if Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal becomes active.
Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy's award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. Lynch previously wrote Foreign Policy's Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He is also a recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Silver Prize for his coverage of the United Nations.
Before moving to Foreign Policy, Lynch reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. As the Washington Post's United Nations reporter, Lynch had been involved in the paper's diplomatic coverage of crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, and Somalia, as well as the nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea. He also played a key part in the Post's diplomatic reporting on the Iraq war, the International Criminal Court, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Lynch's enterprise reporting has explored the underside of international diplomacy. His investigations have uncovered a U.S. spying operation in Iraq, Dick Cheney's former company's financial links to Saddam Hussein, and documented numerous sexual misconduct and corruption scandals.
Lynch has appeared frequently on the Lehrer News Hour, MSNBC, NPR radio, and the BBC. He has also moderated public discussions on foreign policy, including interviews with Susan E. Rice, the U.S. National Security Advisor, Gerard Araud, France's U.N. ambassador, and other senior diplomatic leaders.
Born in Los Angeles, California, Lynch received a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. He previously worked for the Boston Globe.| Report |
John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.| The Complex |