Amy E. Smithson is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the author of “Germ Gambits: The Bioweapons Dilemma, Iraq and Beyond.”
With calls for intervention in Syria’s two-year-old civil war mounting, the United States, Britain, France and Israel have focused on whether forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have used chemical weapons. To answer that question and understand its implications, some myths need to be dispelled.
1. Witness reports can establish the use of chemical weapons.
Because Syria has blocked United Nations inspectors from entering the country, much of the evidence in play is from witness reports. The most detailed of those came this past week from France’s Le Monde newspaper: “No odor, no smoke, not even a whistle to indicate the release of a toxic gas. And then the symptoms appear. The men cough violently. Their eyes burn, their pupils shrink, their vision blurs. Soon they experience difficulty breathing, sometimes in the extreme.”
The problem with such reports is that while they may suggest exposure to toxic gas, they can’t identify which chemicals were present, who used them or whether they were intended as weapons. That information isn’t just nice to know — it’s critical for figuring out how to respond.
The State Department is reportedly working to bring medical professionals who have seen evidence of chemical attacks in Syria to meet with U.N. investigators in Turkey. Far more telling would be blood and urine from the victims and soil and munitions from the attack areas. Analysis of those samples could nail down what brought on the symptoms. Traces of nerve agents would point to deliberate use by Assad’s forces, which have access to Syria’s chemical weapons stash. Traces of industrial chemicals would make it harder to determine what happened. For example, explosions near industrial facilities could have ruptured chemical tanks and released toxic gasses.
2. The use of chemical weapons is a “game-changer.”
President Obama has been criticized for not following through on his declaration in March that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a game-changer. In April he tried to clarify his remarks by saying that he meant “not simply for the United States but for the international community, and the reason for that is that we have established international law and international norms.”
Yes, there are laws. The 1925 Geneva Protocol outlaws the use of chemical and biological weapons, and the Chemical Weapons Convention, implemented in 1997, bans the development, production, stockpiling and use of poison gas.
But chemical weapons don’t always change the game politically. Consider the Iran-Iraq war. U.N. investigators found traces of mustard gas in soil and bomb fragments and examined dozens of soldiers with symptoms of mustard gas exposure. They concluded that Iraq had repeatedly used poison gas against Iran. When photographs of streets littered with bodies in the Kurdish town of Halabja appeared in 1988, the world suspected Iraq had gassed Kurdish civilians as well. In the wake of the Iranian hostage crisis, however, Washington’s sympathies were with Iraq. At a 1989 conference on chemical weapons, world powers did not even censure, much less punish, Iraq.
Of course, chemical weapons were cited as one justification for going to war with Iraq in 2003. Flawed intelligence then has clearly made the United States more hesitant today to declare a game changed.
3. Chemical weapons are not weapons of mass destruction.
Pundits and experts alike play down the danger of chemical weapons by noting that the 1995 sarin attack on Tokyo’s subway killed only 13 people and that poison gas caused just 1 percent of World War I deaths.
Let there be no confusion: People who inhale or touch even a minuscule quantity of a nerve agent such as sarin will die within minutes unless antidotes are administered. Mustard gas, meanwhile, sears the lungs and skin, leaving lifelong debilitation or killing if the exposure is great enough.
While chemical weapons are not nearly as ruinous as nuclear weapons, the potential for mass destruction is real. Iraq’s 1988 attack on Halabja killed approximately 5,000 Kurds and injured more than 7,000.
Low casualty rates usually have logical explanations. Widespread use of gas masks in World War I undercut the lethality of chemical weapons, which nonetheless caused 90,000 fatalities. In other cases, attacks may be poorly executed. In Tokyo’s subway, for instance, attackers crudely released small amounts of low-strength sarin.
Why haven’t there been more chemical weapons deaths in Syria? Perhaps only small amounts of poison gas have been released so far and quickly blew away in the wind, or Syria may have shoddy chemical agents that have lost their potency.
4. The best response to the threat of chemical weapons is a military response.
With diplomatic efforts to convene a peace conference in Geneva faltering, calls for arming Syria’s rebels and establishing a no-fly zone have intensified. The European Union this past week lifted its embargo on weapons shipments. But providing lethal assistance to rebels risks handing advanced conventional weaponry to the al-Qaeda operatives fighting with them. And a no-fly zone would take aerial bombs out of the equation but wouldn’t address Assad’s poison-gas-tipped missiles or rockets.
Better would be to negate Assad’s unconventional military advantage by outfitting Syrian civilians and opposition forces with chemical defenses. The model here is Israel, which equipped its entire population with gas masks before the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Pointing to the Chemical Weapons Convention obligation to assist nations imperiled by chemical attacks, Washington could rally states to equip Syrian doctors with nerve-agent antidotes and opposition soldiers with chemical detectors. Gas masks, which Syrians would need to carry at all times, would need clear Arabic instructions for fitting, wearing and maintaining them.
5. Chemical weapons are not much of a threat beyond Syria.
With 80 percent of the world’s declared stockpiles of chemical weapons destroyed since the mid-1980s, only a few pariahs remain in the dirty business of chemical weapons.
Yet future chemical weapons threats will be more sinister and difficult to detect. Advanced mind- and body-control weapons are within reach of proliferators. New processing technologies and the spread of multipurpose production facilities make it easier to hide poison gas programs. This may tempt states to recalculate the desirability of a covert chemical weapons capability.
Terrorist groups and lone-wolf actors are drawn to the horror and harm that chemicals can generate, and their attempts to acquire and use poison gas are on the rise. Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo cult, which built a $10 million, state-of-the-art factory to produce 70 tons of sarin, is the most eye-opening case to date. The FBI is investigating yet another letter sent to Obama that may contain ricin. By no means has the world seen the last of chemical terrorism.