“Renaissance” of Chemical Weapons? by Łukasz Kulesa
01 LIP 2018

21 August 2013: several hundred people die of sarin poisoning in Ghouta, Syria. February 2017: Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s leader is killed with VX nerve agent while checking in at Kuala Lampur International Airport in Malaysia. 7 April 2018: dozens of people die in a chemical attack in the city of Douma which, according to Russia was staged by the enemies of the Syrian regime. March 2018: attempted murder of former Russian spy and his daughter with a Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury. Chemical weapons which, until recently, were associated (at least in Europe) primarily with the horror of gas attacks during World War I, have yet again crawled into the spotlight, with the media publishing drastic photos of its victims on a regular basis. Have chemical weapons been thrown away to the rubbish dump of history too early? Have international disarmament regimes failed? And will chemical attacks and chemical terrorism become a part of the new day-to-day reality of conflicts in the 21st century?

Chemical weapons: then and now

The use of chemical weapons during World War I brought limited tactical successes in certain operations, but it did not reverse the outcome of the war. Instead, chemical weapons became a symbol of its senseless carnage. This had a direct impact on including the prohibition on the use of “asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of bacteriological methods of warfare” in the so-called Geneva Protocol of 1925, and the acceptance of this prohibition as part of international law (this protocol, however, did not ban development and production of chemical weapons).[1] The experience of World War I was probably the reason why chemical weapons were not used in the battlefield in Europe during World War II – in spite of the stockpiles maintained by, among others, Germany and anti-Hitler coalition states.

In the 20th century, however, chemical weapons were used in a number of conflicts: by Italy during the war in Abyssinia, by Japan in the fighting in China during World War II, by Egypt during the intervention in Yemen in the 1960s, and by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during its war with Iran and the violent pacification of the Kurdish areas. During the Cold War, NATO states and members of the Warsaw Pact were also prepared to wage a chemical war – but only a few of them, led by the USA and the Soviet Union, produced the weapons. Certain countries of the Middle East, North and South Korea and, in all likelihood, China, India and Pakistan also had chemical weapons development programmes. In the 1990s, it turned out that a minor arsenal was in possession of... the communist Albania.

Even though chemical weapons are considered weapons of mass destruction, just like nuclear weapons, they have never acquired a similar status as means of strategic deterrence or weapons of political significance. This was partly due to technical reasons: the killing power of nuclear weapons is incomparably greater and it is not possible to fully protect against it, whereas it is possible to survive a chemical attack and in many cases its victims can be successfully cured owing to appropriate treatment. The symbolic representation turned out to be of equal importance: it was possible to create a powerful narrative picturing the “bomb” (nuclear weapons) as a showcase of scientists’ achievements and states’ efforts. Nuclear deterrence was presented as a guarantee of absolute safety.  A nuclear test became a way to announce one’s arrival to the club of great powers or aspirations to become a member thereof – from the United States to North Korea. Creating a similar narrative based on the images of canisters and bombs filled with the lethal gas, and scientists working on new substances paralysing the nervous system would be doomed to failure from the very beginning. At times, chemical weapons would be defined as “nuclear weapons of the poor,” namely countries such as Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iraq or North Korea, which were never able to afford the “real” nuclear deterrence arsenal. But even they did not boast about having this type of armament.

Chemical weapons were stocked in the arsenals of a dozen or so countries even in the 1980s. Works were conducted on their new types: it was at that very moment that Russian scientists were conducting research as a result of which a group of substances known as Novichok was developed, probably as a response to information about new American chemical weapon research. However, it became increasingly difficult to find political, strategic and military justification for possessing chemical weapons – except for the states furthest detached from the international community. Moreover, for numerous states including the US and the USSR/Russia, chemical arsenals would become an increasing problem – the risk of accidents, contamination, theft and terrorist attacks would rise over time.

Hence it was relatively easy to negotiate and adopt in 1993 the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (the co-called CWC – Chemical Weapons Convention), which has been in force since 1997. According to this convention, any state acceding to the treaty is obliged to declare chemical weapons possessed by it (both the weapons which are ready to use and the so-called precursor chemicals for their manufacture, as well as means of delivery), declare information about the infrastructure for their production and, finally, agree on their destruction scheme in cooperation with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Furthermore, the convention requires detailed reporting and monitoring of the chemical industry and research centres in all member states, including routine and emergency on-site inspections.

Until recently, the Convention was commonly deemed a success: it was joined by 192 states in 20 years; in line with its principles, over 72 thousand tonnes of chemical substances were destroyed in Russia, the USA, India, South Korea, Albania, Libya, Iraq and Syria. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the remaining elements of the Iraqi chemical weapons programme were secured and, subsequently, destroyed. Some perpetrators responsible for the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds were brought to justice. Destruction of chemical arsenals and joining the CWC became a part of an agreement normalising relations with Libya under Gaddafi. In Syria, coercing the Damascus regime into signing the Convention in 2013, together with the unprecedented transport out of the country of some and liquidation of the rest of chemical weapons stockpiles and infrastructure in 2014-2016, carried out during the then ongoing civil war, seemed to be a breakthrough. At the end of 2017, Russia announced that after 20 years it finally ended the process of destroying its chemical weapons. It seemed that chemical weapons would only become an exhibit at a war history museum.

Return of chemical weapons

In parallel with chemical disarmament and the strengthening of OPCW (which received the Nobel Prize in 2013) some opposite tendencies would, however, become apparent. Firstly – regardless of the assurance about the total disarmament – the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in waging the bloody civil war also after joining CWC. In a sense, this constitutes a continuation of the history of using such weapons (e.g. by Iraq) as a tool to pacify an insurgency. This is about using its ghastly characteristics not only to “punish” the rebels and their supporters and gain a specific territory, but also to break the will of resistance outside the direct area of its use. According to the data gathered by Human Right Watch, the use of chemical weapons (mainly chlorine, seldom sarin) ceased to be an exception in Syria; instead, it became almost a standard. Apart from the highly publicised biggest attacks, , which were broadly covered by international media and resulted in the international community’s direct response (Ghouta 2013, Khan Shaykhun 2017, Douma 2018), Human Rights Watch managed to identify 85 attacks carried out between August 2013 and February 2018, over 50 of which, in all likelihood, involved the use of chemical agents by the regime forces.[2] Other sources reveal a higher number of attacks.[3] It turns out that Syrian chemical weapons were put to use not as a tool of strategic deterrence or retaliation against neighbours, but as means of fighting – and that its effectiveness, at least according to the regime, turned out to be significant. Apart from Syria, North Korea, which is not a signatory to CWC, also possess a considerable armoury, research programme and capabilities to produce a wide range of chemical weapons.[4]

Secondly, the usefulness of chemical weapons was “rediscovered” by non-state actors.. This is not an entirely new threat: a Japanese cult movement, the Supreme Truth, conducted research on chemical and biological weapons in the 1990s. Eventually, its members managed to manufacture sarin and use it in several attacks, out of which the spraying of sarin in Matsumoto in June 1994, and the Tokyo subway sarin attack in March 1995 (12 deaths and over 1000 injured) were the most spectacular and lethal ones. Members of Al-Qaeda and its local branches were also interested in development and production of chemical weapons. But it was the civil wars in Syria and Iraq and the emergence of well-organised Islamist groupings with much leeway to act in the controlled territories, particularly of the so-called Islamic state (ISIL) that created conditions suitable for using chemical agents on a broad scale and in a more effective manner. From the early improvised use of available chemical agents, particularly chlorine, ISIL went on in 2015-2017 to establish its own chemical laboratories to produce, among other things, sulfur mustard (“mustard gas”), as well as develop chemical weapons delivery systems.[5] ISIL’s chemical capability was significantly undermined due to the successes of the offensive which led to the breakup of the caliphate. Nevertheless, experience gained in Syria and Iraq – in particular relating to the improvised use of chemical agents – will be available online for jihadists planning terrorist attacks, also against European targets.

The first of the above-described developments partly overlaps with the second one. The Syrian regime and Russia would typically respond to the charges of the regime using chemical weapons in Syria – apart from the charges of faking a certain incident – by explaining that the chemical weapons were used by the “terrorists” or that it was their laboratory or chemical agents storage facility that were hit.

Thirdly, chemical agents have not disappeared from the list of methods used by special services and intelligence agencies of particular states to incapacitate their opponents. The killing of Kim Jong Nam and the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal suggest that the “targeted” use of chemical agents may be deemed a gruesome, but effective modus operandi – most likely treated in a similar way to biological agents, toxins and radioactive substances (such as polonium-210 used to poison Alexander Litvinenko) manufactured for the needs of special services. Surely, in both cases it was useful to have a fully-fledged chemical weapons development programme, technology and means of production, but chemical agents for secret services can be also manufactured in countries which previously had no offensive programme. One can speculate that chemical agents can be attractive due to their psychological effect, i.e. the deterrent and demoralising impact on opponents of the regime as well as the possibility of using it to eliminate political rivals within a state. What is important, “mass” destruction is not the essence of such use of chemical agents, but the targeted or “limited” use of chemical weapons is clearly contrary to international law and – in relation to the States Parties to the CWC – to the obligations adopted under the treaty.

Against normalisationof chemical weapons

A kind of renaissance of chemical weapons brought by the conflict in Syria and Iraq and a series of attacks will not, in all likelihood, lead to their broader comeback as a strategic deterrence tool or a weapon of war. For the vast majority of the international community, the taboo related to the use of chemical weapons remains rigid, which is implied by the general condemnation of chemical attacks in Syria and the attempted murder of the Skripals. It is noteworthy that whereas in certain states the discussion about the validity of acquiring nuclear weapons (South Korea, Saudi Arabia) or the creation of a European nuclear deterrence (Germany) has re-surfaced in recent months, nobody suggests to return to chemical weapons.

The norm prohibiting the production and use of chemical weapons has been, however, dangerously undermined, particularly as a result of the developments in Syria. Firstly, Syria demonstrated that the use of chemical weapons may be considered by certain states merely in terms of their effectiveness and utility. It was not possible to create a universal political or psychological barrier to prevent their use which the Syrian regime would feel obliged to resect. Secondly, both the existing mechanisms and the ones created ad hoc, aimed at preventing the use of chemical weapons, uncovering perpetrators of the attacks and bringing them to justice, turned either ineffective or easy to neutralise. It was symptomatic that in November 2017, at the UN Security Council, Russia blocked the resolution to renew an international inquiry conducted by Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), established by the UN and OPCW, to determine who is to blame for chemical weapons attacks in Syria and Iraq - one month after JIM established that it was the Syrian regime that was responsible for the Khan Shaykhun attack.

And thirdly, it was not possible to create any effective – even if legally doubtful – mechanism of punishing the perpetrators of chemical attacks by retaliatory use of force, and, thereby, of deterring others from making decisions about further attacks. Tragically, Barack Obama’s administration and President Obama himself are to blame for that. The then-US president first publicly announced what would constitute the US “red line,” i.e. preparation or use of chemical weapons by Syria, and then, he did not decide to carry out a retaliatory attack when this line was crossed by the Syrian regime in 2013.[6] In that case, wider determinants (the fact that the USA was exhausted by years of military interventions, reluctant to get involved in the Syrian war, uncertain as to Russia’s and allies’ response, and that there was a chance to pressure Syria to conduct chemical disarmament) were the reasons why the USA abstained from using force. However, the Syrian regime and Russia interpreted the US response as an indication of weakness. When, as a response to further chemical attacks in Syria, the Trump administration decided to use force – independently in April 2017 and together with France (which in the meantime set its own “red line” related to the use of chemical weapons) and the United Kingdom in April 2018, the scale of these attacks turned out to be too limited to repair the damages caused in 2013 and establish a new, reliable barrier preventing the use of chemical weapons. Even if its further use of such weapons in Syria becomes limited or ceases altogether, this will happen not for fear of American or international intervention, but rather due to availability of other measures sufficient to defeat the remaining points of resistance to the regime.

If it is possible to make forecasts based on the Syrian conflict, one should assume that (beyond the threat of special services’ targeted activities) chemical weapons may be developed, produced and potentially used by a minor group of states remaining on the fringes of the international community and under a threat of destabilisation, as well as – where possible – by non-state actors, including terrorist organisations. Some CWC States Parties may start developing “dual-use” research programmes, so that in case of necessity they would be able to use chemical weapons, also in internal conflicts. Those programmes may take advantage of the cooperation between a given state and Syria or North Korea. Faced with the double threat posed by states and non-state actors, European states have to be ready to prevent or neutralise the results of the use of chemical weapons (including the improvised one) both in their own territories and in the areas, where their forces may be involved in stabilisation operations.

At a global level, the key task for the international community, including Poland, is to strongly oppose to the “normalisation” of the use of chemical weapons, regardless of its scale, effects and perpetrators. This requires making the most of acting within the framework of the existing international regimes, in particular, the UN (the Security Council, the General Assembly), the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Disarmament Conference, the International Criminal Tribunal, the Law of Armed Conflict, as well as redoubling efforts to control export of sensitive technologies, materials and chemical substances. There is a great potential in the new French-led initiative bringing together (in the form of a “coalition of the willing”) states and organisations interested in closer cooperation. The International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons (to which Poland has also acceded) should develop legal and operational tools to identify chemical attacks and respond to them more effectively, and also bring the perpetrators to justice.[7]

In relation to all the cases of the use of chemical weapons, there should be closer international cooperation to explain, beyond reasonable doubt, all the circumstances, determine the perpetrators (starting with policymakers and ending with the direct operators), gather, secure and analyse the evidence. This is particularly important, on the one hand, due to the attempts at disinformation activities made by perpetrators of the attacks and, on the other hand – due to the danger of manipulation. There are also challenges - and opportunities - related to the simultaneous obtaining of information by international organisations (such as fact-finding missions and OPCW laboratories), activities of states and their intelligence structures and, increasingly, activities of non-governmental organizations or even individual experts analysing, for instance, photos and videos of the presumed attacks.[8] In future, such collective dossier based on robust methodology should be used to bring to justice – at a national or international level – perpetrators of the chemical attacks, especially in Syria.

The question whether the international community manages to effectively react in future cases of the use of chemical weapons remains to be answered. Experience of recent years leads to pessimism. The mini-renaissance of chemical weapons seems to be directly connected with the intensification of Russia’s conflict with the West, undermining the foundations of the post-Cold War international order and the emergence of gaps in the system exploited by, among others, Syria. Therefore, it constitutes a symptom of a wider crisis, not a separate problem.


[1] The Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, 17 June 1925, www.mswia.gov.pl

[2] Syria: A Year On, Chemical Weapons Attacks Persist, Human Rights Watch, 4 April 2018, www.hrw.org

[3] See analyses based on data of the French intelligence published after the attacks in April 2017 and April 2018, https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr

[4] North Korea Chemical, Nuclear Threat Initiative Fact Sheet, April 2018, www.nti.org

[5] C. Strack, The Evolution of the Islamic State’s Chemical Weapons Efforts, “CTC Sentinel” 2017, vol. 10, issue no. 9, https://ctc.usma.edu

[6] See an exquisite analysis of the crisis: J. Lewis, B. Tertrais, The Thick Red Line: Implications of the 2013 Chemical-Weapons Crisis for Deterrence and Transatlantic Relations, “Survival” 2017/2018, vol. 59, issue no. 6.

[7] See www.noimpunitychemicalweapons.org/-en-.html and the article on this topic: R. Hersman, Resisting Impunity for Chemical-Weapons Attack, "Survival” 2018, vol. 60, issue no. 2.

[8] The existing challenges are emphasised by, inter alia, S. Dubberley, How open source evidence took a lead role in the response to the Duoma chemical weapons attack, Amnesty International, 23 April 2018, www.amnesty.org