Syria’s Toxic War: Chemical Weapons Are Undermining Deterrence and Nonproliferation


Sometimes considered the “junior” member of the WMD triumvirate, chemical weapons actually have a unique place in the pantheon of death dating back to the First World War. The fear and revulsion generated by chemical weapons spawned new concepts of conflict and deterrence and contributed to the establishment of a robust international architecture of laws, treaties, agreements, and norms designed to prevent their proliferation and use.

Chemical weapons are particularly indiscriminate and disproportionately affect the young, defenseless, and vulnerable. Their inhuman effects are painful, stealthy, terrorizing, and horrifying. The world relearned these tragic facts in August 2013 when a large chemical weapons attack on the East Ghouta neighborhood of Damascus killed more than 1,300 people — including over 400 children — using the nerve agent Sarin.

This attack crossed the infamous “red line” against chemical or biological weapons use announced by President Obama in August 2012. It brought the United States to the brink of large-scale military intervention in Syria and prompted the framework negotiated by the United States and Russia to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons program. At the time I was deputy assistant secretary of defense for countering WMD in the Pentagon and, along with many colleagues across the interagency and the world, was intimately involved in the lead up to and implementation of that agreement. These efforts ultimately led to the elimination of the vast majority of one of the largest known active chemical weapons programs in the world — a program that included more than 23 sites spread across an active war zone during a catastrophic humanitarian disaster. This involved the removal and safe destruction of more than 1,200 metric tons of dangerous chemicals and precursors in bulk form. Unfortunately, this achievement did not end chemical weapons use in the conflict. Chemicals, including chorine, continued to be wielded as weapons of war in Syria throughout most of 2014 — even as the removal of chemical weapons materials used by the Syrian government was underway — and continues to the present day. This continued usage dulls any sense of accomplishment among those of us who worked alongside our international partners on a historic effort. We did not destroy those toxic weapons just to stand by as chlorine dropped from barrel bombs or projectiles filled with crude mustard agents continue to terrorize.

Today, the use of chemical weapons is no longer confined to a regime terrorizing its citizens. The dramatic rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other extremists has driven Syria and Iraq into a cauldron of violence and instability and further proliferated chemical weapons threats. In February 2016, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed that ISIL has used chemical weapons, chlorine and mustard agents among them. Last month, reports surfaced of additional attacks in Iraq that wounded over 600 and led to the death of a three-year-old child. In March, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) released a report describing in detail the enormous toll taken on the Syrian population and health care providers: 161 chemical attacks with 14,581 victims and at least 1,491 deaths since 2012.

Efforts have been underway to attribute these attacks and ensure better accountability, but the slow pace and lack of international attention has does little to spur on the process. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the United Nations established a one-year Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) to identify actors perpetrating, organizing, or sponsoring the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The JIM has reviewed data from its initial fact-finding mission and identified seven potential cases for further investigation. The team will split into two groups later this month. Security permitting, they will conduct field visits to Syria. On March 9, 2016, the United States conducted airstrikes against targets associated with ISIL’s chemical weapons program based on intelligence and information from a captured ISIL operative who was reportedly a key player in the group’s chemical weapons program.

These are major steps, but insufficient in stopping the continued use of chemical weapons.

With access and support, the JIM can make vital steps toward attribution and accountability, and ultimately toward justice. If the JIM can gain access to patients, eyewitnesses, environmental and biological samples, and munition remnants, then many questions can be answered. This is a relatively small but essential step if we are to have any hope of preventing the reemergence of chemical weapons as routine tools of warfare. The JIM cannot succeed without the vocal support, assistance, and participation — indeed outrage — of the security and humanitarian communities.

But many challenges remain. States continue to exploit thresholds below which the international community will respond. There is a growing perception of the efficacy and viability of chemical weapons as a tool of terror and intimidation. Of the 161 documented chemical attacks since 2012, 77 percent occurred after the passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2118, which mandated cessation of use and elimination of the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile. The inaction against violations harms the credibility of this and other resolutions. Additionally, the United States has diminished credibility in the face of flagrant proliferation and use of prohibited weapons, calling into question the value of deterrence.

Efforts to destroy WMD capabilities are fleeting if the will to develop and use these weapons remains. Stemming the further use of chemicals as weapons requires equal attention to the “people” side of the equation — those who use these weapons and those who are killed, injured, and terrorized by their use. Countering WMDs cannot be decoupled from the pursuit of accountability and justice, which serve the dual purpose of offering a voice to the victims and restraining potential perpetrators. Justice and law lie at the core of the nonproliferation regime and at the heart of deterrence, but they are only effective if pursued.

Will the use of these weapons inspire more use and proliferation — not only of chemical weapons but also of even deadlier weapons — or will it galvanize the international community to stiffen its resolve to prevent proliferation and hold accountable those who use these weapons?

There is still time to shape the outcome. Chemical weapons may be the junior member of the WMD triumvirate, but they may also be a terrible bellwether of things to come if the international community does not step up to tackle this problem. There is a lot at stake.


Rebecca Hersman is director of the Project on Nuclear Issues and senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Ms. Hersman joined CSIS in April 2015 from the Department of Defense, where she served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for countering weapons of mass destruction.


Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Zachary Hada