The news has been filled with reports about chemical weapons thanks to Syria’s use of them in their war. That caused the U.S. to retaliate by bombing Syria, a move that has unknown consequences that we have yet to see. We can debate forever about whether President Trump was right to bomb a country he wasn’t at war with because of a crime against humanity, but in order to really have that debate, we need to understand what these weapons are. This is why we’ve decided to walk everyone through a little primer about chemical weapons, their history, and the current situation playing out on the world stage.
People might not know what chemical weapons are or how they work, but even the most uneducated person knows about the damage they can cause. If you saw the videos that came out of Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-held territory of Syria, you have just an idea of how terrible a chemical weapons attack can be. There’s a lot to get into when it comes to chemical weapons: their history dates back before World War I, and they’ve evolved considerably since they first arrived on the scene. You might not agree with Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, on anything, but his comment that chemical weapons attacks are “not something that any civilized nation should sit back and accept or tolerate.” does strike true, even if he didn’t say anything else of value so far. Here’s everything you need to know about chemical weapons and their role in the current crisis.
15. What Is A Chemical Weapon?
A chemical weapon is a device that uses chemicals to inflict suffering, pain, and death on people. It’s different from a biological weapon, which is a germ designed to cause disease. There are a lot of chemicals that can be weaponized in this way, and we know that considering just how many weapons have been stockpiled over the course of the 20th century.
According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), “the term chemical weapon may also be applied to any toxic chemical or its precursor that can cause death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through its chemical action. Munitions or other delivery devices designed to deliver chemical weapons, whether filled or unfilled, are also considered weapons themselves.”
14. Chemicals That Can Be Weaponized
There are a ton of chemicals out there that have the potential to be weaponized. This is simultaneously horrifying and a decent look at how a science can evolve. The way chemical weapons are broken down into groups is by taking into account what they can do. For example, you have your nerve agents, like sarin and cyclosarin, to mess with your entire nervous system. Weirdly enough, some of these smell like fruit. Then you have your blister agents, like sulfur and phosgene oximine, which are less for the purpose of killing and more for inconveniencing the opposite side, but these are just as deadly as any other weapon. These weapons blister your skin, lungs, blood-forming organs, and even your eyes. Finally, you have your choking agents like chlorine, which attack your lung tissue and make it impossible to breathe. Choking agents are the cause of 80% of chemical fatalities in World War I.
13. Lethal Doses Of VX
VX is a nerve agent that a lot of people don’t really know about. That’s because its effects are a little inscrutable. While the effects of mustard gas can be seen immediately upon being exposed, VX is more subtle, and it’s that subtlety that makes this chemical so dangerous. VX messes with your glands and muscles by blocking a certain enzyme that lets those things relax. Without that enzyme, your muscles will clench uncontrollably. That sounds painful enough, but it gets worse when you realize that it will also cause the organs that control your breathing to do the same, and then you’ll die. To make matters even worse, the lethal dose of VX is about ten milligrams, which is an almost hilariously small amount. Depending on the dose you get, you could die anywhere between a few minutes and a few hours after exposure. VX is so dangerous, some military forces get auto-injectors of anti-convulsive drugs in the event of an exposure.
12. All About Sarin Gas
Sarin is a colorless, odorless liquid that is considered a weapon of mass destruction due to its potency as a nerve agent. You can’t store sarin anymore, thanks to an agreement by the Chemical Weapons Commission back in 1993, and for good reason. Sarin gas can kill you within minutes, and even one minute can be fatal. If you live through a sarin exposure, chances are you’re going to be dealing with neurological damage. On the positive side, sarin is relatively easy to detect and doesn’t actually keep for very long. That’s not much of a comfort though, considering that sarin gas is capable of killing within minutes, and a person’s clothes can release sarin for up to thirty minutes, making it a chemical weapon that can literally be contagious. Sarin gas is considered 26 times more likely to kill you than cyanide, and 543 times more likely to kill you than chlorine.
11. World War I
Many chemical weapons were used in World War I. Chemical weapons had been a thing for a long time before that, but World War I was when we all saw these weapons being used on a larger scale. These weapons were used to kill, injure or even demoralize the enemy. The issue is that a chemical can’t pick a side, and a toxic compound is just as likely to kill an opposing army as it is to kill the army that released that weapon. Luckily, people were prepared and had gas masks, making this one of those weapons of mass destruction that could be combated in its own way. That being said, out of 1.2 million people who were casualties of chemical weapons in World War I, 90,000 people died. Sure, the deaths are a small fraction of the fatalities, but when a weapon kills 90,000 people that didn’t need to die in a war that many historians consider pointless, it’s just 90,000 deaths too many.
10. All About Mustard Gas
Mustard gas, also known as sulfur mustard, is probably some of the grossest, most destructive stuff on the planet. It devastated the trenches of World War I, killing more soldiers than any war had in history at that point. It literally burned the bodies of its victims from the inside out. We touched upon that before, but I really need to stress how awful this stuff is. It used to be called “LOST” after the last names of the people who invented it, but I think it’s also a good dose of reality because anyone who’s felt the effects of this stuff has to feel exactly that way. Scientists did tests on people to see the effects of mustard gas, and when you look this stuff up, you can actually see people’s bodies reacting violently to the tiniest trace amounts. This wasn’t the deadliest thing used in the WWI, but you can bet that this stuff was the worst to deal with. The use of mustard gas has been violently condemned since then, but by that point, countless soldiers had already died.
9. World War II
Chemical warfare really kicked off in World War II. This was the war that saw sarin enter the battlefield for the first time (it had only been discovered a few years prior during the Great Depression). Japan was the only country to use chemical weapons on the battlefield, and they spent a long time trying to synthetically spread diseases.
Adolf Hitler didn’t actually use chemical weapons on the battlefield, despite committing literally every other crime against humanity during his time at the helm of Germany. That’s probably because when he was a sergeant in the Kaiser’s army back in 1918, he got gassed by British troops. That personal experience certainly didn’t stop him from using chemical weapons to kill millions of people in concentration camps. There are pictures of rooms in those camps that are stained iron blue all over because so much hydrogen cyanide was used in them. The pictures are horrifying, which is why I didn’t link them here, but I can promise you that these rooms are very, very blue.
While Hitler never deployed chemical weapons on the battlefield, Germany was stockpiling them like crazy. After the war, they dumped them into the ocean, where they are now haunting modern Europe. That’s because the chemicals are oozing out onto the seabed. Even when chemical weapons aren’t being used to kill soldiers, they’re still causing trouble.
8. The World’s Stockpile
I’m glad we touched upon chemical weapons stockpile because we need to talk about the world’s stockpiles. You might not have heard of the Chemical Weapons Convention before, but by the end of this, you’ll be thankful for them. Back in 2000, the Convention kicked off efforts to get rid of the 72,524 metric tons of chemical agents, 8.67 million chemical munitions and containers, and 97 production facilities that were declared to OPCW. All empty munitions needed to be gone by 2002, and by 2007, 100% of the stuff needed to be gone. As of October 2016, 67,098 of 72,524 (93%) tons of chemical agent is gone, and more than 57% (4.97 million) of chemical munitions are gone as well. However, as we all learned recently, just because a stockpile is being destroyed doesn’t mean that chemical weapons can’t still be used.
7. The World’s Population
The world’s population lives under the law of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Well, at least 98% of it does, anyway. There are four countries who have yet to ratify the treaty, but one country, Israel, has signed it. Every country signed and ratified the treaty on different days spanning over decades, but at least they did it and are working to stop the use of chemical weapons. There are some Johnny-come-lately countries like Myanmar and Angola, but late is better than never. As for the other three, they’re not on the list, and the names of these countries won’t surprise you. The three countries who have yet to ratify or sign the Chemical Weapons Convention are Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan. Syria is actually on the list and made it there in 2013, and Assad said that he’d observe the treaty immediately rather than wait 30 days like the treaty said. Clearly, that hasn’t stopped him from using them, though.
6. The Chemical Weapons Convention
We spent some time talking about the Chemical Weapons ban, but we kind of glossed over the Convention itself. The Chemical Weapons Convention has been a thing for a while now and is way more complicated than the 1925 Geneva Convention, which many countries still observe to this day and is kind of wishy-washy on this subject. The CWC started talking about this back in 1980 and got the ban signed in 1993 and entered into force in 1997. The CWC is still open, too, so the four countries who have yet to get on board with the ban still can at any point. The organization that implements this ban is called the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is the entity to whom the countries on this list declared their chemical weapons. They’re the people who investigate who’s following the convention and who isn’t.
5. Syria And Chemical Weapons
One country that’s certainly not following the rules is Syria. If you’re not up on the news right now, you might have missed that Syrian President Bashar Assad, the guy who said he’d follow the CWC immediately and not after thirty days, unleashed a chemical attack on his own people living in the town of Khan Shaykin, which was under the control of the al-Nusra front at the time. The attack (likely caused by sarin gas) killed 74 people, injured at least 557, and is more than likely the deadliest use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war thus far. The images that have come out since then have been horrifying, which is why we’ve elected not to show them here. The Assad government said they didn’t do it, but both the UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson and American President Donald Trump are attributing the attack to him.
4. Obama’s Red Line
Since the Syrian Civil War, the United States has been a little lost when it comes to how to deal with it. President Obama, for his part, stayed out of it during his time at the White House, barring one very controversial speech in 2012 about a red line. “We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” Obama told reporters at the White House. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime — but also to other players on the ground — that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation.” When chemical weapons came up after that in Syria, Obama backed down. This caused many people to say that he walked back his comments or somehow didn’t mean them, but he was clearly moving towards some sort of action in 2013: the problem was that this ultimate inaction would shape the events to come. That being said, Obama clearly has a security clearance we don’t, and there’s probably a reason why he walked those comments back.
3. President Trump’s Red Line
We have a new President now, and as much as it annoys me to have to say it, Donald Trump is the man in charge now. Back when Obama was in charge of the show, Donald Trump felt really strongly about not getting involved with Syria, because Russia was already there on the ground with them. That all changed when this attack went down. Reports came out quickly that Trump had been deeply shaken and horrified by the images coming out of Syria in the wake of the attack, and he’d also been influenced by the heartbreak of his daughter Ivanka. Assad’s attack caused Trump to spring into action, firing weapons at the base that the attack allegedly came from. The attack seemed to come from nowhere because of the total surprise of it, which was an element he seemed to think was important during the presidential debates with Hillary Clinton a few months ago. It can be argued that his about-face on the issue of Syria comes from the fact that he’s feeling the chains of commanding now that he has Obama’s job. However, every Trump voter who was discouraged by Hillary Clinton’s changing opinions over the course of a decades-long political career might not have much of a leg to stand on anymore.
2. The Aftermath
This caused the US to spiral into a panic because of the unanswered questions. Was the US going to roll into Syria and into war? Would Russia, an ally of Syria’s, fire back? Was Trump trying to distract the media and the people from the controversies surrounding his presidency? How constitutional was the attack? Did our President just walk the country into war completely on his own? Only Congress can declare war, after all. The country was split. Some thought that this was the first real Presidential decision that Donald Trump made on his own, and that this action alone should exonerate him from any charges of colluding with the Russians because he’d just bombed an ally of theirs. Others thought that the actions taken were rash and dangerous, and could potentially drag the US into a war that they don’t need to be in. On top of that, the relationship with the US and Russia is at its worst since the end of the Cold War, which is a pretty hard thing to do. According to Vladimir Putin, the rebels fighting against Assad staged the attack to frame him, and the US acted upon a fake attack.
1. What Comes Next?
There’s really no way to know what comes next. Trump made an announcement on April 11th (the time of this writing) saying that the United States isn’t going into Syria and that he blames the previous administration for their inaction. “When I see people using horrible, horrible chemical weapons which they agreed not to use under the Obama administration, but they violated it,” he said to FOX Business’ Maria Bartiromo, “what I did should have been done by the Obama administration a long time before I did it. And I think Syria would be a lot better off than it has been.”
While we can all breathe a little easier knowing we’re not going to war right now, there’s no way to know how this situation is going to evolve. This conflict in Syria has been a shadow on the world stage for six years now, and considering how things are escalating, there’s no telling how bad things will get before they start to get better. No matter how you feel about former President Obama and President Trump’s handling of the situation, you have to agree that chemical weapons in any form are a truly horrifying way of hurting people on a mass scale. While we can debate on guns and other assault weapons forever, and we have, chemical weapons shouldn’t be a debate: they’re always terrible. The sooner we get rid of chemical weapons in a way that won’t kill our oceans in the process, the better off we’ll all be.