Chemical weapons and war: the growing threat

Unconventional warfare helped Assad triumph in Syria and could be the deadly game changer for Putin in Ukraine.

Two British machine gunners wearing gas masks in Battle of the Somme.
Two British machine gunners wearing gas masks in Battle of the Somme. Credit: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo.

President Assad of Syria was on the brink of defeat nine years ago when, in an apparent last throw of the dice, he ordered a massive chemical attack on 21 August 2013 and stopped the rebel advance in its tracks. It was an incredible strategic risk, but a piece of brinkmanship, as the West blinked and the red line which President Barack Obama famously drew around the use of chemical weapons faded. Assad sent a signal out to every dictator, despot, rogue state, and terror group that chemical and biological weapons were no longer the great taboo. The West’s lack of action no doubt emboldened President Putin to invade Ukraine, anticipating similar ambivalence from NATO and its allies

Chemical weapons were first use at the second battle of Ypres in April 1915.  The Germans released canisters of chlorine which initially had a devastating effect on Allied troops who had no protection such as gas masks. The First World War became synonymous with the use of gas and horrified all, such to the extent they were banned by the Geneva Protocols in 1925. However, it was not until 1993 that the majority of nations ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention and funded the Organisation for the prohibition of Chemical Weapons to police the convention. Hitler developed a huge stockpile of ever more deadly chemical weapons but never directly used them against Allied troops. The most plausible reason, as he did gas many millions of Jews in the Holocaust, is that he feared the Allies responding in kind on the battlefield, or in the later stages of the war he suspected the Allies had the Atomic bomb, which they might use to destroy the Third Reich if he used chemical weapons.

Chemical weapons were unused for around seventy years until the Iran/Iraq war 1984-88, where they were used extensively by both sides, and then infamously at Halabja in Northern Iraq where Saddam Hussein killed over 12,000 Kurds on 16 March 1988.  It was then over twenty years, until the Syrian conflict and the fight with ISIS that they were used extensively by President Assad and the Jihadists.

The ready availability of toxic industrial chemicals (TICs) and the ease with which synthetic biology is able to weaponise pathogens has brought these tools of destruction to the hands of bad actors around the globe. The psychological impact of chemical weapons is ten times the physical, and the use of fairly innocuous TICs, such as chlorine and cyanide, by the Syrian regime and ISIS underwrites their effectiveness.

TICs are unregulated in most countries, with few challenges to those who would use them for nefarious activities. When it comes to non-state actors, chemical weapon use is likely to be characterised by TICs and perhaps easy-to-make products such as mustard agent. ISIS has used both in Syria and Iraq. The attack on the chemical plant at the Al Mishraq Sulpur mine and complex in 2016 is the starkest example. At one point, there was a toxic cloud of 400,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide heading towards Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, with a population of more than a million.

The Chemical Weapons Convention, policed by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has removed most proscribed chemical weapons from the globe, and is well funded and well supported by most members of the UN. Conversely, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention is poorly funded and under-supported at the UN and has no organisation to regulate and police it — a huge concern with 4,000 labs and one million scientists unregulated and unpoliced, some of them in rogue states, where deadly pathogens could be developed for nefarious means.

It is highly likely that some of these rogue states have offensive chemical weapons programmes. This appears particularly the case with Russia, which conducted the Salisbury nerve agent attack on 4 March 2018 on British soil and, if we believe (I do) open-source investigators such as Bellingcat, still appears to be developing fourth generation nerve agents. There is huge concern in Ukraine that if Putin’s conventional warfare continues to be found wanting, he will turn to unconventional warfare, which may include chemical and nuclear weapons. The Russians have already, in effect, created an improvised nuclear weapon by targeting the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station and we have seen Russian troops deliberately attack chemical factories in Ukraine to create what amount to improvised chemical weapons.

The bottom line is that chemical weapons are morbidly brilliant for fighting in built up areas, and the psychological terror they impart is exactly what terror groups and dictators look for in a weapon. The four-year conventional attack on Aleppo was decisively broken and won by Assad by using multiple chlorine barrel bombs in December 2016. This tactic also worked to end the five-year siege of Ghouta in 2017 and the six-year siege of Douma in 2018. The Syrian conflict shows that if you have no morals or scruples, chemical weapons are the solution. When conventional bombs and bullets have reduced towns and cities to rubble, civilians and fighters can hide among and under the rubble, almost impervious to further bombardment. ‘Gas’, however, sinks underground and either kills families in their shelters or forces them above ground, as in Aleppo, to be hit by bombs and bullets. It is the civilians who suffer most, with no gas masks or other means to protect themselves. Chemical weapons break the will of civilians to resist and forces them to hand victory to the attackers — and for the attackers, this risk is, of course, worth taking if there is no punitive action expected.

If the Russians now see Novichok as a key strategic and tactical weapon that they would very likely use in any confrontation with the West, we all have some catching up to do. The threat of tactical nuclear weapons and the weaponisation of nuclear power stations in Ukraine is a similarly worrying portent.

The chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threat has dramatically changed in the last ten years, from very low probability but high impact, to high probability and high impact. We have seen in the conflict in Syria and the war in Ukraine that aggressors such as Assad and Putin regard attacking the civilian population as the best way to defeat an army. Once civilians have lost the will to resist, the end is in sight. This immoral and illegal method of warfare focuses on terrifying the general public, and is best done by directly targeting schools and hospitals and using unconventional weapons, including improvised chemical and nuclear weapons.

Today, more than at any time since the end of the Second World War, it is essential that the free world stands up to these dictators and terror groups, and once again draws a solid red line on the use of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.


Hamish de Bretton-Gordon