A Syrian soldier aiming an AK-47 while wearing a chemical warfare mask. (Photo via)
Chemical warfare is actually pretty rare. When Syrian government forces allegedly attacked rebels in Ghouta with nerve agents last month, it was the first major recorded use of chemical warfare in a quarter of a century. The previous time was the bombing of Halabja, Iraq, by Saddam Hussein in 1988, which killed roughly 5,000 people. Before that, chemical weapons only really saw the light of day in the Iran-Iraq war, the Yemeni civil war, and both World Wars.
However, as little as they've been used in the grand scheme of things, their deployment in Syria wasn't a huge surprise. The civil war-torn country is one of only seven nations in the world that still refuses to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. And while everyone else was getting rid of their reserves, establishing their use as a "red line for the world," Assad and his regime kept themselves busy loading up on precursor chemicals and building one of the largest chemical weapons arsenals in the world.
One of the main problems with chemical weapons is that in relative terms they're incredibly easy to make. Mustard gas and chlorine could probably be whipped up by some of Walter White’s more attentive students, and even the ingredients for Sarin aren’t too difficult to obtain, although actually making the stuff is trickier. Pretty much any country with a laboratory and a competent chemist can get hold of all the toxic gases and nerve agents they want, though. So, considering the number of abjectly immoral, lawless, and evil people in the world, why aren’t they used more?
The answer is that, today, they're not a particularly effective way of killing people. Chemical warfare came of age in the First World War, in many ways the ideal environment for it to thrive—soldiers back then were sitting ducks, massed together in low-lying trenches, static targets for weeks or months at a time. The technology of death was rapidly improving too; chlorine gas was quickly surpassed by phosgene and later mustard gas, each horrible in its own way. Chlorine reacted with water in the lungs to form hydrochloric acid, while mustard gas damaged membranes and inflicted terrible chemical burns across the skin. Advances in chemistry were matched by improvements in ballistics and flight, allowing chemical munitions to be accurately targeted and deployed for the first time. Chemical weapons had the potential to reshape the battlefield.
That was the theory at least, and at the Battle of Loos in September 1915 the British tested it for the first time. Under the command of General Sir Douglas Haig, 5,500 cylinders holding 150 tons of chlorine were deployed in front of the front line. Clouds of poisonous gas were produced… only to promptly drift back over the British left flank when the winds changed. In spite of that snag, the attack had a largely positive impact from a British perspective; the Germans had no real experience with defending against gas attacks and it shook them up. If the British had kept enough men in reserve, they could have gained significant ground, assuming those men weren't among those who were inadvertently gassed. It was considered a success—sort of.
The Battle of Loos highlighted a number of problems that still exist today, as Omar Lamrani at the Stratfor think tank explained to me. “Chemical weapons are very difficult to use effectively," he said. "Ideal conditions and perfect handling are necessary for the weapons to inflict the maximum damage they are potentially capable of.” Even the slightest change in wind, dampness, or sunlight can hugely affect their potency. Some forms of mustard gas freeze at 58 degrees, and I’m not sure applying a decorative frosting to your enemies will get you very far in a war.
Installing 5,500 gas cylinders ahead of your front line isn’t exactly a piece of cake, either. “Perfect delivery methods are also difficult to enact," Lamrani told me, "given that the most common means of delivery—artillery, rockets, bombs, missiles—often destroy a significant percentage of the chemical agent." And if your troops are on the same battlefield, there’s a real risk of exposing them, too.
When Saddam Hussein dropped chemical weapons on Halabja in 1988, he had the advantage of an air force, but even then it took hours of bombing runs to build up a large enough concentration of gas on the ground. That might be feasible when you’re bombing your own civilians, but it’s not a good strategy against anyone with decent anti-aircraft weapons.
Then, of course, there are the counter-measures. Civilian gas masks are actually pretty useless, but modern armies are relatively well equipped to deal with chemical attacks, and have been since the First World War. The main problem is the cumbersome protection required—both for those targeted by the weapons and those doing the targeting—which can severely restrict mobility and situational awareness. In the words of the official British history of World War I, "gas achieved but local success, nothing decisive; it made war uncomfortable, to no purpose".
So why do regimes bother with the stuff? “Arsenals of chemical weapons, such as Syria’s, are primarily acquired for deterrence purposes against an outside force,” said Lamrani. “They often act as the equivalent of a ’poor man's nuke.’ Given the massive potential for collateral damage, they are often resorted to by a regime in desperate situations or in cases when territory has already been effectively seized by an opposing force.”
In other words, chemical weapons are instruments of fear. When Hussein bombed Halabja, his intention wasn’t to seize the town, but to eradicate it. Once the residents had died or fled, the land was razed and soil and ground water were contaminated for years after. Similarly, Assad’s attack on Ghouta wasn’t a decisive strike against rebel forces, but an act of indiscriminate terror inflicted on a rebel-held suburb by a desperate and cowardly ruler sensing his own mortality.
“Chemical weapons are primarily a psychological weapon," explained Lamrani. “Some of the nerve agents are not visible and do not have an odor, so—as you can imagine—one can feel quite defenseless against such a weapon.” Still, acts of terror will always be limited as a tool to control people. “No general civilian population has ever been completely pacified through the use of chemical weapons alone.”
The city of Halabja was completely destroyed by Saddam’s forces, but by the following year a huddle of shacks had appeared—“sheds with tarp roofs," wrote the New York Times. Soon, the huts were replaced with more permanent structures, and now several thousand homes stand on the site of Halabja Taza, a.k.a. New Halabja. The city lives on, while Saddam lies dead and buried. The odds are that Ghouta will outlive Assad, too—another testament to the resilience of people and the ultimate futility of chemical warfare.
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Martin Robbins is a writer and talker who blogs about weird and wonderful things for the Guardian and New Statesman. Here Be Dragons is a column that explores denial, conflict and mystery at the wild fringes of science and human understanding. Find him on Twitter @mjrobbins, or email tips and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.