History of chemical weapons full of horror; international community deplores their use

History of chemical weapons full of horror; international community deplores their use

Damascus : Syria | Dec 05, 2012 at 9:45 AM PST
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Israel accused Syria of allowing weapons to pass across the Syria-Lebanon border

NATO and the US have issued a warning to Syria: Do not use chemical weapons.

The possibility that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad could use chemical weapons against opposition forces in Syria has led the US Senate to signal President Obama and America's NATO allies to study options for intervention, including the establishment of a no-fly zone. A recent opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor suggests that a no-fly zone is a better option than directly arming the divided rebel forces in Syria.

Geneva Protocol

The Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, usually called the Geneva Protocol, prohibits the first use of chemical and biological weapons. It was signed at Geneva on June 17, 1925, and came into force on Feb. 8, 1928, and was registered in The League of Nations Treaty Series in 1929.

World War I

Chemical weaponry was considered uncivilized before World War I; however, its use by wartime armies overcame the stalemate of trench warfare. While chemical weapons were nothing new to war, World War I was the first time they figured prominently in battle strategy in modern times. They were used by both sides, to varying degrees, according to a Stanford study:

  • In late 1914, German scientist Fritz Haber came up with the idea of creating a cloud of poison gas by using thousands of cylinders filled with chlorine. Deployed in April of 1915 during the battle for Ypres, France, the attack might have broken the Allied lines if German troops had understood how to follow up the gas attack.
  • By late 1915, Allied troops made their own chlorine gas attacks. It led to a race for more and more toxic chemicals. Germany came up with diphosgene gas; the French tried cyanide gas.
  • In July 1917, Germany introduced mustard gas, which burned the skin as well as the lungs.
  • Biological warfare was generally less successful. Most of these efforts focused on infecting enemy livestock with anthrax or glanders.

The Geneva Protocol’s institution was the result of the use of chlorine gas by the Germans in World War I. Although they were not the first to use it, they were the ones to further its use.

While the protocol forbade the use of chemical and biological weapons, it was not until 1972 that the production and transfer of chemicals were addressed.

Chemical Weapons Convention

In 1992, The Chemical Weapons Convention was drafted and has been amended several times since then. Most recently, in 2001, the destruction activities are verified by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. As of then, about 71 percent of the officially declared stockpile of chemical weapons had been destroyed. As Wikipedia notes, "The convention also has provisions for systematic evaluation of chemical and military plants, as well as for investigations of allegations of use and production of chemical weapons based on intelligence of other state parties."

Wikipedia continues:

The OPCW administers the terms of the CWC to 188 signatories which represents 98% of the global population. Of the stockpiles, 44,131 of the 71,194 tons declared (61.99%) have been destroyed. The OPCW has conducted 4,167 inspections at 195 chemical weapon-related and 1,103 industrial sites. These inspections have affected the sovereign territory of 81 States Parties since April 1997. Worldwide, 4,913 industrial facilities are subject to inspection provisions.

Syria is one of only eight states which are not party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. However, it is party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, prohibiting the use of chemical weapons in war.

The eight states that did not sign are: Syria, Angola, Burma (Myanmar), Egypt, Israel, North Korea, Somalia, and South Sudan.

Syrian officials have stated that they feel it appropriate to have some deterrent against Israel's similarly non-admitted Weapons of Mass Destruction program. On July 23, 2012, the Syrian government acknowledged for the first time that it had chemical weapons.

Independent assessments indicate that Syrian production could be up to a combined total of a few hundred tons of chemical agent per year. Syria reportedly manufactures Sarin, Tabun, VX, and mustard gas types of chemical weapons. Mustard gas was also used in WWI.

Syrian chemical weapons production facilities have been identified by Western nonproliferation experts at approximately five sites, plus one suspected weapons base.

History of chemical weaponry

Chemical weaponry has been used for centuries, and the first most likely was “Greek Fire,” which was first used in the 7th century. It was an incendiary weapon used by the Byzantine Empire. They typically used it in naval battles with great effect as it would continue to burn while floating on water. It was the technical advantage and was responsible for many Byzantine victories including saving Constantinople from Arab sieges securing the Empires survival.

According to Wikipedia, re-creations of the Greek Fire mechanism indicate the following:

  • It burned on water, and, according to some interpretations, was ignited by water. In addition, as numerous writers testify, it could be extinguished only by a few substances, such as sand (which deprived it of oxygen), strong vinegar, or old urine, presumably by some sort of chemical reaction.
  • It was a liquid substance, and not some sort of projectile, as verified both by descriptions and the very name "liquid fire."
  • At sea, it was usually ejected from siphons, although earthenware pots or grenades filled with it or similar substances were also used.
  • The discharge of Greek fire was accompanied by "thunder" and "much smoke.”

It was a formidable weapon composed of simple ingredients. According to "A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder" by J.R. Partington:

“From the pine and certain such evergreen trees inflammable resin is collected. This is rubbed with sulphur and put into tubes of reed, and is blown by men using it with violent and continuous breath. Then in this manner it meets the fire on the tip and catches light and falls like a fiery whirlwind on the faces of the enemies."


The use of Greek Fire eventually fell out of favor as the opposing sides adapted themselves to it by staying out of its effective range and devising methods of protection. Escalation is an ever-present threat in warfare, as exhibited in ancient and modern times.

As World War I proved, the use of chemical weapons is not only inhumane but also risks escalation of confrontations among warring factions and causes massive injury and death. In John Singer Sergeant’s painting "Gassed," illustrated here, it portrays the aftermath of a gas attack in World War I. Soldiers lay dead, and even survivors are severely wounded, with bandages covering their eyes and their mucous membranes vulnerable to poison gas.

This is the reality of use of chemical weapons. Syria and any other country that threatens to use these barbaric tactics are abominable and justify condemnation and intervention by the international community. Syria is particularly despicable as they threaten to use chemicals against their own people.

If the international community is going to confront nuclear weapon proliferation in earnest, the use of chemical weaponry by some countries will have to be addressed in tandem. Weapons of mass destruction in either production or delivery have no place in an enlightened global community.

Sources and Resources:







Additonal sources linked to in text.

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WWI painting
John Singer Sargent's painting "Gassed" portrays the aftermath of soldiers being gassed with chemical weapons in WWI.
Dava Castillo is based in Clearlake, California, United States of America, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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