Chemical Warfare in Syria and Chemical Terrorism: The Clinical Perspective

Alexander Garza, MD, MPH


September 18, 2013

In This Article

History of Chemical Weapons

Use of chemicals in warfare dates back to the trenches of World War I. In 1914, Fritz Haber, a Prussian chemist, suggested using chlorine gas to dislodge fighters on the battlefield. This culminated in a chlorine gas release at Ypres on April 15, 1915. Soon both sides of the conflict escalated their use of chemicals as a means of war. By the end of World War I, chemical warfare included the use of chlorine, mustard gas, and phosgene. The deadly results included over 1 million injuries and more than 90,000 deaths.

Because of the horrendous deaths in World War I, the 1925 Geneva Protocol was created, specifically prohibiting the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield. Unfortunately, chemical weapons continued to be developed for hostile use. Gerhard Schrader, a German chemist, while working on more potent pesticides, discovered sarin, as well as tabun and soman. These chemicals were adopted by the German military for offensive use but were never used in warfare. They are referred to in the military as the "G" agents because of their origins in "Germany" (sarin's military moniker is "GB"). After World War II, the British developed the agent amiton, which was subsequently dubbed "VX." These agents are collectively known as organophosphates because of their chemical composition. They are also described as "nerve agents" because of their effect on the nervous system as a means of incapacitation.

Both the US and Soviet militaries developed offensive chemical weapons stockpiles during the Cold War. However, despite the escalation in capabilities and stockpiles, the use of chemical weapons has (thankfully) been very infrequent. In 1983, during the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein, then president of Iraq, used mustard gas to repel the Iranian army, which outnumbered his own. This attack elicited a limited response from the international community, and as a result, Hussein, feeling emboldened, proceeded to use the nerve agent sarin against Iran in March 1984. Hussein's most blatant use of chemical weapons, however, was against the population of Halabja in 1988 as a means to quell the restive Kurdish enclave. Over 5000 people died in this attack and, sadly, again there was limited international response.

The United States claims that there have been multiple instances of use of chemical weapons on the Syrian battlefield, with the most significant attack occurring on August 21, 2013, in a suburb of Damascus. Reports from Syria indicate that this attack was perpetrated by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a physician by training, with the purpose of dislodging rebel fighters from entrenched positions. The United States further reports that the chemical used was sarin, the highly toxic nerve agent, and that this attack resulted in over 1400 casualties, including 400 children. A United Nations inspection team was dispatched to Damascus to retrieve samples and conduct interviews to ascertain whether chemical weapons were used.

Syria is presently not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), has a well-established partnership with Russian military, and has a known offensive chemical weapons program. Recently, in order to avoid potential military strikes by the United States, Syria has offered to become a signatory nation to the CWC, surrender all of its chemical weapons, and subject itself to inspections. Whether this proposal becomes reality remains to be seen.


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