The use of chemicals in warfare is almost as old as warfare itself; centuries before scientific advancement was able to produce man-made chemicals on an industrial scale, the Ancient civilisations of China, India and Greece were experimenting with ‘organic gases’ derived from toxic vegetables with a view to them being weapons. One of the earliest recorded uses of chemical weapons dates from the third century (AD) siege of Dura Europos, when bitumen and sulphur crystals were lit to create lethal sulphur dioxide smoke deployed against the invading Roman army. There’s a sad irony to the location of this landmark event – modern-day Syria.
Yesterday’s chemical incident in Khan Shiekhoun in the Indlib province of Northern Syria so far has a body count of 52 adults and 20 children; it is the first widely reported example of chemical warfare in Syria since the appalling 2013 massacre in Ghouta, which left hundreds dead. Once again, President Assad denies responsibility; his invaluable ally Russia admitted that Syrian aircraft bombed areas of Khan Shiekhoun, but attributes the deaths to the unintended striking of a rebel chemical weapons factory. Few are buying this story, with one chemical weapons expert rubbishing the idea a nerve gas could have spread in the way it did via an airstrike on a factory producing it.
News footage of those fleeing the attack shows symptoms consistent with exposure to nerve agents, choking and foaming at the mouth; some witnesses also claim the hospitals where the victims were being treated were then targeted by government airstrikes. There’s nothing quite like kicking somebody when they’re down, is there? The evidence of chemical weapons being used once more in the Syrian conflict is undeniable, though nobody wants to claim responsibility, least of all Assad.
The chemical in question is suspected to be sarin, production and stockpiling of which was outlawed twenty years ago. As a substance, it’s so nasty that even a small dose can kill; it’s estimated that sarin in its purest form is 26 times more lethal than bloody cyanide. The time it takes to do the business depends on the extent of inhalation, but the average is stated as being between one and ten minutes. Even a non-lethal dose can inflict potentially permanent neurological damage, whereas death by sarin is especially gruesome. After the runny nose, tight chest, inability to breathe, nausea and drooling come vomiting and involuntary defecation and urination, followed by the final comatose condition which ends with suffocation via convulsive spasms – and all within the space of ten minutes. As far as a way to go goes, it’s fair to say there are less horrible endings one could endure.
We have the development of modern chemistry in the nineteenth century to thank for chemical warfare as we recognise it today, though it was inevitable any scientific breakthrough would be utilised by man for malignant means. During the Crimean War, the Secretary of the Science and Art Department (yes, there really was one), the wonderfully-named Lyon Playfair, proposed the manufacture of cyanide artillery shells because he seemingly thought it a more humane way of killing the enemy. His proposal was rejected, though the horrific potential of chemical weaponry caused such concern that the Hague Declaration of 1899 attempted to outlaw the use of projectiles ‘the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases’. All the major powers ratified the declaration except the US.
However, neither the Hague Declaration of 1899 nor the Hague Convention of 1907 prevented the use of chemical weaponry in the First World War. The French initiated the practice, swiftly followed by the Germans; by the end of the Great War, it’s estimated around 1.3 million casualties could be attributed to chemical warfare. Between the wars, and despite the damage done by chemical weapons, gas was used to suppress native rebellions in European colonies as well as during the Russian Civil War, though the 1925 Geneva Protocol pledged to never use gas in warfare again. The Western allies upheld this during the Second World War and even Nazi Germany refrained from it, though the Japanese had used it against Chinese forces before 1939.
The fear of gas being used in WWII led to the widespread distribution of gasmasks and it has subsequently been revealed that mustard gas was stockpiled in the event of a German invasion of Britain. It was also intended to be used by RAF Bomber Command should the Germans have resorted to it to repel the D-Day Landings. Thankfully, none of these scenarios arose, though post-war uses of chemical weapons were said to have occurred in the likes of North Yemen, Rhodesia, Vietnam and Angola before its resurgence during the Iran-Iraq War.
The return of chemical warfare in such a high-profile conflict as Syria has shocked the world, though in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Assad was clearly so desperate to cling onto power that it appeared he would stoop to anything. The support of Russia in this clinging onto power has enabled Assad to stay put; and when he again resorts to tactics that are below the belt even in such a bloody warzone as Syria, Assad knows Putin’s backseat driving is his greatest asset.
Russia has the power to veto any resolution on the issue by the UN Security Council, claiming a draft resolution already proposed would pre-empt the results of any investigation into the incident and automatically lay the blame at the door of its Syrian sidekick. Heaven forbid! If, as most outside of Russia believe, Assad is capable of using chemical weapons on his own people, he’s hardly unique amongst dictators; a certain sadistic despot in Iraq did likewise a few years ago, after all. But when the world’s attention seems permanently focused on Syria, it does seem remarkable that Assad (if indeed he is guilty) can get away with such a crime again; but he got away with it before.
© The Editor