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Rethinking Chemical Weapons

It’s highly unlikely that the Syrian military has used chemical weapons in its ongoing fight against foreign-backed jihadists, but if it had, would use of the weapons be uniquely reprehensible, and would it justify an intervention?

“You mention chemical weapons, people immediately freeze and are irrational.”–Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commanding officer of the British army’s chemical weapons unit.*

June 27, 2015
Updated July 18, 2015 and August 14, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

There are two problems with the way we think about chemical weapons. The first is the idea that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets, shrapnel, and explosives. This position is both intellectually and morally indefensible. The second is our belief that chemical weapons are weapons of mass destruction (WMD). They are not. In fact, they’re no more WMD than are bullets and machetes. [1]

Before elaborating on these points, let me address the question of whether the Syrian Army has used chemical weapons. This article is not a defense of the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces, because I don’t believe the Syrian Army has used them. If it had, I would defend the army’s use of these weapons, but there’s no reason to believe they have been used, and compelling reasons to believe they haven’t. It’s impossible, of course, to say definitively that Syrian forces haven’t used chemical weapons; negatives can’t be proved. But there are compelling political and military reasons that can be cited that any reasonable person would concede amount to formidable constraints on the Syrian military that would prevent it from using chemical weapons. These constraints make the allegations against Syrian forces unconvincing. Plus, there’s no hard evidence, only allegations by states with a record of placing fabrications on the public record as pretexts for illegal aggressions against nationalist, socialist, communist and anti-imperialist governments. As an Arab nationalist state, with a significant public sector, and an independent foreign policy, Syria is a prime target for aggression by the United States, its allies, and its proxies.

Chemical weapons, as will be shown below, are highly ineffective. It’s difficult to conceive of when they would be used when bullets, conventional ordnance, missiles and jet fighters are at hand. Militarily, there are no compelling reasons for the Syrian military to use chemical weapons. This logic is all the stronger in the case of chlorine gas which is more an annoyance (its makes people sick, and rarely kills) than a credible weapon. [2]

Additionally, it made no sense politically for Syrian forces to deploy chemical weapons once their use became a red line drawn by US President Barack Obama. Since the US leader promised that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces would trigger missile strikes, any possibility of their use became severely constrained. And since there were no compelling military reasons to use them, allegations that the Syrian military did, indeed, use them are unconvincing in the extreme.

The recent allegation that Syrian forces are using chlorine gas-filled barrel bombs dropped from helicopters suffers from the same lack of credibility. The political reasons against using chlorine gas remain the same as those that militate against the use of banned chemical weapons. And the military reasons that act as restraints on their use are even stronger, since chlorine gas rarely kills. [3]

Let’s acknowledge, then, that the Syrian military almost certainly hasn’t used chemical weapons in Syria in the last four years, and almost certainly isn’t mounting chlorine gas attacks today. Instead, let’s turn to the following questions:

• Are chemical weapons more reprehensible than other weapons?
• Are they legitimately WMD?
• Where did the concept of WMD come from?
• What role, if any, does the concept play in selling Western foreign policy goals to the public?

The idea that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets, shrapnel, or explosives is untenable. Why is choking to death from gas inhalation inhumane, while bleeding to death from a bullet wound, being crushed to death by a collapsed building struck by a missile, or being incinerated in an explosion, morally acceptable? Why is killing hundreds of people with sarin or mustard gas bad, when killing a hundred-fold more people through sanctions and economic blockade and their attendant hunger and disease, is all right? In this perverted moral calculus, what matters, it seems, is not the weapon, per se, but who’s wielding it. Our unique weapons are all right. Their unique weapons are morally repugnant. This double standard is glimpsed in the condemnation by Western human rights NGOs of the Palestinians’ home-made rockets as indiscriminate and therefore criminal under international law and the acceptance of Israel’s missiles and bombs as “precise” and therefore acceptable under the rules of war. The trouble is that the “morally repugnant” Palestinian rockets kill few Israelis while the Israeli’s “morally acceptable” precise weapons kill many Palestinians. [4]

To have any meaning at all, the concept of WMD must include weapons that kill massive numbers of people, and exclude those that don’t. A single atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed 70,000 people. [5] By contrast, a rocket with a typical payload of nerve gas will kill between 108 and 290 people if delivered under ideal weather conditions (overcast skies with no wind) over a heavily populated area against unprotected people. If there is a moderate wind or the sun is out, the death rate will be 11 to 29 people. [6] WMD kill tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, not tens or hundreds.

Compared to the single atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, a single rocket with a typical chemical weapons payload perfectly delivered against unprotected people will produce a fatality rate less than one-half of one percent as great under ideal conditions, and less than one-twentieth of one percent as great under realistic conditions. Against those with gas masks, or who have taken shelter indoors, the fatality rate will be infinitesimally small.

In WWI, it took 70,000 tons of gas to produce as many fatalities as were produced in Hiroshima by a single atom bomb. [7]

For the aforesaid reasons, defining chemical weapons as WMD is highly dubious unless the concept is so diluted that bullets and machetes are also included. [8] In large quantities, chemical weapons can kill many people. But in large quantities, bullets and machetes can kill many people, too.

Chemical weapons were introduced by the Germans in 1915. They accounted for less than one percent of battle deaths in WWI. Only 2-3 percent of those gassed on the Western front died, while the fatality rate among those struck by bullets or shrapnel was 10 to 12 times higher. It took a ton of gas to produce a single fatality. After the war, some military analysts argued that gas was comparatively humane—it incapacitated troops without killing them. [9]

Iraq made extensive use of chemical weapons in its war against Iran in the 1980s—to little outside protest. At the time, Iraq was fighting a US enemy, Iran, with US assistance. Hence, for the United States and its allies, chemical weapons were all right—even though they were largely ineffective. Of 27,000 Iranian soldiers gassed, only 268 died—one in 100. [10]

Baghdad’s chemical weapons attack on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 is held up as an example of the weapons’ extensive destructive power. The attack is said to have produced 5,000 deaths. However, even if we accept this estimate as reasonable, it isn’t in the tens of thousands, as would be expected from a true WMD, like an atom bomb, but is in the low thousands. And there’s reason to believe that even this number is over-estimated. The source of the estimate was Iranian authorities, who had an interest in exaggerating the number of fatalities, because they were engaged in a conflict with Iraq and were providing aid to the Kurds. Journalists visiting the town after the attack reported seeing hundreds, not thousands, of dead. And the town had been under siege for several days and bombarded by conventional artillery.
Conventional weapons likely accounted for some fraction of the fatalities, and perhaps a large fraction. [11]

A Human Rights Watch report on Iraqi chemical weapon attacks in Iraqi Kurdish areas during the 1980s cited two attacks in which it is suggested that 300-400 may have been killed (again hundreds, and not tens of thousands of fatalities), while estimates for other attacks are under 100, and most are under 20. [12]

The release of sarin gas into a Japanese subway station in 1995 killed only 12 people. [13]

In August 2013, a chemical weapons attack took place in the Syrian town of Ghouta. Fatality estimates range from the low hundreds to low thousands, not tens of thousands. [14]

Thousands were killed in the 1984 Bhopal tragedy in India. This is sometimes cited as an example of the massive destructive power of chemical agents. But 40 tons of toxic gas was released into a heavily populated area after an explosion at a chemical plant, and no chemical weapon carries a payload of 40 tons. [15] To be sure, chemical weapons can be highly destructive if used in massive quantities, but so too can bombs and incendiaries, as witness the tens of thousands of deaths caused by the fire-bombings of Dresden, Hamburg and Tokyo in WWII.


The idea that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets and shrapnel comes out of WWI. The Germans were the first to introduce gas in 1915 and the British emphasized the inhuman aspects to try to draw the United States into the war on their side. [16] The British used the deception—to be used by many other states subsequently–that their weapons were humane while the weapons uniquely used by the other side were inhumane. That this was wrong is starkly illustrated by the following: Eighty thousand soldiers died from gas in WWI. Even if all of these fatalities were British, the number would pale in comparison with the hundreds of thousands, and possibly as many as 750,000 German civilians who perished from hunger and disease as a result of Britain’s deployment of its main weapon against Germany—a blockade intended to starve the country into surrender. [17]

Initially, WMD was a term to denote nuclear weapons or weapons of similar destructive capacity that might be developed in the future. [18] In 1989, George HW Bush departed from this convention, using the term WMD in an address to the UN in connection with chemical weapons. [19]

In 1990, on the eve of the Gulf War, the White House began to talk of Iraq as “an emergent regional superpower, bristling with weapons of mass destruction,” a reference to Baghdad’s chemical weapons and ballistic missiles. [20] As shown above, chemical weapons are manifestly not WMD. Nor, by themselves, are ballistic missiles WMD. But it was useful for Washington to transform Iraq from being seen accurately as a comparatively weak country militarily that could carry out chemical weapons attacks, each of which could kill a few thousand at most under favorable conditions, to being seen inaccurately as a WMD threat. The purpose of elevating Iraq from a non-threat to a large threat was to soften public opinion for a series of wars and massively destructive sanctions that would soon be rolled out against the country. Washington’s problem with Iraq wasn’t that it bristled with WMD (it didn’t), but that it bristled against subservience to the interlocked political and economic agendas of Washington and Wall Street. As an Arab nationalist state with a publicly-owned economy sitting atop an ocean of oil, Iraq was a prime target for US aggression. Deceiving the Western public into believing Iraq was a WMD threat would secure public support for, or at least acquiescence to, a campaign of war and sanctions leading to regime change and absorption of Iraq into the United States’ informal empire. The ultimate prize would be the privatization of Iraq’s oil industry. [21]

In 1992, as sanctions against Iraq were beginning to bite, US law defined chemical and biological weapons as WMD. In 1994, radiological weapons and explosives were added to the list. Under the law, almost all weapons apart from modern rifles and pistols now became WMD, a vast extension of the concept, rendering it virtually meaningless. [22]

Chlorine Gas

Bullets kill. Shrapnel kills. Explosives kill. Chlorine gas makes people sick. It is lethal only in very high doses and where medical attention is not immediately available. [23] It’s a nuisance, not a lethal threat. It’s not even in the same category as bullets and machetes.

There are compelling political and military considerations that militate against Syrian forces mounting chlorine gas attacks. Chlorine gas is less effective than bullets and conventional ordnance, so why use it? Moreover, doing so would open up Syria to the risk of the United States claiming that the Syrian military’s use of chlorine gas was uniquely reprehensible and that air and missile strikes on Syrian forces were necessary as a moral response to barbarity.

By contrast, there is a strong reason for the jihadist proxies of the United States and its allies to mount chlorine gas attacks. They would welcome any direct military intervention by US and allied forces that weakens the Assad government. Any evidence of chlorine gas use in Syria can be employed to create a pretext for a US-led air campaign against Syrian forces, or short of that, to further vilify the Syrian government. Pinning blame for chlorine gas attacks on Assad and convincing the Western public that the Syrian president is culpable isn’t difficult to do. The Syrian leader has already been so thoroughly demonized that any charge, no matter how absurd, improbable, or baseless, will stick. All that needs to be done is to produce evidence of chlorine gas use, and then have Western state officials publicly express a “strong suspicion” that the Syrian Army is responsible. No hard evidence need be produced. The allegations will be disseminated uncritically by mass news media, to become, soon enough, the received truth. If the incident isn’t used by Western forces as a pretext for an attack, it can still be added to the growing Himalaya of slanders and black propaganda that has accumulated against the Syrian government over the last four years, and so make a future attack all the easier to sell to Western populations.

Significantly, chlorine gas has been used by jihadists in Iraq since 2003. There was flurry of chlorine gas attacks on US forces carried out by Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007. [24] The jihadist group later became ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the main anti-government militant groups operating today in Syria. Ask yourself: If chlorine gas attacks have been mounted in Syria, who is more likely to have been the perpetrator—organizations with a history of using the weapon and a motivation to continue [25], or an organization with no military reason to use it and a compelling political reason not to?


The idea that chemical weapons, like nuclear weapons, kill massive numbers of people is wrong. Chemical weapons are no more destructive, and often are far less so, than conventional arms. Calling chemical weapons massively destructive makes the concept of WMD meaningless. WMD has become a hollow term used to manipulate public opinion to secure support for dubious political goals. Developed as a way of justifying a program of aggression against Iraq, its sole function is to connote something bad while denoting almost nothing at all, in order to turn non-threats into seemingly legitimate targets to secure public support for campaigns of aggression against governments whose sole crime is to exercise sovereignty over their country’s politics, natural resources, and economy.


Stephen Gowans discusses chemical weapons and WMD with Brendan Stone on Unusual Sources

Radio: We need to oppose illegal wars, not just weapons


*Adam Entous, “Islamic State suspected of using chemical weapon, U.S. says,” The Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2015.

1. John Mueller, “Erase the Red Line,” Foreign Affairs, April 30, 2013

2. Anne Barnard and Somini Sengupta, “Syria is using chemical weapons again, rescue workers say,” The New York Times, May 6, 2015

3. Barnard and Sengupta

4. See Jonathan Cooke, “Experts: Israel’s weapons are not precise,” The Blog from Nazareth, August 1, 2014. http://www.jonathan-cook.net/blog/2014-08-01/experts-israels-weapons-are-not-precise/

5. John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Sanctions of Mass Destruction,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999

6. “A 1993 analysis by the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress finds that a ton of sarin gas perfectly delivered under absolutely ideal conditions over a heavily populated area against unprotected people would cause between 3,000 and 8,000 deaths. Under slightly less ideal circumstances—if there is a moderate wind or if the sun is out, for example—the death rate would be one-tenth as great.” (John Mueller. Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. Free Press. 2006. p.18.) The UN estimated that rockets carrying a payload of between 11 and 16 gallons of chemical agent were used in the 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, Syria. (“Syria chemical attack: What we know,” BBC, September 24, 2013) Assuming an average payload of 13 gallons and 358 gallons per ton, then 13 gallons of sarin gas perfectly delivered under absolutely ideal conditions over a heavily populated area against unprotected people would cause between 108 and 290 deaths.

7. According to Mueller, 2013 it took one ton of gas to produce a single fatality in WWI. If follows, then, that 70,000 tons of gas would produce 70,000 deaths—as many as caused by a single atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

8. Mueller and Mueller

9. Mueller, 2013

10. John Mueller. Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. Free Press. 2006. pp.19-20

11. Mueller, 2006

12. Mueller, 2006

13. John Mueller. Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda. Oxford University Press, 2010. pp 227-228

14. “Syria chemical attack: What we know,” BBC, September 24, 2013

15. Mueller, 2006. p. 20

16. Mueller, 2013

17. Mueller and Mueller

18. Mueller, 2013

19. “Excerpts from Bush’s Speech at the Opening of the UN General Assembly,” The New York Times, September 26, 1989. Bush pledged to eliminate the United States’ chemical weapons within 10 years (since delayed to 2023.) US allies Israel and Egypt also have chemical weapons. In 2003, Syria proposed to the United Nations Security Council that the Middle East become a chemical weapons-free zone. The proposal was blocked by the United States, likely in order to shelter Israel from having to give up its store of chemical arms or from being forced into the embarrassing situation of having to explain to the world why it was keeping them. Numerous calls to declare the Middle East a nuclear weapons-free zone have also been blocked by Washington to shelter Israel from having to give up its nuclear arsenal.

20. Michael Wines, “Confrontation in the Gulf: US explores new strategies to limit weapons of mass destruction,” The New York Times, September 30, 1990

21. See Greg Muttitt. Fuel of the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq. The New Press. 2012

22. Mueller, 2013

23. Barnard and Sengupta

24. Kirk Semple and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. is investigating report that Islamic state used chlorine gas,” The New York Times, October 23, 2014.

25. In a July 17, 2015 New York Times Article, (ISIS has fired chemical mortar shells, evidence indicates) journalist C.J. Chivers reported on indications that Islamic State militants used improvised mortar shells to carry chemical agents in attacks on Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq.

Chivers wrote:

The Islamic State appears to have manufactured rudimentary chemical warfare shells and attacked Kurdish positions in Iraq and Syria with them as many as three times in recent weeks, according to field investigators, Kurdish officials and a Western ordnance disposal technician who examined the incidents and recovered one of the shells.

Chivers added that Sunni militants have a history of using chemical weapons.

Beginning more than a decade ago, Sunni militants in Iraq have occasionally used chlorine or old chemical warfare shells in makeshift bombs against American and Iraqi government forces. And Kurdish forces have claimed that militants affiliated with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, used a chlorine-based chemical in at least one suicide truck bomb in Iraq this year.

According to Chivers, an investigator found evidence that ISIS militants had used chemical projectiles in attacks in northeastern Syria.

The reporter acknowledged that “Chemical weapons, internationally condemned and banned in most of the world, are often less lethal than conventional munitions.” He didn’t mention that despite the pariah status of the weapons that the United States has one of the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles. Israel, too, has chemical weapons.

Written by what's left

June 27, 2015 at 3:26 pm

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria, WMD

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