While nuclear weapons dominate most discussions on modern day warfare, the threat posed by chemical weapons (CW) to the mankind is equally unnerving, given the more likelihood of these falling into the hands of rogue elements and the collateral damage they inflict.
The world has a history of the usage of chemical weapons. The suspected usage of chemical weapons in the strife-torn Syria causing death of thousands of people last week is the most recent and one of the most devastating. It is an alarming reminder of the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that are in possession of rogue states, posing danger to the very existence of life on earth.
What are the chemical weapons? A wikipedia entry defines chemical weapon as a device that uses chemicals formulated to inflict death or harm to human beings. Chemical weapons can be widely dispersed in gas, liquid and solid forms and may easily afflict others than the intended targets. Nerve gas and tear gas are two modern examples.
CW usage in history
- Interestingly, in what could be the first and the archaeologically proven instance of the usage of chemical weapons, was in Syria in third century! Then the area was controlled by the Romans. About 20 Roman soldiers were killed by gassing in a tunnel by the Persian army, at a place called Dara-Europos, according to the University of Leicester archaeologist Simon James
- Chemical weapons were widely used in World War-1 which came to be known as "the chemists' war. German army used deadly gases to kill French soldiers in the second battle of Ypres. About 1, 00,000 people died due to chemical weapons in World War I.
- In WW-2, the United States used Napalm, a sticky, gasoline-like substance that can melt the skin off its victims, in a firebomb raid on Tokyo, killing an estimated 1,00,000 people.
- The US Army extensively used Agent Orange, a chemical weapon meant to destroy plants, during Vietnam War in 1960’s. The aim was to destroy the food-grain production. Half a century after the Vietnam War, those exposed to Agent Orange continue to suffer from its effects like cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease.
- By the 1980’s, new category of chemical weapons called the nerve agents, most lethal and quickest-acting, were discovered. Popularly called V-series which can kill a person in seconds, Iraq was the first to use against Iran in 1983. It also used nerve agents in the killing of 5,000 Kurds, an ethnic tribe massacred by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1988.
Now, Syria is suspected to have nerve agents in its chemical weapon arsenal.
Treaties banning CWThe usage of chemical weapons in WW-1 was followed by Geneva Protocol, prohibiting the use of chemical and biological warfare, signed by more than 30 nations in 1925.
The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), signed in 1993, is a comprehensive arms control agreement which outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. As of June 2013, 189 states, including India, are party to the CWC. Syria is one of the seven countries that are not part of CWC.
Syrian Civil WarThe armed conflict between forces loyal to the Ba'ath government and those seeking to oust it has resulted in Syrian uprising. The conflict which began on 15 March 2011 is part of the wider Middle Eastern protest movement known as the Arab Spring with the protesters demanding the resignation of president Bashar al-Assad, whose family has held the presidency in Syria since 1971. An alternative government was formed by the opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition.
Syria was under Emergency Law from 1963 to 2011, effectively suspending most constitutional protections for citizens, and its system of government is considered to be non-democratic.
The raging civil war is one of the bloodiest in the history with more than a 10, 00,000 people, half of them civilians, massacred since it began. The Syrian government has the military support from Russia and Iran, while Qatar and Saudi Arabia transfer weapons to the rebels. By July 2013, the Syrian government controls approximately 30 to 40 percent of the country's territory and 60 percent of the Syrian population. The insurgency controls large swaths of territory in the country's north and east.
There are chilling images of the innocent people killed by the suspected use of nerve gas ‘sarin’ in rebel held Ghouta, an area near Damascus, the capital of Syria, last Wednesday. Heaps of bodies, bloodless and woundless, as if killed in drowning, and the wails of the survived, were deeply disturbing.
(Published as Oped on City Today on August 26, 2013)