Manual Secret History of Chemical Warfare

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Chemical weapons caused 15, of the 50, total Ethiopian casualties in the war, according to Soviet estimates. The use of mustard gas—which targets unexposed skin—was particularly cruel, as Ethiopian soldiers and civilians often did not wear shoes.


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The high number of Russian chemical weapons casualties in World War I—,—was also largely due to the troops' lack of protective gear. Though Italy's actions were a flagrant violation of the Protocol, the League of Nations did nothing. And Italy wasn't the only contemporaneous chemical-weapons perpetrator. During its invasion of China during World War II, Japan dropped mustard gas and other chemical-weapons bombs on Chinese soldiers and civilians, killing at least 2, and injuring 35,, according to archival research in both countries.

This, combined with Germany's widespread use of gas in its genocide of European Jewry, should put to bed the canard that poison gas was somehow not part of World War II. Although chemical weapons were not ultimately employed on the European battlefield during World War II, Axis and Allied powers both manufactured tens of thousands of tons of chemical weapons during the war. There was a forgotten arms race, wherein the "balance of terror" held the other side in check.

But while the Allies refined older-model gases like phosgene and mustard, the Germans invented a new, far deadlier category of chemical weapons—nerve agents.

In one of the greatest intelligence coups of the war, the Nazis successfully kept this development secret from the Allies until their surrender. If they had chosen to use these weapons on Allied troops, they might have altered the course of history. Once again, Germany had its superior chemical industry to thank.

Chemists from IG Farben, then one of the world's largest corporations, stumbled on compounds of extraordinary potency while trying to develop potential insecticides for commercial use. What became Sarin, Tabun, and Soman—all nerve gases, which cause the cascading failure of body functions, including the body "forgetting" to breathe, and then rapid death—were developed by German scientists working with their Wehrmacht counterparts.

Because of their power, nerve gases augured a new era in chemical weapons, leading to yet another arms race—this time between the U. By , the U. VX was three times more toxic than Sarin when inhaled, and a thousand times more toxic when absorbed through the skin: theoretically, one liter of VX contained enough individual doses to kill one million people.

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Weapons of mass destruction

In the late s, Soviet intelligence secretly obtained the formula for VX, and started producing it domestically. The USSR was a major proliferator of chemical weapons in the cold war, especially through its then-ally Egypt, which itself became a chemical weapons superpower. To this day, Egypt refuses to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, citing Israel's status as an undeclared nuclear power.

According to published reports, in the s, Egyptian army officers traveled to the USSR for military training related to offensive chemical weapons. Egypt rapidly used this knowledge. In , it began using phosgene and mustard gas in its war against Yemeni royalist forces. Through , Egyptian forces used chemical weapons—including nerve gas—in Yemen. Cyrillic marking on some bombs dropped by Egyptian troops led analysts to believe that the Soviet Union had either provided Egypt with nerve gas, or was using Yemen as a testing ground for it.

By the mids, the Soviets had developed a new class of nerve agents—known as the Novichok series—that were the most powerful ever invented. Testing showed some of these agents to be up to eight times as deadly as VX. To this day, Russia has denied ever possessing a weapon of its own invention. But when it came to effecting mass casualties, earlier generations of chemical weapons—which had proliferated widely across the Middle East—were more than sufficient.

Starting in the s, Egypt helped kick start the Syrian, Libyan, and Iraqi chemical weapons programs. In , Iraq, seeking oil wealth, launched a bloody war with Iran. From onward, Saddam Hussein's troops used chemical weapons extensively, including mustard, Tabun, Sarin, and VX, against its Iranian antagonists. Iran claims that 60, of its soldiers were treated for injuries related to exposure. In , Saddam followed his war with Iran with a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against Iran-allied Kurds in Iraq's north. In the Iraqi city of Halabja, Saddam's troops carpeted the city with a cocktail of mustard, Sarin, and VX gases, killing up to 5, and injuring 10, The assault on Halabja, which has been called the single biggest chemical weapons attack on civilians in history, provides a taste of what a large-scale chemical "pacification" campaign in an urban area might look like today.

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The U. Muddying the waters, Reagan administration officials even speculated publicly that Iran might have been responsible for the gas attack at Halabja. Because of the end of the cold war, the s presented a rare moment of opportunity on chemical weapons. The Chemical Weapons Convention CWC , borne on the back of negotiations between the two superpowers in the s, went into effect in Prohibiting both the use and possession of any chemical agents designed for military use, it was an international legal landmark.

The OPCW helped track states' compliance with the treaty, verifying states' commitment to safely destroy their existing chemical-weapons stocks. Aside from the horrific Tokyo Subway Sarin attack by the millenarian Aum Shunrikyo death cult, that decade, and the one that followed it, were blessedly free from chemical attacks. According to credible public sources, corrupt Russian government and military officials provided Aum Shunrikyo with the necessary technical knowledge and training.

Russia's role in proliferation in this context has gone oddly unremarked. And Saddam Hussein—until his overthrow, the greatest extant chemical weapons threat—was contained by multilateral sanctions and U. Now, Saddam is long gone. But in the last half decade, the scourge of chemical weapons came roaring back. In , Syrian president Hafez al-Assad—father of Bashar al-Assad, the current Syrian leader—brutally suppressed an Islamist revolt in the Syrian city of Hama, besieging and destroying whole parts of the city.

An estimated 20, people were killed. Nor was it a surprise that Syria had an extensive stockpile of chemical weapons. At the beginning of the war, it was one of the world's few holdouts on the CWC, and had long refused to sign the treaty. Syria, long considered a chemical weapons superpower, viewed its capacity to inflict mass death via gas warfare as a necessary deterrent against Israel. But it was nonetheless shocking when the Assad regime decided to use these weapons on its own people. By late , there was credible evidence that Syrian loyalist forces had used chemical weapons on rebel groups.

A Brief History of Chemical Weapons in Syria - Atlantic Council

In August , Assad loyalists blanketed the rebel-held Damascus suburb of East Ghouta with Sarin, killing over 1, people, mostly civilians. The Obama administration, which had previously drawn a "red line" around the use of chemical weapons in the conflict, wavered on a military response after threatening targeted strikes at Assad regime facilities.

With U. According to the deal, these weapons would be removed from the country and ultimately destroyed, and Syria would accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention. But although Syria's declared chemical weapons stocks were ostensibly destroyed, the attacks continued. In some cases, Assadist forces appeared to use barrel bombs containing chlorine, which, because of its many commercial uses, is not banned under the CWC. In others, Assadist forces appeared to have continued to use nerve gases. In , in Syria's Idlib province, regime forces used Sarin in an attack that killed 83 people.

In , 80 were killed in a gas attack, likely chlorine as well as nerve agents, perpetrated by the regime in Douma. According to estimates, the Assad regime has authored at least 50 separate chemical attacks over the course of the war.


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Russia's facilitation of the breakdown of the norms and laws surrounding chemical weapons doesn't end there. In March , an ex-Soviet spy and defector to the U. Russia—and particularly its spy services—is widely considered to be behind the attack. An innocent English couple also picked up the discarded nerve agent in a park; the woman, Dawn Sturgess, died soon after exposure. North Korea, which is not a party to the CWC, is thought to have begun its weapons program in the s with technical assistance from the Soviet Union and China.

Top 10 HORRIFYING Acts of Chemical Warfare and Gas Attacks [WARNING: Graphic Content]

The OPCW subsequently ordered Syria to destroy all chemical weapons material and equipment by the first half of Syria provided the international organization with an inventory of its chemical weapons arsenal and began eliminating them in October However, there have been sporadic reports of the further use of chemical weapons by both parties in the Syrian Civil War, leading up to the latest chemical attack.

At least 86 civilians , including 30 children and 20 women, have died from the attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Thirty-two victims injured in the attack were brought across the border into southern Turkey for treatment. Three of them have since died, according to the Turkish justice minister. Russia on Wednesday blamed Syrian rebels for the attack, saying that the Syrian Air Force struck a warehouse where opposition militants were storing chemical weapons -- a statement that contradicts testimonies from residents, doctors and White Helmets on the ground.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released a statement on Tuesday condemning the attack while placing the blame on Assad. Anyone who uses chemical weapons to attack his own people shows a fundamental disregard for human decency and must be held accountable. Tillerson also called upon Russia and Iran to "exercise their influence over the Syrian regime and to guarantee that this sort of horrific attack never happens again.

ISIS, which grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, took root in northern and eastern Syria in after seizing swaths of territory in neighboring Iraq. The Associated Press also contributed to this report. All rights reserved. Interested in Syria? IHA via AP.

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