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Chem/Bio Warfare

Chemical Warfare in Syria?

It’s a grim topic, but I see that there are worries that the Syrian government, or what’s left of it, is being warned not to use its stockpiles of chemical weapons. Back in the early days of the blog, I did a series on the chemistry of these things, and they can be found by scrolling down to the bottom of this page.
As I said at the time, “I’m prepared to argue that against a competent and prepared opponent, the known chemical weapons are essentially useless. The historical record seems to bear this out. Look at the uses of mustard gas since World War I. Morocco in the 1920s, Ethiopian villages in the 1930s, Yemen in the 1960s – a motley assortment of atrocities against people who couldn’t retaliate.” The uses of nerve gas are a similarly horrible roll call, mainly (and infamously) in Northern Iraq, by the Saddam Hussein government against its Kurdish population. Let’s hope that no one is going to add another entry to that list.

16 comments on “Chemical Warfare in Syria?”

  1. NoDrugsNoJobs says:

    Definitely a very effective weapon for rebellious civilian populations though. Especially nerve gases…Yikes

  2. FredB says:

    Those WMDs that weren’t found in Iraq had to end up somewhere.

  3. B says:

    Reading back through your old blog posts… and one stood out to me that I had to comment on!
    Got a face full of Benzyl Bromide myself as an undergraduate, didn’t know much of it and the grad student I was working with told me it was harmless! In hindsight, it taught me a big lesson and I can jokingly reminisce about it. But the eye pain is something I won’t ever forget and I’m lucky nothing too serious happened…

  4. milkshake says:

    Don’t forget uses of chemical weapons in China by Japanese in 30s and 40s. Suffocating and mustard gases did a great deal to subdue the desperate Chinese defenses. Every single chemical attack had to be OK-ed by the government and signed on by the emperor. Japanese actually produced so much chemical weapons (on an island far enough off the main islands) under such careless conditions that many Japanese chemical warfare plant workers died there from the exposure, and so did also the decontamination crews after the WWII, who had to deal with ridiculous quantities of toxic waste and poorly stored arfare agent inventory.

  5. Colonel Boris says:

    Carrying on Milkshake’s point, there was a large amount of testing of gases (and other far less pleasant things) by the Japanese on Chinese civilians and Allied PoWs and they left a load of nerve agents lying around the place that are still there. The clear-up still continues, although it’s not going as well as it should:,8599,1726529,00.html
    Militarily, agents such as VX are still useful as area denial weapons as continued operations in NBC gear are very wearing on troops and VX is insanely lethal and hangs around a long time.

  6. Vladimir says:

    This is the same chemical/biological weapons that US government found in Iraq. Spot the irony! THEY FOUND NOTHING!

  7. anonymous says:

    An ugly, older quotation “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favour of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.”
    — Winston Churchill 1919

  8. Sam says:

    Perhaps the only beneficial consequence of chemical weapons like mustards is the finding that exposure to them killed lymphocytes, leading to the use of compounds like cyclophosphamide for lymphoma chemotherapy.

  9. newnickname says:

    @4 milkshake mentions Japan in China before and during WWII. For additional info, search “Unit 731”, e.g.,
    Just like the Nazi rocketeers (Werner von Braun, et al), there were other “valuable assets” that escaped prosecution and punishment for their actions during WWII and sometimes ended up in important positions, post-WWII. Many Japanese medical doctors and scientists who implemented the chemical and biological warfare programs in China were never prosecuted for war crimes due to secret agreements.
    I was never able to find source documents, but what I have read implied that the Umezawa brothers served in Unit 731. Hamao Umezawa returned to Japan to discover kanamycin (1956) and bleomycin (1960s) and have a stellar career leading the Institute of Microbial Chemistry in Tokyo. Sumio Umezawa also made many post-WWII contributions to med chem.
    If I have the wrong Umezawas, I hope that someone here can correct my error.

  10. Jonadab says:

    The Churchill quote sounds like it’s mainly arguing in favor of tear gas and the like, which indeed are still used, even sometimes by non-military police forces. The original article, if I’m not mistaken, is mainly talking about significantly more unpleasant chemicals.

  11. NickCage says:

    Everyone knows that if you come in contact with a nerve agent, all you have to do is stab an extremely large needle of something into your heart, let Sean Connery go, and wait until the jets fly over you so you can hold two flares over your head in gratefulness. Everybody knows that.

  12. Tangurena says:

    My suspicion is that the Syrians are moving them to the bases not with the intention of actually using them, but rather protecting those bases from the cruise missile and drone strikes from the US/NATO that he is expecting. And those missiles will arrive moments after Russia and China back down from a veto on invading Syria just like Libya.
    Another suspicion is that he thinks the rebels are actually foreign funded militants and that he’s not really killing Syrians and just “foreign devils.”
    And finally, the clowns who claimed Saddam Hussein had WMD on every street corner are the same bunch claiming Iran and Syria have WMD on every street corner. Since Syria has no nuclear program, chemical weapons suffice for the WMD brand. But we get the same liars, and this time we’re supposed to believe them?

  13. Anonymous says:

    @Tangurena: It can occasionally be difficult to be certain that someone doesn’t have a particular weapon, when they pointedly refuse to admit that they don’t have it. Hussein, in particular, actively went out of his way to convince the world that he had big scary dangerous weapons of one sort or another.
    In hindsight we now know that was all bluster, but at the time there wasn’t any way we could really know that. We arguably could have guessed it — unwarranted braggadocio in military matters is a pattern in that part of the world — but we’d have been guessing blindly, which isn’t always a real good idea in these kinds of situations. Also, the fact that he was known to have actually deployed nerve gas previously, during the Iran/Iraq war, made any such guess seem suspect. If I had a nickel for every hundred people who now loudly make fun of the idea that Hussein ever had WMDs but who were *not* loudly predicting before the fact that he wouldn’t turn out to have them, I could buy myself an island and retire. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. It’s easy to predict the past.
    The Syrian government also claims to have chemical weapons (err, chemical or biological, but that’s obviously a deliberate strategic ambiguity, and bio weapons are generally harder to make than chemical ones, fortunately), although they have also vowed not to use them except against foreign invaders, which makes, arguably, for a somewhat different situation. One supposes that any foreign invaders that we might potentially sympathize with *at all* would presumably be, in Derek’s words, “a competent and prepared opponent”.

  14. metaphysician says:

    Sadly, I suspect that if he did use it on a “foreign invader”, it wouldn’t be against the actual troops invading his country. Rather, he’d try to use it on unprotected populaces in reach. So, if Turkey invaded ( or Turkey provided basing for a NATO invasion ), I wouldn’t be shocked if he dropped gas on any nearby Turkish cities.

  15. Tyrosine says:

    You misunderstand the tactical value of chemicals. They are inefficient as weapons against personnel, yes, but they are effective economic weapons. A 500 lb mustard bomb mixed with surfactant (a known deployment method to lower surface tension) might cost a few hundred dollars. When it hits a million dollar tank the chemical agent runs down into every rivet hole and screw thread, essentially rendering the tank useless until extensive decontamination is completed. It also causes army personnel to have to wear cumbersome and uncomfortable equipment, which decreases their field effectiveness. The nuisance value at least is considerable.

  16. Oldnuke says:

    Ref NickCage —
    And here I was taught to inject myself in the thigh (and I’ve done it and I’m still alive nearly 40 years later, though I did get a splitting headache!).
    I’ll remember to aim higher in the future…

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