The introduction of chemical warfare to the battlefield on 22 April 1915 changed the face of total warfare. Not only did it bring science to combat, it was both the product of societal transformation and a shaper of the 20th century societies.
This collaborative work investigates the unfolding catastrophe that the unleashing of chlorine against the Allied positions meant for individual soldiers and civilians. It describes the hesitation on the German side about the effectiveness, and hence impact on combat operations of the weapon whilst reflecting on the lack of Allied response to the many intelligence pointers that something significant was afoot.
It goes on to describe the massive transformation that societies were undergoing as a consequence of industrialisation, science and technology, and the impact these trends were to have on the emergence of what we know today as ‘total war’. Chemical warfare pitted the brightest minds from the various belligerents against each other and in some ways this competition revealed early thinking about intellectual superiority that was to define the decades after the Armistice. The ability to survive in a chemically contaminated environment was proof of a higher level of achievement. In simple terms, chemical defence equalled survival of the fittest.
- Edited by Dr Jean Pascal Zanders
- Introduction by Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)
- To be published in December 2015
- Ahmet Üzümcü (Director-General Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons): Preface
- Jean Pascal Zanders: Introduction
- Jean Pascal Zanders: The Road to The Hague
- Olivier Lepick: Towards total war: Langemarck, 22 April 1915
- Luc Vandeweyer: The Belgian Army and the gas attack on 22 April 1915
- Dominiek Dendooven: 22 April 1915 – Eyewitness accounts of the first gas attack
- Julian Putkowski: Toxic Shock: The British Army’s reaction to German poison gas during the Second Battle of Ypres
- David Omissi: The Indian Army at the Second Battle of Ypres
- Bert Heyvaert: Phosgene in the Ypres Salient: 19 December 1915
- Gerard Oram: A War on Terror: Gas, British morale, and reporting the war in Wales
- Wolfgang Wietzker: Gas Warfare in 1915 and the German press
- Peter van den Dungen: Civil Resistance to chemical warfare in the 1st World War
- Leo van Bergen and Maartje Abbenhuis: Man-monkey, monkey-man: Neutrality and the discussions about the ‘inhumanity’ of poison gas in the Netherlands and International Committee of the Red Cross
- Jean Pascal Zanders: The road to Geneva
[Cross-posted from The Trench]
On 4 December I addressed a workshop on Nuclear Safety, Security and WMD Non-proliferation. The event was organised by Atomic Reporters and the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP), together with the Stanley Foundation and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS). The target audience consisted of more than 20 journalists from or working in the Middle East.
My presentation ‘Responding to chemical weapon use in Syria’ addressed the allegations of chemical weapon (CW) use in Syria since early 2013 and the international CW disarmament operation over the past 15 months.
The audience’s reactions at times illustrated how sensitive the question of CW remains in the Middle East. When people are forced outside their comfort zone offered by established reference frameworks, regional security discussions quickly become tense. If ever serious progress is to be made on the idea of a zone free of non-conventional weapons in the Middle East, preparing a common reference framework for the participants in the debates—particularly civil society constituencies who must prepare the ground to make proposed solutions politically and socially acceptable—will be an unescapable task.
Lale Kemal, a Turkish journalist, captured the exchanges very well in a piece for the Daily Zaman on 8 December. If she leaves you with the impression that the discussions were not just intense, but also most stimulating, then I can confirm they were.
Middle East’s ‘unique’ status on chemical weapons
A colleague from a Middle Eastern country reacted sharply when a speaker in a recent workshop in Vienna used the term “Muslims” in some of his references to the countries in the region during his presentation on the issue of chemical weapons. The colleague urged him to use the names of the countries instead of generalizing them with their affiliation to Islam. The topic of chemical weapons is a sensitive one. Jean Pascal Zanders, director of The Trench — a website specializing in reporting on chemical weapons — told the workshop audience in Vienna that with the exception of the First Indochina War, all cases of major chemical warfare after World War II have taken place in the Middle East.
Yet this journalist’s reaction to the speaker in his usage of the term “Muslims” does not change the reality that — in the words of Mehmet Dönmez, head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate — around 900 Muslims per day are killed by fellow Muslims around the world, including in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the topic of the workshop for journalists from the Middle East, held in Vienna between Dec. 3-5, was on nuclear safety, security and WMD non-proliferation. WMD is short for “weapons of mass destruction,” which are chemical, biological and nuclear weapons — the deadliest weapons that have so far been developed by humankind.
The workshop was sponsored by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), along with nongovernmental organizations the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), the US-based Stanley Foundation and Vienna-based Atomic Reporters. The event was hosted by the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP). It was a follow-up to the first workshop, which was held in I.stanbul in June of this year in cooperation with I.stanbul’s Okan University.
Going back to the topic of chemical weapons in the Middle East, Zanders from The Trench cited the known incidents of the usage of chemical weapons in the region, including Egypt during its war with Yemen in the 1950s and Iraq against Iran in 1984 during the long-lasting war between the two countries in the 1980s, as well as Iraq’s use of mustard gas against its own Kurds. Syria lately staged a sarin gas attack against its own citizens in Ghouta, near Damascus. Syria’s chemical weapons were destroyed under a deal it struck with some world powers, yet it is unclear whether the country is still hiding some of its chemical weapons stockpile.
Meanwhile, Israel is the only country in the Middle East widely known to possess nuclear weapons, even if it neither denies nor confirms their existence. Iran is accused by the international community of seeking to develop nuclear weapons under the guise of developing nuclear energy power plants.
Dr. Chen Kane from the CNS strengthened Zanders’ assertion, saying during the workshop that, concerning cases of the usage of chemical weapons as well as their possession, the region is unique. According to her, in the Middle East, all three categories of weapons of mass destruction — chemical, biological and nuclear — have been pursued by different states and chemical weapons have even been used in the region on several occasions. She mentioned fundamental ongoing territorial, religious, ethnic and other disputes that underline that the reality of WMDs and that the acquisition of WMDs in the region is interrelated and politically and security-motivated. Out of the seven violations of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), Dr. Chen said five are from the Middle East — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Egypt. This situation illustrates the risk associated with nuclear programs in unstable countries and war zones. It is unclear if any Middle Eastern country possesses biological weapons. The unstable nature of the Middle East also carries the risk of terrorist groups obtaining WMDs.
In February 2015, the Ja?far al-Tayya-r brigade and the al-Nusra Front gained control of the al-Kibar site (also called Dair Aizour) in Syria, where a nuclear reactor believed to have been under construction was destroyed by Israel during an air raid in 2007. According to Zanders, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — a terrorist group against which US-led Western and Arab coalition forces are currently carrying out an air campaign in both Iraq and Syria — has not obtained WMDs.
Turkey, a NATO member and a neighbor to the Middle East, came under criticism a long time ago for using white phosphorus — a kind of a chemical weapon — against militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). However, Zanders stated that such allegations from the PKK have never been confirmed by international organizations addressing WMDs.
The absence of a security framework or organization in the Middle East — where there is no regional conventional arms control culture — to mitigate the danger of WMDs poses a great threat to the region in particular and the world in general.
[Cross-posted from The Trench.]
The last day of October, a sunny Friday in The Hague, I met with Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü to reflect on the previous year and a half, during which the civil war in Syria suddenly thrust the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) into the spotlight.
In March 2013 United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requested technical assistance from the OPCW to investigate alleged chemical weapon (CW) use in the war-torn country. Six months later, after a serious incident in which sarin nerve agent killed and poisoned many hundreds of people in the Ghouta district of Damascus, Syria unexpectedly joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. And so began an urgent and perilous disarmament project. The announcement that the OPCW was to receive the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize just knocked international expectations from the organisation several notches higher.
The Syrian disarmament project has had a clear impact on the OPCW. Not just on its daily operations during the past 18 months, but it will also affect its future. However, the key question is whether the OPCW’s success in trying circumstances can inspire the international community to revive disarmament as a security tool.
Syria’s CW precursors have been evacuated and are almost all destroyed. Destruction of former CW production facilities has now begun. What were you thinking last year when you accepted the tight deadlines in the US–Russian Geneva Framework Agreement?
The Framework Agreement reached in Geneva on 14 September of last year was a significant achievement. The Russians and Americans wrapped up their negotiations in four days, which surprised us as much as the whole international community. We knew that the OPCW could be called on to address the chemical part of the Syrian conflict. In which form and under which conditions, we did not know then. Even so we were prepared to get involved and if necessary, to take the lead, all the while knowing such a project would be very challenging.
We first saw this document on 14 September. On 27 September, the Executive Council decided on OPCW involvement and a few hours later the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) endorsed that decision. Between both dates, we had 13 days to prepare our team for deployment to Damascus, work out the modalities, and so on. Having said that, I should add that the Technical Secretariat had been preparing itself for several contingencies. They included possible investigation of alleged CW use. We were thus ready when in March 2013 the UN Secretary-General called upon our expertise. In September, we had a team of 60 volunteer inspectors ready to go to Syria. They had trained to carry out different tasks.
Still, I was following the Geneva talks from Beijing. The negotiators raised questions whether we would be ready to do this or that. Our responses were all positive. We looked at our gaps. We identified a few areas where we would need some additional support, so we decided to rehire some of our former experts and hire some external experts. Important to us was to act swiftly and diligently. We also had to demonstrate to the international community that after 16 years the OPCW had the necessary capacity and expertise. I think we succeeded.
As I said, on Friday, 27 September, the decision was taken here. The same day the UNSC endorsed it in a resolution. On Monday, our inspectors were on their way. On Tuesday, they arrived in Damascus. The UN clearly had some difficulties to match this pace. The UN mechanism is huge compared to ours. So I called Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday, the day before the UNSC decision. I told him that we were ready to deploy and asked him for logistical and security support, which we received. Despite the magnitude of the challenge and the security situation in Syria, I think the Technical Secretariat was fully prepared to lead. When I say ‘lead’, I of course refer to the technical part of the operation. We relied on the UN for logistical support and security.
The other obvious challenge was the financial dimension. In that respect, having seen the support from the whole international community for this Russian–US initiative, I actually did not have any concerns. It was proven later on that we would have the necessary funds in both the UN and the OPCW Trust Funds. Financial aspects would not be problematic and they never were.
A year ago, I should say, we were both mentally and physically prepared to go to Syria. I personally was involved in setting up a task force, which I chaired every morning on the 7th floor of the OPCW headquarters. This also gave me the opportunity to know better some of our staff members. They were really capable and pleased to be able to help coordinate such a major operational mission.
Over the past few weeks several press reports have suggested that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have resorted to chlorine use in attacks in Iraq and Syria.
The grouping is no stranger to chlorine. In some earlier incarnation it was known as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and later it rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq when it explicitly began trying to control territory. Harsh imposition of its strict interpretation of Sharia law and extreme violence towards anybody refusing total subjugation to its rule soon had Sunni tribal leaders uniting in resistance early in 2007. They also began cooperation with forces of the US-led coalition occupying Iraq since 2003 and the Shia-dominated Iraqi government. AQI started mounting large-scale operations involving several hundreds of fighters to capture local seats of power. During the first half of 2007 suicide attacks with lorries rigged with a large quantity of explosives evolved from isolated incidents to terrorise and destabilise societies to a tool integrated in assaults against government centres and fortified positions. After an isolated attempt in October 2006, AQI launched almost 20 chlorine attacks in the first half of 2007.
This posting is a first effort to understand the dynamic behind ISIL resorting to chlorine and perhaps some other toxic chemical substances in military operations in Iraq and Syria. If current chlorine attacks can be confirmed, then some interesting parallels with the brief episode in Iraq may be discerned (but the hypotheses do require further study to be confirmed):
Children and babies—whether born or unborn—suffer immensely in any armed conflict. Mental trauma from witnessing human wasting, which no person should really be exposed to anymore. Physical injuries that scar the young ones for the rest of their lives, even if a sense of normalcy could ever be recaptured. And death, often considered the worst possible outcome, but nonetheless a fortuitous escape from a lifelong suffering inflicted by a senseless war ripping apart the early stages of their far too many young lives. For the survivors—bereft parents and mothers of the stillborn one—deep-reaching psychological wounds far beyond consolation.
Until the silence says goodbye
Addressing her companion after a mutual acquaintance, a British naval officer who had served in World War 1, suddenly passed away in 1923, Vera Brittain (Testament of Youth, Chapter XXII, 4) wrote:
I don’t think victory over death is anything so superficial as a person fulfilling their normal span of life. It can be twofold; a victory over death by the man who faces it for himself without fear, and the victory by those who, loving him, know that death is but a little thing compared with the fact that he lived and was the kind of person he was … That’s why those war victories with which I was especially associated are still incomplete. That the people faced their own deaths without fear I have no doubt. It is through me that the victory is incomplete, because I cannot always quite feel that their deaths matter less to me than the fact that they lived, nor reconcile their departure, with all their aspirations unfulfilled, with my own scheme of life.
Having lost her fiancé, two brothers and a close friend in the Great war, she was still struggling make sense of death, despite a self-induced mental numbness to cope in a post-war British society that had no time or space to embrace its many scarred veterans with the human carnage she saw firsthand as a voluntary nurse.
No pantomime of time to heal…
For the unborn child or infant physically or psychologically mauled by detonating bombs or shells, there is no victory for having lived that parents could savour. Chemical weapons add to that despair: a person living under their threat has no sense of being able to escape them. There is simply no place to run (to paraphrase Tim Cook’s magnificent book on Canadian soldiers’ adaptation to survive under a perpetual gas blanket during World War 1).
Hurt and fear are overwhelming emotions. Children and gas, when combined, allow for easy, but powerful manipulation of public opinion beyond the battlefield, often for purposes that have little bearing on relieving the plight of those actually facing the threats. Add a couple of graphic pictures; throw in one or two names to make the suffering tangible and direct public emotions to these few foci in order to momentarily blur out the 150,000 fatalities and millions of other casualties shared by all sides in the Syrian civil war. Can a policy maker or shaper fail to respond to such concentrated emotion? This is why I reacted strongly to the unsubstantiated claims that sarin exposure was causing the deformed babies in ‘Must the Belgian babies be bayoneted all over again?’
Today, a week or so after The Telegraph (London) and The Daily Star (Beirut) ran their respective ‘scoops’, no additional claims, no new names of children from the Ghouta area, have surfaced. A few media outlets reported on the original stories, but to the best of my knowledge, nobody seems to have delved further into the matter. Claims of sarin’s mutagenic properties appear to have vanished into thin air.
Survive to die alive
In contrast, other factors that may explain the incidence of miscarriages and malformed babies have come to the fore: prolonged extreme stress, concussion, exposure to high levels of dust, malnourishment, unsanitary conditions (at home, in shelters or in hospitals), etc.
Last December, many months before the sarin claims, a trained paediatrician with 20 years experience working Médecins sans frontières attributed the malformations in Syrian infants she was treating to possible deprivation of folic acids. No or insufficient intake during especially the first four weeks of a pregnancy profoundly compromises the neurulation process, which in turn leads to severe congenital deformity.
If this doctor’s surmise is correct, then the rising incidence of stillborn or malformed babies testifies to the dreadful state of Syria’s health system more than anything else.
She also described the wrenching plight of two pregnant women caught up in aerial bombing on their way to the market one sunny day. One lost her baby in her struggle to survive …
No hint of sarin or chemical warfare in her accounts.
There is simply no need to add gas to feel the pain of Syrian mothers …
[Cross-posted from The Trench]
August, 100 years ago: the Hun from the east invaded little, neutral Belgium. In the opening weeks of the campaign the Hun was not a good boy. He willfully executed civilians, raped women, destroyed historical monuments and burned down university libraries—all war crimes that have been extensively documented. The worst barbarian acts, however, he committed against babies. He cut off their hands, so that the grownup man could never take up arms against the Hunnic master. Worse, he tossed them in the air and caught them on his bayonet. Alas, each investigated claim proved to be a myth. Meanwhile, many a Brit had enlisted to revenge the ‘Rape of Belgium’.
Similar stories appealing to public emotion circulated before the outbreak of World War I. And they have been fabricated since. Remember the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and Nayirah’s testimony before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus? Nayirah, then 15 years old, told of Iraqi soldiers seizing incubators from Kuwaiti hospitals and leaving the babies to die on cold floors. Nayirah turned out to be the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the US, and the accusations were reportedly coached by a US-based PR company contracted by the Kuwaiti government. However, the tale received a huge credibility boost from Amnesty International. The human rights watchdog claimed in a December 1991 report that its investigation team talked with several doctors and nurses who ‘gave details of the deaths of 300 babies removed from incubators in hospitals by Iraqi troops and left to die on cold floors’ (Douglas Walton, 1995, p. 772). (Amnesty international eventually retracted its report, unlike Human Rights Watch today, which released a dubious report on the Ghouta attacks and—in a modern version of the Vietnam-era ‘destroy the town to save it’—seized on the chemical weapon allegations to call for military strikes against Syria.)
Which brings us to current press reports of genetically malformed babies as a consequence of chemical warfare in Syria.
Deformed babies after the Ghouta attack
A few days ago, The Telegraph (London) and the Daily Star (Beirut) published testimonies and pictures of children born with genetic defects from the Ghouta district near Damascus. Other babies were reported to have been stillborn. Parents and attending physicians attributed the occurrences to the chemical attacks there last August. The UN investigative team confirmed the use of the nerve agent sarin in those attacks.
Many toxic chemicals are known mutagens. Some directly damage the DNA, resulting in replication errors. Some interfere with the replication process itself, and yet other ones can create mutagenic metabolites. Certain cancers may result from genotoxic properties of chemicals. As a matter of history, research into the physiological consequences of exposure to mustard agents after World War I and during World War II contributed to the development of chemotherapy against cancer. Chronic exposure to such genotoxicants may also lead to transgenerational genetic effects. Images of mutant fish and amphibians living in polluted water reservoirs come to mind. The severely malformed infants of Vietnamese parents and US veterans who were exposed to large doses of Agent Orange sprayed to defoliate forests during the Indochina war remain living proof of the transgenerational mutagenic and teratogenic consequences of certain chemical warfare agents. Research into the long-term health implications of the chemical bombing of the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988 has revealed similar transgenerational effects of mustard agent.
The main problem with the current claims of genetically malformed babies in the Ghouta area is that no indicators are available to conclude that the nerve agent sarin provokes cancer or leads to genetic defects.
Long-term research into the effects of sarin
As a consequence of the prevalence of illnesses related to the 1990–91 Gulf War among US military personnel, the United States conducted extensive investigations into the consequences of exposure to nerve agents. One report, published in 1996, failed to link the neurotoxicants to cancers or mutations (GB is the US military code for sarin):
Carcinogenicity, Mutagenicity, Teratogenicity
Organophosphates are not recognized as being carcinogens. No evidence was found to suggest that GB has carcinogenic potential. In a follow-up study of approximately 995 U.S. Army volunteers who participated in anticholinesterase experiments at the U.S. Army laboratories, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Edgewood, Maryland during 1955-1975, no consistent pattern of increased risk of cancer was found (NRC, 1985). The study was of relatively low statistical power, and was only able to identify large differences. The investigators concluded that, based on these findings, and the 10 lifetime studies of carcinogenicity of organophosphates sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, that anticholinesterase compounds did not induce malignancies among the Edgewood subjects.
Goldman, Klein, Kawakami and Rosenblatt (1987) concluded that GB is not mutagenic based on both in vivo and in vitro evaluations. Negative results were found in the Ames Salmonella bacterial gene mutation assay using 5 different strains exposed to a range of concentration of GB. Mouse lymphoma cell tests, Chinese hamster ovary cell tests, including sister chromatid exchange assays, and rat hepatocyte assays (for unscheduled DNA synthesis and damage) were all negative for mutagenic activity.
No evidence of teratogenicity of GB was found. Organophosphates are generally not considered to have significant reproductive effects; no studies to directly evaluate this characteristic in GB were found. In their study of the toxicity of chronic exposure of dogs to GB, Jacobsen, Christensen, DeArmon, and Oberst (1959) had the male animals bred after 25 weeks of daily moderate doses of GB; the offspring were normal.
In their one year, low-dose GB inhalation exposure study of a variety of animals, Weimer et al (1979) found no abnormalities in reproduction and fertility, fetal toxicity, or teratogenesis in Sprague-Dawley/Wistar rats. Testicular atrophy was noted in the Fischer rat, but the authors speculated other causes, since later experiments (using a different route of exposure) did not replicate the finding. In their report, the authors also cite work conducted by J. R. Denk (EB-TR-74087 Effects of GB on Mammalian Germ Cells and Reproductive Performance, February 1975) which came to the same negative conclusions.
Similarly, an Emergency Response Card, last reviewed by the Centers for Disease Control on 12 May 2011, notes:
EFFECTS OF CHRONIC OR REPEATED EXPOSURE: Limited data are available on chronic or repeated exposure to sarin. The available data however, suggest that sarin is not a human carcinogen, reproductive toxin, or developmental toxin. Limited data suggest that chronic or repeated exposure to sarin may result in a delayed postural sway and/or impaired psychomotor performance (neuropathy).
Attribution to chlorine and mustard agent exposure
The Daily Star also offered a bizarre linkage with chlorine, the agent of recent chemical warfare allegations in Syria:
While stressing that he was not a doctor, chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon pointed to similar birth defects witnessed after the 1988 Halabja massacre, when the Iraqi government launched a chemical attack against the local Kurdish population.
De Bretton-Gordon, CEO of SecureBio, a UK-based Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear consultancy firm and former commander of the British military’s CBRN forces, said of the images of Joud: ‘Yes I think there is something in this and we saw similar from Halabja victims. I’m obviously not a doctor but chemical weapons, including chlorine, are known to be carcinogenic and mutanogenic.” (Sic)
The Center for Disease Control, the U.S. national public health institute, states that in the use of organophosphates such as sarin, ‘the possibility that birth defects could occur has neither been confirmed nor ruled out.’ Chlorine is not included in this nerve agent category, as it is a blister agent.
The Health Protection Agency (today Public Health England) published a toxicological overview of chlorine (2007) and excluded any of the above cited consequences from exposure:
No data are available on the mutagenicity of chlorine gas per se, although the mutagenicity of solutions of chlorine in water (hypochlorite and its salts) has been investigated. Sodium hypochlorite has been shown to have some mutagenic activity in vitro (both bacterial and mammalian cells) that may be due to the generation of reactive oxygen species. However, there is no evidence for activity in vivo. Negative results were obtained in bone marrow assays for clastogenicity (chromosome aberrations and micronuclei) in mice. The negative results reported in the carcinogenicity bioassays also support the view that hypochlorite does not have any significant mutagenic potential in vivo.
Negative results were obtained when chlorine (dissolved in drinking water) was investigated in a National Toxicology Program (NTP) carcinogenicity bioassay in rats and mice; concentrations of up to 275 ppm chlorine were used. Previously, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) had evaluated the carcinogenicity of hypochlorite salts and concluded that there was no data available from human studies and that the data from experimental studies in animals was inadequate. Therefore, hypochlorite salts were assigned to Group 3, i.e., compounds that are not classifiable as to their carcinogenicity in humans.
Reproductive and developmental toxicity
In general, animal studies have demonstrated no reproductive or teratogenic effects of chlorine. The effects of water chlorinated to a level of 150 mg L -1 were investigated in rats over 7 generations. No effects were observed on fertility, growth or survival.
Whether the interviewed expert actually expressed the words as recorded in the Daily Star is uncertain. The last sentence in the newspaper quote may indicate a mixup on the part of the journalist: ‘Chlorine is not included in this nerve agent category, as it is a blister agent.’ Chlorine, of course, is a choking agent, not a vesicant such as mustard gas.
As noted above, Saddam Hussein’s forces did employ mustard agent against Halabja and exposure to the agent can have genetic consequences for the survivors. However, nobody has ever alleged mustard gas use with respect to the chemical weapon attacks against Ghouta (or for that matter during the Syrian civil war). Therefore, speculating on the consequences of an agent not at issue is entirely irrelevant.
Substantiation of the claims rests on impressions and convictions of the affected families and some doctors working in the field making straightforward linkages between an observed phenomenon and the appearance of supposed consequences a while later. The articles offer no independently verified facts on the previous incidence of malformed children in the affected area or within the families.
The mothers in question are all reported to have been pregnant at the time of the gas attacks against Ghouta. Certain chemicals are known to affect the development of the foetus, the consumption of alcohol and smoking during pregnancy being prime examples. Sarin, however, does not appear to have such an impact, although, of course, one cannot exclude that the ways in which the body responds to the poisoning and the administered antidotes may impact on foetal growth.
Instead of exploring the deeper connections between cause and effect, The Telegraph chose to refer to the testimony by Dr Christine Gosden before the US Congress (which actually took place on 22 April 1998). She described how the inhabitants of Halabja were exposed to a cocktail of chemicals. With regard to the impact of mustard gas, she noted:
Long term effects. The most serious of the long term effects arise because mustard gas is carcinogenic and mutagenic. In the respiratory system there are increased risks of chronic lung disease, asthma, bronchitis. Permanent impairment of vision may occur and eye damage may be severe, leading to blindness. Skin lesions and burns may be severe with persistent changes and hypersensitivity to mechanical injury. Carcinogenic and mutagenic effects can result in cancers, congenital malformations and infertility. Long term effects (mutagenesis, carcinogenesis, eye, skin, lung, fertility, etc.) are dose and route dependent.
She does not claim similar consequences from exposure to nerve agents. Most importantly, the remainder of her testimony details the various short- and long-term symptoms observed in the victims over a 10-year period, but does not attribute any one of them to a specific warfare agent. In other words, invoking Gosden’s report as evidence in support of the claims regarding the consequences of the Ghouta attack is misleading, more so as the only agent that might strongly suggest carcinogenic or mutagenic consequences was not used in Syria.
The Telegraph article (unwittingly?) offers a very good alternative explanation for the genetic malformations (emphasis added):
‘We are receiving pregnant women in Arsal from many areas such as Qusair, Homs, Kalamoon, and [outer] Damascus, they come across the border for giving birth but in some cases the result is tragedy.’
‘We are receiving around 100 births a month in Arsal, about 12 per cent in the average out of them are stillborn,’ [Dr Kasem al-Zein] said. ‘The problems for newborn children are mostly occurring in women who were exposed to the chemical weapons, but also we have noticed that all women who lived in areas exposed to shelling by barrels and missiles are suffering fetal diseases.’
Arsal lies to the northeast of Baalbek in Lebanon. Since the reported cases attributed to chemical attacks are all from the last week or two, it is very difficult to determine how large a part of the monthly average they (can) represent. In contrast, the numbers do hint at possible roles of prolonged extreme stress, concussion, exposure to high levels of dust, malnourishment, and so on, in the incidence of miscarriages and malformed babies.
The story leaves a distinct impression of having seen it all before. The Telegraph came up with a defector, General Zaher al-Sakat, who had replaced sarin with Eau de Javel, a story that did not get much traction. Last month, it offered proof of chlorine use, which it claimed to be on a par with the methodologies applied by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. And interestingly enough, as the Christian Science Monitor wrote on 6 September 2002, ‘the first mention of babies being removed from incubators appeared in the Sept. 5  edition of the London Daily Telegraph’. That was on the eve of the decision to authorise military force to eject Iraq from Kuwait.
Seeking out plausible alternative explanations for observed phenomena and then eliminating them systematically goes a long way to establishing the credibility of an allegation. Are the current claims of mutagenic consequences of the chemical strikes in Ghouta part of a concerted ploy to again build a humanitarian case for Western military intervention against the regime of Bashar al-Assad? If so, it smacks of bayoneted Belgian babies all over again.
[Cross-posted from The Trench]
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is about to investigate the various allegations of the use of chlorine in Syria over the past few weeks. It is the right decision. It is the only decision possible in view of the many witness accounts and footage available on internet sites. However, the hope that the announcement of the fact-finding mission on 29 April might deter the perpetrator from future chlorine attacks was quickly dashed: a new chlorine bombing took place a day later.
The symbolism of the date cannot be overstated. 29 April was the 17th anniversary of the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). 29 April is the UN’s annual Day of Remembrance for all Victims of Chemical Warfare. And now, 29 April is also the day on which for the first time the potential violation of the ban on the use of chemical weapons (CW) by a state party to the CWC was officially recognised. A mere six months after Syria joined the convention. And 99 years after chlorine ushered in the age of modern chemical warfare.
On the same day, a British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, felt the need to headline that it had the proof that Assad launched the chlorine attacks. It caused a stir, not in the least because the article ended with the claim that the newspaper’s investigation was on a par with OPCW procedures. Hardly.
No stranger to the battlefield of world opinion
It is worth recalling that initial accounts on the chemical attack at Khan al-Assal (near Aleppo) on 19 March 2013 referred to chlorine. Early press reports mentioned 26 fatalities, a figure that would eventually rise into the low thirties, and scores of otherwise harmed individuals. I was not convinced that the observed effects correlated with claims about the agents used. In a March 2013 brief for the EU Institute for Security Studies I wrote:
This claim is intrinsically problematic. Exposure to chlorine stored in a warehouse or near a production installation hit by a shell could account for respiratory problems and skin irritation, but not for a high number of fatalities. One would need a very high volume of the agent to obtain lethal doses in open air; the explosion would most likely destroy part of the agent; and highly recognisable evidence of corrosion at the site of attack could not be missed.
More recent accounts specify that Islamic extremists filled a home-made rocket with chlorine dissolved in a saline solution. The agent would thus amount to Eau de Javel (bleach). Even in its highest industrial concentration of 40%, the agent cannot explain the fatalities, even if one were to assume that a very large number of home-made rockets hit the target in a tight cluster.
A month later, I remained just as unconvinced. In the meantime, having reviewed all CW references I had collected since the start of the Syrian civil war, I was struck by how stories on a particular incident may change with time. As a rule of thumb, everything ultimately turned into sarin. And as suggested in the quote above, sarin could become bleach. It is worth retracing that metamorphosis.
The Khan al-Assal attack of 19 March prompted the Syrian Government to request the UN Secretary General to conduct an investigation of alleged use. As already mentioned, reports at the time were referring to chlorine or witnesses recalling a chlorine smell. Chlorine was also what the Syrian government reportedly cited in its letter to Ban Ki-moon. Already early in December 2012, the Syrian Foreign Ministry had warned of possible insurgent use of CW in letters to the UN. It alluded to a Syrian-Saudi factory SYSACCO near al-Safirah (southeast of Aleppo), which had just been captured by militants from the jihadist Al-Nusra Front. That factory produced sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) and hydrochloric acid (HCl). Not only did this claim prepare a plausible foundation for the chlorine allegations three months later, it also gets close to the bleach (sodium hypochlorite), commercially known as Eau de Javel in Europe.
Four days after the alleged attack we learn that ‘the Syrian military believe that a home-made locally-manufactured rocket was fired, containing a form of chlorine known as CL17, easily available as a swimming pool cleaner. They claim that the warhead contained a quantity of the gas, dissolved in saline solution’. Now, what form of chlorine is Cl17? A look at the Mendeleev’s Periodic Table teaches us that Cl is the chemical abbreviation of chlorine and 17 is its chemical number. However, this demystified CL17 is contained in a saline solution, which is, of course, sodium hypochlorite. I use it to disinfect my toilet. Eau de Javel as a chemical warfare agent, that was new to me. (However, do note the source of that story.)
So, please forgive me if I seem to demand a higher level of convincing.
Questions I would like to see answered
- From some of the footage available on the internet, I do think that a toxic substance must have affected a number of people. However, I am less sure about the more precise elements in the accusations. For example, based on the pictures of one of the flasks, I gather that a substance (in this case, liquid chlorine, I presume, but then letters with white powder are also often marked ‘anthrax’) was contained in a small industry-standard vessel (apparently of Chinese origin & and marked Cl2). What I would like to know is how much explosive it would take to break open such a container? How much chlorine (if this is what was inside) would have been destroyed or burned by that explosion? What are the dynamics of chlorine release in the scenario that the amount of explosives is sufficient just to break the seal / valve of the vessel? I have been told that such an amount would be very small, but how does the resulting aperture affect the dynamics of gas release? Was the vessel contained inside a drum (i.e., a confined space), as some reports suggest? If so, how does that affect the dynamics of the explosion and gas release? What would the impact of an explosive devise have on the rate of release of the chlorine and how much of the chlorine would actually remain after the rupture of the container?
- How much chlorine (if this was what it was) was inside the vessel? How would sufficient chlorine be built up locally to seriously injure or even kill people? In what environment was the chlorine released (e.g., closed space of a room or outside in the open air)? Chlorine is perceptible to humans in very low concentrations, so why would people remain in close vicinity of the devise long enough to absorb a harmful dose of chlorine? Following the blast, I have been told, people in close proximity of the bomb may be dazed and confused and in their disorientation may consequently not escape from the area. Was this the case?
- Would an industry-standard container rupture simply by dropping it from a helicopter?
- One film clip on Brown Moses’ blog shows a helicopter dropping something, followed by a – in my mind – big flash. Would chlorine withstand the forces and heat of such a detonation? Detonation of chlorine was pretty ineffective in Iraq (at least as regards the impact of chlorine on the targeted group of people).
- Are there any reports of corroded metals in the vicinity of the area of release? (Moisture in the air acts as a catalyst for chemical reactions with chlorine, and the agent is very aggressive on metals and alloys.)
- Why do press reports refer to a ‘yellow’ smoke or powder (as one Beirut-based journalist described the observations to me)? Chlorine tends more towards pale green, sometimes with a yellowish hue. However, the yellow might dominate in a sun-swamped environment and an overall sandy-colour backdrop. I do not know. A BBC clip (2nd clip, middle article, final seconds) posted on 28 April, shows yellow smoke from a barrel bomb attack in which no chlorine was used. So, can we see similarities of symptoms and phenomena between different types of attack, but which witnesses do not or cannot differentiate? Another example: as for the reports of a chlorine smell near the scene of the Khan al-Assal attack in March 2013, chemical weapons expert and chief operating officer of SecureBio, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, then said that conventional high explosives can also produce an odour which might be mistaken for chlorine.
- Would one expect a hissing sound as the chlorine under pressure escapes from the container? Have we seen any such witness accounts?
- Are we looking at a case of what I call ‘opportunistic use of toxic chemicals’, where people (government soldiers, their allies, or insurgents) took hold of containers at an industrial site and improvised a new device of war? In other words, are we looking at a case of deliberate preparation for chemical warfare by whoever is responsible for the events?
A good call
The OPCW Director-General’s decision is the right one. Ambiguity and speculation must be removed—and fast. The lack of precise timing (or explanation of the necessary preparations and precautions) in the OPCW press statement is worrying, and not just because this is the first time the organisation is called upon to launch an investigation of use all by itself (in previous investigations the OPCW assisted the UN Secretary-General, as Syria was not yet a party to the CWC). Chlorine is a very volatile element, so the critical question is how long the agent might reside in the soil, on other surfaces or inside containers? The answer is not long, especially not in the heat of Syria.
Still, the exercise should not be futile. Investigations of alleged use typically apply various methods (medical analysis, identification of plausible witnesses and corroboration of individual stories, matching pictures and film footage based on the stories by the carefully selected witnesses, etc.), whose independent results should contribute to building a more or less consistent picture of events. The OPCW inspectors would deploy sophisticated detection equipment. Any evidence brought back from the incident sites would be subject to strict procedures to preserve the chain of custody and then divided over multiple OPCW-certified laboratories for analysis.
And oh, just as a small afterthought: with an OPCW investigation, one of course does not have to wonder who has paid the piper.
[Cross-posted from The Trench]
Today is the 99th anniversary of the first massive chemical warfare attack. The agent of choice was chlorine. About 150 tonnes of the chemical was released simultaneously from around 6,000 cylinders over a length of 7 kilometres just north of Ypres. Lutz Haber—son of the German chemical warfare pioneer, Fritz Haber—described the opening scenes in his book The Poisonous Cloud (Clarendon Press, 1986):
The cloud advanced slowly, moving at about 0.5 m/sec (just over 1 mph). It was white at first, owing to the condensation of the moisture in the surrounding air and, as the volume increased, it turned yellow-green. The chlorine rose quickly to a height of 10–30 m because of the ground temperature, and while diffusion weakened the effectiveness by thinning out the gas it enhanced the physical and psychological shock. Within minutes the Franco-Algerian soldiers in the front and support lines were engulfed and choking. Those who were not suffocating from spasms broke and ran, but the gas followed. The front collapsed.
The impact of this gas attack surprised the German Imperial troops too. Their cautious advance behind the chlorine cloud, their hesitation in the confusion about what was happening despite having secured their initial objectives within an hour, and their halt after darkness fell meant that they almost immediately lost the strategic surprise. They would never regain it.
A first generation warfare agent in worldwide industrial application
How ironic it is that today, almost a century later, the latest chemical warfare allegations in the Syrian civil war concern chlorine once again. Everybody knows about the dangers of the chemical element, but nobody really considers it any longer as a militarily useful agent. At least not in standard warfare scenarios.
Chlorine and derived products are in massive industrial production. According to the World Chlorine Council, there are more than 500 chlor-alkali producers at over 650 sites around the globe, with a total annual production capacity of over 55 million tonnes of chlorine. Based on the low threat assessment and its wide relevancy to the chemical industry and trade, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) does not even list it in Schedule 3 of toxic chemicals (Phosgene, another widely used chemical and World War 1 agent, is).
An oversight by the CWC negotiators? Hardly. Books on the toxicology and treatment of chemical warfare agents published between 1992—year of successful conclusion of the negotiations—and 1997—year of entry into force of the CWC—hardly mention chlorine. Chemical Warfare Agents, edited by Satu Somani (Academic Press, 1992), presents a few scattered references, mostly in relation to other agents or public health. Another book featuring the same title, written by Timothy Marrs, Robert Maynard and Frederick Sidell (Wiley, 1996), gives it a four-line acknowledgment in the opening historical section. And the monumental Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare, edited by Frederick Sidell, Ernest Takafuji and David Franz (Office of the Surgeon General, US Army, 1997), accords it about two pages out of 721 in a subsection entitled ‘Historical War Gases’.
Back to World War 1
It goes without saying that during and after World War 1 perceptions of chlorine as a combat agent were quite different. Despite having been replaced by much more potent toxic chemicals, belligerents released chlorine gas until the final month of the war. Considering that the first contingents of the American Expeditionary Forces arrived in Europe in June 1917, but saw their first major military engagements in May/June 1918, the US War Department registered and examined 838 ex-service men who had been gassed with chorine (and survived their experience). A closer medical examination of 98 victims to assess the long-term effects of exposure suggests that all US chlorine casualties were affected between July and October 1918. It is interesting to note that Maj. Gen. Harry Gilchrist, Chief of the Chemical Warfare Service, and Philip Matz, Chief of the Medical Research Subdivision of the Veterans’ Administration, devoted half of their medical study, The Residual Effects of Warfare Gases (War Department and US Government Printing Office, 1933), to chlorine, mustard being the other agent of their investigation.
Their description of chlorine remains interesting, because it departs from its utility as a warfare agent, rather than as a public health hazard. The element is almost 2.5 times heavier than air, which means that it will cling to the surface and sink into depressions. At 15° C liquefaction requires 4-5 atmospheres pressure. Upon release at 25° C, one litre of liquid chlorine will yield 434 litres of chlorine gas. Moisture stimulates the element’s chemical action, so the liquid gas must be thoroughly dehydrated for storage in steel cylinders.
Concentration and length of exposure both play a role in the physiological action of chlorine and their effects on humans and animals. The authors noted that ‘a concentration of 1–100,000 of chlorine gas is noticeable, 1–50,000 may cause inconvenience, while a concentration of 1–1,000 may produce death after exposure for five minutes’. (The numbers correspond to 0.01 mg/ml; 0.5 mg/ml and 1mg/ml respectively.) Experimental studies on dogs (carried out to determine the types of lesions various concentrations of chlorine will produce) showed that the animals died within 72 hours from acute effects at concentrations of 2.53 mg/l and higher. These concentrations were labelled as lethal. A small percentage of the animals recovered within a week. A concentration of 1.9–2.53 mg/l increased the recovery rate markedly, whereas dosages below the 1.9 mg/l were rarely fatal. Recovery rates were markedly faster at lower concentrations.
Concentrations required for injury and death are relatively high. For comparison, in the section on mustard (dichlordiethyl sulphide) Gilchrist and Matz deemed this oily compound to be 50 times more toxic than chlorine. It can be deadly in concentrations from 0.006 to 0.2 mg/l, but they considered 0.07 mg/l at an exposure of 30 minutes to be the lethal concentration.
Rewind to March 2013
Syria, just like any other country with a relatively advanced chemical industry, produced chorine in large quantities before the civil war. Readers will recall that early reports of chemical attacks at Khan al-Assal, west of Aleppo, in the middle of March of last year mentioned a strong smell of chlorine. To the east of Aleppo, there was a chlorine production facility (which the Jubhat Al Nusra, a jihadist rebel group ideologically similar to Al Qaeda, reportedly took over in December 2012). However, accounts also mentioned scores of fatalities, which would be inconsistent with a chlorine-filled rocket warhead. I have always been sceptical about those claims, precisely because of the agent’s chemical properties and physiological action. At the time, descriptions did not fit the claimed agents, whichever these might have been.
The need to compress the agent into a liquid has ramifications for delivery: the container must be sufficiently strong to withstand several atmospheres of pressure, and if dropped from an aircraft, sufficiently thin for the skin to break open. It must also be large enough so that a lethal concentration can be built up for a sufficiently long time. Given that humans smell chlorine at very low concentrations, the chances that they will remain at the site of impact are remote. The element is also not colourless; in fact, its name derives from the ancient Greek ‘khloros’, meaning pale green.
The same goes for rocket delivery of the warfare agent. Shells were attempted during World War 1, but this method for chlorine discharge was quickly abandoned in favour of much more potent munition fillings, such as phosgene.
So, it would be good to get more details on the recent incidents and review them in the light of possible chlorine delivery. Please note that I do not deny the possibility of toxic incidents over the past few weeks, but I would just like to see the various facts reconciled with the claimed chain of events. Given that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and French President François Hollande have once again waded into the controversy, politicisation of the ‘truth’ cannot be far away, alas.
Back to where it all started
So, as we reflect on that fateful 22 April in 1915, the sad thought is that chlorine is back, or at least, that people feel that chlorine is back as a possible lethal combat agent.
Allegations fly, but if confirmed, the incidents would be the first acts of chemical warfare committed involving a state party to the CWC. If Syria’s accusation of insurgent use is correct, then the government has every opportunity to demand an investigation from the OPCW and request assistance. If the insurgents’s claim of government use is correct, as non-state actors they cannot request the OPCW anything. However, any state party to the convention can demand an investigation of alleged use by the OPCW, and the Syrian government has no right of refusal (Verification Annex, Part XI). The opposite would be a serious material breach of its treaty obligations and tantamount to an admission of guilt. Or, the states parties can determine that the claims are insufficiently substantiated to warrant an investigation. In which case, it would be nice if they all were to sing the same tune.
So, which way shall the international community have it? The principal long-term casualty of those political games might be the CWC, even though, admittedly, we are still far away from the death knell that 22 April 1915 sounded for the 1899 Hague Declaration (IV, 2) concerning asphyxiating gases.
Several recent reports have suggested that because chlorine or other toxicants, such as riot control agents or incapacitants, are not listed in one of the schedules, they are not covered by the CWC. This is a major error. Any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals is a chemical weapon, according to Article II of the CWC. This is the default position. There are only four categories of purposes (Art. II, 9), under which a toxic chemical would not be considered a weapon.
On 20–21 March the University of Rome III hosted a roundtable discussion to reflect on the current status of the prohibition on chemical weapons (CW) and the future challenges to that ban. Although convened by the Law Department, the speakers represented an eclectic group of experts with backgrounds in international law, political sciences, chemistry and biology, as well as practitioners. Notwithstanding, the meeting yielded considerable coherence in arguments, with questions, challenges and supplementary insights contributing further to an already rich multi-disciplinary texture.
The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is at the heart of today’s prohibition on CW and their use in armed conflict. However, it does not stand in isolation. In fact, one could build a case that the norm against CW has a variable geometry. Approach it from the ban on chemical warfare, and the 1925 Geneva Protocol and its links to the International Criminal Court or the United Nations—in particular, the UN Secretary-General’s mechanism to investigate alleged use of chemical or biological weapons (CBW)—may take centre stage. Approach it from the angle of scientific and technological developments, and the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) emerges as a possible point of entry. Approach it from the threats posed by terrorism and UN Security Council resolutions, including 1540 (2004), with their demands for national legislative action come into play. And so on. The various tools available today have created mutually reinforcing bridges. However, they are also the source of contradictions and large gaps remain between them. As the Rome roundtable brought out, it is not always clear how they can be reconciled or filled.
And then, of course, there are the politics. As we are about to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and are just eight days before the 99th anniversary of the chlorine attack near Ypres, Syria’s civil war shows that humanity still has not been fully able to relegate these weapons to history. And while political leaders of the great powers loudly invoke the inhumanity of poison weapon use, their actions today—just like those during the Abyssinian war in the 1930s, the Yemen war in the 1960s, the Iran–Iraq war of the 1980s—demonstrate once again that other geopolitical considerations, national security interests or domestic political agendas trump halting chemical warfare and holding the culprits accountable under international law. (True, some would argue that the 2003 invasion of Iraq served such a purpose, but alas, few are those who believe the proffered unbelievable unbelievables.)
Unsurprisingly therefore, Syria made up one of the main threads tying the various sessions together. But it was not the only one: other recent issues pose remarkably similar challenges to the future of the prohibition on CW. This blog posting summarises the presentations and offers a few personal reflections on points raised during the discussions.
This morning, I came across an item on the BBC website entitled: Princess Anne: Gassing badgers is most humane way to cull.
According to the piece, Princess Royal’s comments came after the British government said it would not expand badger culling from two pilot culls aimed at reducing TB in cattle.
Interest groups of course welcomed her remarks. As a representative of the National Farmers’ Union said in a BBC radio interview ‘The Princess Royal is noted for outspoken views and her forthright honesty. I think it’s an option that needs looking at. And provided we can tick all the boxes as far as humaneness goes then it would certainly be an option to consider.’
When was it the last time you saw ‘gassing’ and ‘humane’ juxtaposed? The humanitarian argument was definitely advanced after the end of the First World War to justify the continuation of the chemical warfare programmes in Allied countries. (Germany lost its sovereign right to armament with the 1919 Versailles Treaty.)
Just check this little item in the The Lewiston Daily Sun of 4 June 1932:
Gas is championed as a humane weapon of war by Maj. Gen. Amos A. Fries, who was chief of chemical warfare for the United States during the world War. […]
General Fries said the humaneness of gas lies in the fact that, while it disables an enemy temporarily, it makes possible a high percentage of recoveries.
The irony shall not escape the badgers.
[Cross-posted from The Trench]