James J. Wirtz

International Affairs
Jul 19 · 5 min read
Image Credit: © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1460)

The recent and highly-publicized return of chemical weapons can, as I detail in my recent article for International Affairs, no longer be considered an exception. Despite this, conventional wisdom has held for decades that chemical weapons were of little military utility. They were dangerous to handle, required a noxious infrastructure and were unwieldy because wind and weather could alter their effects. It also was clear that military professionals did not really want chemical weapons; they would rather hold targets at risk using conventional weaponry than deal with poisons that were just about as dangerous in peacetime as they were in war. By the time the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) — an arms control treaty that prohibits the production and use of chemical weapons — opened for signature in January 1993, militaries everywhere breathed a collective sigh of relief as states began abandoning their chemical arsenals. 25 years later, nearly all of the chemical agents declared to the CWC have been destroyed. Chemical weapons have not completely vanished from the earth, but they have vanished from most militaries.

Exceptions to the rule

There were of course, a few exceptions to this conventional wisdom, but these exceptions only supported a second commonly accepted judgement: chemical weapons were deemed to be the poor man’s weapon of mass destruction. This meant that they were still occasionally wielded by the desperate, diabolical or criminally deranged. For instance, Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime in Baghdad used mustard, sarin and possibly tabun against Iranian troops during the Iran–Iraq War (1980–8). Saddam also used chemical agents to kill 5,000 Kurdish civilians in the town of Halabja in northern Iraq in 1988. In March 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyo (‘Aum Supreme Truth’) released sarin in the Tokyo subway, killing twelve people and injuring thousands more. These types of incidents, however, only highlighted the criminality of the perpetrators and the fact that chemical weapons only seemed to work against illegitimate, or unlikely, targets. Few expected to face military formations unprepared for a chemical battlefield and most militaries treated the deliberate targeting of civilians as waste of scare military resources, if not a war crime.

Chemical disarmament

As Rebecca Hersman and William Pintos recently noted, these perceptions were reflected in a chemical weapons ‘system of restraint’. This system is comprised of four elements which together make the use of chemical weapons unlikely: 1) a taboo against chemical weapons use; 2) an international disarmament regime, such as the CWC; 3) deterrence; and, most importantly, 4) the generally accepted notion that chemical weapons lacked utility. The fourth element by itself actually offers a sufficient explanation of the wave of chemical disarmament that began in the last decades of the twentieth century. Militaries generally do not acquire or maintain weapons that are unwanted or lack utility.

This system of restraint was robust, even on the occasions when it was broken. When the Syrian government appeared to have used chemical weapons against rebels in 2012–3, the Russians brokered a deal whereby the Assad regime acceded to the CWC in September 2013. The Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons then swung into action, working diligently to destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons and precursors. For a moment, the events in Syria even appeared to have been an anomaly: the Syrians seemed to cave to international pressure as the international disarmament regime created to eliminate chemical weapons quickly contained the threat.

When it all went wrong

Disaster befell the chemical disarmament regime in 2014, however, when attacks using sarin, chlorine and mustard agents became commonplace during the Syrian Civil War. While the Syrian government is responsible for the majority of these attacks, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has also used chlorine, mustard and still unidentified chemical substances on the battlefield. In an even more unexpected twist, VX and the so-called Novichok agent have been used in political assassinations.

The conventional wisdom about chemical weapons was also shattered. Chemical weapons were employed to suppress an urban insurrection, while minimizing collateral damage. The Syrian government used primitive chemical weapons, such as chlorine, to defeat rebels by targeting civilians. Although the Syrians could not defeat the opposing soldiers on the battlefield, they could force civilians to flee, thereby separating rebel fighters from the people they were attempting to defend. Tobias Schneider and Theresa Lutkefend have thus characterized Syria’s chemical doctrine as ‘the Damascus School of Counter-insurgency’, suggesting that chemical agents played a strategic, and effective, role in the Syrian Civil War. Operatives also demonstrated how chemical agents actually can be used to assassinate high-value targets in urban settings, a new type of precision-strike using a human delivery system instead of a drone. Most militaries might still reject chemical weapons, but the assassinations suggest that other types of government agencies view chemical as a useful and usable way to achieve their objectives.


The widespread use of chemical agents during the Syrian Civil War and as a weapon of assassination demonstrates that the conventional wisdom surrounding chemical weapons — that they are both unwanted and have no purpose — is no longer accurate. The fourth element of the system of restraint described by Hersman and Pintos seems to have evaporated, calling into question the conventional wisdom that chemical weapons were increasingly irrelevant to international relations. It is not entirely clear if the remaining elements of the system of restraint will withstand these types of tests, but the consequences if the system breaks down will surely be dire.

James J. Wirtz is Dean of the School of International Graduate Studies, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California.

His recent article, ‘Nuclear disarmament and the end of the chemical weapons ‘system of restraint’, was published in the July 2019 issue of International Affairs.

Read the article online here.

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The official blog of International Affairs, the peer-reviewed journal of Chatham House.

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