International Relations Prelims cum Mains

Weapons of warfare: How nerve gas and other chemical weapons kill, in Syria or elsewhere

Details :

The News

  • According to Syrian opposition activists, more than 40 people were killed in a suspected chemical attack by the Syrian government forces on Douma, the last rebel-held town in the Eastern Ghouta region.


  • In February 2018, the government forces launched an assault on the Eastern Ghouta.
  • Facing defeat, rebel groups in the other regions agreed to be evacuated to northern Syria.
  • But the group controlling Douma, Jaysh al-Islam, continued to hold out the region.
  • As a result of failed negotiations, the government resumed air strikes.
  • It is alleged that two separate incidents of bombs believed to contain toxic substances was being dropped by the Syrian Air Force.
  • The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has sent a fact-finding mission to establish if chemical weapons were used.
  • Rebel groups like Syria Civil Defence believe those who died suffocated due to exposure to toxic chemicals, most likely an organophosphate – a compound grouping associated with pesticides and nerve agents.
  • According to The United States, which supports the opposition to Mr Assad, the victims’ symptoms appeared to be consistent with an asphyxiation agent and of a nerve agent of some type.
  • Russia, which support the Assad regime, has denied the use of chemical weapons.
  • Earlier in August 2013, UN has confirmed that Sarin (a nerve agent) was used in the attack on Eastern and Western Ghouta.
  • A joint UN-OPCW mission also found out that government forces were behind the April 2017 Sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun.


Syria and OPCW

  • The Syrian Arab Republic acceded to the Convention in 2013 following which accelerated plan to destroy Syria’s chemicals weapons equipment and munitions began.
  • By January 2016, the destruction of all chemical weapons declared by Syria is said to have been completed.


Use of chemical weapons in Syria (Location, chemical, impact)

  • Alleged chemical attacks in April 2014 (Kfar Zeita, poison gas, 2 dead, 100 ill)
  • May 2015 (Sarmin, chlorine, 6 dead)
  • August 2015 (Marea, mustard gas, 50 ill)
  • September 2016 (Aleppo, chlorine, 2 dead)
  • April 2017 (Khan Sheikhoun, sarin, 70 dead) and Douma.

Definition of chemical weapons

  • The Chemical Weapons Convention defines a chemical weapon as anything specifically designed or intended for use in direct connection with the release of a chemical agent to cause death or harm.
  • It is a toxic chemical delivered on a bomb or artillery.

Examples of Chemical weapons:

  • Choking agents: Fluid builds up in lungs, choking victim. Examples include chlorine, phosgene, diphosgene and chloropicrin.
  • Blister agents: Burns skin, mucous membranes and eyes; causes large blisters on exposed skin; blisters windpipe and lungs; large casualties, low percentage of deaths. Examples: sulphur mustard, nitrogen mustard , phosgene oxime, Lewisite
  • Blood agents: Cyanide destroys ability of blood tissues to utilise oxygen, causing them to ‘starve’ and strangling the heart. Examples include hydrogen cyanide, cyanogen chloride, Arsine, VX
  • Riot control agents: Cause tears, coughing and irritation to eyes, nose, mouth and skin; constrict airway and shut eyes; teargas and pepper spray are examples of such agents


Nerve gas

  • It is a compound that acts by restricting the conduction of nerve impulses by blocking the action of acetylcholineesterase.
  • When acetylcholinesterase is prevented from performing its normal function of breaking down acetylcholine, muscles go into a state of uncontrolled contraction — a sign of paralysis or a seizure-like state.
  • When the cardiac and respiratory muscles are paralyzed, it results in death.
  • Nerve agents can also be absorbed through the skin.

Chemical Weapons Convention

  • To eliminate an entire category of weapons of mass destruction by prohibiting the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use of chemical weapons by States Parties.
  • All States Parties have agreed to chemically disarm by destroying any stockpiles of chemical weapons they may hold and any facilities which produced them, as well as any chemical weapons they abandoned on the territory of other States Parties in the past.
  • Allows member states to retain rights to use some of these chemicals for peaceful purposes such as riot control.
  • States Parties have also agreed to create a verification regime for certain toxic chemicals.
  • A unique feature is its incorporation of the ‘challenge inspection’, whereby any State Party in doubt about another State Party’s compliance can request the Director-General to send an inspection team.
  • 192 countries are signatories

Countries that possess or use chemical weapons

  • Of the 192 CWC signatories, Albania, India, Iraq, Libya, Russia, Syria, and the US declared possession.
  • Albania, India, Libya, Russia — and Syria — declared completion of destruction of chemical weapons.

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