The Long Shadow of Chemical Weapons


Thus far Asia has largely evaded the chemical weapons challenge now confronting Middle Eastern and NATO countries as they contemplate how to respond to the civil war in Syria and consolidate peace and security in Libya and Iraq. For good reason, most attention has focused on the emerging nuclear weapons powers of Iran and North Korea as well as the tense relations among the existing nuclear weapons states in Asia.

The recent angst surrounding the possible use of chemical weapons stockpiles by regime diehards in Syria, or their seizure by extremist elements among the insurgents, underscore the continued danger of chemical weapons proliferation and the need to take stronger measures to oppose it. 

Allied leaders have adopted strong declarations against Assad using chemical weapons even while they contemplate unpleasant contingency plans to secure or eliminate the material on their own. Last month President Obama said that his administration had “increased concern” that Syria would engage in the “totally unacceptable” use of chemical weapons. “If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons,” he warned, “there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”

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Syria is widely suspected of having one of the world’s largest chemical weapons arsenals, including a range of chemical agents (from unsophisticated choking agents to advanced nerve agents), several delivery systems (such as missiles, bombs, and shells), and multiple stockpiles in which the chemical precursors can be rapidly combined to arm the weapons. These could prove very effective if used against the rebel forces, which lack any protection against chemical weapons. Additionally, the Assad regime could use them against foreign nations such as Turkey which has strongly backed the rebel forces.

Perhaps the most serious danger is that, when the Assad regime falls, malicious non-state actors will seize Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. Despite its desire to stay out of the Syrian conflict, the Obama administration may need to send U.S. troops to Syria to secure the chemical agents and related infrastructure to prevent terrorists from gaining control of them.

Even if these stocks are secure, the agents required to produce chemical weapons are widely available. Many countries possess industries capable of producing large quantities of such chemicals. Additionally, poorly secured caches of weaponized chemical compounds in the former Soviet Union offer potential weapons to for terrorist organizations, criminal groups, or rogue regimes.

Improvised chemical explosive devices can be produced with widely available chemicals and without much chemical expertise. Under certain conditions, even a minor CW attack could cause widespread panic and immense economic losses, transforming limited attacks into major incidents.

Asia received a warning two decades ago about how a significant quantity of a chemical agent in a concentrated area could be extremely deadly. The Aum Shinrikyo cult, which was based in Japan but operated in many Asian countries, undertook a large-scale program to develop weapons of mass destruction in the 1990s. Notwithstanding its vast resources, the cult proved unable to develop biological or nuclear weapons, but it did manage to make sarin. Although its 1995 operation in the Tokyo Subway resulted in only a dozen deaths, more than 5,000 people were hospitalized. Many more people might have died had AumShinrikyo used the gas more effectively, had conducted the operation in more favorable weather conditions, or used an even more deadly chemical agent. 

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