CWs are a poor man’s weapon. Nuclear arms’ holders belong to an exclusive club of economically and technologically advanced nations which have invested immense energies, resources and time in acquiring nuclear arsenals.
We usually apply the term ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMDs) to a variety of nuclear, chemical, radiological and biological weaponry capable of killing or harming large numbers of humans and inflicting large-scale damage to economic and social infrastructure, or to the biosphere. The term remains somewhat ambiguous, since nobody can define what ‘large numbers’ or ‘large-scale damage’ exactly mean. Among various WMDs, nuclear weapons have always received the bulk of public attention and the highest political profile. They are widely believed to constitute the most evident and the most dangerous threat not only to individual countries and societies, but also to the human species itself and to the life on the Earth at large.
Chemical weapons (CWs) are an elder brother to nuclear weapons. Great powers started working on the former already in the XIX century, and the international law prohibits their use since 1899 (the first Hague Convention on the conduct of warfare). This prohibition, however, did not prevent an active employment of CWs during the First World War and in many conflicts later on – including the Japanese war against China (1937 – 1945), the US war in Vietnam (1965 – 1973) and the Iran-Iraq war (1980 – 1988). Still, the conventional wisdom suggests that CWs are more manageable, less controversial and, in the end of the day, less dangerous than nuclear weapons. Indeed, the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention turned out to be a spectacular success of the international community. It was signed by almost two hundred nations representing 98% of the global population, the newly founded Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) supervised the distraction of more than 92% of the CWs stockpiles with almost five thousand industrial facilities having been subject to international inspection and monitoring.
However, the recent use of CWs in Syria should remind all of us that the problem is not close to its final solution. On the contrary, one can argue that things are getting worse rather than better, and that CWs today represent a more immediate and potentially more dangerous challenge to the humankind that even nuclear weapons. Let me make four points to substantiate these pessimistic assumptions.
First, CWs are a poor man’s weapon. Nuclear arms’ holders belong to an exclusive club of economically and technologically advanced nations which have invested immense energies, resources and time in acquiring nuclear arsenals. This club is extremely hostile to potential new members, and the international community fully shares this hostility. CWs can be developed by nations with very limited financial, economic and technological capacities and they can be developed within a relatively short period. To make things even worse, ambitions and committed non-state actors can appropriate CWs much easier than nuclear weapons, which makes CWs much more suitable means of a terrorist act (the Aum Shinrikyo deadly Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995 is a graphic example) or a weapon utilized in a civil war (the ongoing civil conflict in Syria).
Second, the existence or elimination of CWs is much more difficult to verify than it is the case with nuclear weapons. Take, for instance, the March 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States-led coalition that ended with the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime and the ultimate collapse of the Iraqi statehood. A month before the invasion, Secretary of State Colin Powell triggered the war with his speech to the U.N. Security Council, in which he alleged that Iraq was hiding CWs from international inspectors and refusing to disarm. As we now know, this allegation was false. On the other hand, ten years later in Syria, after the United States, Russia and Damascus signed the "Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons” (September, 2013), all the stockpiles of Syrian CWs were allegedly completely destroyed under the supervision of OPCW within less than twelve months (by mid-2014). As we know now, this assumption was also wrong – the ‘destroyed’ CWs are utilized in the Syrian conflict time after time.
Third, nuclear weapons have been developed and deployed not to be used, but to deter a potential opponent. For seventy years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki no nuclear state was reckless enough to start a nuclear war. Even in the most critical situations like the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, the opposing sides were prudent enough not to cross the red line that could had led to the annihilation of all the humankind. Contrarily to nuclear weapons, CWs have never been perceived as doomsday weapons capable of terminating life on the planet. Nobody really knows for sure, how many times CWs have been used on the battlefield or against civilians, but it is clear that we are talking of hundreds, if not thousands of cases over the last century. One can argue without any shade of doubt that many more people have suffered and perished due to the continuous use of chemical weapons than from the two nuclear bombs dropped by US on Japan in the end of the Second World War.
Fourth, in case of potential use of nuclear weapons it would be crystal-clear within literally a couple of minutes who has employed this devastating means of mass destruction. In case of CWs the name of the perpetrator is much more difficult to verify – the international community is still debating about who exactly used chemical weapons in Syria in multiple incidents since 2012. If the perpetrator remains anonymous, how can we have hope that justice will prevail?
In sum, chemical weapons do not look as sinister, menacing and fateful as nuclear weapons. However, in the practical day-to-day challenges to the humankind the former are no less dangerous than the latter. The international community has to rise to the challenge and to reconsider its current approach to CWs. This implies a new level of public awareness, a more intense collaboration among national intelligences services, a higher profile an authority for OPCW, more efforts at promoting joint private-public initiatives, and zero tolerance to those who explicitly or implicitly justify, assist or protect international criminals employing CWs.