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Syria Is Not The Only Country In The Middle East With Chemical Weapons

With mounting evidence that chemical weapons have caused thousands of casualties in the Syrian civil war, the world has been quick to condemn their use – but Syria is not the only country with big stockpiles of weaponized chemicals, particularly in the Middle East.

Update 11/15/13:

The OPCW accepted a roadmap today that will see the most critical chemicals leave Syria by the end of the year, and the destruction of all delivery weapons by January 31, 2014, according to a press release.

All chemical weapons (CW) production facilities in Syria were rendered inoperable by October 31, 2o13.

While the process suffered a setback after Albania refused to assist weapons destruction, the OPCW is still working towards the final June 30, 2014 deadline for the destruction of all Syrian CWs.

Update 9/12/13:

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has confirmed that the county’s chemical weapons will be placed under international control, the BBC reports.

Most of the world has renounced chemical weapons (CWs), with World War I and the tens of thousands of CW casualties in the Iran-Iraq War of the ‘80s in mind.

The 1925 Geneva Protocol, which 138 countries (including Syria, Iran, Iraq, Israel and Egypt) have agreed to, bans “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices,” according to the United Nations.

Although there’s a question of whether the Geneva Protocol, intended for warfare between states, also applies to internal armed conflicts such as Syria’s, The International Red Cross states that there is a “general consensus” in the international community agreeing to this.

Similar to the Geneva Protocol, 189 states have agreed to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 1993, which bans members from producing or acquiring chemical weapons and obligates them to destroy current stockpiles, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Notably, however, Israel has signed but not ratified the CWC, meaning the country is not affected, and Syria and Egypt have not signed it.

This is the current status of countries known or suspected to have chemical weapons:

Syria  Israel  Egypt  Iran  Iraq

Syria

 

According to the non-profit Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), which charts weapons of mass destruction worldwide, Syria has likely built up a stockpile of chemical weapons that has been increasing in recent years (although the official policy is to neither deny nor confirm the existence of such weapons).

The arsenal they are believed to possess includes:

  • Sarin, an odorless, tasteless gas that the Centre for Disease Control calls “one of the most toxic” of known CWs. Exposure of a fraction of an ounce on the skin can be fatal in minutes.

  • Mustard agents, similar to the mustard gas used in WWI, that cause severe blistering of the skin and mucous membranes. It can be clear or yellow, may smell like onions, mustard, or have no smell, and can come in gas, solid, and liquid forms.

  • Possibly VX, a nerve agent even more potent than sarin, according to the CDC. It’s primarily liquid but can be heated to form a gas. A dose as small as 10mg on the skin is lethal in minutes, the CDC writes.

Syria is believed to possess Scud-class ballistic missiles, as well as air-dropped bombs and artillery shells that can deliver these chemicals.

Israel

With its advanced chemical industry comprising 25% of Israel’s revenue (excluding diamonds), the country has a sophisticated base of chemistry knowledge.

While it doesn’t confirm or deny the existence of CW (similar to Syria, or to its own nuclear capability), open documents do show that extensive research has taken place on how to defend against these weapons, according to the NTI.

Whether the capability to weaponize these chemicals is known, Israel likely has the capability to begin production of sarin, tabun (a similar, less toxic chemical), and VX. A U.S. intelligence report from 1993 stated that Israel likely had clandestine CW offensive capability.

It likely also has the capability to produce binary agents, the NTI writes, which are less toxic or non-toxic chemicals that can be combined to make a CW right before deployment, making them much safer than traditional weapons.

Egypt

Among one of the few countries that has actually employed chemical weapons in combat (while intervening in the Yemeni civil war of ‘63-’67), Egypt definitely possessed chemical weapons in the past, NTI writes.

During that conflict, they employed phosgene, a gas that causes buildup of fluids in the respiratory system, leading to asphyxiation. The chemical was responsible for 80% of all CW deaths in WWI. Egypt also employed mustard gas, both chemicals that were abandoned by the British after their withdrawal in 1954.

While it has not confirmed the existence of CW today, Western intelligence estimated that the country has significant stockpiles of blister agents such as mustard, nerve agents such as sarin, and blood agents, which work similarly to arsenic and cyanide in that they disrupt the body’s flow of oxygen.

Iran

In the last few years of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, during which Iran suffered tens of thousands of CW casualties, the latter was in possession of such weapons, but there is no evidence that it used them, according to NTI.

A member of the CWC non-proliferation treaty, Iran is bound to not produce or acquire CW, and international inspectors have confirmed that the facility from the ‘80s has been shut down.

Nevertheless, NTI writes that U.S. officials have accused Iran of secretly stockpiling chemicals, citing purchases of so-called dual use materials that can be used either for legitimate purposes or for developing CWs.

Iran has also purchased CW defensive gear, and likely possesses warheads, shells, and mines that can deploy chemicals.

However, CWC inspections have not uncovered any evidence of weaponized chemicals, and intelligence agencies have in recent years taken a less definitive stance on whether Iran possesses CWs.

Iraq

One of the worst offenders of chemical warfare since WWI, Iraq under Saddam Hussein not only used CW against Iran, but also used to gas its Kurd population, killing over 5,000 civilians, according to NTI.

Its facilities were capable of producing mustard gas, tabun, sarin, and VX.

After its defeat in the Gulf War of 1991, Iraq declared that it had a large stock of CW munitions, which inspectors helped destroy

As no stockpiles were found after the invasion in 2003, it’s believed that Iraq is no longer in possession of or is capable of producing CW.

Ole Skaar