Chemical Weapons Nearly Took Obama to War, Here’s Why

A total of 57,740 tons of declared chemical agents have been destroyed across the world, but how scared should we be?

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Mohamed Abdullah / Reuters

A U.N. chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, holds a plastic bag containing samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus, Aug. 29, 2013.

Somewhere in the computer servers of the OPCW, the international agency responsible for chemical weapons disarmament, there is a model, an equation, essentially, that simulates a chemical weapon attack. On one side of the equation is a set of variables that allow the agent to spread in lethal doses. Some of these variables are self-evident, like the toxicity of the agent used, the concentration of its spray, and the density of the population that falls within its invisible blast radius. It’s the less obvious variables that stand as a stark reminder of why these weapons are so frighteningly “unconventional.”

Wind, for instance, blowing at a speed of 10 meters per second, can diffuse a cloud of sarin gas ‚ such as that responsible for more than 1,000 deaths around Damascus on Aug. 21, down to non-lethal doses in a matter of minutes. Release it into a slow-moving pocket of air, however, and it can drift in a thick, choking cloud for upwards of 30 minutes straight. A hill can rise above the poison’s path. A valley can funnel it downwards. It is a weapon as fickle as the wind and as unpredictable as the curves of a topographical map. Researchers tinker with these variables to understand how agents react to the surrounding environment.

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Which brings them to the other side of the equation, a grim prediction. “You can calculate how many people who are breathing in the atmosphere are likely to die,” says Ralf Trapp, a former advisor and negotiator for the Chemical Weapons Convention and official at the OPCW. Civilians, unequipped with gas masks and protective suits, are uniquely vulnerable. “Chemical weapons, when used close to populated areas, will kill large numbers of civilians — including women and children — simply because you can protect an army against the effects of chemical weapons fairly well,” says Trapp. “You cannot really protect a civilian population.” So the weapons are not only freakishly lethal, they’re also of questionable military value. That’s why 189 countries, comprising 98 percent of the world, have signed onto the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international treaty that bans chemical weapons from the battlefield and has every last declared stockpile slated for destruction.

So how is it progressing? The good news is the two biggest stockpiles from the Cold War, roughly 70,000 tons between Russia and the US, have been hugely reduced. The U.S. has destroyed 90% of its stockpile, Russia 60%. Four other countries with relatively minuscule stockpiles declared their secret stashes upon signing the treaty.  “India, for example, was a surprise,” says Trapp. They too have destroyed their stockpiles. The remainder of declared weapons is largely confined to the U.S. and Russia, and under the watchful gaze of the OPCW.

The operative word is “watchful.” Talking to the people who watched these weapons for a living is an alternately unsettling and reassuring experience. Jeff Osborne estimates that he was involved in more than 100 inspection tours over the course of his 12-year career as a former inspector for the OPCW. “You wake up for your shift, and it’s just like any place else going to work,” he says, which is true, if your work entails a state security escort and a gas mask either strapped to your face or hanging within arm’s reach at all times.

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“You’re dealing with an extremely toxic material,” he says. “A thimble-full could kill a thousand people-ish … Now you’ve got this loaded into munitions with explosives associated and so forth and the quantities can be staggering. There are single sites in Russia, which on my departure three years ago or so, there were over a million weapons.”

Traveling with a typical team of six to eight inspectors, Osborne would conduct annual inspections of declared sites around the world. Before entering the bunkers, they’d check the air monitors for any sign of contamination. If none were found, the team leader would ask security to open the bunker door and let it air out. In the meantime, the team leader and medical personnel would decide if they could enter the bunker with gas masks on their faces or swinging at their sides. Then they counted the weapons, keeping an eye out for a random sample of munitions that were individually tagged on previous inspections.

The inspection teams at the OPCW will conduct these checks at every declared stockpile at least once a year until the weapons are destroyed. Even then, the inspection tours will not end. They will continue in chemical production plants that could easily be converted for military uses. Scientists in commercial plants may stumble on a substance so toxic that it could have no commercial use whatsoever. “The chemistry to make sulfur mustard is quite simple,” says Trapp. “Anybody who has a developed chemical industry will be able over relatively short periods of time to convert that into the production of mustard gas.”

This monitoring regime extends to 98% of the countries in the world and safeguards against the proliferation of chemical weapons. But it suffers from two blindspots. First, there’s the handful of countries that have refused to ratify the treaty. Egypt and Syria have refused to join until Israel, which has signed but not yet ratified the treaty, joins the nuclear non-proliferation treaty as well. This link has created an impasse in a region perpetually locked in impasses. North Korea never responded to OPCW invitations to discuss the issue, and other non-signatories, such as Angola, Burma and South Sudan, betray little credible evidence of stockpiles.

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The second blindspot is little known and perhaps even trickier to resolve. There is an old battlefield in Belgium where munitions from World War I once rained down in incredible amounts, Osborne says, “over 10,000 in a single six-hour battle.” Roughly one in ten of those munitions landed with a thud. “These are called duds,” Osborne says, and to this day, Belgian farmers pull duds out of the soil at a rate of roughly one ton per day. They stack them in tidy piles at the ends of their fields, where, every morning a bomb disposal team will get in their trucks and collect the weapons, “like a reverse milk run,” Osborne says.

“These are rusted lumps of metal,” Osborne says. “In many cases it’s like archaeology.” The inspectors would begin with a simple question: “What is this?” Then the guessing game would being. “Um, it looks like a French 15 cm projectile by this feature and this feature, probably chemical filled.’” One in 20 weapons carried chemical agents that still have the potency to kill to this day. “There are people that are killed every single year picking this stuff up and moving it.” Not just in Belgium, either. “Hundreds of thousands of tons were dumped in the Baltic,” Osborne says. “Panama also. Oh yeah.”

The U.S., U.K. and Canada wanted to ensure that chemical weapons would work against the Japanese in a tropical environment, so they leased an island 30 miles off of Panama’s coastline, bombarded it, and left it. The Japanese, for their part, fired 500,000 to 1.5 million chemical weapons in China, which still turn up in fields to this day. Osborne says that for the field in Belgium, at least, “they’re making progress,“ adding, “Still, this is after 90 years.”

Even if every country signs up for the treaty, declares their stockpiles, submits to inspections and destroys them on schedule, chemical weapons may still not be fully eradicated from this earth so long as a Belgian farmer, ploughing his field, can turn up a reminder of the horrors from a distant battle, when the world was just beginning to awaken to the nightmare of modern warfare. A century later, we’re still absorbing the shock.

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