The alleged attack with chlorine on April 7 against civilians in Duma, in eastern Damascus, reawakened a ghost that for more than a century society has wanted to bury: chemical weapons.
The chemical weapons had their debut in the First World War (1914-1918) with such devastating consequences and a reaction of such great disgust on the part of the general public, that the international community resolved to prohibit them.
They soon became a taboo, but it was not until 1997 that a convention for its elimination came into force that was ratified by the world powers and several other countries.
Although, in reality, they never disappeared. Its use has been proven in several international conflicts and since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, in 2011, it has been used so frequently that many fear a new uncontrolled proliferation.
The first World War
The First World War is synonymous with trenches and chemical weapons. They were used on a large scale, after their introduction into the conflict by the German forces in 1915.
The first was the chlorine gas that acts as a suffocating agent. It was designed more as an incapacitating weapon than a mortal one, although it did not stop producing numerous deaths.
The Germans had used tear gas in 1914, but chlorine was first released in Ypres on April 16, 1915.
Despite its simplicity, its effect was enormous because it was a completely new weapon.
It was soon followed by the gas mo s cup, an abrasive whose effect was to burn the lungs, eyes and exposed skin causing massive blisters.
He severely wounded many soldiers. The initial objective was not necessarily to kill but to generate incapacity of the soldiers, in this way many of the resources of the war had to be diverted to the care of the wounded.
The use of these weapons was not exclusive to the Germans. British and French also developed and released their chemical gases in the trenches.
Around 100,000 people died and more than one million were affected by chemical attacks.
The public’s rejection of the use of these weapons after the First World War was widespread. And the world came together quickly to eradicate them.
Protocols and agreements without force
The Protocol of Geneva decreed illegal this armament in 1925, but that did not stop to the main powers.
Spain and Italy used it in their campaigns in North Africa. The Spanish did it in Morocco between 1923 and 1926, and the Italians in Ethiopia between 1935 and 1940.
During World War II, Nazi Germany developed nervous agents. In the beginning, they concentrated on organophostates and pesticides.
Produced nerve agents such as tabun, som to n and sarin, which were incredibly effective in killing people.
Although they never used them on the battlefield, they did use them in their extermination camps.
The then Soviet Union also used mustard gas during World War II in China, a country that was also “sprayed” with chemicals by Japanese troops.
Later in the twentieth century, the United States used them to people Naranja in the war in Viet Nam, in the 60s a chemical defoliant demonstrated its harmful effects on both people and devastated vegetation.
But the most devastating product of that conflict was Napalm, a compound of gasoline, benzene, and polystyrene used in incendiary bombs, whose effects have lasted many years after the war.
In the 1990s, the Chemical Weapons Convention was established, which prohibited its manufacture, storage or development and which was ratified by almost all the members of the UN, including the United States. and Russia. Entered into force in 1997.
However, the nervous agents resurfaced with great force during the war between Iran and Iraq, between 1984 and 1988.
At the end of that conflict, the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered a chemical attack against the Kurdish population in Halabja, where 5,000 people died in a single day.
That March 16, 1988, is one of the most infamous dates in the history of mankind.
The “red line” ignored
But then came the civil war in Syria.
In the framework of that conflict, in 2012 the then president of the United States, Barack Obama, warned the government of Bashar al-Assad about crossing the “red line” of chemical weapons.
But, when a year later, a terrible attack happened in Aleppo, the international community decided to ignore that this red line had been crossed.
“By doing nothing, for me, he broke that taboo,” Hamish of Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of the UK’s Chemical, Biological and Nuclear Regiment, told the BBC.
“Since then, only in the conflict in Syria there have been more than 1,000 incidents of chemical weapons use, ” he added.
The self-styled Islamic State has used them extensively against the peshmerga, Kurdish fighters.
Bretton-Gordon, who has worked with victims of these attacks, was targeted by one of them near the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2016.
According to him, unless something is done soon about it, there will be more proliferation of these weapons around the world.
That has been evidenced by the Kim Kong-Nam assassination in 2017 in Kuala Lumpur, the stepbrother of the leader of North Korea.
That attack was carried out with a very lethal nerve agent known as VX, which was developed in the United Kingdom in the 1950s.
Of all chemical weapons, nerve agents are the most toxic and fearsome, experts say.
There is a great variety. Sarin and VX are the best known, but all belong to the same chemical family: organophostates.
And they act in a similar way: d estruyen nerves very quickly and the body stops working.
“They interrupt all basic functions, such as the intestinal, pulmonary and cardiac functions, they also affect the muscles and the brain,” Gary Stephens, professor of pharmacology and specialist in neurochemistry, told the BBC.
New stage of chemical agents
Then, in March 2018, the assassination attempt of the Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, arrived in Salisbury, United Kingdom.
Moscow has been singled out as the culprit because the chemical agent identified himself as novichok, developed secretly by Russia in the 1970s, at the same time that he signed the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Novichok is a binary chemical, so called because it is made of only two compounds, but it is 10 times more powerful than the existing ones.
It is known for its development thanks to VilMirzayanov, a Russian scientist who participated in his research before being isolated in the United States in 1995.
The novichok represents a new stage in the development of chemical weapons. Its components, individually, are not on the list of prohibited, so the Russians felt no obligation to report to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
That possibility of creating poisonous agents of new materials could entail the danger of an uncontrolled process in chemical weapons, the experts argue.
The OPCW allows countries to have chemical weapons, very limited, precursor material for experiments with defensive purposes and to develop antidotes.
But no country reveals how many chemical weapons reserves it has.
When the Convention entered into force in 1997, l will signatories must destroy all existing stocks for 2007.
The Russians declared that they had done it only last year. The United States, for its part, says it will not be able to comply until 2022.
Syria said that it has already destroyed them, but it is questioned by attacks such as the one in 2017 in the northwest of the country and the one allegedly registered in Duma, on April 7.
“If the international community and the UN Security Council are not prepared to enforce the ban, literally by force, it loses its effectiveness,” Hamish Bretton-Gordon said.
” The ethical threshold for the use of chemical weapons is being eroded, ” he concluded, which will take control, investigation, and verification more difficult in the future.
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