Chemical weapons were first used in World War I. Soldiers used phosgene and chlorine gases during battle to kill their opponents, and this eventually expanded to other chemical weapons, such as yperite, commonly known as mustard gas. When the Cold War began, the United States and the Soviet Union each obtained heaps of chemical weapons that were put on reserve in the event that they might be needed for battle. In addition to these events, Iraq and Iran have also used chemical weapons. One of the most horrific uses of chemical attacks occurred on March 16 1988, when Iraqi planes dropped chemical mixtures of both mustard gas and sarin on the Kurdish town of Halabja. The attack, which is simply referred to as “Halabja,” left thousands of people dead.
The Syrian Civil War began in March 2011 and also made use of chemical weapons warfare. This outbreak of war began after civilians protested the Syrian government, claiming that President Bashar al-Assad violated human rights. Since the protest, these civilians have been identified as rebels and have been engaged in an ongoing battle with the Syrian government.
On August 21, 2013, there was an attack in Ghouta known as the Khan Sheikhoun attack. Rockets filled with sarin targeted the area at night in an attempt to drive out rebels. However, hundreds of civilian adults and children were killed in this attack while they slept.
According to a report by the United Nations, sarin is a nerve agent that is considered 20 times more deadly than cyanide. Sarin can also cause death within minutes of exposure and the victims of the attack suffer from symptoms such as vomiting, foaming at the mouth, and shortness of breath. Some reports state that thousands of Syrians were killed after that attack and former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that, “This is the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988.”
In addition to this attack, the Assad government has been accused of using chemical weapons in other attacks. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is responsible for reviewing and confirming the number of chemical weapons held by different countries. In 2014, the OPCW said that the entirety of the Assad government’s chemical weapon supply was removed.
However, as time went on, the Syrian government would simply resort to less-toxic chemical attacks. In 2015, reports surfaced of the government using chlorine attacks on its civilians, and this would later be confirmed by the OPCW and the United Nations. Though other chemical agents were banned in the country, chlorine was not because of the multiple uses that it serves, and while it is may have adverse effects of those who come in contact with it, chlorine is not necessarily deadly.
The most recent chemical attack occurred on April 4, 2017. More than 80 people were killed in another sarin attack in Khan-Sheikhoun. Victims from this attack suffered from convulsions and suffocation, in addition to numerous other symptoms. After the attack, the Assad government denied having any responsibility over the tragedy, however, officials believe the Assad government was behind this latest attack.
Witnesses are said to believe the Assad government was responsible because airplanes were seen flying over the Khan-Sheikoun area during the time of the attack. Assad, however, has even suggested that the videos seen of the attack may not be authentic. The United States Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has called upon Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran, to have influence over the country so that harmful attacks such as this one no longer occur.
Since reports of Syria obtaining chemical weapons first surfaced, the United States has been heavily involved. In 2012, former President Barack Obama stated that if the Assad government were to utilize chemical weapons on their civilians, he would draw the line and consider a serious intervention. Shortly after the attack in Ghouda, Obama sought approval for a military strike in Syria, but he did not carry out this attack because he wanted to have approval from Congress, which he did not receive.
Most recently, United States President Donald Trump authorized an airstrike against a Syrian government airbase, launching 59 Tomahawk missiles. Trump’s authorized attack was aimed to discourage chemical attacks by the Syrian government against their people.
Other countries have been willing to step in and aid the protection of humanitarian right during the Syrian peoples’ time of need. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said, “If Americans were once again to be forced by the actions of the Assad regime…and they ask us to help it would be very difficult to say no.”
The UK has also helped during this crisis in other ways. Thousands of refugees from Syria have been accepted into the country, and they plan to accept more. The UK and the United States have also contributed millions of dollars to aid in relief. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is also against the war and believes that Assad should be removed from his position as president. The Arab State has provided military assistance to the rebels who are against Assad and has repeatedly attempted to use political means to control Assad’s actions.
In addition to unrest and internal turmoil, the chemical attacks in Syria have also led to an increasing number of refugees. More than 4 million people have fled the country in hopes of finding peace someplace else. According to a report from the BCC, more than 6.5 million people are displaced in the country itself as a result of the conflict.
Bordering countries to Syria, such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, have been affected by the war and have taken in massive numbers of refugees. Turkey has welcomed close to two million refugees, while Lebanon has taken in over one million, and because of the overwhelming numbers, Lebanon has recently decided to create safe-zones in Syria for those seeking refuge instead of allowing them into the country. Iraq has also opened its doors to Syrian refugees, but is struggling with their displaced citizens, as well. According to this report by CNN, Jordan has taken in more than 500,000 Syrian refugees. In addition to these countries, refugees are also fleeing to countries such as Germany, Sweden and France.
Though Syrian rebels, civilians, and refugees have support from many countries around the world, there are still several countries who are on the Assad government’s side. It has been reported that Iran has spent billions of dollars per year to assist Assad and his government. In addition to Iran, Russia has had a longtime partnership with Syria and Assad. Russia not only sells weapons to Syria, but has launched airstrikes against the rebels. In addition to these countries, China is also opposed to Western countries intervening in the war and has stood with Assad.
The Syrian Civil War continues to be one of the most defining moments of our history. The usage of chemical attacks on innocent civilians has not only killed thousands of people in the country, but it has caused even more Syrians to flee. As long as chemical weapons are used, people will continue to rebel against the Assad government.