On the deadliness of “non-lethal” toxins & the banality of red lines


Anwar al-Eissa, 2013, Pacifier

[This post is intended as a starting point for exploring the distinctions between “lethal” and “non-lethal chemical” weapons, and the deadliness of the latter.  The post will be updated.]

In August 2012, US President Barack Obama issued a much-cited (and consequently much-ridiculed) warning that the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons would constitute “a red line”:

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus,” Obama said. “That would change my equation. . . . We’re monitoring that situation very carefully.”

Since then, at least 20 chemical weapons attacks have been alleged by opposition supporters, as well as by the regime, causing limited fatalities.

That was until yesterday, 21 August 2013, when an apparent chemical weapons attack on multiple suburbs of Damascus caused fatalities ranging from 200 to 1,400.

As the New York Times reported, the attack was  “marked by the telltale signs of chemical weapons: row after row of corpses without visible injury; hospitals flooded with victims, gasping for breath, trembling and staring ahead languidly; images of a gray cloud bursting over a neighborhood.”

Chemical, but not “Conventional Chemical Weapons”?

The Times was the first major western publication to cast doubt on the claim that “conventional chemical weapons” had been used.

In a blog post published at around 12:40 UTC on 21 August, the Times wrote: “Chemical weapons experts said the symptoms depicted in the video were inconsistent with the use of a conventional chemical weapon, like sarin or mustard gas.”

As is common practice for the Times, that sentence was later removed and then replaced with an amended version – without mention or issuance of a correction – significantly altering the initial claim that had implied CW use was unlikely:

The videos, experts said, also did not prove the use of chemical weapons, which interfere with the nervous system and can cause defecation, vomiting, intense salivation and tremors. Only some of those symptoms were visible in some patients.

The article went on to say:

Gwyn Winfield, editor of CBRNe World, a journal that covers unconventional weapons, said that the medics would most likely have been sickened by exposure to so many people dosed with chemical weapons — a phenomenon not seen in the videos. He said that the victims could have been killed by tear gas used in a confined space, or by a diluted form of a more powerful chemical agent. Others suggested that toxic industrial chemicals might have been used.

Some witness testimony suggested that residents, used to seeking cover from government shelling and airstrikes by running into underground shelters, had made the situation worse. In one video, a young medic said that residents had hidden in their basements, where the gas collected and suffocated them.

“The descent of the citizens into the basements increased the number of wounded and the number of martyrs,” the medic said, before breaking into tears and adding that many from the medical corps also succumbed to the gases.

Victims reportedly buried alive

One further horrifying claim published today by the Guardian indicates that some victims who were incapacitated had been mistaken for dead:

“Another grim detail has been added to the horrors of yesterday in this account, which the Guardian cannot independently verify, by Damascus based activist Leena al-Shami:

We received news that some of the people affected with the lethal substance are losing consciousness for long hours, which makes those around them think they are dead. So far five people were reported to have “come back to life” before they were buried. However, we do not know how many were actually buried alive while they were unconscious.

The main problem is that there is no professional medical help in the areas where the massacre took place, so rescuers are ordinary people who try their best to help the victims, and they fail sometimes to do the required steps to save lives the right way.”

The lethality of non-lethal chemical weapons

Given that ample video evidence and testimonies indicate significant fatalities without signs of exterior injuries, particularly of children, it bears considering whether the cause of death may have been from “incapacitating” or “non-lethal chemical weapons” rendered particularly potent by their exposure in a closed environment.

According to a 2002 position paper published by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS)  entitled “Chemical Incapacitating Weapons are not Non-Lethal,” a model created for ascertaining lethality of “incapacitating” agents concluded:

An incapacitating agent that is exceptionally safe by pharmacological standards […] delivered under ideal conditions to a uniformly healthy population, 9% of victims would die when the goal is to incapacitate almost everyone (99%) in a particular place (often an enclosed space), as in hostage rescue or urban military operations.

Considerably higher levels of lethality are predicted when typical pharmaceutical agents are used as incapacitating weapons. This is exactly what happened in the Moscow hostage rescue, where lethality was 17%.

An article by David Isenberg titled “Next up: Non-lethal chemicals that kill” published in the Asia Times on 1 April 2003, which cites the FAS paper, concluded:

“Such lethal consequences are inevitable. When any substance is delivered through the air it is impossible to control individual doses. The fact that surgery patients periodically die while under anesthesia, which is a far more controlled situation than would occur with NLW [non-lethal weapons] use on the battlefield, illustrates the impossibility of using calmatives without causing fatalities. In fact, as an analysis by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) points out, a categorical distinction between lethal and non-lethal agents is not scientifically feasible.”

Blurring the lines between riot control and warfare

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which Syria and Egypt are not signatories to (and which Israel has signed but not ratified) prohibits the use of “chemical toxins,” which it defines as “any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals.”

However, “‘toxic chemicals and their precursors are not considered to be chemical weapons “where intended for purposes not prohibited under this Convention’, but only under the condition that ‘the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes’.”

The exception “where intended for purposes not prohibited” is spelled out in Article II, paragraph 9:

9. “Purposes Not Prohibited Under this Convention” means:

(a) Industrial, agricultural, research, medical, pharmaceutical or other peaceful purposes;
(b) Protective purposes, namely those purposes directly related to protection against toxic chemicals and to protection against chemical weapons;
(c) Military purposes not connected with the use of chemical weapons and not dependent on the use of the toxic properties of chemicals as a method of warfare;
(d) Law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes.

According to Dr. Ritter v. Wagner, the former chairman of the Ad-Hoc Committee on Chemical Weapons in the Conference on Disarmament:

The unprohibited purpose for which toxic chemicals and their precursors may be used is “Law enforcement including domestic riot control”. Thus, the complete definition reads as follows:

Toxic chemicals and their precursors are not considered to be chemical weapons if they are intended for purposes of law enforcement including riot control.

This is a very specific and limited exception to the general rule that toxic chemicals and their precursors are chemical weapons.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is the implementing body for the CWC, however clearly states that: “Each state party undertakes not to use riot control agents as a method of warfare.”

In a paper issued at a convention tasked with reviewing the CWC in April 2013, Germany explicitly warned that under the “guise of law enforcement purposes a new group of chemical weapons could be developed or produced,” which “would blur the distinction between law enforcement and warfare and endanger the object and purpose of the Convention to completely prohibit and eliminate chemical weapons”:

While the Convention provides a definition for riot control agents in Article II (7), there is no explicit definition of toxic chemicals which may be used for law enforcement. In particular the term “Incapacitating Chemical Agents” is neither defined nor used in the Convention.

As reported by the International Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission in June 2006, “[t]here is an increasing interest among some governments to adopt a more flexible interpretation of the CWC rules on the use of incapacitating chemical weapons, even as a method of warfare, in order to be able to use them in diverse situations.”

According to Isenberg writing in 2003, the US was at the forefront of attempts to degrade the CWC’s proscription against riot control agents in warfare:

“In recent years, however, the Pentagon has gradually turned to new and dangerously loose interpretations of the CWC that would allow the military use of incapacitating chemicals. The changes in policy amount to a “very serious assault” on the CWC, warns microbiology professor Mark Wheelis of the University of California, who has written extensively on chemical and biological weapons issues: “And it is being guided by very narrow, shortsighted tactical concerns. If the United States is allowed to continue to develop [calmatives] sooner or later we are going to be employing artillery shells and aerial bombs [loaded with calmatives]. And we are going to have troops trained to use them.”

Wheelis further warned of far-reaching consequences:

If the United States does this, other countries will follow suit. The long-term implications are quite profound.” According to Wheelis, it amounts to no less than “preparing for chemical war”.

“Militarily significant” dosages

A paper by Julian Perry Robinson, published by Harvard-Sussex on 26 June 2013, posited that the Syrian regime may be engaging in chemical warfare in a manner that doesn’t live up to a “red line” threshold. In fact, Robinson argues, that the methods and smaller quantities potentially used call into question the convention’s overall “fitness” to serve the treaty’s purpose:

If the allegations are true, Syria is engaged in a form of chemical warfare whose purpose and therefore methods (small scale, pinpoint targeting, disabling) are at variance with concepts underpinning the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. It would thus call into question the continuing fitness for purpose of certain of the treaty’s provisions, specifically those set by the quantitative possession, declaration and reporting thresholds that were derived from Cold War notions of ‘militarily significant’ quantities. The CWC was never intended solely as a suppressant of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, whatever the popular view of it may now have become.

Robinson further argued that the relatively limited casualties appear “trivial” against the staggering numbers of dead, injured and displaced by other means.

“The picture we currently have of chemical-weapons employment in Syria originates in descriptions by local civil society and by journalists. The descriptions since 2012 that are known to HSP […] refer to 20, perhaps 30, episodes of chemical warfare during the past eighteen months in which a total of more than 95 people apparently died from poison and at least 700 more were affected by it.

Thus far in the Syrian civil war, at least 93,000 people have died, hundreds of thousands more have been injured, and a still greater number forced to flee. Reports of deliberately small- scale acts of poisoning, for that is what the allegations appear to be, seem trivial against such a background.”

He also scrutinized the lack of published evidence by western governments and insight into the “analytical methods” employed:

“Even so, the pressing task of demonstrating whether there is or is not truth in the allegations necessitates more evidence than bald assertion. It is not at all obvious why, at the very least, the British, French, Turkish and US governments have not publicly described for scientific audiences the analytical methods they applied to the physiological (and perhaps other) samples in which they all say they have found sarin.”

For people suspicious of western governments’ claim regarding CW use by the Syrian regime, the obvious inference  is that they are made to justify military action, as occurred  ahead of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. But the ‘red line’ speech has proven to be more of an embarrassment than not for the Obama Administration, which is evidently reluctant for the US to intervene directly in a militarily significant manner.

Part of the hesitance to publish what evidence exists on the use of CW may also stem from the fact that:

– some reports on CW usage originate from sources that would be considered politically compromised, e.g. Israeli ones

– governments do not want to draw attention to the lethality of chemical agents classified as non-lethal, which are widely used by all states, including the Syrian regime

Orienting claims around a “red line”

The term “chemical weapons,” as it relates to the Obama administration’s purported red line, refers to a classification of banned lethal chemical agents. These require specific antidotes, medical procedures and responses to exposure.

But incapacitating agents that are not by definition “lethal chemical weapons” can still be deadly and their employment in civilian areas violate other conventions of warfare.

It is worth exploring whether both the significant fatalities and symptoms displayed by victims of yesterday’s attack in Eastern Ghouta could have resulted from chemical weapons not deemed “lethal.”

This may invalidate the cruel and elusive benchmark of a “red line” around which accusations of chemical weapons have revolved. But it would  make a damning case against the use of so-called “non-lethal” weapons, which are employed by states –be they liberal democracies, occupiers or despots, to deadly effect.



(14:42 GMT+2, 23 Aug 2013) Correction of the paragraph where I had mentioned the distinction between toxic chemicals and chemical weapons. I had mistakenly written that the CWC distinguishes between the two, as if the former were not prohibited by the Convention. Thank you kindly to Julian Robinson.

(8.45 GMT +2, 23 Aug 2013): Experts: It doesn’t matter what chemicals Syria is using (NBC News, 22 Aug 2013): 

Chemical weapons experts say it doesn’t matter whether the Syrian military put nerve gas or commercial insecticide in the rockets it used to kill hundreds in the Damascus suburbs on Wednesday.”

(19:00 GMT +2, 22 Aug 2013)Chemical weapons experts say strike near Damascus fits with lethal toxin use (Guardian, 22 Aug 2013)

Links/Further reading

Chemical Incapacitating Weapons Are Not Non-Lethal (Federation of American Scientists, position paper, 2010)

Incapacitating Chemical Weapons and the Chemical Weapons Convention (Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, 2007)

Beware the Siren’s Song: Why “Non-lethal” incapacitating chemical agents are lethal (Mark Wheelis, et al, FAS, March 2003)

Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria (Julian Robinson, paper published by Harvard Sussex, June 2013)

Up Next: Non-lethal Chemicals that Kill (David Isenberg, Asia Times, 1 April 2003)

US grapples with use of non-lethal agents (Arms Control Association, 2003)

Incapacitating Chemical Agents: Implications for International Law (ICRC, 2010)

Statement by the medical department of Daraya’s city council (21 Aug 2013)

On tear gas: health effects of tear gas and pepper spray (War Resisters League fact sheet)

Partial list of Syria’s suspected chemical weapons attacks (Washington Post, 21 August 2013)

Excerpts from the Chemical Weapons Convention, 1997:
Art. II(1). “Chemical Weapons” means the following, together or separately:
(a) Toxic chemicals and their precursors, except where intended for purposes not prohibited under this Convention, as long as the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes;
(b) Munitions and devices, specifically designed to cause death or other harm through the toxic properties of those toxic chemicals specified in subparagraph (a), which would be released as a result of the employment of such munitions and devices;
(c) Any equipment specifically designed for use directly in connection with the employment of munitions and devices specified in subparagraph (b).
Art. II(9). “Purposes Not Prohibited Under this Convention” means:
(a) Industrial, agricultural, research, medical, pharmaceutical or other peaceful purposes;
(b) Protective purposes, namely those purposes directly related to protection against toxic chemicals and to protection against chemical weapons;
(c) Military purposes not connected with the use of chemical weapons and not dependent on the use of the toxic properties of chemicals as a method of warfare;
(d) Law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes.


By Emily Dische-Becker

Follow us on Twitter: @edbbeirut & @hisham_ashkar

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2 Responses to On the deadliness of “non-lethal” toxins & the banality of red lines

  1. You might want to look at this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moscow_theater_hostage_crisis Probably the most deadly use of “non-lethal” chemicals was in Russia, Assad’s closest ally.

  2. Pingback: Chemical Weapons Experts Respond to Damascus Gassings | Free Halab

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