Homeland Security: Chemical Weapons and Syria

Components of the Potential Use of Chemical Weapons by Syria

In modern warfare, the use of chemical weapons is rare. According to Gupta (2015), the health and medical impacts of using chemical weapons are severe, life-threatening, and resulting in horrendous injuries and instant death. Civilians who are exposed to chemical weapons often suffer from long-term neurological damage. As a result, international law and in particular the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of chemical weapons in armed conflicts (Brooks, Erickson, & Kayden, 2018). Parties to the international law oblige to destroy all existing chemical weapons and production facilities, monitor the chemical industry to prevent the production of new weapons, and assist and protect party states against chemical threats among other provisions. Although Syria was not a member of the CWC, it joined after international pressure sparked by the August 2013 Ghouta attack (p. 3). The country became a party to the CWC in September 2013 and reported an inventory of 1300 tons of chemical tons and precursors to the OPWC. By June 2014, Syria had destroyed 24 out of their 27 declared production and storage facilities, with the remaining sites deemed too dangerous to visit (p. 3). Unfortunately, recent reports indicate the continued use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government and terror groups in the area. For instance, on April 4, 2017, the Syrian government was involved in of the deadliest use of chemical weapons since August 2013. During the attack that used sarin gas attack, at least 83 civilians were killed including 28 children, and more than 293 people were injured on the northern rebel-held area of Khan Shaykhun, Idlib Province (p. 1). The attack is among other incidents of chemical weapons attacks in the Syrian conflict, which violates the international laws and in particular, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Consistently, and based on the potential risk of chemical weapons, we identify the potential use and impact of chemical and biological attacks on the United States. Further, we analyze the effectiveness of these unconventional threats identify the limitations to their overall impact and desired results. Lastly, we identify the mitigation strategies that can avert the risk of chemical and biological attacks. 

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Potential Use and Impact of Chemical or Biological Attacks in the United States

The United States is concerned about the potential use of sarin gas in Syria. According to an article posted on Reuters by Ali (2018), although Syria pledged to stop using chemical weapons, an inquiry by the United Nations and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPWC) found that the government continued using nerve agent sarin and chlorine as a weapon. The United States civilians are vulnerable to the deliberate use of biological and chemical weapons. An article by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention elaborates, the vulnerability was acknowledged by the substantial development of biological weapons programs and arsenals in foreign countries. Notably, chemical or biological attacks on the United States could have several devastating impacts.

The connection of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism pose one of the greatest potential risks to the homeland security of the United States and its global affiliates. According to the United States Department of State (2010), a successful terrorist would result in hundreds of thousands of casualties and have extensive economic and political impacts extending to the international community. As specifically elaborated, weapons of mass destruction comprise of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Ideally, a biological attack is a deadly threat that involves the use of pathogens carried through food, air, water, and living organisms. If released, biological weapons have the ability to kill people on a massive scale extending to the global arena and population centers. Chemical weapons also present a highly dangerous tool when in the hands of terrorists. When effectively dispersed in the right dosages, chemical weapons have the ability to kill tens of thousands and cause severe health and environmental risks. The U.S. Department of State notes that, since the 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subway, chemical weapon attacks have not been experienced. Unfortunately, recent events in Syria indicates that Syria and in particular the government has been using chemical weapons on its civilians. The Department of State further pointed; terrorist organizations continue to seek weapons of mass destruction independent of state programs. However, the sophisticated knowledge of chemical and biological weapons and resources could enable a terrorist capability. The fact that Syrian government is ignoring the pledge not to use chemical weapons on its civilians poses a deadly threat to the United States, with far-reaching impacts. 

The effectiveness of the Unconventional Threat and Limitations to Overall Impact and Desired Results

 Ideally, the risk of a chemical or biological attack ranges from the potential acquisition and use of the warfare agents and military delivery systems to the production of the industrial chemicals such as the ones used in Tokyo. The effectiveness of the unconventional chemical and biological threats lies in the present-day terrorist groups that are believed to make the greatest efforts to acquire and develop these weapons. Doubled by the support from the state government such as the Syrian government, the effectiveness of the unconventional threats is certain (CDC, n.d). Additionally, the growth and sophistication of the global chemical industry make it possible to develop chemical and biological weapons making the unconventional threat effective. Terrorists can easily use commercial industrial toxins, pesticides, and other chemical agents and turn them into low-cost alternatives to unconventional threats. Notably, there are various limitations affecting the overall impact and desired results of unconventional threats. For instance, it requires substantial technical expertise to assemble a biological weapon. Consequently, since the Toyo subway system attack, only materials with legitimate dual-use such as industrial chemicals and pesticides have been readily available. Moreover, just as biological weapons, a majority of the chemical weapons are difficult to handle and use. Coupled with the current international law that outlaws the production and use of chemical weapons, it becomes hard for terror groups to outsource the necessary technical expertise and materials to develop the weapons. 

Strategies to Mitigate the Risk of Unconventional Threat

Terror incidents in the United States and around the world involving chemical and biological attacks have demonstrated the vulnerability of the nation to these unconventional threats. Nonetheless, it is important to develop strategies to mitigate the risk of these unconventional threats. As recommended by the CDC one of the ways to mitigate the risk of a biological attack is preparedness and prevention. Meeting the challenge requires the preparedness of special emergency services in all states to offer technical assistance, health guidelines, and support to public health agencies as they respond to biological attacks.  A second way is detection and surveillance to ensure prompt response to a biological or chemical attack. Other strategies involve attempting to stop Syria from using and developing chemical weapons in the future. One way to achieve this is through enforcement of the international law on chemical weapons use. As Brooks et al. (2018) highlighted, it is critical to consider international diplomatic pressure as a way of preventing Syria from making these weapons in the future. The other way is a strong condemnation of the chemical weapons attacks in the strongest terms possible. World political leaders and international bodies should strongly voice their ethical and legal objections condemning the use of chemical weapons. Other strategies include placing sanctions on Syria if they are suspected of using chemical weapons and applying the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). 

The repeated use of chemical weapons by Syria poses various health and medical risks to the civilians. For the United States, the continued use of chemical and biological weapons by Syria poses multiple challenges to the nation and its partners. More specifically, a biological or chemical attack can result in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and far-reaching impacts on the economy. The effectiveness of the unconventional threat is not debatable amidst the various limitations to overall impact and desired results. In light of this, it is important for the United States to develop strategies to mitigate the risks. Some of the strategies include the preparedness to avert the risk in case it occurs on the U.S. soil. The other strategies include attempting to prevent the use and development of chemical weapons by Syria. by doing this, the United States can generate solutions and avert the risk posed by the biological and chemical weapon’s attacks. 


Ali, I. (2018). U.S.’ Mattis says concerned about Syria’s potential use of sarin gas. Reuters. Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-usa/u-s-mattis-says-concerned-about-syrias-potential-use-of-sarin-gas-idUSKBN1FM1VJ

Brooks, J., Erickson, T. B., Kayden, S., Ruiz, R., Wilkinson, S., & Burkle, J. F. M. (2018). Responding to chemical weapons violations in Syria: legal, health, and humanitarian recommendations. Conflict and Health, 12(1), 1-7.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d). Biological and Chemical Terrorism: Strategic Plan for Preparedness and Response. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr4904a1.htm

Gupta, R. C (Eds). (2015). Handbook of Toxicology of Chemical Warfare Agents – Second Edition. [Place of publication unidentified]:  Elsevier Science.

U.S. Department of State. (2010). Chapter 4: The global challenge of WMD Terrorism. Retrieved from: https://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/crt/2009/140890.htm

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