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Chemical Weapons

Timeline of Syrian Chemical Weapons Activity, 2012-2018

April 2018

Contact: Daryl Kimball, Executive Director, 202-463-8270 x107; Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy, 202-463-8270 x102.

Updated: April 2018

In July 2012, Syria publicly acknowledged that it possesses chemical weapons. For a number of years preceding this announcement, the United States intelligence community assessed that Syria has a stockpile of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, blister agents, and nerve agents such as sarin and VX. Syria has the capability to deliver these agents using aerial bombs, ballistic missiles, and artillery rockets.

Below is a timeline of significant events related to Syria’s chemical weapons program from July 2012 to the present.


July 23, 2012: Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi confirmed for the first time that Syria has chemical weapons, stating that these weapons would never be used against the Syrian people, but only against “external aggression.”

August 20, 2012: President Barack Obama articulated his red-line regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Obama said his calculations on a military response would change significantly if the United States sees “a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”

August 23, 2012: An official in the State Department confirmed that “Syria has a stockpile composed of nerve agents and mustard gas” and that the U.S. government monitors Syria’s chemical weapons activities “very closely.”

December 23, 2012: The first allegation of  chemical weapons use was reported. Seven people were allegedly killed in Homs by a “poisonous gas” used by the Assad regime. The coverage included the report of side effects such as nausea, relaxed muscles, blurred vision, and breathing difficulties.


January 15, 2013: A secret State Department cable from the U.S. consul general in Istanbul said there was compelling evidence that the Syrian military had used a chemical weapon known as Agent 15 in Homs on December 23, 2012.

January 16, 2013: Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that the alleged incident of chemical weapons use in December was not consistent with information that the White House has about Syria’s chemical weapons program.

March 19, 2013: Alleged chemical weapons attacks were reported in Syria’s two main cities, the Khan al-Assel neighborhood of Aleppo and the Damascus suburb of al-Atebeh. About 25 people reportedly were killed and dozens more injured. The Assad regime claimed that Syrian opposition forces used chemical weapons in the fighting there.

March 20, 2013: The Syrian government requested the United Nations conduct an investigation of the March 19 attack on Aleppo, claiming that opposition forces used chemical weapons and killed 25 people.

President Obama said in a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that “the use of chemical weapons is a game changer,” in Syria.

March 21, 2013: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the United Nations will conduct an investigation on the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, in conjunction with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Prior to the announcement, France and the United Kingdom sent letters to the Secretary-General, calling for investigations into three alleged incidents of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

March 24, 2013: Syrian opposition activists reported that Syrian forces used chemical weapons from multiple rocket launchers at the town of Adra, northeast of Damascus, alleging two deaths and 23 injuries. Doctors described that the weapons used were phosphorus bombs that harm the nervous system and induce imbalance and loss of consciousness.

April 13, 2013: Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that the Syrian army dropped two gas bombs on rebel-controlled Aleppo, killing two people and wounding 12. Opponents of the Syrian government accused the army of using chemical weapons.

April 17, 2013: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that Syria has impeded the UN investigation by failing to agree to the scope of the UN inquiry on chemical weapons use.

April 25, 2013: A letter sent to Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) from the U.S. intelligence community said that the Assad regime may have used the nerve agent sarin “on a small scale” in Syria, but that the United States needs more evidence to provide “some degree of certainty” for any decision-making on further action. The letter also said that the Assad regime maintains custody of the chemical weapons in Syria.

April 26, 2013: President Obama remarked that the United States and the international community will work together to gain “strong evidence” of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.

April 29, 2013: A helicopter dropped canisters allegedly containing chemical weapons on the town of Saraqeb. Eight people claimed symptoms such as nausea and breathing problems, and one of them later died.

June 4, 2013: French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius asserted that there was “no doubt” that the Syrian regime used sarin in multiple cases. Fabius said that the French government confirmed the use of sarin by testing specimen taken from Syria. A UN report also said that there are “reasonable grounds” to have confidence in Syria’s use of chemical weapons four times in March and April, although the report cannot specify the chemical agents or verify who used them.

June 13, 2013: The White House said that the U.S. intelligence community has “high confidence” that the Assad regime attacked opposition forces by using chemical weapons multiple times over the past year. In the statement, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said that physiological samples from multiple sources show exposure to chemical weapons. The evidence of use is recognized as “credible” in the statement.

August 14, 2013: Assad agreed to allow the UN inspection team into Syria to investigate three possible uses of chemical weapons. The team’s mandate only allows it to establish whether or not chemical weapons were used, not who used them.

August 21, 2013: Syrian opposition activists claimed that a large-scale chemical weapons attack occurred at the suburbs of the Ghouta region, where Syrian forces had been attempting to expel rebel force. Reports said that thousands of victims of the attack have been counted in the Damascus suburbs, whose symptoms were typically body convulsion, forming from mouths, blurry vision and suffocation. Although the number of victims has not been clarified yet, it is estimated to exceed 1,000 people, many of whom were non-combatant.

The United Nations Security Council also held an emergency meeting regarding the attack. The meeting produced a statement demanding further clarity of the incident.

August 23, 2013: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesperson expressed the intention of the UN to conduct “a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation” on the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria on August 21.

The OPCW Director General, Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, expressed grave concerns about the latest attack in Syria, and said that the OPCW experts were already in Syria with the UN investigation team.

August 25, 2013: The Syrian regime announced that it will let the UN inspection team investigating past incidents of chemical weapons use visit the Damascus sites in the following days.

August 26, 2013: The U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in his press briefing that all information the U.S. has, including reports of the number of victims, their symptoms, and the firsthand accounts from humanitarian organizations, strongly indicate that chemical weapons were used in Syria. He also said that Syria attempted to cover-up the incident in the days following the attack.

Syrian President Bashar Assad announced that his army did not use chemical weapons in the August 21 attack in Damascus. Assad recognized the allegation of his use of chemical weapons as “politically motivated," in his meeting with Russia's Izvestia daily.

A convoy transporting the UN investigation team of chemical weapons was attacked by snipers in Syria. No UN personnel were injured, but they were unable to visit all of the sites affected by the attack.

August 28, 2013: The United States has concluded that the Assad regime conducted chemical weapons attacks against civilians, President Obama said in “PBS NewsHour.” Obama said he had not yet made a decision whether to take a military action in Syria.

A second UN Security Council meeting was held.

August 29, 2013: The British Parliament voted against supporting military action in Syria. Before the vote, a report from the Joint Intelligence Committee released a report which stated that chemical weapons were used in the August 21 attach, and that it was "highly likely" that the Assad regime was responsible.

August 30, 2013: The White House released the U.S. Government Assessment on the use of chemical weapons in Syria on August 21. The report says that the intelligence community has "high confidence" that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against the opposition elements in Damascus. Secretary Kerry, in an address, also said that the regime used chemical weapons "multiple times" over the past year. Kerry said discussions on military action are underway. The U.S. Government Assessment included this map of Damascus and the areas impacted by the alleged August 21 chemical weapons attack.

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August 31, 2013: President Obama made a statement saying that he would seek an authorization for the use of force from Congress for a limited military strike in Syria. Given the evidence of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime in the August 21 attack, Obama said he supported limited action in order to deter further chemical weapons use and uphold international norms.

September 2, 2013: France released its declassified intelligence assessment, which concluded that the Assad regime used Sarin gas in the August 21 attack, and in two earlier attacks in April. The report also said France assessed that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime violated the 1925 Geneva Protocol.

September 9, 2013: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced a Russian proposition whereby Syria would agree to place its chemical weapons under international control and dismantle them and the United States would agree not to conduct a military strike on the country. Prior to the Russian announcement, Secretary of State Kerry, speaking in the United Kingdom, suggested that if the Assad regime turned over all of its chemical weapons to the international community "without delay", a military strike could be averted. Speaking to media outlets after Secretary Kerry, President Barack Obama said that the United States would consider the plan.

September 10, 2013: Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said that the Assad regime welcomed discussion on Russia's plan to give up Syria's chemical weapons and join the Chemical Weapons Convention. President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, and British Prime Minister David Cameron discussed how to implement the plan through the UN Security Council, with France beginning to draft a resolution based on the Russian proposal, but with stipulations that force be authorized if Assad fails to implement the provisions of the resolution.

President Obama, in an address to the nation, also requested that Congress postpone a vote on the use of force while the diplomatic path proposed by the Russians is pursued in the UN Security Council. However, he also reiterated his commitment to pursue military action if a deal on securing Syria's chemical weapons is not reached.

September 12, 2013: The Assad regime sent a letter to the United Nations Secretary General which said that Assad signed a legislative decree providing the accession of Syria to the Chemical Weapons Convention. In the letter, Assad said Syria would observe its CWC obligations immediately, as opposed to 30 days from the date of accession, as stipulated in the treaty.

In Geneva, Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, to begin discussions of the Russian proposal for securing the Assad regime's chemical weapons.

September 14, 2013: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reached an agreement on a detailed plan for the accounting, inspection, control, and elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. The plan requires Syria to provide a full declaration of its stockpile “within a week” and provide the OPCW and the UN access to all chemical weapons sites in Syria. The plan calls for the OPCW inspectors  to complete their initial inspections by November and calls for the destruction of the stockpile of chemical weapons and chemical agents by the first half of 2014. The United States and Russia secured approval of the plan by the OPCW executive council and then a UN Security Council resolution. The agreement outlined states that “in the event of non-compliance, including unauthorized transfer, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria, the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

September 16, 2013: UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon delivered a report on the UN investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The report concluded that chemical weapons were used against on August 21 on a "relatively large scale", and that the victims included civilians. The report cited evidence of the nerve agent sarin both in the environment and present in victims of the attack. It was outside of the report's mandate to assign blame for who used the chemical weapons.

September 20, 2013: In accordance with the terms of the agreement negotiated by the United States and Russia, Syria submitted a declaration of its stockpiles of chemical weapons to the OPCW.

September 27, 2013: The Executive Council of the OPCW adopted a timeline for destroying Syria's chemical weapons. Hours later, the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted to adopt a resolution that endorses the OPCW timeline for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. The Security Council Resolution says that the body will impose measures under Chapter VII of its charter if Syria does not comply with the resolution, or uses or authorizes the transfer of any chemical agents.

October 1, 2013: A joint team of OPCW and UN officials arrived in Syria to begin destruction of the country's chemical weapons stockpiles and facilities.

October 6, 2013: Officials from the OPCW and UN team said that destruction of Syria's stockpiles of chemical weapons began. The officials confirmed that the Syrians will actually complete the destruction work, while the UN and OPCW team will monitor and verify the activities.

October 27, 2013: Syria submitted the details of its plans for "total and verified destruction" of its chemical weapons stockpile and production facilities to the OPCW. This declaration follows an initial declaration submitted on Sept. 20.

October 31, 2013: The OPCW confirmed that Syria destroyed, or rendered inoperable, all of its declared facilities for mixing and producing chemical weapons. The OPCW was able to inspect 21 of the 23 sites where these facilities were housed. The remaining two sites could not be visited due to security concerns, but inspectors said that the equipment was moved out of these sites and destroyed.

November 15, 2013: The OPCW Executive Council approved a plan for the elimination of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons. The plan call for transporting the weapons outside of Syria and destruction of the chemical agents in a country that has yet to be identified. The "most critical" chemicals are to be transported out of Syria by December 31, 2013 and the remainder by February 5, 2014. The plan calls for the destruction no later than June 30, 2014, and the destruction of certain priority chemicals by March 15, 2014.

The Executive Council also announced that the OPCW was able to verify that 60 percent of Syrian declared, unfilled, munitions for chemical weapons delivery had been destroyed. Syria committed to destroying all of its unfilled munitions by January 31, 2014.

November 30, 2013: The OPCW announced that Syria's chemical weapons will be destroyed on a U.S. ship using hydrolysis. Hydrolysis is a process that breaks down chemical agents using hot water and other compounds to neutralize the agents.

December 12, 2013: The UN team led by Ake Sellstrom investigating incidents of chemical weapons use in Syria issued its final report to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. The report found that chemical weapons were likely used in five of the seven attacks investigated. The nerve agent sarin was likely used in four of the attacks, one of which was the large scale attack on a Damascus suburb in August.

December 31, 2013: Syria missed the deadline for sending all of its chemical weapons out of the country. This deadline was set by a UN Security Council Resolution approved in September.


January 7, 2014: Syria delivered the first load of chemical weapons to its port city Latakia. The chemical weapons were then loaded on a Danish ship that sailed out into international waters. China and Russia are providing protection for the ship, which will eventually transfer the cargo to the US ship, the MV Cape Ray, to be neutralized using hydrolysis.

January 9, 2014: The German government announced its willingness to assist in the disposal of the chemical waste byproduct that will be created from the hydrolysis process.

January 16, 2014: Italian Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi said that Gioa Tauro, a port in southern Italy, will be used to transfer Syrian chemical weapons to the US ship, the Cape Ray, that will neutralize the chemicals using hydrolysis.

January 27, 2014: A second shipment of Syrian chemical weapons was loaded onto Danish and Norwegian ships at the Syrian port of Lattakia. The U.S. ship that will receive the chemical weapons and then neutralize them using hydrolysis, the Cape Ray, left port. The chemicals will be transferred to the Cape Ray at the Italian port Gioa Tauro.

February 6, 2014: Sigrid Kaag, head of the UN/OPCW mission for destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, addressed the UN Security Council a day after Syria missed a second deadline for handing over its critical chemicals and said that she did not believe that the Assad regime was deliberately stalling the removal process. However, she urged Syria to speed up the shipments in order to meet the destruction deadline of June 30.

February 10, 2014: A third shipment of Syrian chemical weapons was loaded on a Norwegian cargo ship. In total, 11 percent of Syria's chemical weapons were shipped out of Syria.

February 14, 2014: The OPCW announced that two companies, one in Finland (Ekokem OY AB) and one in Texas (Veolia), were awarded contracts to dispose of the effluent created during the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons.

February 21, 2014: The OPCW executive committed met to consider the Assad regime's new proposal for shipping out its chemical weapons. After failing to meet a Feb. 5 deadline to remove all of its chemical weapons and precursor chemicals out of the country, the regime proposed a 100 day extension. The OPCW executive committee, however, said that it can be accomplished more quickly. The 100 day extension also will not allow the Cape Ray enough time to destroy the chemical weapons by the June 30 UN Security Council deadline.

February 25, 2014: The Assad regime delivered a shipment of mustard gas to the Syrian port of Latakia to be loaded onto ships.

March 4, 2014: The Assad regime submitted a revised proposal to remove its chemical weapons from Syria by the end of April 2014. Two additional shipments of chemical weapons also reached the port of Latakia and were loaded onto ships. In total, more than 35% of the country's chemical weapons have been removed.

March 7, 2014: The Executive Council concluded its 75th Session and noted in its report the “increasing pace” of removal of Syria’s chemical stockpile and requested the Syria continue “systematic, predictable and substantial movements” to complete the shipments.

Another shipment of priority 1 chemicals was reached the port of Latakia, bringing the total amount of chemical agents removed from Syria to 29 percent of the total stockpile.

March 19, 2014: The OPCW said that two additional shipments of Priority 1 and Priority 2 chemicals were delivered to the port of Latakia and loaded onto cargo vessels during the past week. Syria has now shipped out more than 45 percent of its stockpile.

April 4, 2014: The 12th shipment of Syrian chemical weapons reached the port of Latakia, according to the OPCW.

April 11, 2014: Reports emerged of an attack using chlorine-gas bombs in Kafr Zita, a village controlled by opposition forces in northwestern Syria.

April 14, 2014: The Syrian government delivered its 13th consignment of chemicals to Latakia, which was removed today from the port on cargo ships. As of this delivery, the OPCW said that the Assad regime has shipped out 65 percent of its total stockpile of chemical weapons, including 57 percent of the Priority 1 chemicals.

April 18, 2014: Additional shipments of chemical weapons reached the port of Latakia between April 14-18. The OPWC said in an April 18 statement that in total, the 16 shipments constitute about 80 percent of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons.

April 22, 2014: Another shipment reached Latakia port, bringing the total of the chemical weapons stockpile removed from Syria to 86 percent.

April 24, 2014: An additional shipment to Latakia brings the total to 92 percent.

April 29, 2014: The OPCW announced that it would send a team to investigate the April 11 attacks that the Assad regime used chlorine gas.

May 1, 2014: Syria missed the revised deadline to remove all of its chemical weapons stockpile from the country by the end of April. Approximately 8 percent of the stockpile, largely sarin precursor chemicals, remains in Damascus.

June 8, 2014: The Norwegian ship Taiko departed for Finland and the United States to deliver Syrian chemical weapons for destruction.

June 17, 2014: The OPCW's fact finding mission in Syria to investigate the use of chlorine gas concluded that it was used in earlier attacks. The team was unable to visit all of the locations due security issues.

Click image to enlarge.

June 23, 2014: OPCW Director General Uzumcu announced that the last 8 percent of Syria's chemical weapons was shipped out of the country from the port of Latakia on the Danish ship Ark Futura. Uzumcu says the chemicals should be destroyed within four months.

July 2, 2014: Over 600 metric tons of chemical weapons were loaded on to the Cape Ray at the port of Gioia Tauro in Italy.

July 21, 2014: The OPCW announced that all of the chemical weapons have reached the various facilities in Finland, the United States, the United Kingdom, or the Cape Ray for destruction. At the time of the announcement nearly 32 percent of the total stockpiles had been destroyed.

July 24, 2014: The executive council of the OPCW also announced that seven hangars in Syria that were part of the country's chemical weapons will be destroyed and five bunkers will be permanently sealed.

August 13, 2014: The OPCW announced that 581 metric tonnes of a precursor chemical for sarin gas have been neutralized on the Cape Ray. Operations to neutralize the blister agent sulfur mustard have now begun.

August 19, 2014: The Cape Ray completed destruction of 600 metric tons of Syrian chemical weapons and precursor chemicals. The OPCW announced that the ship will now transport the effluent to Finland and Germany for disposal at land-based facilities.

September 10, 2014: The OPCW confirmed that chlorine gas is being used in Syria. While the OPCW did not assign blame for the attacks, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the use of helicopters to drops the chlorine gas "strongly points" to the Assad regime as the perpetrator.


March 6, 2015: The UN Security Council adopted a resolution March 6 condemning the use of chlorine as a weapon in Syria’s civil war and threatening action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter if chemical arms are used again.

April 16, 2015: Doctors testified at the UN Security Council about recent chlorine gas attacks in Syria. Human Rights Watch estimated that over 200 were killed by recent chlorine attacks.

May 8, 2015: Reuters reported that the OPCW confirms traces of sarin and VX gas at a military facility in Syria that were not declared. The samples were taken in December and January.

August 7, 2015: Security Council Resolution 2235 was adopted, creating an investigative unit to determine the responsible parties for reported chemical weapons attacks in Syria.


November 6, 2015: A press release from the OPCW fact-finding team claimed with "the utmost confidence" that the Islamic State used sulfur mustard in an attack on August 21, 2015 in Marea, in northern Syria.

January 4, 2016: The OPCW announced in a press release that the last of the Syrian chemical weapons material, 75 cylinders of hydrogen fluoride, had been destroyed by Veolia Environmental Services Technical Solutions.

August 10, 2016: Hospital officials reported a chemical weapons attack using chlorine gas in Aleppo.

August 24, 2016: The third report of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism was released, finding that the Syrian government was responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Talmenes in April 2014 and in Sarmin in March 2015. The report found that the Islamic State was responsible for an attack using sulfur mustard in Marea in August 2015.

September 7, 2016: Allegations were made that toxic chemicals, likely chlorine gas, were used in Aleppo. 

October 21, 2016: The OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism issued a report finding that the Syrian regime was responsible for a third attack using chlorine gas in Idlib province on March 16, 2015. 

November 11, 2016: The OPCW Executive Council adopted a decision that condemns the use of chemical weapons in Syria and calls upon parties responsible for use, as identified in the OPCW-UN Joint Investigate Mechanism reports, to desist from further attacks using chemicals. The decision called for additional investigations at Syria at sites identified by the UN-OPCW reports and inspection of facilities in Syria. 

December 13, 2016: Allegations were made that chemical weapons were used in the Islamic State controlled areas of the Hama Governate, northwest of Palmyra. 


April 4, 2017: Chemical weapons were used in an attack that killed dozens of people in Syria's northern Idlib province. Initial reports suggest the attack used sarin gas, a nerve agent. The attack is believed to have been perpetrated by the Syrian government, due to the type of aircraft in the area at the time. The OPCW announced that it is investigating the reports. Syria denied it was responsible. 

April 5, 2017: The UN Security Council called an emergency meeting to discuss the chemical weapons attack in Idlib. 

April 6, 2017: The United States used Tomahawk cruise missiles to target an air base in Syria. The Assad regime is believed to have conducted the April 4 chemical weapons attack from that base.  

April 11, 2017: The United States released a declassified report that confirmed victims were exposed to sarin in the April 4 attack. 

April 12, 2017: Russia vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution that condemned the April 4 chemical attack, called upon Syria to provide full access to investigators, and expressed determination to hold perpetrators accountable. Russia said that blame for the April 4 attack was prematurely attributed to the Assad regime. 

April 19, 2017: The OPCW said there was "incontrovertible" evidence that the April 4 attacks used sarin or a sarin-like substance. 

June 26, 2017: The White House issued a release saying it identified "possible preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime." The statement said that Assad will "pay a heavy price" if he conducts an attack using chemical weapons. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said in a separate statement that by supporting the Assad regime, Russia and Iran would also be accountable for any further use of chemical weapons. 

June 30, 2017: The OPCW-UN fact-finding mechanism confirmed that sarin was used in a chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017.

October 24, 2017: The UN Security Council failed to adopt a resolution to extend the mandate of the OPCW-UN JIM for another year before it expires on November 17. Eleven members voted in favor of the resolution, China and Kazakhstan abstained and Boliva and Russia voted against it. The resolution did not pass because of Russia's veto.

October 26, 2017: The seventh report of the OPCW-UN joint investigative mechanism found the Assad regime guilty of using sarin nerve agent in the April 4 attack in Khan Sheikhoun and the Islamic State responsible for the use of sulfur mustard at Umm Hawsh in September 2016.

November 6, 2017: The OPCW Fact-Finding Mission reported that sarin was more than likely used as a chemical weapon on March 30, 2017 in the south of Ltamenah.

November 8, 2017: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel released a joint statement condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria as described in the seventh JIM report and calling on the UN Security Council to act to continue the investigations. 

November 16, 2017: The mandate of the OPCW-UN JIM, responsible for determining the culpable actor for chemical weapons attacks in Syria, expired after both resolutions introduced at the UN Security Council to extend it failed. The resolution sponsored by the United States received 11 votes in favor, 2 against and 2 abstentions and failed because Russia vetoed it. The Russian resolution received 4 votes in favor, 7 against and 4 abstentions.

November 17, 2017: A UN Security Council resolution introduced by Japan to extend the JIM's mandate for 30 days received 12 votes in favor but failed because of a Russian veto. 


January 23, 2018: France launched the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, a new initiative that seeks to increase information sharing about reported chemical weapons attacks and publically lists individuals and entities sanctioned for their involvement in chemical weapons use. Russia then called a last minute UN Security Council meeting, introducing a new proposal to extend the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM). The United States rebuked the proposal on the grounds that it was merely intended as a distraction from the launch of the new partnership.

February 1, 2018: The third chemical weapon attack in 2018 in Douma, Damascus is reported. The two earlier attacks were reported on January 13 and January 22. Reports assess that chlorine gas was used in all attacks. At a UN Security Council briefing on February 5, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu stated that reports from the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission on these alleged attacks are pending.

April 7, 2018: Reports surface of a major chemical weapons attack in Douma, a suburb outside of Damascus, Syria, killing at least several dozen civilians. This follows smaller chlorine gas attacks that were reported in Douma on March 7 and 11. Human Rights Watch has documented 85 chemical weapons attacks since 2013 in Syria. The OPCW announces that its Fact Finding Mission is investigating the incident to determine which chemical weapons may have been used.

April 10, 2018: The UN Security Council votes on three resolutions to address chemical weapons use in Syria. Russia vetoed a U.S.-sponsored resolution which would have created a UN Independent Mechanism of Investigation with a one-year mandate to investigate the responsible actors for chemical weapons use in Syria. A Russian resolution which would have created a similar body but would have allowed the UN Security Council, not the investigative body, to ultimately determine accountability fails to receive enough votes to pass. A second Russian resolution, which urged the OPCW Fact Finding Mission to investigate the incident and offered Russian military protection for investigators, also fails to receive enough votes to pass. The OPCW had already announced earlier that day that it was planning to deploy a Fact-Finding Mission to Douma. 

April 13, 2018: The UN Security Council meets for the fourth time this week to discuss chemical weapons use in Syria. Russia and Bolivia continue to urge the United States against taking unilateral military action as the United States, France and the United Kingdom seem to make the case for a strike. "Should the United States and our allies decide to act in Syria, it will be in defense of a principle on which we all agree, US UN Ambassador Nikki Haley says.

France, the United Kingdom and the United States launch precision strikes on three Syrian chemical weapons facilities. In a televised address to the nation, President Trump explains that the purpose of the strike is to "establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons." He continues "To Iran and Russia, I ask: What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women and children?" Syrian state television reports that its air defense system had shot down 13 of the missiles, although the United States later denies that any missiles had been engaged. Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov says in a statement shortly after the announcement of the strike: "We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences."

April 14, 2018: The OPCW Fact-Finding Mission is in Syria investigating the April 7 chemical weapons attack to verify that the attack occurred and to identify which chemical agent was used. 

France releases its national assessment of the April 7 chemical weapons attack, concluding that "(i) beyond possible doubt, a chemical attack was carried out against civilians at Douma on 7 April 2018; and (ii) that there is no plausible scenario other than that of an attack by Syrian armed forces as part of a wider offensive in the Eastern Ghouta enclave."

The UN Security Council meets to discuss the situation in Syria. The United Kingdom states that the legal basis for its joint strike is humanitarian intervention. Russia and Bolivia condemn the strike, which they assert is a violation of the UN Charter. Russia also introduces a draft resolution which condemns "aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic by the US and its allies," but it only receives three votes and fails to pass. France, the United Kingdom and the United States announce their intention to introduce a draft resolution on political and humanitarian tracks to resolve the conflict.

-Researched by Yuta Kawashima, updated by Alicia Sanders-Zakre

Strategic Arms Control and Policy

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Posted: April 13, 2018

Collateral Damage? The Chemical Weapons Convention in the Wake of the Syrian Civil War

After the atrocities in Syria, what is the future for the treaty banning chemical weapons?

April 2018
By John Hart and Ralf Trapp

The August 2013 sarin nerve agent attack on Ghouta, which killed hundreds of Syrian civilians, led to a Russian-U.S. agreement on eliminating the Syrian government’s chemical weapons and Syria’s accession to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans production, possession, and use of chemical weapons.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN Security Council established the multilateral machinery to monitor the implementation of these decisions. However, a number of states, mainly Western ones, continue to question the completeness of Syria’s chemical weapons declaration; and the use of chemical weapons—chlorine, sulfur mustard, and sarin—did not end.

Syrian anti-government protestors hold a poster depicting an inspector from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons during a demonstration October 11, 2013 calling for international action against the Damascus regime.  (Photo: MEZAR MATAR/AFP/Getty Images)Although the international community has remained united in its condemnation of such attacks, views about the extent of Syrian governmental responsibility fuel debates within international bodies and have become increasingly fraught and reminiscent of Cold War rhetoric. Reported chemical weapons use has continued into 2018, even after the military defeat of the Islamic State group and after the Syrian government had re-established at least nominal control over most of its territory.

It is against this backdrop that the fourth CWC review conference is scheduled to meet November 21-30. It is important to find ways to manage the Syrian chemical weapons issue so as to avoid lasting damage to the CWC regime and its institutions. Further, it is vital to protect the independence of the international mechanisms for investigating alleged CWC violations while holding accountable those responsible for chemical weapons use.

Allegations about chemical weapons use in Syria started in 2012. In March 2013, the UN secretary-general used his authority to investigate a case presented to him by Syria alleging chemical weapons use by opposition groups the prior month. France, the United Kingdom, and later the United States impressed on the secretary-general the view that allegations of such use by the Syrian government should also be investigated. This resulted in extended consultations among governments and UN officials on which cases the United Nations should investigate.

The deadlock was broken when the UN and the Syrian government agreed on the scope of the investigation in early August, but these terms changed again in the wake of the August 21, 2013, sarin attack on Ghouta, a rebel-held eastern suburb of Damascus. Western intelligence agencies concluded within days that the attack was conducted by Syrian government forces. The UN secretary-general’s mission investigated the incident on-site and confirmed that sarin had been used, but did not attribute responsibility.1

This incident, which drew the threat of U.S. military action against the Syrian government, triggered a series of unprecedented steps.

  • The accession of Syria to the CWC in September 2013, which was synchronized with the agreement of the Russian-U.S. framework on the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons along with subsequent decisions by the OPCW and the UN Security Council to implement this framework.
  • The work of the OPCW-UN Joint Mission in Syria to verify the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons program, including the shipment of chemical warfare agents and precursor chemicals for out-of-country destruction (October 2013-September 2014).
  • The establishment of the OPCW declaration assessment team to clarify and resolve inconsistencies and gaps in the Syrian declaration (spring 2014).
  • The establishment of the OPCW fact-finding mission (FFM) to investigate the continued allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria (spring 2014).
  • The decision by the Security Council to set up the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) to establish who was responsible for the confirmed chemical weapons use on the basis of work carried out by the fact-finding mission (2015-2017).

The JIM mandate expired in November 2017 as a consequence of deep divisions in the UN Security Council, in particular Russian criticism. The work of the other mechanisms continues, but in the absence of a handover of confirmed cases from the fact-finding mission to the JIM, the question of responsibility for these transgressions is now largely relegated to national assessments.

Nevertheless, efforts are underway at the Security Council to replace the JIM with a new investigative mechanism: a UN Independent Mechanism of Investigation. The Security Council considered a draft Russian proposal in January, while the United States has tabled a revised proposal, which was considered in early March. The Russian delegation did not attend the March meeting.2 Meanwhile, France has launched an International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons.

Incoming OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias of Spain will assume his duties on July 25. This change at the helm of the secretariat, as well as the upcoming CWC review conference, presents challenges and opportunities for returning to common strategies for handling and perhaps resolving the Syria chemical weapons problem.

A careful management of these issues is vital to avoid further polarization in the OPCW, while burying the issue will harm CWC norms and its institutions.3

Current Status

The situation in Syria involves several interconnected elements: the completion of the destruction of the declared aspects of the Syrian chemical weapons program; the completeness and accuracy of Syria’s declaration of its chemical weapons stockpile and production capabilities, including whether undeclared stockpiles remain in Syria; the continued use of chemical weapons against combatants and civilians; and the question of responsibility for such incidents.

A steering committee comprised of representatives of the OPCW, the UN Office for Project Services, and Syria manages the completion of the operations to eliminate the Syrian chemical weapons program. All declared materials and 25 of 27 declared production facilities have been destroyed under OPCW verification. Routine inspections of certain destroyed underground structures will continue in accordance with the CWC. In November 2017, due to an improved security situation, the OPCW was able to conduct an initial inspection of the two remaining above-ground production facilities, located outside Aleppo and Damascus.4

The declaration assessment team continues to interview Syrian chemical weapons program officials and conduct site visits to collect samples. It attempts to reconstruct the genesis of the program in order to fill gaps in the Syrian declarations. The current focus is on determining the full role of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center in the chemical weapons program, assessing the results of analyses of samples collected at multiple locations in Syria, and clarifying the nature of “other chemical weapons-related activities” before Syria’s accession to the CWC in 2013.5

The work of the fact-finding mission also continues. In January, a team visited Damascus and transported biomedical and environmental samples back to the OPCW laboratory.6 Although the team’s mandate includes the investigation of whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria, it does not extend to establishing responsibility for their use.

Medical staff at Damascus Countryside Specialised Hospital hold placards April 6, 2017 condemning a suspected chemical weapons attack on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun. (Photo: SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP/Getty Images)UN Security Council Resolution 2235 established the JIM on August 7, 2015, with a mandate to identify those responsible for confirmed instances of suspected chemical weapons use. Attributions of responsibility are summarized in the third, fourth, and seventh JIM reports.7 In 2016 the JIM concluded that nonstate actors were responsible for one chemical weapons incident, and it attributed three cases to the Syrian government from the initial nine cases it investigated that year. In 2017 the JIM found that nonstate actors were responsible for sulfur mustard use at Umm Hawsh on September 16, 2016, while the Syrian government was responsible for the sarin attack on April 4, 2017, at Khan Sheikhoun. The JIM collected samples from Syrian officials and opposition groups, as well as via third parties in Turkey. It also had access to the analytical results of samples collected by the fact-finding mission from autopsies carried out in Turkey.

On July 6, 2017, the head of the JIM, Edmond Mulet of Guatemala, briefed the UN Security Council. After the meeting, he stated to the media, “We do receive, unfortunately, direct and indirect messages all the time from many sides telling us how to do our work.”8 Four months later, Bolivia and Russia voted against a U.S. proposal that supported the JIM findings and that would have extended the group’s mandate by 12 months. Russia proposed that the mandate be renewed for six months on the condition that the group’s attribution of responsibility findings were not final. Japan proposed a compromise 30-day extension. Bolivia and Russia did not accept Japan’s proposal.

Mulet, who succeeded Virginia Gamba of Argentina in early 2017 as head of the JIM, observed that after Syria crossed the “redline” by carrying out the August 2013 chemical weapons attack at Ghouta, the U.S. administration pursued coercive diplomacy rather than military action. “Despite our rigorous, technical and scientific work,” he observed, “the JIM came to an end after the Security Council failed to extend our mandate. These investigations are critical to ensure that those responsible for the use of chemical weapons, a war crime, face their day in court.”9

The Syria issue also overshadowed the CWC conference of states-parties late last year. A joint declaration tabled by Belarus eschewed attributing any responsibility for chemical weapons use to the Syrian government and, in effect, questioned the integrity of the FFM and the JIM investigation methodology by stating, “Investigations of the use of chemical weapons, conducted by the OPCW, should be professional and be based on objective and thoroughly verified evidence.”10 Angola, Bolivia, Burundi, China, Gambia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Malawi, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Russia, South Africa, Sudan, Syria, Togo, and Venezuela associated themselves with this statement.11

Essentially only the Western Europe and Other Group states, in their plenary statements, sought to hold the Syrian government responsible. China, India, Jordan, Pakistan, the Africa Group, and the Latin America and Caribbean Group more generally refrained from taking a public position.

Compliance and Restorative Measures

Compliance in arms control is a state-centered concept. With regard to Syria, the JIM, the fact-finding mission, and the declaration assistance team have articulated findings that either confirm or imply Syrian noncompliance with prohibitions and obligations undertaken under the CWC and with decisions adopted by the OPCW and the UN Security Council.

In situations of confirmed noncompliance, the goal of CWC treaty mechanisms is to restore compliance as quickly as possible and to create conditions that will enable and motivate the noncompliant state to take remedial actions. Measures to this end can range from political to treaty-based measures and may extend to referral of the matter to the UN General Assembly and Security Council. Otherwise, the UN Security Council may authorize the use of military force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter or impose international sanctions.

The question of treaty compliance also arises when nonstate actors are the instigators, particularly with regard to prosecution, extradition, and legal cooperation by states-parties. Also, nonstate actors fighting in Iraq and Syria, while feeling few if any such legal constraints, nevertheless can be viewed as “rational actors” and, as such, may consider the extent to which their actions might result in a lessening of support in Muslim communities or prompt disproportionate military action to be used against them.12

The OPCW Sub-Working Group on Non-State Actors has considered the question of accountability in some detail, including by strengthening CWC implementation legislation, encouraging stronger law enforcement, promoting measures to ensure legal cooperation between states-parties, and engaging in capacity-building work to assist states with chemical weapons attacks prevention, protection, response, and recovery.

On January 23, France launched an international partnership against impunity for the use of chemical weapons.13 Participants of the initiative, consistent with international law and respective national laws, regulations, and policies, undertake a variety of efforts to “hold accountable those responsible for the proliferation or use of chemical weapons.”14 France will act as the coordinator in 2018 and will present the initiative at the EU Working Party on Non-Proliferation and at a NATO meeting. A major objective will be to expand participation by CWC states-parties.

At the launch, then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson criticized Russia for having not fulfilled its role as a guarantor of Syria’s implementation of its CWC obligations. He emphasized that “this initiative puts those who ordered and carried out chemical weapons attack on notice. You will face a day of reckoning for your crimes against humanity and your victims will see justice done.”15 Russia criticized the initiative as a “restricted format meeting” from which it was excluded and which “attempts to replace the OPCW and to create an anti-Damascus bloc through the proliferation of lies.”16 Unsurprisingly, attempts to agree and impose restorative measures have not worked.

Scenarios and Options

The upcoming review conference cannot ignore continuing chemical weapons use in Syria. Disagreements about attribution, culpability, and punitive measures, however, may derail the conference and further deepen the political divisions in the organization. It is therefore useful to review options that the OPCW has to manage this problem.

Separate elements of the Syria situation. One strategy would be to separate the relatively noncontroversial Syrian issues on which consensus can be achieved from those that cannot be resolved by consensus and that would be set aside for the time being. Administrative and organizational matters are separable from the attribution of culpability and clearly articulated decisions on what the OPCW should do about it.17

Consensus also should be achievable on a clear and unequivocal condemnation of any use of a chemical weapon by any state or nonstate actor under any circumstances. A similar condemnation should be achievable with regard to any direct or indirect assistance, inducement, or support for such acts by whatever means, i.e., any form of support for the acquisition and use of chemical weapons, such as financial support and the provision of materials, equipment, and know-how.

There also seems to be space for consensus on the need to continue the work of the declaration assistance team and the fact-finding mission.

Under this approach, the review conference would remain silent on issues of attribution of responsibility for the chemical attacks, or it would record the existing differences of opinion about understanding the results of previous investigations of alleged such attacks.18

Attribution of culpability for past and future acts of chemical warfare in Syria could be pursued through processes outside the OPCW and the UN Security Council, including through the efforts by individual countries or groups of states; by mechanisms under the UN General Assembly (e.g., the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes Under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic Since March 2011); or by multilateral entities such as the Independent International Commission of Inquiry of the Human Rights Council.

Efforts could continue in parallel to enhance the forensic capabilities of the OPCW to agree on common standards and criteria that would further clarify the technical basis for attribution of responsibility. The OPCW has considered forensic investigations of alleged chemical weapons use in the past, and the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board issued its first report on these issues in 2016.19 This report emphasized the desirability to collect and curate reference standards and analytical information even if not immediately actionable and highlighted the utility of impurity profiling and isotopic ratio distribution measurements for attribution purposes.

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia (raising his hand) votes October 24, 2017 to block the extension of the Security Council mandate authorizing the Joint Investigative Mechanism and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to determine the perpetrators of chemical-weapons attacks in Syria. (Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)There has been broad consensus in the OPCW that enhanced forensic capabilities are desirable.20 Yet, the methods, acceptance criteria, and reference standards for such investigations are still being developed. According to media reports in January, unidentified OPCW-designated laboratories were able to link the profiles of samples collected by the UN secretary-general’s mission that investigated the 2013 sarin attack on Ghouta with samples that originated from the sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017, as well as samples taken by the OPCW from the sarin precursor methylphosphonyl difluoride, removed from Syria for destruction in 2014.21

These findings link the sarin formulation found after two chemical weapons attacks in Syria to that declared by Syria in its initial stockpile declarations. Russia, however, challenged these findings, as well as recent reports about the use of chlorine gas in East Ghouta. U.S. and other officials have attributed this chlorine use to the Syrian government.22 Even the further development of chemical forensics methods in the field may become controversial, and scientific findings may become challenged in the absence of agreed common standards used in such forensic investigations.23 In short, governments can view the scientific principles and standards through a prism of their geopolitical implications as they pertain to Syria in particular and the Middle East more broadly.

A firewall approach may prevent the current polarization and politicization from damaging CWC norms and the longer-term integrity of the OPCW. Nevertheless, this may be seen as a de facto legitimization of what some states-parties see as continuing noncompliance with one of the core prohibitions of the CWC. This approach also might undermine the technical consensus about acceptable scientific criteria for evaluating investigation findings.

Force the issue. Another approach would be to break the traditional OPCW approach of decision making by consensus by forcing a vote that would explicitly condemn Syria for its violation of the CWC and simultaneously condemn the confirmed uses of chemical weapons by terrorists. Such a vote could be linked to the imposition of sanctions against Syria.24

This approach would likely compel more governments to clearly articulate their positions and assessments, but there is no guarantee about the vote’s outcome given the increasingly partisan OPCW atmosphere. A sizable percentage of the executive council and the conference could still decide to abstain and not take a public position.25 Voting on this matter also would deepen the divisions within the organization with little short- to medium-term prospects for returning to a common approach based on the principle of equal rights and responsibilities among all member states. In short, such a move could result in recriminations, a dysfunctional treaty regime, and paralyzed institutional and investigative mechanisms.

Other international mechanisms, as well as states individually or through collective mechanisms such as the France-led partnership, would continue to gather and preserve evidence for future judicial proceedings. Such proceedings would require the creation of a special tribunal or the activation of the International Criminal Court, which in the case of Syria would require a referral by the UN Security Council.

Allow the issue to recede quietly. A third option would be to place the issue on the back burner until the geopolitical situation in Syria has stabilized and the geopolitical conditions for future arms control verification steps have become clearer. Such an approach might facilitate cooperation among states-parties in other CWC implementation areas and contribute to what could be presented as a “success” of the review conference, albeit without a clear condemnation of chemical weapons use by Syria.

Measures to mitigate the associated risks could include an informal-track process of consultations to limit damage to the CWC regime and its institutions. An informal review of compliance assessment methodologies in general and as applied in the case of Syria could be carried out. Efforts could be made to enhance OPCW forensic capabilities and to develop a scientifically and technically trusted system of investigations with commonly accepted criteria and standards. The OPCW could continue considering how its competencies and capacities can most effectively deal with nonstate actor threats.

A weakened norm against the use of such weapons would likely be the price for a return to cooperation and unity among CWC parties under such circumstances. Whether this option is politically palatable or wise must be questioned.


There are no easy options for the OPCW to bring closure to the Syria issue. The primary objective must be to prevent any future uses of chemical weapons in the Syrian and the broader regional armed conflict. The use of such weapons is not the only violation of humanitarian law, and resolution of the Syrian chemical weapons challenge is intrinsically entangled with achieving a longer-term, stable, and equitable solution to the Syrian crisis overall.

French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian speaks during a meeting of diplomats discussing sanctions and criminal charges against the perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria, at the Foreign Affairs ministry in Paris on January 23, 2018.  (Photo: JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images)This debate is occurring in an international environment characterized by active information warfare and attempts to discredit hitherto reliable and respected information outlets in the media and in international organizations and investigation mechanisms, as well as extensive use of “alternative information outlets,” including social media.26 Thus, there is the potential for long-lasting reputational damage to international institutions and mechanisms, including independent investigative mechanisms under UN and OPCW auspices.

A “normal” state-party adheres to the objectives and spirit of the treaty regime even if it is not necessarily 100 percent compliant. Many states-parties still have deficiencies, for example, in their national implementation systems. The usual OPCW approach is to encourage willingness and capacity to achieve full compliance in good faith. What is perhaps needed in the case of Syria is a process closer to that used by the International Atomic Energy Agency in handling the question of Iran’s adherence to its nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations.

Looking Ahead

A package of political understandings and associated measures adopted incrementally that take into account the political, legal, and institutional cross-linkages of the Syria conflict and the wider geopolitical environment may be required.

In the absence of an agreed multilateral approach, some commentators recommend that France, the UK, and the United States issue “joint announcements summarizing their consensus on facts, and supporting military action if needed, while leaving decisions of national actions to each country according to its constitutional procedures, political traditions and preferences.” They also emphasize that redlines should “never be improvised.”27

The Syria dilemma is a subset of broader considerations within the decision-making levels in capitals. Political and other costs are associated with attempting to force the issue as opposed to seeking compromises or agreed exit strategies with opponents. Such compromises and strategies may be deemed desirable to achieve more positive outcomes in the medium to long term at multilateral security forums. They also may put at risk a country’s values and principles and those of the post-World War II international system, i.e., rules based, consensus driven, and acting within multilateral frameworks.

Finally, political expediency has often resulted in unintended consequences. Governments, policy planners, and other concerned actors do not wish to be unpleasantly surprised or faced with geopolitical and legal problems that are even less tractable than is currently the case. High-level political and operational-level technical engagements on the chemical weapons issue remain vital as the political future of Syria and its government’s legal obligations and responsibilities obtain a de facto but likely provisional and incomplete international imprimatur as a consequence of donors beginning to provide reconstruction and humanitarian assistance and as commercial relationships eventually recover.

Multilateral disarmament and arms control obligations must be implemented in an open, impartial, and professional manner, including with respect to the Syria chemical weapons problem.


1 See UN Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, “Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013,” n.d., http://www.un.org/zh/focus/northafrica/cwinvestigation.pdf.

2 Michelle Nichols, “U.S. Hopes for UN Vote on New Syria Toxic Gas Inquiry Next Week,” Reuters, March 2, 2018. Some international investigative bodies, such as the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes Under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic Since March 2011, established by the UN General Assembly in 2016, and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, will continue to operate.

3 Brett Edwards and Mattia Cacciatori, “The Politics of International Chemical Weapon Justice: The Case of Syria, 2011-2017,” Contemporary Security Policy, Vol. 39, No. 2 (2018): 280-297.

4 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Executive Council, “Note by the Director-General: Progress in the Elimination of the Syrian Chemical Weapons Programme,” EC-87/DG.7, December 22, 2017, para. 6.

5 Ibid., para. 8.

6 OPCW Executive Council, “Note by the Director-General: Progress in the Elimination of the Syrian Chemical Weapons Programme,” EC-87/DG.10, January 22, 2018, para. 14.

7 UN Security Council, “Letter Dated 24 August 2016 From the Secretary-General Addressed to the President of the Security Council,” S/2016/738, August 24, 2016 (containing “Third Report of Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism”); UN Security Council, “Letter Dated 21 October 2016 From the Secretary-General Addressed to the President of the Security Council,” S/2016/888, October 21, 2016 (containing “Fourth Report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism”); UN Security Council, “Letter Dated 26 October 2017 From the Secretary-General Addressed to the President of the Security Council,” S/2017/904, October 26, 2017 (containing “Seventh Report of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism”).

8 Edmond Mulet, “How the Security Council Failed the Syria Chemical Weapons Investigators and Victims,” The New York Times, December 29, 2017.  

9 Ibid.

10 John Hart and Ralf Trapp, “Same, Same?” CBRNe World, December 2017, p. 42, http://www.cbrneworld.com/_uploads/download_magazines/CBRNe_December_2017_v_Web.pdf (citing a document titled “Joint Declaration: United for a World Free of Chemical Weapons” by Belarus).

11 OPCW Conference of the States Parties, “Report of the Twenty-Second Session of the Conference of the States Parties: November 27-December 1, 2017,” C-22/5, December 1, 2017, para. 25.8.

12 Conflict Armament Research, “Weapons of the Islamic State: A Three-Year Investigation in Iraq and Syria,” December 2017, http://www.conflictarm.com/download-file/?report_id=2568&file_id=2574. On the environmental effects of the burning of elemental sulfur at the Mishraq Sulphur Plant in Iraq and reports that the Islamic State group undertook the development of chlorine and sulfur mustard at the Al-Hekma Pharmaceutical Complex in Iraq, see Wim Zwijnenburg and Foeke Postma, “Living Under a Black Sky: Conflict Pollution and Environmental Health Concerns in Iraq,” Pax, November 2017, pp. 16-18, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/pax-report-living-under-a-black-sky.pdf.

13 International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, “Fighting Impunity,” January 23, 2018, https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/international_partnership_against_impunity_for_the_use_of_chemical_weapons_declaration_of_principles2_en_cle818838-1.pdf.

14 Participants are Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Ivory Coast, Japan, Kuwait, Morocco, Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Senegal, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Ukraine, as well as the European Union. Representatives of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs and the OPCW also attended the launch.

15 Rex W. Tillerson, “Remarks on Russia’s Responsibility for the Ongoing Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria,” U.S. Department of State, January 23, 2018, https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2018/01/277601.htm.

16 Russian Federation Ministry for Foreign Affairs, “Foreign Ministry Statement on U.S. Allegations Regarding Chemical Attacks in Syria,” 102-24-01-2018, January 24, 2018; “Zayavlenie MID Rossii v svyazi s neobosnovannymi obvineniyami SShA po siriiskomu <<khimicheskomu dos’e>>,” 102-24-01-2018, January 24, 2018, http://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/international_safety/regprla/-/asset_publisher/YCxLFJnKuD1W/content/id/3033941?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_YCxLFJnKuD1W&_101_INSTANCE_YCxLFJnKuD1W_languageId=ru_RU.

17 Some decisions made in multilateral disarmament and arms control forums do not meet the dictionary definition of “decision.” For example, they may rather underline concern or a commitment by governments to undertake a clarification process.

18 The latter course, however, would be a departure from the traditional OPCW approach of making decisions by consensus or delaying decision making when consensus cannot be achieved.

19 OPCW, “Report of the Scientific Advisory Board’s Workshop on Chemical Forensics,” SAB-24/WP.1, July 14, 2016.

20 OPCW, “Report of the Scientific Advisory Board at Its Twenty-Fifth Session,” SAB-25/1*, March 31, 2017.

21 Anthony Deutsch, “Exclusive: Tests Link Syrian Government Stockpile to Largest Sarin Attack—Sources,” Reuters, January 30, 2018.

22 Foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation, “Foreign Ministry Statement on U.S. Allegations Regarding Chemical Attacks in Syria,” 102-24-01-2018, January 24, 2018.

23 Dr. Sadik Toprak of Bulent Ecevit University in Turkey is currently leading a research project on open source video analysis methodologies for sarin exposure from a civilian forensic pathology perspective.

24 Article XII of the Chemical Weapons Convention allows for the conference of states-parties to restrict or suspend the rights and privileges of a state-party (until the state re-establishes full compliance), to recommend in serious noncompliance cases some collective measures against the perpetrator, and to refer the matter to the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council.

25 The executive council, which typically prepares the draft conference decisions, meets just prior to or concurrently with the review conference.

26 Cranfield University and Sussex University presented baseline data on Syrian chemical weapons use allegations in March 2016. See James Revill et al, “Workshop Summary,” Harvard Sussex Program Occasional Paper (Syria Collection), June 2016 http://www.sussex.ac.uk/Units/spru/hsp/documents/SYRIA%20WORKSHOP%20FINAL%20.pdf

27 Jeffrey Lewis and Bruno Tertrais, “The Thick Red Line: Implications of the 2013 Chemical-Weapons Crisis for Deterrence and Transatlantic Relations,” Survival, Vol. 59, No. 6 (December 2017-January 2018): 100.

John Hart is a senior researcher and the head of the Chemical and Biological Security Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Ralf Trapp, an independent consultant on chemical and biological weapons disarmament, held senior positions at the Technical Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Posted: April 1, 2018

More Chemical Attacks Reported in Syria

The United States and Russia continue to clash at the UN Security Council over investigations.

April 2018
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

Reports of chemical weapons attacks in the Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta surfaced in March as attempts continued at the UN Security Council to restart investigations to identify the perpetrators of banned chemical weapons use in Syria.

There were at least two chlorine gas attacks in rebel-held eastern Ghouta in March, according to local reports that blamed the Syrian government, for the attacks. The Syrian American Medical Society reported that 29 victims were treated in one facility on March 7. Another chlorine gas attack was reported in the same region on March 11. These follow at least five alleged chemical weapons attacks in January and February.

A Syrian man shows remnants of rockets reportedly fired by regime forces on the rebel-held town of Douma in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on January 22, 2018. (Photo: HASAN MOHAMED/AFP/Getty Images)Although Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013 and subsequently declared and removed what it said was its chemical weapons stockpile, attacks since then indicate that Syria did not disclose its entire arsenal.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) created several investigative bodies to address concerns about Syria’s actions. The Declaration Assessment Team reported on March 2 to the OPCW Executive Council on its investigation of Syria’s chemical weapons declaration. The OPCW Fact-Finding Mission, which is tasked with verifying alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria, will issue a report soon, Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN high representative for disarmament affairs, told the UN Security Council on Feb. 5.

Efforts are underway to revive investigations to identify the perpetrators of attacks in Syria. Investigations stalled in late 2017 after Russia, which backs the Syrian government with military aid, prevented the Security Council from extending the mandate for the UN-OPCW joint investigative team. (See ACT, December 2017.)

Russia circulated a proposal on Jan. 23 to renew such investigations, which the United States quickly dismissed as an attempt to distract from a launch the same day of a French-led initiative to prevent “impunity” for those authorizing chemical attacks. The United States also objected to the Russian draft’s terms, which included mandating that investigators visit all attack sites, even though many are in areas too dangerous to reach. In early March, the United States circulated an alternative draft resolution to restart the investigation effort.

Russian state-run media have quoted Russian military officials as claiming the recent chlorine gas attacks are a so-called false flag operation in which the rebels attack their own people to blame the Syrian regime, to draw international sympathy for their fight, and as a possible pretext for U.S. airstrikes against Syrian government sites.

The reported continuing use of chemical weapons has drawn strong international condemnation. “The civilized world must not tolerate the Assad regime’s continued use of chemical weapons,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on March 4. French President Emmanuel Macron threatened on March 14 to order military strikes against launch sites should there be sufficient evidence that chemical weapons were used against civilians.

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü described the allegations as a “source of grave concern” in a March 13 address to a meeting of the OPCW Executive Council. Timothy Edwards, Canada’s acting permanent representative to the OPCW, argued that Syrian noncooperation with the Declaration Assessment Team and Fact-Finding Mission should disqualify it from maintaining the “rights and privileges of OPCW membership.”

In neighboring Iraq, the OPCW confirmed the destruction on March 13 of Iraq’s remaining chemical weapons stockpile, which consisted of remnants stored in two bunkers. Although Iraq initially declared the bunkers in 2009 as containing chemical weapons, destruction did not begin until 2017 due to hazardous conditions.


Posted: April 1, 2018

Banned Russian Toxin Used in UK Attack

Assassination attempt indicates Russia has a nerve agent in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

April 2018
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

An attempted assassination of a former Russian spy with a highly lethal Russian-developed nerve agent calls into question Moscow’s compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and threatens to further undermine the norm against chemical weapons use.

The United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the United States were the first to accuse the Russian government of carrying out the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, UK, on March 4 using the chemical agent Novichok. As a consequence, the United States announced March 26 that it was expelling 60 Russian diplomats, joining more than 20 European countries taking similar actions to punish Moscow.

A police officer in a protective suit and mask works near the scene where former double-agent Sergei Skripal and daughter Yulia were found after being attacked with a nerve agent on March 16, 2018 in Salisbury, UK. (Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)


“No country except Russia has the combined capability in chemical warfare, intent to weaponize this agent, and motive to target the principal victim,” UK Prime Minister Theresa May wrote in a March 13 letter to the president of the UN Security Council.

The Russian government has initiated assassinations on UK soil previously, including the targeted killing of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko by a radioactive isotope in London in 2006, which President Vladimir Putin allegedly authorized.

Alexander Shulgin, Russian permanent representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), derided UK accusations as “nothing but fiction and another instance of the dirty information war being waged on Russia,” during a March 13 OPCW Executive Council meeting. Although the UK asserted that Russian responsibility is “highly likely,” most members of the UN Security Council are less confident and, at a March 14 emergency meeting called by the UK, requested that the OPCW conduct an independent investigation.

The UK notified the OPCW Technical Secretariat of the attack on March 8 and OPCW experts subsequently were deployed to the UK to collect samples. The results of the analysis, which will not assign blame, could come by mid-April at the earliest, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü said at a briefing at the UN on March 20.

The Soviet Union developed Novichok secretly in the 1970s and 1980s, after which Russia inherited the program. Its existence was publicly revealed only when Soviet scientist Vil Mirzayanov leaked the project to the press in the 1990s. Novichok reportedly is more lethal than known nerve agents sarin and VX.

The March 4 attack would constitute its first known use, although some chemical weapons experts told The New York Times that the agent could have been used in assassinations in the past but not recognized.

Novichok affects victims through skin exposure or inhalation. Like other nerve agents, Novichok exposure inhibits certain neurotransmitters that relay messages to nerves, eventually resulting in muscle spasms, organ failure, and death from suffocation or heart failure.

The OPCW, the implementing body of the CWC, announced that Russia destroyed its entire declared chemical weapons arsenal in September 2017. Russia did not declare Novichok agents as part of its chemical weapons arsenal when it joined the convention. Vassily Nebenzia, Russian permanent representative to the United Nations, at the UN Security Council on March 14 denied that Russia possesses any Novichok agent.

If Russia is confirmed as responsible, it would mean that Russia not only failed to declare its entire arsenal to the OPCW but also that it retained a part of its arsenal after the OPCW verified that it had destroyed it. That would constitute a “major case of non-compliance with the treaty that would need to be remedied in short order to maintain confidence in the efficacy of the treaty and the OPCW,” Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, told Arms Control Today in a March 16 email.

In a March 12 address to Parliament, May urged Russia to disclose its Novichok program to the OPCW in order to return to compliance with the CWC. Russia also would need to allow the OPCW to monitor the destruction of any remaining chemical weapons stocks or provide “credible evidence” of chemical weapons and production facilities destruction to the OPCW, Koblentz said.

At a March 14 meeting of the UN Security Council, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, demanded that the body “take immediate, concrete measures” to address Russian noncompliance, although council action may be challenging given Russia’s veto power.

Investigations could be mandated instead through the secretary-general’s mechanism, said Andrew Weber, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, in a March 15 email to Arms Control Today.

The use of Novichok in the UK occurred as the norm against chemical weapons use may be eroding globally due to ongoing use of chemical weapons by Syria, a CWC state-party, and North Korea’s use of VX to assassinate Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia last year.

To prevent norm erosion, chemical weapons users must be held to account, Weber and Koblentz said. Koblentz pointed to the International Partnership Against the Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, launched in Paris in January, as a useful tool for “marshaling international support to punish and prosecute perpetrators” of chemical weapons attacks. Although the initiative was launched largely in response to chemical weapons use in Syria, its work applies to chemical weapons use globally. (See ACT, March 2018.)

“The use of chemical weapons anywhere erodes the norm everywhere,” said Koblentz.

Posted: April 1, 2018

Chemical Weapons: Frequently Asked Questions

March 2018

Contact: Daryl Kimball, Executive Director, 202-463-8270 ext. 107; Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy, 202-463-8270 ext. 102.

Updated: March 2018

The use and possession of chemical weapons is prohibited under international law. However, several nations continue to maintain active chemical weapons programs, despite a prevailing norm against the use of chemical weapons and international efforts to destroy existing stockpiles.

The following are basic answers to frequently asked questions regarding the different types of chemical weapons and delivery systems, the history of chemical weapons use, international legal regimes that seek to curb the use and stockpiling of chemical weapons, and current efforts to verifiably destroy chemical weapons arsenals.

I. What are chemical weapons?
II. How are chemical weapons delivered?
III.  When have chemical weapons been used?
IV. Are chemical weapons prohibited?
V. Who has chemical weapons?
VI. How are chemical weapons destroyed?

I. What are chemical weapons?

A chemical weapon is any toxic chemical that can cause death, injury, incapacitation, and sensory irritation, deployed via a delivery system, such as an artillery shell, rocket, or ballistic missile. Chemical weapons are considered weapons of mass destruction and their use in armed conflict is a violation of international law.

Primary forms of chemical weapons include nerve agents, blister agents, choking agents, and blood agents. These agents are categorized based on how they affect the human body.

Nerve agents. Generally considered the most deadly of the different categories of chemical weapons, nerve agents – in liquid or gas form - can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Nerve agents inhibit the body’s respiratory and cardiovascular capability by causing severe damage to the central nervous system, and can result in death. The most common nerve agents include Sarin, Soman, and VX.

Blister agents.  Blister agents can come in forms of gas, aerosol, or liquid and cause severe burns and blistering of the skin. They can also cause complications to the respiratory system if inhaled and digestive tract if ingested. Common forms of blister agents include Sulfur Mustard, Nitrogen Mustard, Lewisite and Phosgene Oximine.

Choking agents. Choking agents are chemical toxins that directly attack the body’s respiratory system when inhaled and cause respiratory failure. Common forms of choking agents include phosgene, chlorine, and chloropicrin.

Blood agents. Blood agents interfere with the body’s ability to use and transfer oxygen through the blood stream. Blood agents are generally inhaled and then absorbed into the blood stream. Common forms of blood agents include Hydrogen Chloride and Cyanogen Chloride.

Riot control agents, such as tear gas, are considered chemical weapons if used as a method of warfare. States can legitimately possess riot control agents and use them for domestic law enforcement purposes, but states that are members of the Chemical Weapons Convention must declare what type of riot agents they possess.

II. How are chemical weapons delivered?

A chemical weapon attack occurs in two phases: delivery and dissemination. The delivery phase refers to the launching of the rocket, bomb, or artillery shell. The dissemination phase involves the dispersal of the chemical agent from the weapon.

Chemical weapons can be delivered via a variety of mechanisms including but not limited to; ballistic missiles, air dropped gravity bombs, rockets, artillery shells, aerosol canisters, land mines, and mortars.

Artillery shells are conventional shells that have been converted to disperse chemical weapons. The most traditional delivery vehicle of chemical agents, dispersion occurs through an explosive charge that expels the chemical agent laterally.

Air delivered systems can be deployed via gravity bombs, spray tank, or rockets. Ground detonated and airburst gravity bombs are generally delivered through fixed wing aircraft, while helicopters have been traditionally deployed with spray tanks and rockets.

Ballistic missiles carrying chemical weapons – via a fill tank or sub munitions - utilize an airburst to disperse chemical agents over a broad area.  The use of sub munitions increases the area in which chemical agents can be dispersed. Compared to other delivery systems, ballistic missiles expand the range of targets that combatants can target with chemical weapons. However, the use of explosives to disperse the chemical agent reduces the potency of the weapon in combat situations.

Cruise missiles. Unlike ballistic missiles, which utilize explosives to discharge the agent, cruise missiles can disperse chemical agents in a gradual and controlled fashion.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs are another platform that combatants may utilize to disperse chemical agents. Like cruise missiles, UAVs are ideal platforms for slower dissemination due to controllable speeds, and dispersal over a wide area. UAVs can fly below radar detection and change directions, allowing them to be retargeted during flight.

Dissemination is the most critical phase of a chemical weapon and generally determines its effectiveness. Generally, dissemination has been done via explosives that expel the agent laterally. Other forms of dissemination include aerodynamic dissemination, a non-explosive delivery mechanism that deploys the chemical agent through dispersion lines.

III.  When have chemical weapons been used?

The use of harmful chemicals in warfare, personal attacks, and assassinations dates back centuries, but the rise of industrial production of chemicals in the late 19th century opened the door to more massive use of chemical agents in combat. The first major use of chemicals on the battlefield was in World War I when Germany released chlorine gas from pressurized cylinders in April 1915 at Ypres, Belgium. Ironically, this attack did not technically violate the 1899 Hague Peace Conference Declaration, the first international attempt to limit chemical agents in warfare, which banned only “the use of projectiles the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.” Historians estimate that, with the introduction of mustard gases in 1917, chemical weapons and agents injured some one million soldiers and killed 100,000 during the 1914-1918 war.

The 1925 Geneva Protocol sought to ban the use of biological and chemical weapons, but many of its signers joined with major reservations. China, France, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom all joined in the 1920s, but Japan did not join until 1970 and the United States until 1975. Between the two world wars, there were a number of reports of use of chemical weapons in regional conflicts: Morocco in 1923-1926, Tripolitania (Libya) in 1930, Sinkiang (China) in 1934, Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935-1940, and Manchuria (China) in 1937-1942. World War II saw no major use of chemical weapons on the battlefield, with the exception of the Sino-Japanese conflict, and both President Franklin Roosevelt and German leader Adolf Hitler had stated publicly that they were personally against the first use of chemical weapons. Germany, however, did use deadly chemicals in the gas chambers of the Holocaust.

Most of the major powers in World War II developed, produced, and stockpiled large amounts of chemical weapons during the war. Since the end of the war in 1945, there have been only sporadic reports of limited use of chemical weapons, including in the Yemen war of 1963-1967 when Egypt bombed Yemeni villages, killing some 1,500 people. The United States heavily used herbicides such as Agent Orange and tear gas in the Vietnam War in the 1960s; although such chemicals are not covered under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), some observers saw this as chemical warfare. Iraq used chemical weapons in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war and against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988. These two cases provoked widespread public opposition to the horrors and indiscriminate nature of deadly chemical agents and certainly helped advance CWC negotiations, which had begun in the early 1980s, to their conclusion in 1992.

For more on the history of chemical weapon use see “Abolishing Chemical Weapons: Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities” in November 2010 Arms Control Today.

The use of the nerve agent sarin by the Japanese terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo in June 1994 in Matsumoto, Japan, and again on March 20, 1995, in the Tokyo subway system, killing 19 people and injuring some 5,000, suddenly brought to light the potential threat of nonstate actors intent on using weapons of mass destruction. The first official on-site inspection by the United States of a Russian chemical weapons stockpile in the Kurgan Oblast along the border of Kazakhstan in July 1994 illustrated that Russian chemical weapons arsenals left much to be desired regarding security against theft, diversion, and terrorism.

Iraqi insurgents in recent years have combined tanks of chlorine gas with improvised explosive devices, but with little success. There were reports of the possible limited use of chemical agents by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and by Turkish troops against Kurdish rebels in eastern Turkey, but these allegations remain unproven. In public statements, Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda threatened to use nuclear, chemical, biological, and radiological weapons.

In Syria, intelligence reports by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France assess that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against opposition forces on numerous occasions since 2012, including an August 2013 attack in Ghouta, outside of Damascus, that killed more than 1,400 people. The UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) has found the Syrian government responsible for numerous chemical weapons attacks, including in April 2014, March 2015, March 2016 and April 2017 and the Islamic State responsible for chemical weapons attacks in August 2015 and September 2016. Reports of chemical weapons use in Syria continue to surface. For a complete timeline of Syrian chemical weapons use see Timeline of Syrian Chemical Weapons Activity, 2012-2018. 

Kurdish and Iraqi military forces claim the Islamic State used chlorine gas in attacks in December 2014 and March 2015 in Iraq, but these accounts have not been verified by the OPCW. 

In February 2017, North Korean agents used VX, a nerve agent, to assassinate Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 

In March 2018, the UK accused Russia of using a Novichok agent to assassinate a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, in the UK.

IV. Are chemical weapons prohibited?

Yes. The horrendous and widespread use of chemical weapons in World War I prompted international efforts to curb the use and production of chemical agents.

The two major protocols that target chemical weapons are the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The former provides the initial international legal framework for controls on the use of chemical weapons, while the latter establishes comprehensive international standards that ban the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, use, transfer, or retention of chemical weapons for all CWC state parties.

1925 Geneva ProtocolSigned in 1925, the Geneva Protocol was drafted and signed at the Conference for the Supervision of the International Trade in Arms and Ammunition, and prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons in the field of conflict.  While it prohibits the use of chemical weapons, the Geneva Protocol does not regulate the production, research or stockpiling of these weapons. It allows nations to reserve the right to retaliate with chemical weapons should it be subject to an adversarial chemical attack. It also does not regulate the use of chemical weapons for internal conflicts. However, over time, through customary international law, it is widely considered applicable to these conflicts as well. Interest in verifiable elimination of existing stockpiles of chemical weapons fueled the push for the more robust CWC in 1993.

Chemical Weapons Convention: The Chemical Weapons Convention is a multilateral treaty that bans the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, and use of chemical weapons and requires all possessor states to destroy their stockpiles safely. Opened for signature in Paris on January 13, 1993, the CWC entered into force in April 29, 1997 and has 192 members. Currently one nation– Israel– has signed but not ratified the treaty, while three nations (Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan) have neither signed nor acceded to the CWC. Non-members of the United Nations, such as Palestine and Taiwan, also remain outside of the CWC.

The CWC requires universal adherence to its protocols, and establishes verification regimes that assure the destruction of member nations' chemical weapon stockpiles. The CWC requires member nations to declare all chemical weapons and chemical weapons sites, including research, development, and testing sites, to be subject to on-site inspection. According to Article VI of the treaty, destruction of a state party’s declared chemical weapons arsenal should begin no later than two years after the state joins the treaty and should finish no more than ten years after it has joined, although the treaty does allow a deadline extension of up to five years from that date. Verification is implemented through the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), located in The Hague, Netherlands, and involves routine on-site inspections and reporting. The CWC also promotes multilateral cooperation on peaceful uses of chemistry and undertakes over 400 on-site inspections of the chemical industry annually.

For more information on the CWC, see Chemical Weapons Convention at a Glance.

V. Who has chemical weapons?

Eight countries declared chemical weapons stockpiles when they joined the CWC: Albania, India, Iraq, Libya, Syria, the United States, Russia and an anonymous state widely believed to be South Korea. Of those eight countries, Albania, South Korea, India, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Russia have completed destruction of their declared arsenals. Syria, however, may not have declared its entire stockpile. The United States plans to complete the destruction of its chemical weapons by 2023.

When Russia, the United States, and Libya declared that they would be unable to meet their final destruction deadlines in 2012, CWC state parties agreed to extend the deadlines with increased national reporting and transparency.

Russia declared the largest stockpile with approximately 40,000 metric tons at seven arsenals in six regions of Russia. The United States declared 28,577 metric tons at nine stockpiles in eight states and on Johnston Atoll west of Hawaii. Albania and Libya declared the smallest stockpiles, with 16 and 23 metric tons respectively. India and South Korea declared stockpiles in the 500-1,000 metric ton range but maintained a high degree of secrecy around the size, location, composition, and destruction of their weapons.

Syria admitted that it had chemical weapons in July 2012. It joined the CWC on September 12, 2013, declaring its chemical weapons stockpile and determining a plan for its elimination soon after. The OPCW announced that the entirety of Syria’s declared stockpile of 1,308 metric tons of sulfur mustard agent and precursor chemicals had been destroyed by January 2016.  The destruction processes were carried out on board the US Merchant Marine ship, Cape Ray, and in four countries – Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. However, reports continue to surface of chemical weapon use in Syria, raising questions about the accuracy of its initial declaration.

North Korea, a non-signatory to the CWC, is widely reported to possess a large arsenal of chemical weapons, likely over 5,000 metric tons, including mustard, phosgene, and nerve agents. The use of VX nerve agent in the 2017 assassination in Kuala Lumpur strongly indicates that VX is part of North Korea’s chemical arsenal.

For more information, see Chemical and Biological Weapons Status at a Glance

VI. How are chemical weapons destroyed?

The United States: The United States began construction of its first prototype incinerator on Johnston Atoll in the 1980s. In 1990, it began burning 1,842 metric tons of chemical weapons, which had been secretly shipped from forward deployment in Germany and Okinawa many years earlier. When the CWC entered into force in 1997, the United States was already operating its first two incinerators on Johnston Atoll and in Tooele, Utah, which was the largest U.S. chemical weapons stockpile with 12,353 metric tons. The U.S. Army burned 1,436 metric tons, about 5 percent of the total chemical stockpile, at the two sites before the April 1997 entry into force.

The U.S. Army initially planned to construct three centralized incinerators to destroy the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile, and early schedules optimistically showed the United States completing operations in 1994. Congress subsequently banned transportation of chemical munitions on safety and security grounds, necessitating the current plan for a destruction facility at each of the nine U.S. sites at which chemical weapons are stored.

When the U.S. Senate finally approved the CWC, on April 25, 1997, after a long and contentious debate, the articles of ratification specified, among many other conditions, that the president place the highest priority on protection of public health and the environment and that the Army undertake the development and demonstration of nonincineration technologies for chemical weapons destruction.

Today the United States has constructed and operated five large incinerators: on Johnston Atoll and in Tooele, Utah, as previously noted; in Umatilla, Oregon; in Anniston, Alabama; and in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. The Johnston Atoll incinerator finished operations in 2000; the other four completed operations in 2012. In addition, neutralization facilities were built in Newport, Indiana, and Edgewood, Maryland; they chemically treated and destroyed bulk VX nerve agent and mustard agent. The remaining two chemical weapons stockpiles in Pueblo, Colorado, and Blue Grass, Kentucky, will each be destroyed by chemical neutralization, followed by second-stage treatments of bioremediation and super-critical water oxidation (SCWO).  The Pueblo facility began operations in 2016, and Blue Grass is scheduled to open in 2020.

A 2016 OPCW report declared that the United States had destroyed approximately 90 percent - 24,972 metric tons - of the chemical weapons stockpile it had declared as the CWC entered into force; nearly 25,000 metric tons of the declared total of 27,770. The United States has destroyed all of Category 2 and Category 3 weapons. The United States is projected to complete destruction by 2023.

Russia: Russian officials made it clear in 1997, when they ratified the CWC, that they would need technical and financial support from other CWC members to meet its treaty deadlines. During the 1994 U.S. visit to Russia, Russian military officials and the chairman of the Duma defense committee rejected a U.S. offer made by the assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs to construct an incinerator at the Shchuch’ye chemical weapons stockpile. Russian officials wanted to determine their own technologies for demilitarization and were very wary of incineration as too complex, too expensive, too dangerous, and too politically contentious.

The first Russian chemical weapons demilitarization facility, built and funded as a prototype facility by Germany for neutralizing lewisite, an older, arsenic-based chemical agent, opened in 2002 at Gorny in the Saratov Oblast. Since then, Russia has been able to open five more destruction facilities, the last at Kizner in the Udmurt Republic.

Most of these facilities have been supported financially by the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, founded by the Group of Eight at its summit meeting in Kananaskis, Canada, in 2002. As of 2010, the United States through the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR or Nunn-Lugar) program committed more than $1 billion since the mid-1990s to the planning and construction of the neutralization facility at Shchuch’ye, while Germany has committed $475 million (340 million euros) to construction at Gorny, Kambarka, and Pochep. Canada and the United Kingdom have contributed some $82 million and $39 million, respectively, while at least another 10 additional countries have contributed some $25 million.

On September 27, 2017, the OPCW announced that Russia had completed destruction of its chemical weapons arsenal.

Libya: Libya joined the CWC in 2004 and, in its submittal at the time, declared 23 metric tons of mustard agent in bulk containers. In addition, it declared one inactivated chemical weapons production facility, two chemical weapons storage sites, 1,300 metric tons of precursor chemicals, and 3,563 unfilled aerial bombs. It first planned on eliminating its chemical agent stockpile by the 2007 deadline.

However, after aborted attempts at U.S. and Italian partnerships in its demilitarization program, it asked for several OPCW deadline extensions. Destruction of the stockpile was halted in February 2011 due to the armed uprising that resulted in the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. At that time, 11.5 metric tons of chemical weapons remained in Libya’s declared stockpiles.

Libya subsequently declared an additional chemical weapons stockpile and completed the destruction of its Category 1 chemical weapons in January 2014. With assistance from the OPCW and other member states including Canada and Denmark, Libya removed all of the remaining precursor chemicals from its territory for destruction in August 2016. The Syria case, which set the precedent for destroying chemical weapons outside of the country of origin, paved the way for shipping the remaining chemicals out of Libya for destruction in Germany. Libya completed the destruction of all its chemical weapons in January 2018.

For more information on the destruction of Libya’s chemical weapons see Chronology of Libya’s Disarmament and Relations with the United States

Iraq: Iraq joined the CWC in early 2009 and declared two large, sealed "Al Muthana" bunkers in the Fallujah region with chemical weapons and related equipment and debris from the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Because at least one of these bunkers had been hit by aerial bombs in the war, there is no final inventory of weapons and agents, nor a thorough evaluation of the possible risks of open agents or unexploded ordnance in the bunkers. The OPCW declared Iraq's destruction complete in March 2018.

Albania:  Albania was the first possessor state to destroy its stockpile. Although it joined the CWC in 1994, it did not acknowledge its possession of 16 metric tons of mustard agent (as well as small quantities of lewisite and other chemicals) until 2003. The OPCW declared Albania’s destruction complete in July 2007.

South Korea:  South Korea refused to acknowledge its stockpile in any public presentations, including the annual speeches by its ambassador to the OPCW, and has claimed full confidentiality (“highly protected information”) under the Confidentiality Annex of the CWC; all OPCW delegations and staff therefore refer to it as “A State Party” in reference to declared possessor states. South Korea completed the destruction of its chemical weapons in 2008.

India:  India declared a stockpile of 1,044 tons of sulfur mustard in 1997 after ratifying the CWC in 1996. India completed the destruction of its entire chemical weapons stockpile in 2009. 

-Research Assistance by Eric Wey

Strategic Arms Control and Policy

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Posted: March 27, 2018

Chemical and Biological Weapons Status at a Glance

March 2018

Contact: Daryl Kimball, Executive Director, (202) 463-8270 x107

Updated: March 2018

Despite the progress made by international conventions, biological weapons (BW) and chemical weapons (CW) still pose a threat.

More progress has been made by Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) states-parties and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the destruction of declared CW stockpiles. Progress on the implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), however, has been slower due to the lack of a formal verification mechanism.

There are 180 states parties to the BWC, including Palestine, and six signatories (Central African Republic, Egypt, Haiti, Somalia, Syria, and Tanzania). Eleven states have neither signed nor ratified the BWC (Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Israel, Kiribati, Micronesia, Namibia, Niue, South Sudan and Tuvalu).

For more information about the BWC, please see BWC at a Glance.

There are 192 states parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Israel has signed but ratified the convention and Egypt, North Korea, South Sudan have neither signed nor ratified the CWC.

For more information about the CWC, please see CWC at a Glance and Chemical Weapons: Frequently Asked Questions

Below is a list of states believed to currently possess or have once possessed biological and/or chemical weapons and their current status. Some states have officially declared BW or CW programs, while other programs have been alleged to exist by other states. Therefore, both official declarations and unofficial allegations of chemical and biological weapons programs are included below.


Chemical Weapons

State declaration: Although it joined the CWC in 1994, Albania did not acknowledge its possession of 16 metric tons of mustard agent (as well as small quantities of lewisite and other chemicals) until 2003. The OPCW declared Albania’s destruction complete in July 2007.


Biological Weapons

State declaration: China states that it is in compliance with its BWC obligations and that it has never had an active BW program.

Allegations: According to the United States, China’s BW activities have been extensive and a 1993 State Department Compliance Report alleged that activities continued after China joined the BWC. The 2010 report indicates that little information is known about China’s activities, and that recent dual-use activities may have breached the BWC. Existing infrastructure would allow it to develop, produce, and weaponize agents. The 2017 report does not discuss China’s BWC compliance or noncompliance.

Chemical Weapons

State declaration: China states that it is in compliance with the CWC. China declared in 1997 that it had a small offensive CW program that has now been dismantled, which has been verified by over 400 inspections  by the OPCW as of 2016. 

Allegations: The U.S. alleged in 2003 that China has an “advanced chemical weapons research and development program.” However, these allegations have decreased in magnitude in recent years and the State Department’s 2017 report on compliance with the CWC cited no such concerns.

Other information: Approximately 350,000 chemical munitions were left on Chinese soil by Japan during the Second World War. Work with Japan to dispose of these is ongoing.


Biological Weapons

State declaration: Cuba denies any BW research efforts.

Allegations: A 2003 State Department Compliance Report indicated that Cuba had “at least a limited developmental offensive biological warfare research and development effort.” The 2010 report claimed that “available information did not indicate Cuba’s dual-use activities during the reporting period involved activities prohibited by the BWC.” The 2017 report did not mention any problems with Cuba’s compliance with BWC.

Allegations of BW programs have been made by Cuban defectors in the past.

Other information: Cuba has a relatively advanced biotechnology industrial capabilities.


Biological Weapons

State declaration: Two vague statements alluding to a BW capability were made by President Saddat and one of his ministers in 1972, but Egypt has not officially declared a biological weapons stockpile.

Allegations: There have been various allegations that Egypt possesses biological weapons. Some argue that Egypt’s reluctance to ratify the BWC signals that it does possess biological weapons. The 2014 State Department compliance report notes that Egypt has "continued to improve its biotechnology infrastructure" over the past three years, including through research and development activities involving genetic engineering, as of 2013's end, "available information did not indicate that Egypt is engaged in activities prohibited by the BWC." The 2017 State Department report does not mention any problems with Egypt’s compliance with the BWC.

Chemical Weapons

Allegations: There is strong evidence that Egypt employed bombs and artillery shells filled with phosgene and mustard agents during the Yemen Civil War from (1963 – 1967) but it is unclear if Egypt currently possesses chemical weapons. In 1989, the United States and Switzerland alleged that Egypt was producing chemical weapons in a plant north of Cairo. As a non-party to the CWC, Egypt has not had to issue any formal declarations about CW programs and capabilities. 


Chemical Weapons

State declaration: India declared in June 1997 that it possessed a CW stockpile of 1,044 metric tons of mustard agent. India completed destruction of its stockpile in 2009.


Biological Weapons

State declaration: Iran has publicly denounced BW.

Allegations: The Defense Intelligence Agency alleged in 2009 that Iran’s BW efforts “may have evolved beyond agent R&D, and we believe Iran likely has the capability to produce small quantities of BW agents but may only have a limited ability to weaponize them.” 

The 2010 report assesses that there is evidence showing Iran continues dual-use activities, but there is no conclusive evidence showing BWC violations. The 2017 State Department report on compliance with the BWC does not mention any problems with Iran’s compliance with the BWC.

Chemical Weapons

State declaration: Iran has denounced the possession and use of CW in international forums.

Allegations: Pre-2003 U.S. intelligence assessments alleged that Iran had a stockpile of CW. This stockpile is thought to have included blister, blood, and choking agents and probably nerve agents. After 2003, however, the United States stopped making such allegations. The United States claimed it was unable to ascertain if Iran is meeting its obligations under the CWC, according to a State Department 2017 report on compliance with the CWC. 

Other information: Iran suffered tens of thousands of casualties from Iraqi use of chemical weapons during the1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Iran’s CW program is believed to have been started after Iraqi CW use. There are no known credible allegations that Iran used any chemical weapons against Iraq in response.


Biological Weapons

State declaration: Iraq admitted to testing and stockpiling BW in the mid-1990s. These stockpiles appear to have been destroyed prior to the 2003 invasion. There have been no declarations about BW after 2003.

Chemical Weapons

State declaration: Iraq had an extensive chemical weapons program before the Persian Gulf War dating back to the 1960s under which it produced and stockpiled mustard, tabun, sarin, and VX. Iraq delivered chemical agents against Iranian forces during the Iran-Iraq War using aerial bombs, artillery, rocket launchers, tactical rockets, and helicopter-mounted sprayers and it also used chemical weapons against its Kurdish population in 1988. Its program was largely dismantled by United Nations weapons inspectors in the 1990s.

Iraq declared in August 1998 that it had dismantled all of its chemical weapons in partnership with the UN Special Commission established for that purpose.

Iraq then submitted an additional declaration to the OPCW of an unknown quantity of chemical weapons remnants contained in two storage bunkers in March 2009. Destruction activities were delayed due to an unstable security situation, but began in 2017. On March 13, 2018, the OPCW announced that all of Iraq's chemical weapons had been destroyed.


Biological Weapons

State declaration: Israel has revealed little in terms of its biological weapons capabilities or programs.

Allegations: There is belief that Israel has had an offensive BW program in the past. It is unclear if this is still the case.

Chemical Weapons

Allegations: Some allege that Israel had an offensive CW program in the past. It is unclear if Israel maintains an ongoing program.


Biological Weapons

State declaration: Libya announced in December 2003 that it would eliminate its BW program.

Allegations: Between 1982 and 2003 there were many allegations of a Libyan biological weapons program, although later inspections failed to reveal any evidence to support these claims. 

Chemical Weapons

State declaration: In 2003, Libya announced it would be abandoning its CW program and in 2004 it declared possession of chemical agents and facilities. Libya declared 24.7 metric tons of mustard agent in bulk containers. In addition, it declared one inactivated chemical weapons production facility, two chemical weapons storage sites, 1,300 metric tons of precursor chemicals, and 3,563 unfilled aerial bombs. Libya completed the destruction of its Category 1 chemical weapons in January 2014. With assistance from the OPCW and other member states, Libya removed all of the remaining chemical weapons from its territory for destruction in August 2016. In January 2018, the OPCW declared that Libya's entire chemical weapons arsenal had been destroyed.

For more information on Libya's disarmament see Chronology of Libya's Disarmament and Relations with the United States.


Biological Weapons

Allegations: The 2010 State Department report on compliance with the BWC remarks that North Korea may “still consider the use of biological weapons as a military option.” In a 2012 Ministry of National Defense White Paper, South Korea asserted that “North Korea likely has the capability to produce[…] anthrax, smallpox, pest, francisella tularensis, and hemorrhagic fever viruses.”

Chemical Weapons

Allegations: North Korea is widely believed to possess a large chemical stockpile including nerve, blister, choking, and blood agents. The 2012 unclassified intelligence assessment provided to Congress states that North Korea has a "long standing CW program" and "possesses a large stockpile of agents." In February 2017, North Korean agents used VX, a nerve agent, to assassinate Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong Un in Malaysia. 


Biological Weapons

State declaration: In January 1992, Boris Yeltsin acknowledged that the Soviet Union had pursued an extensive and offensive BW program throughout the 1970s and 1980s. However, since joining the BWC in 1992, Russia has repeatedly expressed its commitment to the destruction of its biological weapons.

Allegations: The Soviet Union’s extensive offensive germ program included weaponized tularemia, typhus, Q fever, smallpox, plague, anthrax, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, glanders, brucellosis, and Marburg. The Soviet Union also researched numerous other agents and toxins that can attack humans, plants, and livestock.

The United States has repeatedly expressed concern about Russia’s inherited biological weapons program and uncertainty about Russia’s compliance with the BWC.

The 2010 State Department report on compliance with the BWC details that Russia continues to engage in dual-use biological research activities, yet there is no evidence that such work is inconsistent with BWC obligations. It assesses that it remains unclear whether Russia has fulfilled its obligations under Article I of the convention. The 2017 report states that “Russia’s annual BWC CBM submissions since 1992 have not satisfactorily documented whether the BW items under these programs were destroyed or diverted to peaceful purposes, as required by Article II of the BWC.” 

Chemical Weapons

State declaration: Russia possessed the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpile: approximately 40,000 metric tons of chemical agent, including VX, sarin, soman, mustard, lewisite, mustard-lewisite mixtures, and phosgene.

Russia has declared its arsenal to the OPCW and commenced destruction. Along with the United States, Russia received an extension when it was unable to complete destruction by the 2012 deadline imposed by the CWC. A 2016 OPCW report indicated that as of 2015, Russia had destroyed about 92 percent of its stockpile (around 36,7500 metric tons). On September 27, 2017, the OPCW announced that Russia completed destruction of its chemical weapons arsenal.

Allegations: The U.S. has some reservations about Russian compliance with the CWC, as expressed in the 2017 State Department report on CWC compliance which stated “The United States cannot certify that Russia has met its obligations under the Convention,” and asserted that Russia had not made a complete declaration of its stockpile. 

The UK accused Russia of assassinating a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia, in the UK using the chemical agent Novichok on March 4, 2018.


Chemical Weapons

State declaration: South Korea declared a chemical weapons stockpile of unspecified agents when it joined the CWC in 1997 and completed destruction of its declared arsenal on July 10, 2008. It does not admit publically that it possessed chemical weapons and was noted in OPCW materials as a “state party.”


Chemical Weapons

State declaration: After acceding to the CWC in 1999, Sudan declared only a small selection of unspecified riot control agents.

Allegations: There are unconfirmed reports that Sudan developed and used CW in the past. The U.S. bombed an alleged CW factory in 1998. There have been no serious allegations in recent years. Sudan was not included in the 2017 State Department report on compliance with the CWC.


Biological Weapons

State declaration: In July 2012, a spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry confirmed that the country possesses biological warfare materials, but little is known about the extent of the arsenal. On July 14, 2014, Syria declared the existence of production facilities and stockpiles of purified ricin, although little is known about the continued existence of such facilities in 2017.

Chemical Weapons

State declaration: On September 20, 2013, Syria submitted a declaration of its chemical weapons and facilities to the OPCW after years of denying the program's existence. The OPCW announced that the entirety of Syria’s declared stockpile of 1,308 metric tons of sulfur mustard agent and precursor chemicals had been destroyed in January 2016. However, reports continue to surface of chemical weapon use in Syria, raising questions about the accuracy of its initial declaration.

Allegations: Syria had an extensive program producing a variety of agents, including nerve agents such as sarin and VX, and blistering agents, according to governments and media sources. There were also some allegations of deployed CWs on SCUD missiles. Several UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) reports have found that the Syrian government was responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Syria, including in April 2014, March 2015, March 2016, and April 2017 and that the Islamic State was responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Syria in August 2015 and September 2016. 

For more information about Syrian chemical weapon use see Timeline of Syrian Chemical Weapons Activity, 2012-2018


Chemical Weapons

State declaration: Taiwan has declared that it possesses small quantities of CW for research but denies any weapons possession.


Biological Weapons

State declaration: The United States unilaterally gave up its biological weapons program in 1969. The destruction of all offensive BW agents occurred between 1971 and 1973. The United States currently conducts research as part of its biodefense program.

Allegations: According to a compliance report published by the Russian government in August 2010, the United States is undertaking research on Smallpox which is prohibited by the World Health Organization. Russia also accused the United States of undertaking BW research in order to improve defenses against bio-terror attacks which is “especially questionable from the standpoint of Article I of the BTWC.”

Chemical Weapons

State declaration: The United States declared a large chemical arsenal of 27,770 metric tons to the OPCW after the CWC came into force in 1997. Along with Russia, the United States received an extension when it was unable to complete destruction of its chemical stockpiles by 2012. A 2016 OPCW report declared that the United States had destroyed approximately 90 percent of the chemical weapons stockpile it had declared as the CWC entered into force; nearly 25,000 metric tons of the declared total of 27,770. The United States has destroyed all of Category 2 and Category 3 weapons and is projected to complete destruction of its Category 1 weapons by 2023.

Allegations: A 2010 Russian report alleged that the United States has legislation which could inhibit inspections and investigations of U.S. chemical facilities. Russia has also accused the United States of not fully reporting chemical agents removed from Iraq between 2003 and 2008 and sent to the United States for testing and subsequent destruction.

Chemical/Biological Arms Control

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Posted: March 27, 2018

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) at a Glance

March 2018

Contact: Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, 202-463-8270 x 107

Updated: March 2018

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is a multilateral treaty that bans chemical weapons and requires their destruction within a specified period of time. The treaty is of unlimited duration and is far more comprehensive than the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which outlaws the use but not the possession of chemical weapons.

CWC negotiations started in 1980 in the UN Conference on Disarmament.  The convention opened for signature on January 13, 1993, and entered into force on April 29, 1997.

The CWC is implemented by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is headquartered in The Hague with about 500 employees. The OPCW receives states-parties’ declarations detailing chemical weapons-related activities or materials and relevant industrial activities. After receiving declarations, the OPCW inspects and monitors states-parties’ facilities and activities that are relevant to the convention, to ensure compliance.

The CWC is open to all nations and currently has 192 states-parties. Israel has signed but has yet to ratify the convention. Three states have neither signed nor ratified the convention (Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan).


The Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits:

  • Developing, producing, acquiring, stockpiling, or retaining chemical weapons.
  • The direct or indirect transfer of chemical weapons.
  • Chemical weapons use or military preparation for use.
  • Assisting, encouraging, or inducing other states to engage in CWC-prohibited activity.
  • The use of riot control agents “as a method of warfare.”

Declaration Requirements

The CWC requires states-parties to declare in writing to the OPCW their chemical weapons stockpiles, chemical weapons production facilities (CWPFs), relevant chemical industry facilities, and other weapons-related information. This must be done within 30 days of the convention's entry into force for each member state.

Chemical Weapons Stockpiles—States-parties must declare all chemical weapons stockpiles, which are broken down into three categories:

  • Category 1: chemical weapons based on Schedule 1 chemicals, including VX and sarin. (See below for an explanation of “scheduled” chemicals.)
  • Category 2: chemical weapons based on non-Schedule 1 chemicals, such as phosgene.
  • Category 3: chemical weapons including unfilled munitions, devices and equipment designed specifically to employ chemical weapons.

Other weapons-related declarations states-parties must make include:

  • Chemical weapons production facilities on their territories since January 1, 1946.
  • Facilities (such as laboratories and test sites) designed, constructed, or used primarily for chemical weapons development since January 1, 1946.
  • “Old” chemical weapons on their territories (chemical weapons manufactured before 1925 or those produced between 1925 and 1946 that have deteriorated to such an extent that they are no longer useable).
  • “Abandoned” chemical weapons (abandoned by another state without consent on or after January 1, 1925).
  • Plans for destroying weapons and facilities.
  • All transfers or receipts of chemical weapons or chemical weapons-production equipment since January 1, 1946.
  • All riot control agents in their possession.

Chemical Industry—The CWC requires states-parties to declare chemical industry facilities that produce or use chemicals of concern to the convention. These chemicals are grouped into “schedules,” based on the risk they pose to the convention. A facility producing a Schedule 1 chemical is considered a Schedule 1 facility.

  • Schedule 1 chemicals and precursors pose a “high risk” to the convention and are rarely used for peaceful purposes. States-parties may not retain these chemicals except in small quantities for research, medical, pharmaceutical, or defensive use. Many Schedule 1 chemicals have been stockpiled as chemical weapons.
  • Schedule 2 chemicals are toxic chemicals that pose a “significant risk” to the convention and are precursors to the production of Schedule 1 or Schedule 2 chemicals. These chemicals are not produced in large quantities for commercial or other peaceful purposes.
  • Schedule 3 chemicals are usually produced in large quantities for purposes not prohibited by the CWC but still pose a risk to the convention. Some of these chemicals have been stockpiled as chemical weapons.

The CWC also requires the declaration of facilities that produce certain nonscheduled chemicals.

Destruction Requirements

The convention requires states-parties to destroy:

  • All chemical weapons under their jurisdiction or control.
  • All chemical weapons production facilities under their jurisdiction or control.
  • Chemical weapons abandoned on other states’ territories.
  • Old chemical weapons.

Category 1 chemical weapons destruction must start within two years after the CWC enters into force for a state-party. States-parties must destroy 1 percent within three years of the CWC's entry into force, 20 percent within five years, 45 percent within seven years, and 100 percent within 10 years. States parties that signed the treaty when it entered into force in 1997 were supposed to complete destruction of category 1 chemicals by April 29, 2007.

States-parties that signed the treaty when it entered into force were supposed to destroy their entire stockpiles by April 29, 2012. However, the OPCW may extend these deadlines due to “exceptional circumstances,” and in December 2006, the OPCW Executive Council granted nearly all possessors extensions of differing lengths. The only exception was Albania, which was the sole state-party nearing the complete destruction of its stockpile at that time,

Category 2 and 3 chemical weapons destruction must start within one year after the CWC enters into force for a state-party.

Destruction of CWPFs capable of producing Schedule 1 chemicals must start within one year after the CWC enters into force for a state-party. States-parties that signed the treaty when it originally entered into force had to complete of CWPFs producing schedule 1 chemicals by April 29, 2007.

Destruction of other CWPFs must start within one year after the CWC enters into force for a state-party. States-parties that signed the treaty when it originally entered into force had to complete destruction by April 29, 2002.

States-parties may request to convert CWPFs to facilities that they can use for nonprohibited purposes. Once their requests are approved, states-parties that signed the treaty when it originally entered into force were supposed to complete conversion by April 29, 2003.

As of December 2016, 90 of the 97 CWPFs declared to the OPCW have either been destroyed (67) or converted for peaceful purposes (23).

On-Site Activity

The convention establishes three types of on-site activities that aim to generate confidence in states-parties’ CWC compliance. These include:

  • “Routine inspections” of chemical weapons-related facilities and chemical industry facilities to verify the content of declarations and to confirm that activities are consistent with CWC obligations.
  • “Challenge inspections” which can be conducted at any facility or location in states-parties to clarify questions of possible noncompliance. (To prevent abuse of this measure, the OPCW’s executive body can vote by a three-quarters majority to stop a challenge inspection from going forward.)
  • Investigations of alleged use of chemical weapons.


The convention encourages trade among states-parties, calling upon them not to maintain restrictions on one another that would hamper the trade of chemical-related items to be used for peaceful purposes. The convention does restrict trade with non-states-parties, outlawing the transfer of Schedule 1 and 2 chemicals.  To ensure that Schedule 3 transfers to non-states-parties are not used for purposes prohibited by the convention, the CWC requires exporting states-parties to obtain an end-use certificate from importing states.

Penalties for Noncompliance

If states-parties are found to have engaged in prohibited actions that could result in “serious damage” to the convention, the OPCW could recommend collective punitive measures to other states-parties. In cases of “particular gravity,” the OPCW could bring the issue before the UN Security Council and General Assembly.

States-parties must take measures to address questions raised about their compliance with the CWC. If they do not, the OPCW may, inter alia, restrict or suspend their CWC-related rights and privileges (such as voting and trade rights).

Sources: Arms Control Association, OPCW (http://www.opcw.org/news-publications/publications/facts-and-figures/)

Possessor States' Category I Destruction Implementation


Declared Category 1 Stockpile
Declared Agents
Remaining Stockpile

16 metric tons



Completed destruction on July 11, 2007.


1,044 metric tons

Sulfur Mustard


Completed destruction on March 16, 2009.


Unknown Quantity



The OPCW announced the destruction of Iraq's chemical weapons remnants on March 13, 2018.


24.7 metric tons*

Sulfur Mustard


Completed destruction of Category 1 chemicals on May 4, 2013


40,000 metric tons

Lewisite, Mustard, Phosgene, Sarin, Soman, VX


Completed destruction on September 27, 2017.

South Korea

605 metric tons



Completed destruction on July 10, 2008.


1,308 metric tons

Sulfur Mustard

Declared stockpile has been eliminated but undeclared chemicals still exist

No projected timeline for destruction of undecared chemicals.

United States

27,771 metric tons

Binary nerve agents, Lewisite, Mustard, Sarin, Soman, VX

2770 metric tons as of December 2015.

Will not meet deadline; U.S. estimates 2023.

*Libya's official 2004 declaration was 24.7 metric tons. Libya declared additional CW stocks in November 2011 and February 2012, bringing the total to 26.3 metric tons.

Chemical/Biological Arms Control

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Posted: March 19, 2018

New Group Challenges CW ‘Impunity’

Western powers struggle against chemical weapons use by Russia’s ally, Syria.

March 2018
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

France launched an initiative to counter the use and proliferation of chemical weapons amid a recent spike of chemical attacks in Syria. About 25 countries attended the Jan. 23 launch ceremony in Paris for the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons and agreed to implement its declaration of principles.

“This initiative puts those who ordered and carried out chemical weapons attacks on notice: You will face a day of reckoning for your crimes against humanity, and your victims will see justice done,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in opening remarks.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks January 23 in Paris in support of the French initiative against the perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria.  (Photo: JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images)The partnership will facilitate information sharing, “name and shame” individuals and entities involved in chemical weapons attacks by publicizing their names on a website, and strengthen national accountability and enforcement efforts. France also imposed sanctions on individuals and entities linked to Syrian chemical weapons use.

Although the partnership intends to address chemical weapons threats globally, the emphasis during the ceremony was on Syria. There were six chemical attacks in Syria from early January to early February, according to a U.S. State Department press release Feb. 5. The day before the partnership’s launch, there were reports of a chlorine gas attack killing an estimated 20 civilians in East Ghouta, a rebel-held Damascus suburb.

A report is forthcoming by a fact-finding mission investigating recent alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria, Izumi Nakamitsu, UN high representative for disarmament affairs, told the Security Council on Feb. 5.

The new chemical weapons accountability initiative follows the breakdown late last year of a mechanism that identified chemical weapons users in Syria. In 2015 the Security Council adopted Resolution 2235, creating the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), a collaborative effort between the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) tasked with determining the culpable actor for verified chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

The latest JIM report, in October 2017, found the Assad regime guilty of using sarin gas in an April 2017 attack and the Islamic State group responsible for using sulfur mustard in a September 2016 attack. The JIM’s mandate expired, and the body was forced to cease investigations in November 2017, after Russia blocked several attempts to extend the mandate and asserted that the JIM conclusions were inaccurate and politically biased. (See ACT, December 2017.)

In remarks at the launch ceremony, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian emphasized that the new group would not replace existing multilateral bodies, such as the JIM. Instead, the project would aim to “complement” their work by creating a “meaningful and operational instrument” in light of the obstructions encountered by existing bodies.

Although Russia was absent from the launch, U.S.-Russian animosity over chemical weapons use in Syria was not. In Paris, Tillerson chastised Moscow for shielding the Assad regime, asserting that “Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims in East Ghouta and countless other Syrians targeted with chemical weapons.”

In New York just hours after the launch ceremony, Vassily Nebenzia, Russian ambassador to the UN, called an impromptu Security Council meeting, where he rejected U.S. criticism, called the French initiative an attempt “to create an anti-Damascus bloc through the proliferation of lies,” and introduced a proposal to extend the JIM mandate. Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the UN, dismissed the Russian proposal on the grounds that its terms were unacceptable and that it was intended as a distraction from the partnership launch.

France will chair the partnership this year, with plans to convene experts meetings to discuss progress on the implementation of the principles. Some experts have remarked on the uncertainty around the effort and the obstacles it may encounter to gain additional members.

The procedure for the partnership to determine its rules of operation are not yet clear. John Hart, head of the Chemical and Biological Security Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, wrote in a Feb. 8 article for the Lowy Institute that the partnership may have trouble reaching a “common understanding” between governments and civil society and among governments on the source and use of intelligence, as well as guidelines for the publication of information.

Hart observed that states may be unwilling to “become entangled” in a Russian-U.S. dispute or will lack the technical capacity to contribute intelligence to the partnership.

Posted: March 1, 2018

India Joins Australia Group

India Joins Australia Group

India became the Australia Group’s 43rd member on Jan. 19, following a consensus decision at the group’s June 19 plenary. The Australia Group is dedicated to preventing the proliferation of biological and chemical weapons through voluntary export controls. It is the third nonproliferation consortium India has joined in the past two years, after the Wassenaar Arrangement, a conventional weapons export control regime, in December 2017 and the Missile Technology Control Regime, a group committed to limiting the spread of missiles and related technology, in June 2016. (See ACT, January/February 2018.)

“With its admission into the Australia Group, India has demonstrated the will to implement rigorous controls of high standards in international trade, and its capacity to adapt its national regulatory system to meet the necessities of its expanding economy,” according to a Jan. 19 Australia Group press release. Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said in a Jan. 19 news briefing that the accession would help “establish…credentials” for India to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which restricts the spread of nuclear technology. India has publicly stated its desire to join the NSG, although China blocked its last attempt in June 2016. (See ACT, July/August 2016.)—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

Posted: March 1, 2018

Chemical Weapons Convention Signatories and States-Parties

January 2018 

Contact: Daryl KimballExecutive Director, (202) 463-8270 x107

Updated: January 2018

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) entered into force on April 29, 1997 and currently has 192 states-parties. One state has signed but not ratified (Israel). Three states have neither signed nor ratified (Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan).

For a guide to the convention, see The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) at a Glance.





Antigua & Barbuda8/29/05
Bosnia and Herzegovina1/16/97
Brunei Darussalem1/13/93
Burkina Faso1/14/93
Cape Verde1/15/93
Central African Republic1/14/93
Cook Islands1/14/93
Costa Rica1/14/93
Côte d'Ivoire1/13/93
Czech Republic1/14/93
Democratic Republic of Congo1/14/93
Dominican Republic1/13/93
El Salvador1/14/93
Equatorial Guinea1/14/93
Holy See1/14/93
Marshall Islands1/13/93
New Zealand1/14/93
North Korea  
Papua New Guinea1/14/93
St. Kitts & Nevis3/16/94
St. Lucia3/29/93
St. Vincent & the Grenadines9/20/93
San Marino1/13/93
Sao Tome and Principe9/9/03
Saudi Arabia1/20/93
Sierra Leone1/15/93
Slovak Republic1/14/93
Solomon Islands
South Africa1/14/93
South Korea1/14/93
South Sudan  
Sri Lanka1/14/93
Syria 9/12/13*
Timor Leste5/7/03
Trinidad & Tobago
United Arab Emirates2/2/93
United Kingdom1/13/93
United States1/13/93

*Syria sent a letter to the United Nations Secretary General which said that Assad signed a legislative decree providing the accession of Syria to the Chemical Weapons Convention. In the letter, Assad said Syria would observe its CWC obligations immediately, as opposed to 30 days from the date of accession, as stipulated in the treaty.

    Source: Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

    Chemical/Biological Arms Control

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    Posted: January 23, 2018


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