‘We Have a Lot at Stake:’ Hersman on Use of Chemical Weapons

toxic war

Rebecca Hersman, former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for countering weapons of mass destruction, warned on Friday that the ongoing use of chemical weapons in Syria threatens to normalize their use worldwide, and that the crisis engulfing the country has seen such attacks increase at an alarming rate.

The presentation, titled “Toxic War: Syria, ISIS, and the Use of Chemical Weapons,” was sponsored by the Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC).

Hersman began by pointing to the first full-scale use of chemical weapons in warfare, when German forces deployed chlorine gas against Allied troops at the Second Battle of Ypres during the First World War, resulting in thousands of casualties. The chlorine gas reacted with the water in victims’ lungs, creating a violently corrosive acid that ate away at their flesh, killing them horrifically.

Following the conclusion of the Great War, the world was so sickened by the widespread use of chlorine gas, mustard gas, and other chemical weapons by both the Allied and Axis Powers that it was decided that such weapons had no place in any future war, said Hersman. The Geneva Protocol, signed in 1925, banned the use of any poisonous gasses in wartime.

Hersman said that this ban on the use of chemical weapons was not violated even during World War II, when both sides actually possessed massive stockpiles of poison gas. Even Adolf Hitler thought it unthinkable to use such weapons against his most dangerous enemies.

International distaste for chemical warfare kept such weapons from being used for decades after the protocol was enacted. The government of Iraq, however, began using nerve agents extensively in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, Hersman said, pointing to the massacre of Kurdish civilians in the town of Halabja in northern Iraq as an example.

In what is now considered an act of genocide, Iraqi troops used the presence of a few Iranian soldiers as an excuse to blanket the heavily populated town with mustard gas and sarin, a nerve agent, killing over 5,000 Kurdish civilians.

This attack stunned the international community, and a special United Nations body, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), was formed in order to rid the world of all poison gas stockpiles, Hersman said. By 2010, the use of chemical weapons had disappeared, with most countries voluntarily pledging to destroy their capabilities—except for Syria, which maintained one of the largest chemical weapons programs in the world.


“We have a lot at stake. [Prohibitions on the use of chemical weapons] are among the foundational humanitarian principles and norms that have been respected since 1925—and they’ve gone out of the window in Syria.”

—Rebecca Hersman, former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for countering weapons of mass destruction


After the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, Syria descended into civil war, with rebel groups fighting to wrest control of the country away from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Hersman said that, at the time, the international community wasn’t worried about the possibility of an outbreak of chemical warfare, as Assad’s forces were thought unlikely to face a serious challenge.

But after a sarin gas attack on the rebel-occupied city of Aleppo by government forces in 2013, the U.N. dispatched a team to conduct what is now known as the Sellstrom Investigation. The U.N. team was denied permission to inspect most of the Syrian government’s capabilities, and were unable to conclusively report on the state of Assad’s arsenal.

While the team was waiting in Damascus, Syria’s capital city, government forces dropped large quantities of sarin gas into heavily populated, rebel-controlled areas on the outskirts of the city. Hersman said that over 1,300 civilians died in the attack, most of them women and children. It was the deadliest chemical attack since the 1988 Halabja massacre in Iraq.

President Barack Obama, who had just months earlier stated that any Syrian use of chemical weapons represented a “red line” that would necessitate U.S. intervention if crossed, opted to pursue a diplomatic effort to eliminate further atrocities, Hersman said. The administration brokered a deal with Russia and Assad’s government, whereby the three nations agreed to destroy Syria’s remaining cache of chemical weapons.

While vast quantities of these weapons were successfully destroyed, Hersman pointed out, the government of Syria was not sincere in its efforts to comply with the agreement, making it difficult for foreign observers to assess the amount of chemical weapons that remain in Assad’s formerly massive arsenal.

Chemical attacks on Syrian civilians have continued, Hersman said. The Syrian American Medical Society’s 2016 report on the crisis alleged that over 160 chemical attacks have been carried out by government troops, two of which have been conclusively proven to have been perpetrated by Assad’s forces. On Sept. 6, over 100 civilians in Aleppo were killed by a gas attack, and Hersman said she sees no indication that these atrocities are on the decline in the embattled nation.

“We are standing at the threshold of the normalization of use of an internationally banned and virtually eliminated weapon in the Middle East and beyond,” Hersman said.

She pointed out that such war crimes being carried out with impunity on a large scale are concerning from more than just a humanitarian perspective.

“We have a lot at stake,” Hersman said. “[Prohibitions on the use of chemical weapons] are among the foundational humanitarian principles and norms that have been respected since 1925—and they’ve gone out of the window in Syria.”

Correction: the Syrian American Medical Society was incorrectly referred to as the Syrian-American Medical Society.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor