Note: Data in these sections were collected in 2014-15, and may no longer be accurate at this time.

Chemical Weapons

A member of a UN investigation team taking samples of sands next to a part of a missile likely originating from a chemical rocket. - AP Images

While it has been widely known for years that Syria possessed one of the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles, Syria’s government did not acknowledge their existence until July 2012, when a foreign ministry spokesman swore his country would only employ these weapons against “external aggression.” President Obama has said repeated since August 2012 that any use of chemical weapons in Syria’s war would cross a “red line,” implying a strong military reaction.

Despite these firm warnings, in June 2013, the White House assessed with “high confidence” that Syria had used chemical weapons against combatants and civilians on multiple occasions. After the large-scale use of sarin gas outside Damascus on August 21, President Obama asked Congress to approve punitive airstrikes against Syria. After it became clear Congress and the American people disapproved of military action, Secretary of State John Kerry’s seemingly offhand remarks at a news conference on September 9 set in motion a previously unthinkable alternative: with Russia's backing, the Assad regime agreed to hand over its entire chemical weapons arsenal and join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans further production of such weapons. Though months behind schedule, the international community breathed a sigh of relief in late June as all of Syria's 1,400 tons of declared chemicals were removed from the country for disposal.

On August 19, 2014, the US announced it successfully destroyed all of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile. However, on October 7, 2014, Syria declaredfour chemical weapon facilities it failed to disclose, casting doubt as to whether Syria has destroyed its entire arsenal. Moreover, in September 2014, the OPCW issued a report stating that toxic weapons were used "systematically and repeatedly" in 2014. While the report did not attribute the attacks to any party, eyewitness accounts indicate helicopters, used only by the regime, were used to conduct these attacks. OPCW's follow-up report in December 2014reiterated these findings.

It is widely believed that the regime has continued to conduct small-scale chemical weapons attacks throughout 2015. In April 2015, the UN heard eyewitness accountsof continued chemical weapon attacks conducted by helicopters, and unverifiedreports continue to stream in regarding the regime's use of these banned weapons.


Deadlines for the destruction of chemcial weapons:

Dec 31, 2013Removal of mustard agents and key binary chemical weapons componentsMissed
Jan 31, 2014Destruction of unfilled munitionsMissed
Feb 5, 2014Ship all chemicals abroad for destructionMissed
Mar 15, 2014Destroy all chemical weapons reduction facilitiesMissed
Mar 30, 2014Neutralize all chemicals overseasMissed
Apr 27, 2014Transfer all chemical weapons to international authoritiesMissed
June 30, 2014Complete destruction of all chemical weapons outside SyriaMissed

(See here for a detailed timeline of chemical weapons activity in Syria.)



Official Documents

  • UN Security Council Resolution 2118 (9/27/13)

    • Adopted unanimously by the Council, this resolution requires destruction and verification of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.

    • Calls for the destruction of all of Syria’s chemical weapons by June 30, 2014.

  • UN Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria on August 21, 2013 (9/16/13)

    • Concludes that, in the Ghouta area of Damascus in August 21, 2013, “chemical weapons were used on a relatively large scale, resulting in numerous casualties, particularly among civilians and including many children.”

    • While the report does not assign blame, it asserts that chemical rocket propellants were likely launched from Mount Qasioun, a known stronghold for Assad's Revolutionary Guards outside Damascus.

    • Welcomes the agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal and applauds the OPCW for agreeing to oversee the disarmament mission.

  • Chemical Weapons Convention (approved 11/30/92)
    • States Parties (190 to date) agree not “to develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone” or “to use chemical weapons” or “engage in any military preparations to use chemical weapons.”
    • According to the OPCW, which administers the convention, the CWC “aims to eliminate an entire category of weapons of mass destruction by prohibiting the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use of chemical weapons by States Parties.”
    • The treaty officially entered into force in 1997, but Syria did not agree to accede to the convention until September 2013. Only six holdouts remain, including North Korea, Israel, and Egypt.



Quotes from World Leaders

  • Samantha Power (4/16/15, on eye-witness testimonies on chemical weapon attacks): "What the Council heard were testimonies from Dr. Tennari... who dealt with the chlorine attacks that occurred in March – at great risk to himself and the other medical professionals he was working with tried to resuscitate and care for the people who came to his hospital, his impromptu field clinic, you might say, and were in desperate need of help. They were choking, they were vomiting and they bore all of the tell-tale signs of chemical weapons use."
  • John Kerry (3/19/15): "The United States is deeply disturbed by reports that the Assad regime used chlorine as a weapon again, this time on March 16 in an attack on the town of Sarmin... While we cannot yet confirm details, if true, this would be only the latest tragic example of the Assad regime's atrocities against the Syrian people, which the entire international community must condemn."
  • Samantha Power (9/4/14, on Syria’s chemical weapon program): "There are two reasons or concerns about omissions, gaps, and discrepancies, and that’s why the Security Council intends to stay very much on top of this and to press them, to press both the international actors who continue to engage on the ground and to press those who have leverage over the regime, to be pushing the regime to be fully forthcoming."
  • Ahmet Uzumcu, Director General of OPCW (6/23/14): "The mission to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons programme has been a major undertaking marked by an extraordinary international cooperation… Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict. And this has been accomplished within very demanding and tight timeframes."
  • OPCW Mission (6/18/14): "[Evidence] lends credence to the view that toxic chemicals, most likely pulmonary irritating agents such as chlorine, have been used.”

  • Laurent Fabius, French Foreign Minister (5/13/14): "We have at least 14 indications that show us that, in the past recent weeks again, chemical weapons in a smaller scale have been used, in particular chlorine."

  • Barack Obama (4/28/14): “I would note that those who criticize our foreign policy with respect to Syria, they themselves say, no, no, no, we don’t mean sending in troops. Well, what do you mean? . . .We’re assisting the opposition. . .We’re getting chemical weapons out of Syria without having initiated a strike. So what else are you talking about?”

  • Barack Obama (4/24/14): “Eighty-seven percent of Syria’s chemical weapons have already been removed...That is a consequence of U.S. leadership. The fact that we didn’t have to fire a missile to get that accomplished is not a failure to uphold international norms, it’s a success.”

  • John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State (4/8/14): “What’s your take? Would you rather drop a few bombs, send a message, and then have him [Assad] still with the [chemical] weapons and the capacity to deliver them, or would you rather get all of them out?”

  • Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General (2/6/14): “About these chemical weapons, I believe the process has been moving on rather smoothly even though there have been some delays. Our target is June 30 this year. This may be a very tight target, but I believe that it can be done with the full support of the Syrian government.”

    • Barack Obama (8/20/12): “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”



    Other Resources

    • The official OPCW webpage provides updates on the organization's work in Syria.

    • This map of Damascus, released by the White House on August 31, shows the areas reportedly affected by the Syrian government's August 21 chemical weapons attack.

    • The BBC provides a detailed explanation of chemical weapons sites in Syria, including suspected locations, the process of weaponizing a chemical agent, and accounting of the different chemicals in Syria’s arsenal.

    • The Telegraph explains some of the mechanics of how Syria’s chemical weapons are being destroyed. Chemical weapons expert Amy Smithson provides a more detailed account of the process in this Foreign Affairs article.

    • The Washington Post provides an overview of “everything you need to know” about Syria's chemical weapons program and its implications.

    • Dr. Matthew Meselson, Harvard’s premier biological and chemical weapons specialist, sits with the Belfer Center’s Andrew Wojtanik for an interview explaining the mechanics of chemical weapons destruction and the OPCW.



    Analysis criticizing the chemical weapons deal

    The chemical weapons deal gives Assad’s regime respite from the threat of military force.

    • Sen. Bob Corker (Huffington Post, 4/20/14): “The wisest thing that Assad did really was to kill 1,200 people with chemical weapons. Because, in essence, we said, ‘Don't embarrass us anymore that way. You can go ahead and kill another 60,000 people with barrel bombs and by other means, but don’t embarrass us.’”

      • David Gardner (Financial Times, 1/21/14): “This deal locked a regime the US and its European and Arab allies wanted to see changed into a medium-term contract with the international community - while its forces continue to rain bombs on rebel-held civilian areas. The Assads clearly have interpreted international hesitation as a licence to keep slaughtering their people so long as they no longer gas them.”

      • Shadi Hamid (Atlantic, 9/14/13): “Assad is effectively being rewarded for the use of chemical weapons, rather than ‘punished’ as originally planned. He has managed to remove the threat of U.S. military action while giving very little up in return.”

      Assad’s regime continues to carry out chemical weapon attacks

      • The Economist (3/13/15): "On paper the deal was a success: to date, 98% of the country’s banned substances have been destroyed, and Syria has joined the treaty against their use. Yet, as is his way, Mr Assad still appears to be making a mockery of the agreement. Since last year there have been increasingly frequent reports of chlorine attacks against towns and villages held by the rebels…"

      • Oliver Holmes (Reuters, 4/22/14): “Chlorine gas attacks in Syria this month, if proven, expose a major loophole in an international deal which promised to remove chemical weapons from Syria and suggest chemical warfare could persist after the removal operation has finished.”

        • John Hudson (Foreign Policy, 4/21/14): “Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has gotten rid of 80 percent of his chemical weapons, and is increasingly likely to hit a key deadline for the elimination of his entire arsenal by the end of the month. That good news is being partially overshadowed, however, by growing signs that Assad is still waging chemical attacks on communities in rebel-held areas of the country.”

        The United States has surrendered the upper hand to a wily and antagonistic Russia.

        • Economist (9/14/13): “Never surrender the initiative. In handling Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria, Barack Obama has twice broken this basic rule of diplomacy. First the president submitted his administration’s muddled case for reprisals to a vote in a hostile Congress. Now he has handed the steering-wheel to Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president and no friend of America.”



        Analysis supporting the chemical weapons deal

        All of Syria’s chemical weapons have been removed from Syrian territory.

        • Joseph Cirincione and Geoffrey Wilson (6/23/2014): “…the significance of this achievement cannot be overstated. Syria had enough chemical agents to kill every man, woman and child in the Middle East. The destruction of these hideous weapons, so quickly and during a war where inspectors came under fire, is nothing short of remarkable”

        • Economist (4/26/14): Progress “appeared to stall, triggering concerns that as the regime became more confident of prevailing in the civil war, it would drag its feet. Those fears now seem to have been exaggerated.”

        Chemical weapons deal both preserves U.S. interests and reflects popular opinion that was predominantly against military action.

          • Graham Allison (National Interest, 10/8/13): “While the likelihood of glitches and shortfalls is 100%, consider the bottom line. Can anyone identify a feasible alternative that has a higher likelihood of preventing future major attacks using chemical weapons or transfer to jihadists who could use them against the United States or our allies? I can’t think of one.”

          • Philip Stephens (Financial Times, 9/19/13): “The strange thing, though, is that if one ignores these inelegant swerves, the US and its allies are in a better place than seemed possible amid the brouhaha about air strikes. What has been missing all the way through the Syrian crisis has been robust diplomacy backed up by a credible set of red lines.”

          • David Ignatius (Washington Post, 9/18/13): “Recent developments in Syria have generally been positive from the standpoint of U.S. interests. Obama has accomplished goals that most Americans endorse, given the unpalatable menu of choices. Polls suggest that the public overwhelmingly backs the course Obama has chosen…The mystery is why this outcome in Syria is derided by so many analysts in Washington.”

          The role of chemical weapons in Syria’s conflict has always been small.

          • Ake Sellstrom (Carnegie Endowment, 3/11/14): “The conflict in Syria is surrounded by a lot of rumors and a lot of propaganda, particularly when comes to the sensitive issue of chemical weapons...If you look at the statistics of the conflict, chemical weapons played a very small role. In spite of this, the use of chemical weapons in Syria became a very political issue, since it had the potential of letting some Western countries take a more active role.”