"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Chemical Weapons

Russia Challenges Changes to CWC


Russia officially objected on April 10 to the Canadian-Dutch-U.S. proposal to add Novichok-related chemicals to the list of banned chemicals in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), forcing a vote on the proposal at the next meeting of all treaty parties in November.

UK forensic investigators prepare to examine a vehicle believed to belong to chemical weapon attack victim Sergei Skripal in March 2018 in Salisbury, England. (Photo: Rufus Cox/Getty Images)The Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) voted for the change in January, following a Novichok attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom in March 2018. (See ACT, March 2019.)

The proposal was “clearly substandard from a scientific point of view,” Russia said in a Foreign Ministry statement on April 12, calling one of the chemicals in the proposal “theoretical.”

The Russian objection was a “cynical attempt to undermine the effectiveness of [the] OPCW after [a] shocking attack in Salisbury,” said Peter Wilson, UK ambassador to the Netherlands, in an April 10 tweet. “Canada is very alarmed by this Russian obstruction,” read an April 11 statement from the Canadian Foreign Ministry.

Russia submitted its own proposal to add different sets of Novichok-related chemicals to the CWC, but the Russian proposal was voted down in February in an Executive Council meeting after a technical evaluation. The Russian Foreign Ministry statement suggested considering the rejected Russian proposal together “as a package” with the Canadian-Dutch-U.S. proposal when states-parties vote later this year.

If any change to the list of banned chemicals is adopted in November, this would mark the first change to the treaty’s Schedule 1 list of most dangerous chemicals since the 193-nation pact prohibiting chemical weapons entered into force in 1997.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

Russia Challenges Changes to CWC

Responses to Violations of the Norm Against Chemical Weapons



Volume 11, Issue 6, April 3, 2019

The use of chemical weapons throughout the eight-year conflict in Syria has challenged the international norm against the well-established chemical weapons ban and horrified the international community. Despite multiple UN reports confirming Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s responsibility for sarin nerve agent and chlorine gas attacks, Assad has continued to use these terrifying weapons against his own people.

The international community has constructed a number of investigative bodies to uncover the facts of these atrocious crimes, but attribution and accountability gaps remain. In order to hold Assad accountable for his violation of international law in the future, investigations into responsibility for chemical weapons use must restart as soon as possible.

Syrians reportedly suffering from breathing difficulties following Syrian regime’s Feb. 4 air strikes on the northwestern town of Saraqeb rest around a stove at a field hospital. (Photo: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)Chemical Weapons Use in Syria

Over the course of the horrific eight years of Syrian civil war, the government of Bashar al-Assad, his Russian allies, and extremist fighters have committed numerous war crimes. At least 500,000 people have died, and more than 10 million have been displaced.

Among the most heinous aspects of the war has been the repeated use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime beginning in late 2012, including the massive August 2013 sarin gas attack that killed more than 1,400 civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.

The Ghouta attack led the United States in August and September 2013 to threaten the use of force to try to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal.

This threat prompted Moscow to work with Washington to develop and compel Assad to accept an ambitious agreement mandating the verified removal and elimination of Syria’s arsenal of 1,308 metric tons of chemical agents, storage and production facilities and associated equipment under the auspices of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). 

The UN Security Council unanimously approved the OPCW timeline for destroying Syria’s chemical arsenal through Resolution 2118 and allowed for measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter if Syria does not comply or otherwise violates the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

The complex, multinational disposal operation was a major milestone that effectively eliminated the threat of further large-scale chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime against the Syrian people and neighboring states.

Ongoing Chemical Weapons Attacks

Despite the success of that operation, smaller-scale but still deadly and terrifying chemical attacks by Assad have continued. The UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) found the Syrian government responsible for numerous chemical weapons attacks, including in April 2014, March 2015, March 2016, and April 2017.

The JIM also confirmed that Assad has continued to drop barrel bombs filled with chlorine from Russian-supplied military helicopters on civilian areas, even identifying which helicopter flights,  air bases, and Syrian Army Air Squadrons (the 253rd and 255th) were involved. It also determined that the Islamic State was responsible for chemical weapons attacks involving mustard agents in August 2015 and September 2016.

Reports of chemical weapons use in Syria continue to surface.

Although less destructive and deadly than sarin nerve agent, Assad’s industrial chlorine barrel bomb attacks violate the CWC and are war crimes. These are the first-ever documented cases that a CWC member state has used chemical weapons. 

This serious matter concerns all states and requires a strong and unified international response from the UN Security Council and the 193 states-parties of the OPCW.

Unfortunately, Russia has tried to shield the Syrian regime from tougher UN sanctions and accountability. In late 2017, after the sarin attack on civilians in Khan Sheikhoun launched by Syrian aircraft, Russia used its Security Council veto to block the UN from maintaining the JIM. 

Efforts to Investigate Chemical Weapons Violations in Syria

A number of international bodies have been engaged in investigating alleged chemical weapons use in Syria, although attribution and accountability gaps remain to be filled.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic was created in 2011 by the Human Rights Council to investigate violations of international human rights law in Syria.

The commission of inquiry’s 16th report, released in September 2018, identified four instances of chemical weapons use in Syria between January and July 2018. The commission has documented 38 chemical attacks in total, mostly perpetrated by the Syrian government.

The International Impartial Independent Mechanism on the Syrian Arab Republic (IIIM), was established in 2011 by the UN General Assembly and it works in close cooperation with the UN Independent Commission.

The OPCW Fact-Finding Mission was established in 2014 to determine if chemical weapons were used in reported attacks, and if so, to report on what type of chemical weapon was used and on other relevant details of the attack.

As of June 2018, the FFM has investigated over 80 alleged attacks and confirmed chemical weapon use in 16 of those cases. The Fact-Finding Mission does not have the authority to investigate which party is responsible for using chemical weapons, however.

The OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) was established by UN Security Council Resolution 2235 in 2015 to determine which party is responsible for chemical weapons attacks. The JIM had the mandate to investigate the responsible actor in instances of chemical weapons use in Syria confirmed by the Fact-Finding Mission. In its two years of operation, the JIM issued seven reports and found the Syrian government responsible for four chemical weapons attacks and the Islamic State guilty of two.

The JIM’s mandate had to be renewed by the UN Security Council every year to continue operating, but Russia used its Security Council veto power to block the renewal of the mandate of the JIM in late 2017.

Investigation and Identification Team: In June 2018, a special session of CWC states-parties voted to establish another mechanism to attribute responsibility for chemical weapons attacks. OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias announced in March 2019 that Ambassador Santiago Oñate would head the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) and that it was being finalized.

With that veto, the mechanism’s mandate expired and it ceased to exist. Russia claimed to be upset about the “unprofessional” manner in which inspections were conducted, but in reality, it was dissatisfied with the body’s conclusions that its ally, Syria, was guilty of violating international law.

Toward a Stronger International Response

An inadequate international response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime will only increase the risk that some of the world’s most dangerous, indiscriminate, and inhumane weapons will be used to commit atrocities in the future, erode the integrity of the CWC, and undermine the authority of the Security Council.

Other states have tried to overcome the obstacles to identifying those responsible so they can be held accountable. They also continue to press Syrian government officials to fill the gaps in their 2013 official declaration to the OPCW in order to ensure that Syria fully eliminates its chemical warfare capacity, including any further production of barrel bombs. 

In January 2018, the French government established the International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, an association of 38 countries and international organizations. Its purpose is to supplement the international mechanisms to combat the use of chemical weapons. This intergovernmental initiative is a forum for cooperation on the issue of impunity for the perpetrators of chemical attacks worldwide. Participating states have committed to:

  • gather information on chemical weapons users;
  • facilitate information sharing on instances of chemical weapons use to later hold perpetrators accountable;
  • identify and document the individuals and entities involved in chemical weapons use
  • support multilateral action to sanction those identified as being involved in chemical weapons use;
  • publish online the names of all individuals, entities, groups or governments that have been sanctioned for involvement in chemical weapons use; and
  • help states in need of assistance to help collect information or implement national legislation to prosecute the perpetrators of chemical attacks.

What’s Next

In June 2018, after additional attempts by UN Security Council members to establish another mechanism to attribute responsibility for chemical weapons attacks failed, a special session of CWC states-parties voted to give the OPCW the mandate to assign blame for such violations of the Convention.

The new Investigation and Identification Team that is now being put together by the OPCW secretariat should promptly work to identify those responsible for violating international norms by the continued use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Preventing the erosion of the global taboo against chemical weapons usenot to mention the  use of weapons of mass destruction more broadlyis a core U.S. and international security interest. The international community must act decisively and with unanimity to preserve these norms and to better protect civilians caught up in the conflict in Syria and elsewhere in the years ahead. —ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE, research assistant, and DARYL KIMBALL, executive director.


A number of international bodies have been engaged in investigating alleged chemical weapons use in Syria, although attribution and accountability gaps remain to be filled.

Country Resources:

Subject Resources:

OPCW Says Chlorine Used in Syria Attack


International investigators confirmed in March that a chemical weapon was used in an April 2018 attack in Douma, Syria. The Fact-Finding Mission established by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was not asked to identify the responsible party for the April 7, 2018, attack that reportedly killed dozens and injured many more.

A laboratory technician examines a test vial at an OPCW laboratory near the Hague in 2017.  The agency has determined that an April 2018 attack in Syria used chlorine-based weapons.  (Photo: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)Investigators from the OPCW, the implementing agency of the Chemical Weapons Convention, were unable to visit the attack site until about two weeks after the incident. Their report notes there was evidence of tampering at the site, but they were able to conclude that the “toxic chemical was likely molecular chlorine.”

Although the mission was not empowered to identify the party responsible for the chemical attacks, the report notes several details at the scene that independent analysts have argued would be consistent with aircraft use. The Syrian regime has access to aircraft, but no nonstate actors in Syria do. The OPCW has created a new investigative body, the Investigation and Identification Team, to assess who conducted chemical weapons attacks in Syria confirmed by the Fact-Finding Mission. (See ACT, July/August 2018.) The head of the new team has been selected, and the team should be fully operational within weeks, OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias told the OPCW Executive Council in mid-March.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

OPCW Says Chlorine Used in Syria Attack

OPCW Confirms Chlorine Use. It’s Time to Assign Blame.

An international investigative body confirmed in a March 2019 report that a chemical weapon, likely chlorine, was used in an April 2018 attack in Douma, Syria, despite likely Russian and Syrian attempts to impede the investigations, and in blatant violation of international law. The March 2019 report is the most recent from the Fact Finding Mission (FFM) set up to investigate alleged chemical attacks in Syria by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)—the implementing arm of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. The FFM has investigated over 80 reported chemical...

OPCW Moves to Update Banned Chemicals List

March 2019
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

Reacting to the use of a lethal nerve agent in the United Kingdom in March 2018, the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) agreed on Jan. 14 to expand the list of banned chemicals defined by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). It was the first time a change to the treaty’s Schedule 1 list of the most dangerous chemicals has been approved since the 193-nation pact prohibiting chemical weapons entered into force in 1997.

The change followed a chemical attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom in March 2018, and the OPCW’s subsequent confirmation that the chemical was a type of Novichok, a family of nerve agents. The United States and many other nations have accused Russia’s GRU intelligence agency of conducting the attack. (See ACT, April 2018.)

Novichok-related chemicals were not listed in the treaty’s Schedule 1, although the pact bans the use of any toxic chemical as a weapon, even if it is not included on that list.

Adding Novichok chemicals to Schedule 1 will strengthen the treaty by subjecting those chemicals to declaration and verification under the treaty, Canadian Ambassador to the Netherlands Sabine Nolke said on Jan. 14. The Russian mission to the Netherlands denounced the proposal as politically motivated.

Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States first proposed adding the chemicals to the treaty’s list in October 2018, and the 41-member OPCW Executive Council approved the proposal by consensus in January despite Russia’s reported disassociation with the decision. The treaty allows any party to object to the change within 90 days, and such an objection would lead to a vote by all treaty parties. If there is no objection, the change will enter into force 180 days following the January decision.

Russia submitted a proposal in late November to add five chemicals to the Schedule 1 list, but the council rejected the proposed change on Feb. 25. The OPCW Technical Secretariat determined that four of the five chemicals met its guidelines, but that the fifth may not. Russia refused to remove the fifth chemical from its proposal, according to Sumita Dixit, Canada’s deputy permanent representative to the OPCW. The Russian Embassy in the Netherlands blamed the rejection of its proposal on “politicized causes” in a Feb. 26 press briefing. Nolke tweeted the same day that Russia wanted to distract from the use of Novichok.

EU Sanctions

In the meantime, the European Union and the United States have taken their own steps to penalize the perpetrators of the UK chemical weapons attack.

On Jan. 21, the European Council imposed sanctions on the Russian agents allegedly responsible for the Novichok attack, as well as on the leader of the GRU.

On a separate chemical weapons matter, the council also sanctioned a Syrian research center and five individuals involved in Syrian chemical weapons use. The new sanctions bar travel to the European Union and freeze assets, and EU persons and entities are prohibited from doing business with the sanctioned targets.

“This sends a clear message that the world condemns chemical weapons use wherever it occurs,” said UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt the day the sanctions were announced.

The sanctions are the first taken under a new regime adopted by the European Council in October 2018, intending to penalize those nations involved with the development or use of chemical weapons regardless of nationality or location. (See ACT, November 2018.)

In December 2018, under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, the United States added the two GRU agents allegedly responsible for carrying out the Novichok attack to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list, blocking their assets and generally prohibiting U.S. persons from conducting financial transactions with them.

Last August, the United States banned national security-related exports to Russia under the 1991 Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act. (See ACT, September 2018.) The law stipulates that the United States must impose a still harsher second round of sanctions on Russia because U.S. President Donald Trump did not certify to Congress in November that Russia provided reliable assurances that it is no longer using chemical weapons.


Nerve agent attacks have led Chemical Weapons Convention parties to update the treaty's list ofmost dangerous chemicals.

Timeline of Syrian Chemical Weapons Activity, 2012-2019

November 2018

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

Updated: March 2019

In July 2012, Syria publicly acknowledged that it possesses chemical weapons. For a number of years preceding this announcement, the U.S. intelligence community assessed that Syria has a stockpile of chemical weapons, including blister agents such as mustard gas, and nerve agents such as sarin and VX. Syria has the capability to deliver these agents using aerial bombs, ballistic missiles, and artillery rockets. An Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-UN joint investigative team found Syria and the Islamic State responsible for numerous chemical weapons attacks in Syria over the past several years.

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

Skip to: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019


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.

alternate text

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 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 surfaced of a major chemical weapons attack in Douma, a suburb outside of Damascus, Syria, killing at least several dozen civilians. This followed 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 announced 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 voted 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 failed 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 failed 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 met for the fourth time that week to discuss chemical weapons use in Syria. Russia and Bolivia continued to urge the United States against taking unilateral military action as the United States, France and the United Kingdom seemed 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, U.S. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said.

France, the United Kingdom and the United States launched precision strikes on three Syrian chemical weapons facilities. In a televised address to the nation, President Trump explained that the purpose of the strike was to "establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons." He continued "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 reported that its air defense system had shot down 13 of the missiles, although the United States later denied that any missiles had been engaged. Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov said 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 was in Syria investigating the April 7 chemical weapons attack to verify that the attack occurred and to identify which chemical agent was used. 

France released 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 met to discuss the situation in Syria. The United Kingdom stated that the legal basis for its joint strike was humanitarian intervention. Russia and Bolivia condemned the strike, which they asserted was a violation of the UN Charter. Russia also introduced a draft resolution which condemned "aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic by the US and its allies," but it only received three votes and failed to pass. France, the United Kingdom and the United States announced their intention to introduce a draft resolution on political and humanitarian tracks to resolve the conflict.

April 21, 2018: The OPCW Fact-Finding mission team visited one of the sites in Douma to collect samples for analysis in connection with the April 7 attack. 

May 16, 2018: The OPCW Fact-Finding mission reported that "chlorine, released from cylinders through mechanical impact, was likely used as a chemical weapon on 4 February 2018 in the Al Talil neighborhood of Saraqib."

June 13, 2018: The OPCW Fact-Finding mission reported that sarin was "very likely used as a chemical weapon" in Ltamenah, Syria on March 24, 2017 and that chlorine was "very likely used as a chemical weapon" at and around Ltamenah Hospital on March 25, 2017.

June 27, 2018: A special session of the OPCW conference of states-parties voted to grant the OPCW the mandate to investigate and attribute responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria confirmed by the Fact-Finding Mission.

September 12, 2018: The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, established in 2011 by the UN Human Rights Council reported that the Syrian government used chlorine as a weapon four times from January to July 2018.


March 1, 2019: The OPCW Fact-Finding Mission released a final report concluding that a toxic chemical, likely chlorine, was used as weapon on April 7, 2018 in Douma, Syria. The OPCW had issued an interim report on the incident in July 2018. 

Updated by Alicia Sanders-Zakre

Strategic Arms Control and Policy

Country Resources:

Subject Resources:

Fact Sheet Categories:

Russia Blocks Consensus at CWC Conference

January/February 2019
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

When states-parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) gathered in The Hague in late November to review the treaty, their work to uphold the norm against chemical weapons amid repeated use in Syria was challenged by a country that had played a leading role in negotiating the accord.

A sign points the way for delegates to the Chemical Weapons Convention conference sessions at The Hague in November 2018. (Photo: Alicia Sanders-Zakre/Arms Control Association)Russia, now seeking to cover for a Middle Eastern ally, tried largely unsuccessfully to thwart international efforts to investigate chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime. Moscow’s actions defied the international consensus that has undergirded the legal prohibitions on the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons.

Together with the United States, Russia had worked to secure the adoption of the 1997 chemical weapons ban and for many years played a constructive role in upholding the treaty. In 2013, Russia forged a deal to eliminate more than 1,300 metric tons of Syrian chemical weapons. In 2015 it agreed to a United Nations-Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) to investigate chemical weapons users in Syria.

Over the past several years, however, Russian behavior regarding chemical weapons shifted dramatically. In March, Russia blatantly violated the convention by using a nerve agent in the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom. (See ACT, April 2018.)

It has also worked more subtly to weaken or eliminate the chemical weapons investigations it had once helped to construct. In November 2017, Russia vetoed the extension of the JIM mandate. (See ACT, December 2017.) Russia had increasingly belittled the reports that found that the Syrian military uses chemical weapons against rebels and civilians.

With Russia exercising its Security Council veto to block efforts to restart investigations, a special session of CWC states-parties sought to get around Russia by voting in June 2018 to create a new investigative body through the OPCW. (See ACT, July/August 2018.)

The dispute spilled over to the sessions of the CWC annual conference of states-parties and the five-year review conference held Nov. 21–30, where Russia sought to obstruct implementation of the June decision.

At the start of the conference, Russia, joined by China, introduced a draft decision that would have postponed the beginning of investigations until after an open-ended working group had reviewed the decision to start investigations. The Russian effort failed by a vote of 82–30.

Russia and Iran then fought to amend and vote down the 2019 OPCW program and budget. The program and budget is typically agreed by consensus in the OPCW Executive Council meeting preceding the conference of states-parties.

This year, however, Russia refused to accept the proposed budget that included funding for an investigative mechanism to attribute chemical weapons attacks, and so the budget was brought to a vote at the conference. The budget passed by a vote of 99 to 27, after rejections of Russian and Iranian amendments that would have gutted the budget’s allocated funds for the investigations.

States-parties did succeed in adopting a final conference report, but only after a delay due to difficulty in agreeing on final report language. As a result of the dispute, however, states-parties for the first time in CWC history failed to reach consensus on a final document at the subsequent treaty review conference.

Russia’s success in blocking a consensus review conference document and forcing the OPCW budget to a vote undercut what was otherwise near-universal international support for the norms represented by the CWC.

“We should be under no illusion as to why we have not reached consensus,” the United Kingdom said in a statement Nov. 30. “A very small minority who have used, or defended those that use, chemical weapons have obstructed our efforts.”

For its part, Russia accused the West of breaking consensus. Russia has repeatedly denied that it is seeking to obstruct the chemical weapons ban. “Our critics may rest easy: we are not trying to ‘kill’ the budget of the organization thus paralyzing the implementation of the tasks of the convention. Quite the opposite: we are trying to find the only possible consensus-based variant of the budget,” Georgy Kalamanov, Russian deputy minister of industry and trade, told the conference of states-parties on Nov. 19.

Some analysts now wonder what Russia’s next move will be to undermine the new investigative body, which it has repeatedly characterized as “illegitimate.” Jean Pascal Zanders, an independent disarmament researcher who runs The Trench website, told Arms Control Today in a Dec. 17 interview that Russian and Syrian actions immediately following the approval of the OPCW budget could be indicative of their future strategy.

On Nov. 24, Russia and Syria announced a chlorine gas attack that it attributed to rebel groups in northwestern Aleppo, which analysts and Western governments have since denounced as staged or inaccurate. Syria formally requested that the OPCW investigate the attack.

“It is likely that this was either a staged incident intended to frame the opposition, or an operation which went wrong and from which Russia and the regime sought to take advantage,” the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office wrote in a press release on Dec. 7. The United States alleged in a State Department press release on the same day that Syrian and Russian personnel likely used tear gas against civilians on Nov. 24. Local reports have not shown any indication of chlorine gas, Zanders said.

Furthermore, the United States expressed concern that Syrian forces retained control of the site where the attack occurred, “allowing them to potentially fabricate samples and contaminate the site before a proper investigation” by the OPCW.

Russia and Syria have failed to block investigations, but they could attempt to prevent investigations from operating effectively, by actions such as seeking to waste limited OPCW resources with investigations of staged incidents or providing tampered evidence to investigators. “You can see how this is a trap that could be sprung,” said Zanders.


Tensions are evident over international efforts to investigate chemical weapons use in Syria.

Covering the CWC Conference of States Parties and 4th Review Conference

Through the following blog series, Arms Control Association research assistant Alicia Sanders-Zakre will be providing ongoing reports and analysis from the Chemical Weapons Convention Conference of States Parties and Review Conference from November 21-30. States Fail to Agree to Final Review Conference Document December 3, 2018 States-parties to the Fourth Review Conference were unable to agree to a final consensus document by the end of the conference due to disagreements over language around Syrian chemical weapons use, the joint-investigative mechanism and attribution for chemical weapons...

Russian Chemical Weapons Use Draws More Sanctions

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin as they gather with other leaders for a November 11 ceremony in Paris marking the 100th anniversary of the 1918 armistice that ended World War I.   (Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)The United States confirmed on Nov. 6 that it will impose a second, more severe round of sanctions on Russia for its use of chemical weapons in the United Kingdom. To avoid the additional sanctions under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act, Russia had to provide reliable assurances that it is no longer using chemical weapons, will not do so in the future, and will allow international inspectors to verify its assurances. Russia continues to deny that it used or possesses chemical weapons. Robert Palladino, a State Department spokesman, said on Nov. 7 that the U.S. administration was considering implementation plans. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), outgoing chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement pressed for action, stating that “hesitation only encourages more Russian aggression.”

U.S. options for additional sanctions include banning multilateral development bank assistance or U.S. bank loans except loans for food or agricultural commodities, imposing additional export prohibitions or import restrictions, suspending diplomatic relations, and terminating air carrier landing rights. After an Aug. 6 U.S. determination that Russia had used a nerve agent in an attack against a former spy in the UK, the first round of sanctions took effect Aug. 27 and included a ban on U.S. exports to Russia related to national security, such as gas turbine engines, electronics, integrated circuits, and testing and calibration equipment that were previously allowed on a case-by-case basis. (See ACT, September 2018).—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

Russian Chemical Weapons Use Draws More Sanctions

The Past, Present and Future of the Chemical Weapons Convention



The Past, Present and Future of the Chemical Weapons Convention

Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association
Conference on Chemical Weapons, Armed Conflict, and Humanitarian Law
Queens University, Kingston, Ontario
October 29, 2018

Good afternoon. Thanks to the Canadian Red Cross for inviting me here to Queens University to participate in this important and timely conference on one of the world’s most dangerous types of weapons.

Chemical weapons use has been outlawed worldwide for over 90 years and outlawed comprehensively through the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans all development, production, and deployment of deadly chemical arms and requires the verifiable destruction of remaining stockpiles.

Over the past twenty-plus years of the CWC’s existence, it has become a very sophisticated, resilient and effective disarmament regime. The OPCW has been tremendously successful in overseeing the demilitarization of vast chemical weapons stockpiles.

But the work of eliminating prohibited chemical weapons stockpiles is not quite over.

Not all states are party to the CWC, the use of chemical weapons has not completely abated, and the chemicals and technologies that can be used to create these weapons are still, all around us.

As the Director-General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Fernando Arias said in an interview last month:

“…our mission to verifiably destroy declared stockpiles has a conceivable end point. But our mission to prevent the re-emergence of chemical weapons requires constant vigilance.”

Conferences like this one are a part of the ongoing work to reinforce the taboo against chemical weapons. In my talk today, I’m going to sketch out what the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention is and what it has accomplished. But to understand where we are, we need to consider where we have been. So, I want to begin with a brief review of the history surrounding the development, use, and reactions to chemical warfare. Then I will talk about the CWC itself, what it does and the challenges the regime faces today.

The Use of Chemical Weapons and the Evolution of the Norm Against Them

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 on the front lines near Ypres in 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” designed to diffuse poison gases.

Later, both sides would employ chemical weapons. And with the more widespread introduction of mustard gases in 1917, chemical weapons and agents injured some one million soldiers and killed approximately 100,000 during World War I.

In the United States and Canada, the public was particularly shocked by the prevalence of ailments suffered by returning veterans due to their exposure to chemical agents. That revulsion would, in turn, lead to the push for the Geneva Protocol of 1925 which sought to ban the use of biological and chemical weapons in the field of conflict.

However, 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 chemical attack.

Unfortunately, many of the countries that joined would join belatedly and with major reservations. China, France, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom all joined in the 1920s. Others would not join until much later. Japan did not join until 1970 and the United States until 1975. While limited, the Geneva Protocol helped to establish an international norm against CW use.

The taboo, however, was not strong enough.

Between the two world wars, there were a number of reports of use of chemical weapons in regional conflicts: 

  • Morocco in 1923-1926
  • Libya in 1930
  • China in 1934
  • Ethiopia in 1935-1940, and
  • Manchuria in 1937-1942

After the end of World War II in 1945, several states, particularly the United States and the Soviet Union build up chemical weapons stockpiles as part of their Cold War standoff.

And there were sporadic chemical weapons attacks in regional wars, including in the Yemen war of 1963-1967 when Egypt bombed Yemeni villages, killing some 1,500 people.

There were major uses of chemical weapons by Iraq in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war and in Saddam Hussein’s bombing of the Kurds in Halabja in 1988. Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks helped created a sense of urgency to the slow-moving CWC negotiations, which had begun in the early 1980s.

The failure of the United States in the 1980s to condemn the attacks against Iran undoubtedly emboldened Saddam Hussein. In response, other countries in the Middle East, particularly Syria, accelerated their chemical weapons programs.

Since the Chemical Weapons Convention came into force in 1997, the most significant cases of chemical weapons use have –of course – been in Syria during its brutal civil war.

Chemical Weapons Use Since 1997

The Assad regime launched chemical attacks against opposition forces on numerous occasions beginning in 2012, including a massive Sarin attack in August 2013 that killed more than 1,400 people.

The UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) found the Syrian government responsible for numerous other attacks, including in April 2014, March 2015, March 2016 and April 2017.

It also found the Islamic State responsible for chemical weapons attacks in August 2015 and September 2016.

Human rights observers continue to document further chemical weapons incidents in Syria.

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 Russia agents used a Novichok to assassinate a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in the UK. These most recent incidents and attacks over the past six years have severely tested the chemical weapons prohibition regime.

The Path to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention

Today that regime is centered around the CWC. But the path to the CWC was not easy or quick.

And it was by no means a fate accompli.

In 1974, the Soviet Union and the United States commenced bilateral discussions on reducing chemical weapons stockpiles.

Formal, multilateral negotiation began at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in 1980.

The questions the negotiators had to grapple with were not simple, some of them included:

  • Should a new treaty just address certain American and Russian or Soviet stockpiles of nerve agents and mustard gas, or blister agents, as a first step towards a more comprehensive treaty?
  • Should it be a global treaty?
  • Should it ban just certain chemical agents and stockpiles that could be used for weapons or should it be a comprehensive ban? If so, what does that actually mean? How do you verify compliance?
  • Also, how do you establish criteria that would enable you to distinguish between the toxic chemicals that we need to prohibit and those that are needed for peaceful purposes that and or that we simply don't have to worry about it?

Through the 1980s there were no major breakthroughs. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union began developing even more dangerous agents, the Novichoks, and it expanded the production program of the traditional chemical warfare agents.

Nevertheless, under Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russians began to recognize and accept the need for mandatory onsite inspections as part of any global chemical weapons control regime.

Another important impetus was the engagement and support of the chemical industry. By the late-1980s, the industry had begun to realize that there might be a treaty and if so, they needed to get on board and make sure it would be something they could live with.

By 1989 these U.S.-Soviet negotiations produced a bilateral memorandum of understanding concerning verification and data exchange.

Finally, the CWC negotiations were concluded and the treaty was opened for signature in January 1993. The 65 ratifications needed for entry into force were achieved by April 1997.

The Chemical Weapons Convention

Today, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) current has 193 states party and is implemented by the 500-person strong Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) headquartered in The Hague.

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.

North Korea is perhaps the country of greatest concern. It has an estimated to possess a large arsenal of chemical weapons, likely over 5,000 metric tons, including mustard, phosgene, and nerve agents.

Syria is a party to the convention but is not in compliance.

The major work of the OPCW involves reviewing states-parties’ declarations detailing chemical weapons-related activities or materials and relevant industrial activities. After receiving declarations, the OPCW inspects and monitors, on an ongoing basis, states-parties’ facilities and activities that are relevant to the convention, to ensure compliance.

The Chemical Weapons Convention mandates several key obligations:

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

The CWC regulates chemical agents and the facilities that produce and store according to a set of categories and “schedules” listed in the treaty that based on the severity of risk they pose:

  • Schedule 1 chemicals and precursors pose a “high risk” to the convention and are rarely used for peaceful purposes. These include VX and sarin.
  • 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. One example is phosgene.
  • Schedule 3 chemicals are usually produced in large quantities for purposes not prohibited by the CWC but still pose a risk.

Destruction Requirements

The main result of the CWC over the past decade has been the verified destruction of the vast bulk of declared chemical weapons stockpiles and facilities. This has been an enormous undertaking.

Of the 193 states-parties to the CWC, eight had or still have declared chemical weapons stockpiles.

Of those eight countries, Albania, South Korea, India, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Russia have completed destruction of their declared arsenals.

As of December 2016, 90 of the 97 chemical weapons production facilities declared to the OPCW have either been destroyed or converted for peaceful purposes.

In addition, the OPCW has undertaken more than 5,000 inspections of more than 200 chemical weapons-related sites (stockpiles, former production facilities, and laboratories) and more than 1,100 chemical industry sites in 82 countries.

Russia and the United States

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

At the time the CWC was concluded, Russia had the largest declared stockpile with 40,000 metric tons at seven arsenals in six regions—oblasts and republics—of Russia.

The United States declared 28,577 metric tons at nine stockpiles in eight states and on Johnston Atoll west of Hawaii.

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.

These concerns over transportation of chemical weapons and over incineration as a method of disposal led to major changes in the U.S. demilitarization program, adding to cost and creating schedule delays. In my view, however, the changes were worthwhile from a public health standpoint.

The United States aims to complete the process by 2023. It will have cost around $45 billion to complete.

The Successful CW Removal and Destruction Operation in Syria

In 2012, the Syrian government finally admitted what had been long suspected: that it had chemical weapons. Then, in August 2013, the Assad regime launched a Sarin attack with rockets into the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, which led U.S. President Barack Obama to threaten the use of force to try to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal in August and September of 2013.

This threat prompted Moscow to work with Washington to help compel Assad to join the CWC on September 12, 2013 and declare its chemical weapons stockpile and agree to a plan for its elimination soon after.

This led to an ambitious operation that led to the verified removal and elimination of Syria’s massive arsenal of 1,308 metric tons of chemical agents, storage and production facilities, and associated equipment under the auspices of the OPCW—all in the middle of the ferocious Syrian civil war.

The complex, multinational disposal operation was a major milestone that effectively eliminated the threat of further large-scale chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime against the Syrian people and neighboring states.

The destruction processes were carried out through a remarkable operation on board the US Merchant Marine ship, Cape Ray, and in four countries – Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

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.

However, reports continue to surface of chemical weapon use in Syria, raising questions about the accuracy of its initial declaration.

Current and Future Challenges to the CWC

CWC states parties and the OPCW have almost fulfilled the foundational goal of the CWC: the destruction of the world’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles. More than 96% have been destroyed under OPCW supervision.

Unfinished Business: But despite the global ban and the successful destruction work, we are still seeing the ongoing use of chemical weapons by states and by some terrorist networks, the remaining U.S. stockpile must be destroyed, and four more states, Egypt, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan still need to join the convention.

  • Destruction of the remaining U.S. Stockpile by 2023
  • Universalization: North Korea and its est. stockpile of 5,000 tonnes of agent, and the Middle East
  • Noncompliance and accountability

National Implementation: Another challenge is ensuring compliance with the treaty’s provisions on national implementation, meaning efforts to put in place effective regulations and export control mechanisms for chemical agents.

Adapting Verification System: The CWC verification regime also needs to be adapted to match verification resources to CW proliferation challenges. More than half of all OPCW inspections are still related to disarmament, limiting the ability of the organization to detect and deter proliferation. There is an increasing number of chemical production facilities that pose proliferation risks, such as flexible, multipurpose production plants.

Closing the Loophole on Riot Control Agents: Article II.9(d) of the Chemical Weapons Convention designates law enforcement, including domestic riot control, as a potentially acceptable purpose for the use of certain toxic chemicals.

However, the range of potentially permissible chemicals has not been established. This provides a possible loophole for the use and development of ever-more sophisticated agents for such purposes would work against the prohibition of chemical weapons. There are 39 countries pushing to close this loophole.

Developing A New Attribution Mechanism

The war in Syria has put the issue of attribution in the spotlight, particularly in instances where CWC member-state Russia, which is Syria’s ally, has used its UN Security Council veto to thwart investigations.

The independent OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) has determined that chemical weapons were used by Syria and the Islamic State group, but Russia has blocked its renewal by the UN Security Council last year.

With new authority granted by CWC member-states earlier this year, Arias has said the OPCW is putting in place arrangements for the purpose of identifying entities responsible for chemical weapons use.

A special office for attribution will consist of a head of investigations and a few investigators and analysts who will be supported by existing Technical Secretariat expertise and structures.

“Those responsible [for chemical weapons attacks] should now have nowhere to hide and should be held accountable by the international community for breaking the global norm against chemical weapons,” Arias said last month in an interview with Arms Control Today.

The fourth review conference of the CWC will take place next month and member states will grapple with the ongoing task of ensuring that treaty obligations are fully implemented and that the CWC and the OPCW can be adapted in order to meet new challenges.

To help the OPCW in that mission, governments and nongovernmental actors have a responsibility to ensure the chemical weapons prohibition regime has the necessary political and public support, and technical and financial resources to verify compliance – and hold accountable those who may violate the chemical weapons taboo.

I want to thank you for the chance to speak to you today. I look forward to your questions.


Remarks by Daryl Kimball to the Conference on Chemical Weapons, Armed Conflict and Humanitarian Law at Queens University, Kingston, Ontario on October 29, 2018 

Country Resources:

Subject Resources:


Subscribe to RSS - Chemical Weapons