WASHINGTON, DC – Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal has rightly galvanized international attention. The chemical attacks against civilians have prompted Russia and the United States to put aside diplomatic tensions to devise a plan to eliminate the Syrian regime’s stockpiles. And the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has been tasked with executing the Russian-US plan, has just been awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
Obviously, the dangers that such weapons pose do not end in Syria. In addition to the possibility of governments launching chemical attacks against their own people, there is the risk of terrorists using toxic agents, as they did in Iraq in 2007. Indeed, for both state and non-state actors, chemical arms are the easiest weapons of mass destruction to create, acquire, and use, owing partly to their ingredients’ widespread availability.
Many countries possess industries capable of manufacturing large quantities of such chemicals, and terrorists have proved that they, too, have the resources to produce and use dangerous chemical agents. Chemical attacks are attractive not only for their lethality, but also because they can have a major psychological impact (“shock effects”) on survivors and others.
While the chemical-weapons threat has clearly not been eliminated, the OPCW has made tremendous strides in mitigating it, especially through the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, and use of chemical weapons. In some respects, the CWC has been one of the most successful nonproliferation agreements in history.