The Concept of WMD, and its Use against Syria, in the Propaganda Systems of Western States

John Mueller, the US political scientist who coined the term “sanctions of mass destruction,” to show that “economic sanctions…by large states…may have contributed to more deaths during the post-Cold War era than all weapons of mass destruction throughout history” [1], wrote an article two years ago in Foreign Affairs, the major foreign policy journal of the US establishment, challenging the idea that Syria’s chemical weapons (when it had them) were a threat. [2] Mueller examined the history of chemical weapons since WWI to make the point that chemical agents are misclassified as weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

According to Mueller, chemical weapons accounted for less than one percent of battle fatalities during the First World War; it took one ton of Sarin gas on average, during that conflict, to produce a single fatality; and only 2-3% of those gassed on the Western front died, compared to a fatality rate 10 to 12 times higher among those who were struck by bullets or shrapnel from conventional weapons. [3]

In their official history of WWI, the British concluded that “gas made war uncomfortable…to no purpose.” [4] Accordingly, most handsomely funded militaries with generous weapons development programs or the means to purchase highly destructive armaments were quite happy to relinquish their chemical weapons. They are ineffective and conventional arms produce far higher rates of fatalities.

But in the course of challenging the view that chemical weapons are WMD, Mueller came close to making a far more significant point, namely, that the concept of WMD is used for propaganda purposes to vastly exaggerate the threat posed by official enemies that have “weapons of little destruction.” This is done by creating the impression that the ineffective weapons in the enemy’s arsenal are weapons of great destructive power, through the pairing of weapons of little destruction, like chemical agents, with highly destructive armaments, like nuclear weapons. Two auxiliary points are necessary here: (i) These “enemies” are comparatively weak militarily, without the massively destructive conventional arms found in the arsenals of major military powers; (ii) The previous point explains the “enemies’” possession of weapons of little destruction. To exaggerate to make a point, labeling chemical weapons as WMD is like calling the spears of hunting and gathering tribes WMD in order to turn primitive people into threats.

In 1992, the term WMD was explicitly codified in US law to include not only nuclear weapons but chemical and biological weapons, as well. Then, in 1994, radiological weapons—conventional bombs used to disperse radioactive material—were added. [5] But chemical, biological and radiological weapons have nowhere near the destructive capability of nuclear weapons, to say nothing of the destructive capability of the high yield conventional explosives in the arsenals of the US and other large militaries.

So why would the United States subsume a class of highly ineffective weapons under a rubric archetypically defined by nuclear weapons?

For the same reason the British quintupled their gas casualty figures in WWI—to justify a military intervention. For the British, making gas into a uniquely inhuman weapon demonized the Germans, the major users of gas. This could be used, it was hoped, to draw the United States into the war on the side of the Triple Entente. [6]

For the United States, in 1992, investing chemical weapons with the same kind of horrific aura that nuclear weapons have, served the political purpose of making Iraq, which had chemical weapons—furnished by the United States, which condoned their use by Iraq against Iran [7]—appear to be a unique threat—one that had to be dealt with by imposing what amounted to a blockade to starve the population into submission. The blockade contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not over a million, Iraqis—more people than could ever be killed by all of the chemical weapons in the US-supplied Iraqi arsenal—truly, sanctions of mass destruction, and far more terrible than chemical weapons.

So, WMD, applied to chemical, biological, and radiological weapons, is by design, a term of deception, whose purpose is the manipulation of public opinion to soften up attitudes to war against countries that (i) are an obstacle to US geopolitical designs and (ii) have one or more types of these weapons of little destruction.

These days, the concept of WMD as part of the propaganda system of Western states has been used against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. The nature of the government in Damascus, and the reason it finds itself in the cross-hairs of the West’s regime-change apparatus, can best be explained in the words of its president. “Syria,” asserts Assad, “is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.” [8] In other words, the Syrian government pursues Syria’s interests, not the interlocked political agendas of Washington and economic agendas of Wall St.

To demonize this obstacle to Western agendas, the charge is leveled at Damascus that it is responsible for at least one chemical weapons attack, for which no clear evidence has ever been adduced that implicates the Syrian army, and for which the use of chemical weapons would have been a transparent tactical blunder since it would have delivered to Washington a pretext to directly intervene militarily in Syria. For this reason it is highly improbable that the Syrian army was behind the attack. An additional charge, made now that Syria has abandoned its chemical weapons, is that it routinely uses chlorine gas as a weapon.

As a weapon, chlorine gas is exceedingly ineffective. It is lethal only in highly concentrated doses and where medical treatment is not immediately available. It is far less effective than conventional weapons. [9] Why, then, would the Syrian army use a highly ineffective weapon, which is deplored by world public opinion, and whose use would provide the United States a pretext to directly intervene militarily in Syria, when it has far more effective conventional weapons, which are not deplored by world public opinion, and whose use does not deliver a pretext to Washington to intervene? Unless we believe the government in Damascus is comprised of a collection of imbeciles, this makes no sense.

On the other hand, let’s look at this from the perspective of the opposition. It has a strong motive to use chlorine gas in order to pin blame for its use on the Syrian army to create a pretext for direct US military intervention. What’s more, the opposition’s major forces have a long history of using chlorine gas as a weapon.

Chlorine gas has been used by Sunni militants in Iraq for over a decade. It has been used intermittently in attacks against US and Iraqi forces and against civilians since 2003. There was a flurry of such attacks in Anbar province in 2007 as US forces were trying to wrest control of the territory from Al-Qaeda in Iraq [10], an organization from which sprang ISIS and al-Nusra, the principal militant groups in Syria today.

In light of the above, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out who’s using chlorine gas in Syria: the forces that have a motive for their use and a history of using them. Nor do you have to be particularly perceptive (only attentive) to determine that the insinuation of US politicians and leading news media that the Syrian government is weaponizing chlorine gas is a deliberate deception, on par with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell inventing a pretext for war on Iraq by concocting a deliberate fiction about Iraq concealing chemical weapons, a fabrication leading news media legitimized.

The concept of WMD provides a context in which the public is manipulated to see governments whose militaries have ineffective weapons, of a destructive capability far below that of the conventional weapons in the arsenals of major militaries, as uniquely inhuman and vastly destructive, thereby depicting these governments as dire threats and consequently as necessary targets for regime change. Syria’s relinquishing its chemical weapons stores has undercut the ability of Western governments to demonize Damascus as a user of WMD. Accordingly, the Western propaganda system, of which governments, leading news media, and leading human rights NGOs are a part, has invoked allegations of chlorine gas use by the Syrian Arab Army to bring WMD back into the picture.

But it should be made clear, first, that it is a corruption of the truth to equate weaponized chlorine gas, a weapon of little destruction, with nuclear weapons and veridical WMD; second, that the allegation that the Syrian military is deploying a weapon of little destruction when it has more effective weapons and use of chlorine gas would deliver a pretext to Washington to directly intervene militarily in Syria, strains credibility; and third, there is, not surprisingly, a complete absence of credible evidence that the Syrian army has used chlorine gas as a weapon. It is the propaganda apparatus of Western states—itself a weapon of mass deception–that advances the antitheses of these points.


1. John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Sanctions of Mass Destruction,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999.

2. John Mueller, “Erase the Red Line: Why WeShouldn’t Care about Syria’s Chemical Weapons,” Foreign Affairs, April 30, 2013.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid; The radiation dispersal range is equal to the blast range. Hence, anyone exposed to radiation would be killed first by the conventional blast. Adding radioactive material, then, to a conventional bomb is pointless—like shooting someone two days after he has been beheaded.

6. Ibid.

7. Glen Kessler, “History lesson: When the United States looked the other way on chemical weapons,” The Washington Post, September 4, 2013

8. President al-Assad: Basis for any political solution for crisis in Syria is what the Syrian people want,”

9. Anne Barnard and Somini Sengupta, “Syria is using chemical weapons again, rescue workers say,” The New York Times, May 6, 2015.

10. Kirk Semple and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. is investigating report that Islamic state used chlorine gas,” The New York Times, October 23, 2014.

Articles by: Stephen Gowans

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