The killing winds came over the trenches at Ypres, Belgium, in the evening of April 22, 1915, carrying chlorine gas, greenish clouds that unleashed warfare with chemical weapons.
It inspired fear and terror and eventually led to international treaties to prohibit the use and manufacture of chemical weapons for war, including the Geneva Protocol of 1925 and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.
This bit of history underscores why an attack on three villages in northern Syria earlier this year was so heinous.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, created to enforce the 1993 treaty, says the villages of Talmanes, Al Tamanah and Kafr Zeta were the target of chlorine attacks, a repeat of the horrors of World War I in the 21st century.
Chlorine is a choking agent that injures the respiratory tract and can kill. An industrial chemical, it is not among those specifically banned, but the use of any toxic chemical — including chlorine — to kill or harm violates the convention and international law.
The OPCW said its fact-finding mission concluded with “a high degree of confidence that chlorine, either pure or in mixture, is the toxic chemical in question” used against the villages.
This was based on interviews with victims, physicians, first-responders and eyewitnesses, although the fact-finding effort was thwarted trying to visit the scene.
The group did not say in its Sept. 10 announcement who targeted the villages with chlorine, but the results of the investigation, which have not been made public in detail, are said to point directly at the regime of President Bashar Assad, which has been battling rebels in a civil war that has killed more than 190,000 people and caused 2.5 million to flee to neighboring countries.
If the Assad forces did use the deadly gases, it is another black mark against a ruler who used sarin, a poison gas, in an August 2013 attack at Ghouta that killed more than 1,000 people.
After the horrors of Ghouta became known, the United States and others demanded that Syria demilitarize its chemical weapons stockpile.
In an operation that was ambitious and carried out despite fierce fighting on the ground, Syria relinquished its most lethal chemical weapons, and the OPCW reported in August that 94 percent of Syria’s declared stockpile has been destroyed, much of it carried and neutralized aboard a U.S. vessel, the Cape Ray.
But the story of Syria’s chemical nightmare is not yet over.
The use of chlorine serves to remind of Assad’s brutality and stands as another good reason the United States can never consider allying with the regime in Damascus against the reprehensible rebel forces of the Islamic State.
Syria has yet to destroy 12 production facilities, hangars and tunnels, and there are volume discrepancies and omissions in its declarations.
Syria must come clean about these, agree to the permanent destruction of the facilities and reveal the truth about who used a choking weapon of World War I in the modern age.