What is white phosphorus and did Turkey use it against the Kurds?

United Nations chemical weapons inspectors say they are investigating claims from multiple sources that chemical weapons were used by Turkish forces on Kurdish civilians in Ras al-Ayn, a Syrian border town.

The weapons, which seriously burned at least six, including children, were believed to have contained a toxic chemical called white phosphorus.

If the allegations of the use of white phosphorus weapons against civilians, as first reported in Foreign Policy, prove to be true, the action would constitute a war crime.

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The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said on Friday morning "The OPCW is aware of the situation in northern Syria and is collecting information at OPCW Headquarters with regard to the alleged use of chemical weapons. So far, the OPCW has not yet determined the credibility of these allegations.”

The Kurdish Red Crescent, a relief organization similar to the American Red Cross, said in a statement that six patients, both civilian and military, were in a hospital in Hasekeh, Syria, with burns from “unknown weapons” and that the organization was working to evaluate what weapon had caused the injuries.

Turkish officials have denied accusations that chemical weapons were used.

Hulusi Akar, the Turkish defense minister, said, “It is a fact known by everyone that there are no chemical weapons in the inventory of the Turkish armed forces.”

Three weeks ago, President Donald Trump announced he would be pulling American troops from northeast Syria. Soon after, Turkey launched an attack against the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led faction that has supported the Kurdistan Workers’ party, which has fought against the Turkish government for nearly 40 years.

Last week, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, along with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, brokered a 120-hour ceasefire to allow Kurdish forces to withdraw 20 miles from the 300-mile border between Syria and Turkey. Despite the ceasefire, there were reports of continued fighting in the region.

Here is a look at what white phosphorus is, what it does and why it was used in war.

What is white phosphorus?

White phosphorus is a toxic substance produced from rocks that contain phosphate.

What is it used for?

White phosphorus is used in the manufacture of fertilizers, food additives and cleaning compounds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It has been used in the past as a pesticide and in fireworks. It is used by the military in various types of ammunition as an incendiary agent (because it spontaneously catches fire in air) and as a smoke agent (because it produces clouds of irritating white smoke). It has a match-like or garlic-like, acrid odor ...," according to the CDC.

How dangerous is it?

White phosphorus is self-igniting when it interacts with oxygen at a temperature of 86 degrees. It must be stored underwater or under wax to keep it from spontaneously combusting.

It is toxic, and when it contacts the skin, severe burns are likely. It is difficult to put out a white phosphorus fire and it can reignite easily, even on the skin. A cloud of phosphorus can mix with moisture in the air and can form phosphoric acid which can damage or destroy the lungs.

What is its history in war?

It was first used as an obscurant because it produces clouds of white smoke, allowing troops to move without being seen by the enemy.

The U.S. Department of Defense acknowledged the use of white phosphorus munitions in the November 2004 offensive in the Iraqi city of Falluja. The substance was used to remove enemy forces from urban areas.

The substance is often called “Whiskey Pete” by the military.

How can it be used in war if it is a chemical weapon?

The use of white phosphorus is not banned under international convention when it is used as an obscurant – to make a smokescreen or to illuminate a target (white phosphorus glows green when exposed to oxygen).

To use it for incendiary weapons in civilian areas is banned under the Geneva convention. Using it to attack civilian areas is an international war crime.

What does it look like?

White phosphorus is colorless or has a slight yellow tint. It’s a wax-like substance that tends to have a smell that is something like garlic.

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