Arab despots and the chemical weapons taboo

Weapons norms matter, and are a major reason why despots in the Arab world have not deployed chemical weapons.

Gaddafi and Al-Assad
Despite fears that they would do so, neither Gaddafi, Assad, nor Mubarak used chemical weapons during Arab Spring uprisings [EPA]

“Can you believe that Mubarak al Shamekh (defected)?” begins Gaddafi.

“He’s crazy,” El Sari replies.

“He’s the chairman of the General People’s Congress, a position beyond his dreams. What more could he want?” reasons Gaddafi eight days before NATO-led forces began operations.

“When I meet Eisenhower, should I give the Nazi salute, or shake his hand?

-Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, Der Untergang/The Downfall (2004)

Melbourne, Australia – History is replete with instances where political leaders, uncertain of their hold on power, appear to us now to be oblivious to their own downfall.

 Exclusive wire taps on Gaddafi’s inner circle

Only last week, Al Jazeera aired exclusive voice recordings (said to be) of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi in his final days [quoted above]. At one point Gaddafi speaks privately with a confidant about a high-profile defection: “What more could he want?”, Gaddafi can be heard saying – as if, with NATO forces closing in, Gaddafi and his loyalists still had a chance of retaining leadership, and the defector hadn’t begun to manufacture alternate “dreams”.

Within three months of that particular recording, the International Criminal Court had issued a warrant for Gaddafi and his leadership team for two counts of “crimes against humanity”.

The startling point of this exchange, I think, is not so much Gaddafi’s rampant ego, his undying optimism, nor even the degree to which his reasoning appears divorced from political reality; rather, it merely confirms that individual people often make decisions today with a view of what is likely to happen in the future.

For Gaddafi’s defector, then, the job was great while it lasted, but the possibility of a life – even one in poverty, as Gaddafi goes on to suppose – is better than a few more days of political power.

The same logic drove Gaddafi, as well as a number of other despotic Arab leaders. I can illustrate this by examining their actions in relation to chemical weapons during the Arab Spring.

While public and policy-maker attention was fixed firmly on the potential proliferation concerns (including on Al Jazeera‘s own “chemical weapons” blog), I’d suggest greater attention be paid to the rhetorical positions and deployment of chemical agents against national citizens during the Arab Spring.

Gaddafi and the chemical weapons taboo

Despite widespread fears, Gaddafi is not believed to have deployed his chemical weapons arsenal at any stage during the conflict – in effect, he observed his 2003 commitment to voluntarily disarm his entire WMD capability in return for improved political and economic relations, as well as Libya’s 2004 duties as a State-party to the 1993 Convention on Chemical Weapons, which effectively outlaws the production, development, stockpiling, transfer and use of chemical agents on the battlefield (note as per my last blog post, this does not necessarily hold in peacetime).

This is, in part, because he was said to have dismantled the aerial munitions stocks necessary to deploy his stockpile of chemical weapons. But there is only circumstantial evidence offered by various defectors (here, and here) that Gaddafi attempted to deliver these weapons by other, cruder means.

As the conflict drew to a close and Gaddafi was killed, it became clear that Gaddafi in fact had a number of undeclared chemical weapons sites in addition to the one frequently inspected at al-Jafra. While Libya had begun destroying 25 metric tonnes of mustard blister agent in 2010, as the conflict began, Gaddafi’s forces still had an estimated 9.5 metric tonnes intact.

As the conflict entered its final stages, international attention shifted from supporting the transitional forces through NATO, to the immediate safeguarding of nuclear and chemical weapons materials and equipment, as well as efforts to avoid conventional weapons proliferation to neighbouring states (particularly in Africa) and non-state groups.

What hasn’t been asked – even since I blogged on it last year – is why Gaddafi didn’t use his chemical weapons.

Did he believe he would emerge from the conflict victorious, and therefore needed to retain the support of the international community by not using additional force against his own people? Or was he possibly – and, if so, this would be a sensational finding for the strength of weapons norms – observing “the chemical weapons taboo”?

Without documentary evidence, including public access to the 12,000 conversations Al Jazeera uncovered last week, we may never know.

It is quite plausible that Gaddafi’s non-use of chemical weapons was merely a logistical one. He may have, as a small number of reports suggest, attempted to reach his chemical weapons stores, despite the difficulty he faced in deploying them.

Whatever the case, the argument I am putting forward is simply this: that the Arab Spring is worth closer study by arms control and disarmament specialists in light of the distinct lack of biological, radiological and chemical weapons deployments in these largely intra-state conflict against combatant and non-combatant, national citizens.

Mubarak and the chemical weapons taboo

Egypt, unlike Libya, has not signed on to the terms of the Convention on Chemical Weapons – and is therefore not subject to a ban on chemical weapons beyond the terms of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which effectively bans the “first use” of chemical and biological weapons in inter-state conflict only. It does not explicitly obligate the State of Egypt to refrain from deploying chemical agents against non-combatants or, as is relevant in the case of the Arab Spring, its own citizens.

Having deployed chemical weapons between 1963-7 against Yemen in violation of its commitments under the Geneva Protocol, and having sold some stores to Syria in 1972, Egypt presents a different case of norm contestation than does Libya.

However, like Libya, Mubarak is only known to have legally deployed tear gas – a form of chemical weapon discussed in my last blog post – against the civil protest movement in his bid to retain leadership.

Assad and the chemical weapons taboo

Of all the Arab states, Bashar al-Assad of Syria has far and away the most extensive and sophisticated chemical weapons programme. And, like Egypt, Syria is only a State-party to the Geneva Protocol – and is therefore not bound by the more comprehensive terms of the Convention on Chemical Weapons.

Furthermore, unlike Gaddafi, Assad possesses both the means to use them (including relatively long-range missiles), a military culture that has advanced expertise in their deployment, and supposed unfettered access to his stockpiles should he wish to deploy them.

For mind, Assad has consciously grounded his Air Force as much as possible, in order to provide just cause for the NATO response that contributed to the toppling of Gaddafi in Libya.

One of the few plausible rocks in the road for Assad remains the chemical weapons taboo.

So why have only a few unverified reports (here, and here) surfaced of Assad deploying his chemical weapons? And why – as with Libya – is the international community only concerned with weapons proliferation to other state and non-state groups?

My hunch remains that the chemical weapons taboo is so strong as to influence the actions of otherwise morally repugnant leaders as Gaddafi, Mubarak and Assad.

So what is the chemical weapons taboo?

Despite the greater Middle East being, in the words of former Egyptian foreign minister and arms control expert Nabil Fahmy, a “poster child for the failure of global and regional non-proliferation efforts”, what then might explain the lack of chemical weapons deployments during the Arab Spring?

One seminal study of chemical weapons, and in particular the historical antecedents of the moral opprobrium that has come to surround them, is Richard Price’s monograph The Chemical Weapons Taboo.

In it, Price challenges three lines of argument that had come to dominate the scholarly literature on the non-use of chemical weapons during World War II (as Price quoted the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute):

“The two sides warned each other not to use chemical weapons at the risk of strong retaliatory action in kind; a general feeling of abhorrence on the part of governments for the use of CB [chemical/biological] weapons, reinforced by the pressure of public opinion and the constraining influence of the Geneva protocol; and actual unpreparedness within the military forces for the use of these weapons”.

Quite apart from Price’s inadequate avoidance of Zyklon-B in the Nazi gas chambers by defining it as a “poison” and not a chemical weapon, he goes on to (successfully in my view) dismantle each of the three lines of inquiry, instead establishing that:

“It was not the case that it was utterly unthinkable for any belligerent to countenance chemical warfare. […] Rather, the stigma against CW [chemical weapons] raised the threshold of circumstances under which one could justify a resort to CW to situations of desperation. […] The political decision not to employ chemical warfare seems to have been based on the understanding that initiating chemical warfare could cross a ‘red line beyond which all previous bets are off’, according to a senior Bush [Snr.] administration official.”

This conclusion, I’d argue, must be taken up in relation to the seeming non-use of chemical weapons, yet widespread deployment of tear gas, throughout the Arab Spring. For to continue to divert the attention of scholars, policy-makers and the public towards non-state terrorism and other proliferation concerns is to overlook how weapons norms and deployments matter – not just in their intended arenas of inter-state warfare, but increasingly in civil uprisings as triggers to limit the possibility of foreign intervention.

NAJ Taylor is a doctoral researcher at the University of Queensland, writing on the practice of environmental and humanitarian harm in contemporary warfare.

Follow him on Twitter: @najtaylor