The Threatened Use of Poison Gas in the Middle East

For years, the plight of the Palestinians has captured the lion’s share of media coverage of the Middle East. In recent years, the violence of the Second Intifada from Sept. 2000 to 2004 and persistent tension, marked by flare-ups between Israel and Hamas, continue to command media attention. When the violence abates, clamor over Jewish settlements and the attention-seeking antics of anti-Israel activists become fodder for an uninterrupted flow of news and opinion pieces. By devoting so much of its limited resources to cover less than one percent of the Middle East (the area encompassed by Israel, the West Bank and Gaza), the media has forfeited an opportunity to increase awareness and understanding of actually what lies at the core of the region’s ills. The recent alarming reports of activity at Syrian chemical weapons sites serve as an important reminder that it is oppressive regimes threatening and using unconstrained brutality to suppress their population’s desire for basic rights that fuels the region’s instability.
On November 23, an Arabic language website, Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported that the Assad regime was preparing to use poison gas. The translated bulletin stated,
The Revolutionary Military Council in Damascus [RMCD] issued its statement No 9, signed by its Commander Colonel Abu-Wafa, in which he warned of the regime’s intention to use toxic gases to storm Darya which has been besieged for two weeks during which it has been continually and violently shelled.
On December 2, The New York Times quoted an American official on rumors of activity at chemical weapons sites,
”It’s in some ways similar to what they’ve done before…But they’re doing some things that suggest they intend to use the weapons. It’s not just moving stuff around. These are different kind of activities.”
There is good reason to be alarmed at these reports. Yet, if the Syrian regime were to resort to using chemical weapons, it would not set a new precedent in the region. Over the years a number of regimes have shown a willingness to use chemical weapons against insurgents and defenseless civilians.
Full scale war in Yemen broke out in 1962, pitting Saudi Arabian-backed Yemeni royalists against Egyptian-backed Yemeni revolutionaries. According to many sources the Egyptian army used poison gas, including nerve agents, against opposing forces from 1963-1967. Estimates of the conflict’s death toll exceed 100,000. No reliable estimates have been found on what proportion of the fatalities resulted from exposure to chemical weapons.
Iraq developed an extensive chemical weapons capability with crucial assistance from European companies. In 1987, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein reportedly began using chemical agents against Kurdish citizens in the north. During the Anfal campaign to suppress Kurdish aspirations for independence from Iraq, the Iraqis killed an estimated 100,000 civilians. In February 1988, a new kind of weapon was used. According to some sources, it was an odorless, colorless chemical that rendered previous protective measures ineffective. This has been described as a nerve agent. On March 16, 1988, a well-documented poison gas attack was carried out over the city of Halabja. Several thousand Kurdish civilians were killed. Turkey, which has been engaged in a brutal war against Kurdish autonomy, opposed an investigation of Iraq’s use of poisonous gas.
The German news source, Der Spiegel On-line, published a report in 2010 accusing Turkey of using poisonous gas against Kurdish militants seeking autonomy. The decades old conflict been Turkey and Kurdish insurgents has resulted in over 40,000 deaths, mainly civilians.
On November 19, the Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, hypocritically accused Israel of being a “terrorist state” for its operations against Hamas, even as Turkey’s war against Kurds in Iraq and Syria continues unabated.
In Syria there are unsubstantiated reports of poison gas being used at the orders of Hafez Assad, Bashir’s father, to help quell an insurrection of the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in 1982. Estimates varying from 10,000-38,000 men, women and children were killed during the government suppression of the Hama uprising. Some unconfirmed reports claim a cyanide-based gas was used, similar to what the Germans used to murder European Jews.
In the 1980s, Libya had an extensive chemical weapons program, built and run by foreigners. Its facility at Rabta had been described as the largest chemical weapons production facility in the world. Libya reportedly attempted to use chemical weapons against Chadian troops in 1987. In more recent years, Libya decommissioned its chemical weapons and poison gas was not reported to have been used during the recent regime change.
Proliferation of Chemical Weapons Has Never Received Appropriate Attention
Regimes throughout the region could act with impunity, confident that the international community’s attention span was almost entirely limited to the confines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In contrast to the media-driven perception of the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the West Bank and Gaza have accounted for less than 2 percent of the region’s conflict-related fatalities since 1960.
Yet at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and among western activist groups, the plight of the Palestinians remains the main focus and Israel is uniquely targeted by delegitimization efforts. The UNHRC condemns Israel more than any other state, while the region’s despotic regimes are handled politely and even offered the chairs of important UN committees. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch devote substantial resources to challenge the legitimacy and legality of Israel’s actions and
provide fodder for activists who campaign to isolate the Jewish state. Meanwhile, the dire human rights situation in the region remains chronically under-reported and half-heartedly pursued. It is under these circumstances that the specter of the Syrian regime resorting to chemical weapons against its own population offers an opportunity to explain some hard truths about the region.

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