You are here

The Ghost of Chemical Weapons in the Arab Spring

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • November 29, 2011

    The response of Arab states to popular protests has varied. Yemen has in the recent past demonstrated its high-handedness, while reports from Syria indicate the use of brute force. And, in Egypt, the military has only used non-lethal tactics like the use of rubber bullets and tear gas. However, even the Egyptian response has come under severe criticism in recent days, particularly over the use of tear gas.

    Till date, fortunately, no one has died because of the effect of tear gas, even though protestors at the receiving end of tear gas have faced acute discomfort. Many are expressing suspicion about the exact nature of the gas being used and contend that there is ‘poisonous’ content to it. This issue gained greater prominence particularly after the Presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei tweeted that “Tear gas with nerve agent & live ammunition [are] being used against civilians in Tahrir.” He also termed what is happening at Tahrir Square as a “massacre”.

    The tear gas in question appears to be extremely acidic in nature and not of the conventional variety; may be, it is a new brand of tear gas. Some doctors treating people affected by this gas have reported that the symptoms are different in comparison with the cases they had handled during Tahrir Square I (January/February 2011). It has been reported that this gas is ‘stronger, burns on the face, and gives a feeling that the whole body is seizing up’.

    But are the protestors and ElBaradei in particular exaggerating the seriousness of the tear gas issue or are they being truthful? Moreover, what ‘role’ should be assigned to ElBaradei at this point in time: as the most respected former UN weapons of mass destruction (WMD) expert or as a politician contending for high office? If the latter, then must his ‘political statement’ be taken seriously just because he is working towards the goal of transforming his country into a democracy? Alternately, if ElBaradei is indeed speaking the truth, it is an extremely serious matter considering that tear gas can be viewed as a chemical weapon that ‘stimulates nerves in the eyes to cause tears and pain’. In this regard, it is to be noted that Egypt is only one of five countries that has not signed the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) which bans the production and use of chemical weapons (the other four countries are Angola, North Korea, Somalia and Syria).

    The accusation against the Egyptian authorities is that they are using CR gas for crowd control instead of the normal practice around the world of using CS gas for this purpose. CS gas is normally used in spray form by many police forces. It temporarily incapacitates the agitated crowd. And it is to be used by trained police officers. Further, CS gas, as per the CWC, can be used only by the domestic police; the military is expressly prohibited from using it.

    The CR gas, which is possibly being used in Egypt now, is more harmful than CS gas and can even become lethal if inhaled in large quantities. It can persist on surfaces for about two months and hence is much more harmful than the CS variant. For many years CR gas has been identified as a combat class chemical weapon by the US authorities. Unfortunately, in the case of Egypt, all this is irrelevant because the country is not a signatory to the CWC.

    The history of West Asia and the adjoining region over the last few decades lends greater credence to suspicions about various states in the region having a covert policy of using chemical weapons both in war as well as against their own people. For instance, Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran and against its own Kurdish population in the 1980s. More recently in Libya, a big stock of mustard gas and chemicals used for the purpose of making chemical weapons was unearthed after the Gaddafi regime was toppled. Some years back this stock was officially declared by the Gaddafi government to the Hague-based UN chemical watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Now fears are being expressed by the current Libyan government that more such stocks are likely to be found. All this poses a huge challenge for the international community because the destruction of chemical weapons is a time-consuming and costly task. There exists a danger that some of these weapons could fall into the hands of non-state actors. In particular, reports that the Taliban is gaining ground in Libya make the situation worrisome (the US Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain has made these claims but they are yet to be confirmed). It has also been alleged that Iran had supplied artillery shells for Libya’s chemical weapons. These shells were recovered after the fall of Gaddafi's regime. The US agencies are of the opinion that they are of Iranian origin and could have been supplied to Libya around three decades back.

    Interestingly, the tear gas used by the troops in Tahrir Square has a US connection to it. The demonstrators have found used/unexploded cartridges marked with the address of a US company based in Pennsylvania called Combined Systems Inc. which specialises in supplying "crowd control devices".

    It is a universal fact that rulers do not like to part with power easily and West Asia is no exception in this regard. Particularly, with the world media scrutinising demonstrations round the clock, rulers keen to hold on to power are finding it difficult to use ‘offensive force’. Hence their resort to non-lethal weapons. While it is premature to say with certitude that chemical weapons are being used in Egypt, it is important to note that both Egypt and Syria are non-signatories of the CWC. The region has a history of using chemical weapons, and the issue therefore needs to be seriously focused upon. The CWC regime has to gear itself up to address such issues effectively.