Analysis: CBRN threats and the Arab Spring


Since the popular uprising against the autocratic regime of Tunisian President Ben Ali in December 2010, a variety of countries in the Middle East and North Africa have experienced large-scale demonstrations and protests. More than a year later, the results are mixed.

Autocratic governments in Tunisia and Libya have been overthrown, the Egyptian president was forced to resign and whilst new elections have been held in Tunisia and Egypt, the internal situation in Libya remains unstable. Meanwhile, in Syria, large-scale demonstrations, followed by government oppression and escalating violence, have pushed the country towards civil war.

Although the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ has been generally welcomed, some doubts and concerns about future political developments remain. An important question is whether or not the transformations will lead to new chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats or affect existing ones. In a region with an already precarious security situation, the danger of possible CBRN proliferation is one which should not be overlooked, IB Consultancy notes.

A recent UN report from a mission that assessed the impact of the Libyan crisis on the wider Sahel region in North Africa shows there is reason for concern. The report indicates that large quantities of conventional weapons and ammunition from Libyan stockpiles are smuggled across the border into the region, including advanced weaponry. Some of these weapons could be sold to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda or Boko Haram and an increase in terrorist and criminal activities in the region is already evident.[1]

Although there have been no indications of the proliferation of non-conventional weapons in Libya to non-state actors so far, it is a good example of how the Arab Spring may lead to new CBRN threats.

This IB Consultancy report focuses on two Arab countries: Libya and Syria. Both countries have been suspected of attempts to develop nuclear weapons, but more importantly, are widely recognised by the international community to possess chemical weapons. The current unrest in the two countries increases the CBRN proliferation threat. The situation has a negative impact on internal security, and more importantly, may diminish the protection of (suspected) chemical warfare agents and sensitive materials and technology, which makes them easier to obtain by non-state actors. Since international non-proliferation treaties are a key defence against proliferation, the last part of this report will identify possible actions against proliferation as well as likely gaps in the international non-proliferation system.


After years of US led pressure and sanctions, Libya came in from the cold by striking a grand deal with the West in 2003. The Gadhafi regime promised to destroy its chemical weapon arsenal and announced its intentions to halt develop of nuclear weapons. Consequently, it acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and became a member of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in 2004. In return, the West lifted many economic sanctions and upgraded diplomatic ties. Soon thereafter, information about Libya’s past CBRN programme became public.

Although Libya had been a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) since 1975, it began its nuclear programme shortly after Gadhafi came to power in 1969. The regime tried to procure nuclear technologies from other countries, as well as from the A.Q. Khan Network. Despite these efforts, the Gadhafi regime was still years away from developing a nuclear weapon when the deal was struck.

When Libya joined the OPCW, it declared a chemical arsenal of more than 23 metric tons of sulphur mustard agent, about 3000 metric tons of chemical agent precursors and more than 3500 empty aerial bomb casings, designed to carry chemical agents.[2] Among the chemical agent precursors were chemicals that could be used for the production of nerve agents such as Sarin and Soman, which are far more lethal and effective than mustard gas. Large scale production of nerve agents however, proved to pose too many technical difficulties for the Libyan chemical engineers.[3]

Libya has been a party to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) since 1982, but before 2003, there were some suspicions that the country also had a biological weapons programme. However, no evidence of this has ever been found.


Syria’s CBRN capability is much more indeterminate. Many sources state that over the years, the regime has developed chemical and possibly biological weapons as a counterweight to Israel’s nuclear capability.[4] According to annual CIA reports to the American Congress, these range from blister agents such as mustard gas to advanced nerve agents like Sarin.[5]

Officially, Syria denies owning CBRN weapons.[6] However, it has not signed the CWC and the OPCW has therefore never been able to inspect in Syria. Concerning the BTWC, Syria has signed the convention, but still has to ratify it. Although the country has been a party to the NPT since 1968, Syria has long had an interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. Last year the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found Syria to be in non-compliance of the NPT Safeguards Agreement for failing to declare a clandestine nuclear reactor at Dair Alzour, which was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike in September 2007. The history of concealment of Syria’s nuclear activities, Syria’s procurement activities, coupled with the country’s lack of cooperation, made the IAEA decide that it had no confidence in the reactor’s peaceful purposes.[7]

The Syrian regime came close to confessing that it possessed CBRN weapons after Libya announced its decision to dismantle its CBRN programme. In January 2004 President Bashir al-Assad stated that any deal to destroy Syria’s chemical and biological capability would only be possible if Israel agreed to abandon its undeclared nuclear arsenal. He also said that Syria is entitled to defend itself by acquiring a chemical and biological deterrent and that ‘it is natural for us to look for means to defend ourselves. It is not difficult to get most of these weapons anywhere in the world and they can be obtained at any time’.[8] A few years later, in a 2009 interview with Der Spiegel, after denying the existence of a nuclear weapons programme the president was asked: ‘so you have no ambitions to produce weapons of mass destruction, not even chemical weapons?’ In response, the president stated: ‘Chemical weapons, that’s another thing. But you don’t seriously expect me to present our weapons programme to you here? We are in a state of war’.[9]


Prior to the start of the Libyan civil war last year, the Gadhafi regime had already destroyed 54% of its declared amounts of mustard gas, about 40% of its precursor chemicals for making weapons, as well as its entire stockpile of aerial bombs. Unfortunately, 9 metric tonnes of sulphur mustard agent and over 800 metric tonnes of precursor chemicals remained to destroyed, all stored at a depot on the Al Jufrah Air Base in the Southeast of Libya.[10]

During the civil war, some analysts feared that Gadhafi would use his remaining chemical arsenal against insurgents. Gadhafi did use excessive violence against civilians and insurgents before his downfall, but the concerns that he might use chemical weapons proved to be unfounded.

After the downfall of the Gadhafi regime, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated to the Libyan Transitional National Council that ‘we will look to them to ensure that Libya fulfils its treaty responsibilities [and] that it ensures that its weapons stockpiles do not threaten its neighbours or fall into the wrong hands’.[11] Indeed, Libya’s new government has vowed to adhere to its international obligations to destroy its chemical weapons. But the question remains how the other issue Clinton raised, namely the concern about protection of Libya’s remaining chemical weapon stockpile, will develop.

Although the aforementioned UN report demonstrated that conventional weapons from Libya may threaten the entire region, there are some positive notes on Libya’s chemical weapon stockpiles. As a part of the deal in 2003, Gadhafi also agreed to move the arsenal from badly secured storage bunkers to the Al Jufrah airbase where they were stored in a heavily secured bunker and could easier be monitored by OPCW inspectors.[12] The US State Department claimed in August that ‘We believe that these known missile and chemical agent storage facilities remain secure, and we’ve not seen any activity, based on our national technical means, to give us concern that they have been compromised’.[13]

Besides these positive aspects however, a year after the start of the revolution the new Libyan government has not been able to stop the fighting, now increasingly between different factions and militias. The lack of security and central control seem to be evidence of a disintegrating state and it is therefore essential that the remaining chemicals weapons and precursor materials are destroyed as soon as possible. There is also the issue of radiological sources in the country, such as intended for legitimate purposes, which can be stolen or illegally exported in the current turmoil.

In addition, the recent discovery of previously undeclared chemical weapons raise further questions, despite the low quantity found.[14] What are the origins of the undeclared agents and projectiles and is there a guarantee that no more chemical weapons remain undeclared?


In the case of Syria, similar fears to those concerning Libya have arisen in connection with the use of CBRN weapons against its own citizens.[15] There are some good arguments however, why the Assad regime would think twice before using its chemical arsenal. First of all, as the recent UN Security Council vote over a new resolution that condemns the violence in Syria has shown, the regime is becoming increasingly isolated on the world stage. If Assad decides to use his chemical arsenal against his own citizens, he would lose all international support. Moreover, the resulting global outrage would increase the risk of outside military intervention for the regime. Second, due to the so-far limited strength of opposition forces like the Free Syria Army, it is not necessary for Assad’s troops to use its chemical weapon capability, which was developed as a deterrent against Israel’s nuclear capabilities. As the violence in the siege of Homs shows, the regime has plenty of other options.

Other concerns of the international community may prove more valid, namely the risk that in a Syrian power vacuum, chemical weapons may be dispersed to non-state actors in the region, including extremist groups. Organisations such as Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah have been given training, weapons, safe haven, and logistical support by the regime.[16] The relationship with Hamas, however, has recently deteriorated because the organisation publicly refuses to support the regime any longer.[17] Another uncertainty is the fragmented state of the Syrian opposition and the possible presence of individuals and groups, whose intentions with regard to chemical weapons are, at best, unclear.

Unsurprisingly, this is causing increasing concerns in many capitals, not at least in Washington and Jerusalem. In Israel for example, more than 60% of the population keep a gas mask at home for protection against a possible attack. Some voices in Israel have stated that the transfer of chemical weapons into Lebanon would be tantamount to a declaration of war and that it would act to prevent such a move.[18]


As should be clear by now, the stakes in Libya and Syria are high, both for its people, its neighbours and the International Community. The biggest concern with Libya and Syria is arguably that non-state actors will get their hands on CBRN materials. UN Security Council Resolution 1540 was passed in 2004 in order to reduce this threat. The norms and standards developed in important international non-proliferation treaties only apply to states; non-state actors are not explicitly identified to also have the intention and capability to develop CBRN weapons.[19] To fill this void Resolution 1540 aims to criminalise the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by making an appeal to the responsibility of states, which need to take effective measures, adopt and enforce laws, and must refrain from providing support to non-state actors that strive for CBRN weapons.[20] The emphasis of the Resolution is on prevention by states, even by those that are not a party to all the relevant treaties. This is accomplished through its adoption under UN Charter Chapter VII, defining non-state proliferation as a direct threat to peace, which makes the Resolution’s obligations mandatory.

Although Resolution 1540 is certainly a step forward in improving the international non-proliferation system, in the case of Syria and Libya it may be ineffective. The mechanisms, established under Resolution 1540 were designed for a ‘normal’ situation, when these states have a functional government and general law and order prevail, but when a state loses central control and a period of chaos ensues; it no longer is able to fulfil this responsibility. However, the fact that Resolution 1540 was adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, might be of importance from the legal point of view, and this should be explored by the leading world powers – irrespective of their differences regarding broader political aspects of the Syrian crisis.

A partial answer to the problem of proliferation could be increased border controls by neighbouring countries, probably with the assistance of international partners. Regarding Syria, the US government has already offered its assistance in providing border security to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.[21] In a more multilateral option, there may also be a role for the OPCW. All of Syria’s neighbours are OPCW Member States and under Article X of the CWC can ask for assistance and protection against chemical weapons, giving the organisation a mandate to help with border protection. Such a move would be considered more legitimate and therefore less politically sensitive, not a bad thing in a region where the geostrategic stakes are high.


The existence of chemical weapons in Libya and Syria, coupled with a deteriorating political and security situation, create a dangerous combination, which greatly increases the risk of proliferation to non-state actors. The dilemma for the international community is: what to do when the security of CBRN materials and technology is in jeopardy?

Although some international actors, like the US, have stated that they are watching Syria’s stockpiles closely and even have a general idea about their quantity and location, their impact on the ground is rather limited.[22] Improving border controls to limit weapon trafficking is only an indirect option at the moment, and may not be enough, even with the assistance of the OPCW. Because the focus of current non-proliferation treaties is on the capability and responsibility of states, they fall short when a power vacuum exists and there is no functioning state.

In Syria, the situation is disquieting. The country is not a party to the CWC, has not declared its chemical weapons, precursors and production facilities, while hostilities are on the rise. Negotiations with the regime must therefore not only deal with the on-going violence in the country, but should urge the regime to be open about its CBRN arsenal. In case the regime falls, major efforts should be undertaken to ensure cooperation from the successor government, just as in Libya.

Despite the seriousness of the concerns, the situation in Libya inspires more optimism, due to the commitment of the new government to fulfil its obligations under the CWC and the fact that the chemical weapon destruction process was well on its way before the civil war. It also seems that during the recent war chemical weapons storage facilities remained secure and were not compromised. Still, given the lack of internal stability, an international effort should be made to secure and destroy the remaining chemical stockpiles as quickly as possible.

[1] United Nations Security Council (2012), ‘Report of the assessment mission on the impact of the Libyan crisis on the Sahel region’,
[2] Jean Pascal Zanders (2011), ‘The return of Gaddafi and his chemical weapon spectre’, ISS Analysis,
[3] Jonathan B. Tucker (2009), ‘The Rollback of Libya’s Chemical Weapons Program’, The Nonproliferation Review, 16 (3), 363-384,
[4] Lt. General Ronald L. Burgess Jr. (March 10, 2011), ‘World Wide Threat Assessment: Statement before the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate’,; Magnus Normark ea. (2004), ‘Syria and WMD: Incentives and Capabilities’, FOI,; John Elridge ed. (2006), Jane’s: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence 2006-2007, 33.
[5] Leonard Spector (August 23, 2011), ‘Assad’s Chemical Romance’, Foreign Policy,
[6] Permanent Mission of the Syrian Arab Republic to the UN (2005), ‘Amended national report of the Syrian Arab Republic submitted pursuant to the comments of the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1540′,
[7] IAEA Board of Governors (2011), ‘Implementation of the NPT safeguards agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic, GOV/2011/41′,
[8] Benedict Brogan (January 6, 2004), ‘We won’t scrap WMD stockpile unless Israel does, says Assad’, The Telegraph,
[9] Der Spiegel (January 19, 2009), “‘Peace without Syria Is Unthinkable”,,1518,602110-2,00.html
[10] OPCW, ‘Captured Chemical Weapons in Libya Were Declared to the OPCW by Former Government’,
[11] Hillary Clinton (August 25, 2011), ‘Statement on Libya’,
[12] Jonathan B. Tucker (2009), ‘The Rollback of Libya’s Chemical Weapons Program’, The Nonproliferation Review, 16 (3), 363-384,
[13] Global Security Newswire (August 25, 2011), ‘Libyan WMD Materials Not Threatened: U.S’,
[14] OPCW, ‘OPCW Inspectors Verify Newly Declared Chemical Weapons Materials in Libya’,
[15] Joby Warrick (August 28, 2011), ‘Syrian unrest raises fears about chemical arsenal’, The Washington Post,
[16] Holly Fletcher (2008), ‘State Sponsor: Syria’, Council on Foreign Relations,
[17] Fares Akram (February 24, 2012), ‘In Break, Hamas Supports Syrian Opposition’, The New York Times,
[18] Phoebe Greenwood (February 7, 2012), ‘Israel: We will act to prevent Syria’s chemical weapons from reaching Hezbollah’, The Telegraph,
[19] Peter van Ham and Olivia Bosch (2007), ‘Global Non-Proliferation and Counter-Terrorism: The Role of Resolution 1540 and Its Implications’, Global Non-Proliferation and Counter-Terrorism, 9.
[20] United Nations Security Council (2004), ‘Resolution 1540′,
[21] Josh Rogin (24 February, 2012), ‘Exclusive: State Department quietly warning region on Syria’s WMDs’, Foreign Policy,
[22] Global Security Newswire (27 February, 2012), ‘U.S. in Contact With Arab States on Syrian WMD Concerns’,

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