During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the Saddam Hussein regime (or rather, to put it more accurately, Saddam Hussein – we are talking about an absolute dictatorship here) became increasingly concerned with Iraq’s purported “Kurdish problem”.
In the chaos of war, Kurdish militants known as peshmerga fighters, literally ‘those who face death’, had been staging intermittent attacks against Iraqi forces before withdrawing to the mountains. (The mountains, the Kurds say, are their only friends.)
To quell the Kurdish uprising, Saddam appointed his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid (who later became the governor of Kuwait during its annexation) as the Secretary of the Northern Bureau of the Iraqi Regional Branch, granting him authority over all of modern day Iraqi Kurdistan. Saddam curtly ordered his cousin to “slaughter the saboteurs”.
Al-Majid’s crusade against the Kurds (known as the Anfal Campaign – ‘Al-Anfal’ is a phrase from the Qu’ran, literally translated as ‘spoils of war’, giving my use of the word ‘crusade’ some added meaning) earned him the gruesomely apt title ‘Chemical Ali’. The brutality of the campaign prompted the US into establishing a no fly zone over what is today Iraqi Kurdistan, planting the seeds for future Kurdish autonomy in the region.
Thus Saddam Hussein made known the fact that he had no qualms with the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons against his foes, and this rightly became a source of apprehension for many an Israeli during the Gulf War.
Through the 1980s Israeli intelligence had been keeping a close eye on Saddam’s development of WMD, which he repeatedly stated would serve as a deterrent, but would be used against Israel if needed. In October 1990 the Israeli government distributed gas masks to its entire population (the first country since World War Two to do so). Three months later, days after the US launched Operation Desert Storm, Iraq fired scud missiles at Tel Aviv and Haifa – each of which was treated as a potential vessel for chemical agents.
Though ultimately ineffective, these arbitrary and unprovoked scud missile attacks exemplified the real danger posed to Israel by the cornered, unpredictable despots of the region. Chemical weapons had never been used in any of the Arab-Israeli wars preceding the Gulf War, but with so many chemically-armed, virulently anti-Israel strongmen about, the threat seemed omnipresent.
Recently released tapes show just how close Saddam came to attacking Israel and Saudi Arabia, outlining specific cities to be targeted with chemical and biological weapons if his regime were ever seriously imperilled:
Riyadh and Jeddah, which are the biggest Saudi cities with all the decision makers, and the Saudi rulers. This is for the germ and chemical weapons….. Also, all the Israeli cities, all of them. Of course you should concentrate on Tel Aviv.
During the Gulf War, when the US still posed a tangible threat to not just Iraqi hegemony in Kuwait but also the very survival of the Saddam regime at home, Israel faced the prospect of an apocalyptic chemical attack on its most populated cities.
Last summer, more than two decades after the Gulf War, a decade after the overthrow of Saddam’s Ba’athist regime and two years since the fall of Mubarak and Gaddafi, Israelis again queued for gas masks, only this time in fear of a potential attack from a different Ba’athist dictator: Bashar al-Assad.
The threat eventually subsided. As the prospect of US-led military intervention in Syria grew, the Assad regime agreed to the plan devised by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, as well as formally ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention in October.
Over the past few months, historically bitter nemeses within the international community (namely, Russia and the US) have worked surprisingly cohesively in their effort to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. Operating under the framework of an elaborate scheme that will see the chemical weapons transported from Damascus, through areas of heavy fighting, to Latakia (the first consignment of chemical weapons left the port yesterday on a danish ship) and then to be destroyed in international waters, the UN plans to have Syria’s chemical weapons totally eliminated by June.
Does all of this herald an end to, what Haaretz has called, Israel’s ‘gas mask era’? Is this all enough to warrant a farewell to gas masks in Israel?
Stripping Assad of his chemical weapons has, as might have been predicted, done very little to neutralise his anti-Israel rhetoric: In a bizarre interview conducted in October – after the Ghouta attack – Assad spoke of (among other things, such as justifying his entitlement to a Nobel Peace Prize) his decision to relinquish his country’s chemical weapons, claiming they were unnecessary to challenge Israel and that, if needed, Syria could “blind Israel in an instant“.
Israel’s Persian bête noire – having, like the Kurds, endured the full weight of Saddam’s chemical crusade in the 1980s – ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997 and maintains a strong and public opposition to chemical weapons proliferation (even if this opposition doesn’t extend to proliferation of the nuclear variety).
Facing an uncertain future, the confiscation and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons can hardly count as a negative. It undoubtedly marks a step towards greater security for Israel, even if it doesn’t bring an end to the fighting in Syria or remedy the ever-growing threat of a nuclear Iran. Israel may be temporality emerging from its ‘gas mask era’ – but a farewell may prove premature.