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Libya’s Lesson for Syria

Sometimes small news stories come and go without their full significance being grasped. So it was with this February 2 report in the New York Times about Libya completing the destruction of its chemical weapons. This was a process that began all the way back in 2004–i.e., a full decade ago–under Muammar Gaddafi.

The destruction of Libya’s chemical weapons was such a lengthy process that it had not been completed by the time that Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011–in fact only half of Gaddafi’s arsenal had been destroyed–and the process has only now concluded under a pro-Western government.

What was really striking in this news article, however, was buried near the end:

Libyan officials also surprised Western inspectors by announcing the discovery in November 2011 and February 2012 of two hidden caches of mustard, or nearly two tons, that had not been declared by Colonel Qaddafi’s government. That brought the total declared amount of chemical to 26.3 tons.

Unlike the majority of Libya’s mustard agents, which were stored in large, bulky containers, the new caches were already armed and loaded into 517 artillery shells, 45 plastic sleeves for rocket launchings and eight 500-pound bombs.

Thankfully those final two tons of chemical weapons, already armed and ready for use, have been eradicated–but only, one assumes, because of a change of regime in Tripoli. Does anyone think that Gaddafi would have voluntarily turned over the remnants of his stockpile if he were still alive and in office? And how confident can anyone be that Western intelligence agencies would have found these hidden weapons on their own?

The answer says much about how much faith you have in arms-control agreements that have recently been negotiated with Syria and Iran–in the former case, to eradicate its chemical weapons, in the latter case to slow down its nuclear program. Already Syria has missed agreed-upon deadlines and has gotten rid of only 4 percent of its arsenal. Iranian compliance or noncompliance is hard to judge, but the example of Libya should be a cautionary tale about the danger of doing deals with dictators.


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