Egyptian air force chief adel hafez with air force pilots in yemen. 1964. wikimedia photo 

Lessons From Egypt’s Chemical War in Yemen

The diplomatic back-and-forth over Syria is at least something, compared to Egypt’s brutal 1960s-era war

Nearly half a century ago, a Yemeni village was nearly extinguished by chemical weapons. On Jan. 5, 1967, nine Egyptian Il-28 bombers took off from their airbase close to the Red Sea, their destination: the village of Kitaf in north Yemen. Aboard the bombers were phosgene bombs.

The attack occurred during the peak of Egypt’s war in Yemen, a guerrilla conflict that’s little-known in the West and which was later overshadowed by Cairo’s wars with Israel — the chemical attack began six months earlier to the day Israel launched its own surprise attack on Egypt’s forces in the Sinai, which began the Six-Day War. But the lessons learned in Yemen would later go on to influence chemical warfare in the Middle East to the present.

Phosgene, a colorless liquid that attacks the human respiratory system, was also a particularly nasty chemical used in the First World War. After the twin-engine, Soviet-built jet bombers were finished with their mission, 27 bombs containing phosgene were dropped on Kitaf, killing 150 people and injuring many of the hundreds of people in the village.

It was not the first such attack: Egyptian planes fighting insurgents in north Yemen had already gassed villages with civilians — and mountains hiding ensconced rebels — using a variety of chemical weapons including tear and mustard gas.

As the war began, Egypt had several forms of chemical weapons in its arsenal. Aside from tear gas, the armed forces had Soviet KHAB-200 bombs filled with mustard gas, and AOKh-25 bombs filled with phogene asphyxiant — used on Kitaf. Egypt also had a “large quantity” of World War 1 mustard gas artillery shells which were never used, according to a landmark 1998 study of Egypt’s chemical weapons program by Lt. Col. Dany Shoham, a microbiologist and former Israeli military intelligence officer.

The war served Egyptian interests for several reasons: it put a pro-Egyptian government into power; Nasserist military officers who dethroned Yemeni King Muhammad Al Badr. It was also a means for President Gamal Abdel Nasser to boost Egypt’s stature at a time when the country was the cultural, economic and political envy of the Arab world, but which had been knocked down a peg after an ill-fated union with Syria collapsed.

But Nasser was drawn into a bog. The war between royalists loyal to the dethroned king (and backed by Saudi Arabia) on one side, and nationalist military forces with Egyptian and Soviet support on the other, would drag on for eight years. The war also left Egypt vulnerable to an Israeli surprise attack in 1967, which smashed the Egyptian air force and army, and led to an Israeli occupation of the Sinai until 1982. The loss damaged Nasser’s prestige dearly.

Egyptian Il-28 in Sinai, 1967. Wikimedia photo

A grim legacy

But perversely, the war in Yemen was a boon to the Egyptian chemical weapons program. It encouraged the military to study and refine its weapons as well as increase its stockpiles, according to Shoham. Egyptian forces went on to study pesticides like fluoroacetates and oxazepine as potential weapons, and developed weaponized sarin, VX nerve agent and 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate: a hallucinogen more commonly known as BZ.

In another sense, Yemen was a laboratory for the Egyptian program which would go on to inform development of the weapons as a deterrent against Israel. (Always considered, as far as the Egyptian high command was concerned, to be the greater threat.) However, in both the 1967 war and the 1973 wars with Israel, Egypt did not use chemical weapons even while — in 1973 — chemical warfare units were on stand-by. This, Shoham wrote, was due to fear of Israeli retaliation.

A similar logic was at work in Syria, which exchanged resources with Egypt, then a close ally. Egypt would go on to supply $6 million worth of chemical weapons weapons to Syria — impressed by the weapons’ performance in the Yemen war — in 1972 before launching the Yom-Kippur War along with Egypt. After the attack on Kitaf, Egypt received international condemnation but was not deterred and continued its chemical strikes in Yemen, even expanding the strikes into Saudi territory.

Egypt and Syria have moved apart since the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979, and extent of Egypt’s chemical weapons program today is unclear, and like Syria (until this week, that is), Cairo has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention.

On Thursday, Sept. 12, the Syrian mission to the U.N. submitted a letter declaring that Bashar Al Assad signed a legislative decree authorizing Syria’s accession to the chemical weapons treaty. The U.N. still has to approve it. And Syrian officials have also made statements indicating the regime still thinks it has some wiggle room. “When we see the United States really wants stability in our region and stops threatening, striving to attack, and also ceases arms deliveries to terrorists, then we will believe that the necessary processes can be finalized,” Assad told Russian television .

Adding to the ambiguity, Syria’s ambassador to the U.N. hinted that Syria will keep its chemicals as long as Israel possesses (undeclared) nuclear weapons: “The chemical weapons in Syria are a mere deterrence against the Israeli nuclear arsenal,” the ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, said. He added: “It’s a deterrent weapon and now the time has come for the Syrian government to join the (convention) as a gesture to show our willingness to be against all weapons of mass destruction.”

There’s no guarantee Syria — and by extension Russia — won’t drop these conditions. If Assad could at least refrain from continuing to use his chemical stockpile, it would be progress of a kind.

This article was edited to include the date of Syria’s legislative decree.

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