Chemical Weapons of Persuasion, From Yugoslavia to Syria

In a New York Times op-ed published earlier this week, James G. Stavridis, NATO’s former supreme allied commander for Europe, said that Kosovo “looked a lot like Syria, albeit without weapons of mass destruction.”

But that’s not entirely true. Throughout the 1990s, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was believed to represent one of the world’s most serious chemical warfare threats. We were told that the Serbs had “weapons of mass destruction” too.

Newspapers ran headlines like “Poison Gas: U.S. Officials Suspect Deadly Chemical Weapons in Yugoslav Army Arsenal”, “Serb Killers Gassed KLA; Milosevic Launches Chemical Warfare Attacks in Kosovo”, and “Well-Armed and Very Dangerous”.

In 1999, two chemical weapons nonproliferation specialists at the Monterey Institute of International Studies wrote an unsettling opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, warning, “Too little attention has been given to Belgrade’s weapons of mass destruction potential…In the near term, this danger principally involves chemical weapons. A longer-term, but not distant, threat relates to nuclear arms.”

Today that sounds alarmist. Serbia did inherit socialist Yugoslavia’s aging chemical weapons stockpile. Tito initiated a chemical weapons program — with training and assistance from the United States Army — back in the late 1950s.

But in hindsight, it’s clear that the threat posed by Yugoslavia’s chemical weapons was greatly overestimated by nearly everyone, including human rights groups, the media, and the world’s top chemical weapons experts. When NATO bombed the Nova Iskra chemical factory in Baric, the only thing it was producing was household detergent.

Which is not to diminish the brutality of the Milosevic or Assad regimes. It’s the chemical weapons taboo that diminishes that brutality, by emphasizing the instruments of killing rather than the killings themselves.

We don’t know if Syria’s chemical weapons capacity is being overstated the way it was in Yugoslavia. But it seems we’ve already entered the fog of war.



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Lily Lynch

Lily is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Balkanist Magazine. She lives in Belgrade, Serbia.