The Arab Awakening has advanced democracy through the Middle East and North Africa but the ripple effects created by the leak of military weaponry into surrounding unstable and conflict areas pose long-term national and regional security implications.  This should be a critical factor for the international community when weighing potential intervention.


After the uprising in Libya authorities in Egypt, Niger, Algeria, Israel, and Tunisia expressed concern over the leakages of weaponry from Libya across their borders. Israeli officials commented that whilst it was not a “major qualitative enhancement” it was a cause of concern. International concern was not surprising but what was more so was the request by Russia to the UN Security Council, subsequently backed by United States, China, Britain, and France for an enquiry into the whereabouts of weaponry believed to have left the country. This alongside the work of the Joint Mine Action Coordination Team, who report on efforts to remove ordnance threats across Libya, and the $1.5 million obligation by the US Congress for a Non-proliferation, Antiterrorism, Demining and Related Program to “collect, destroy, and re-establish control of Libyan munitions and small arms and light weapons” highlights the importance placed on securing leaked weaponry.

The most recent regional shock to occur following the Libyan uprising is centered around the northern region of Mali. Although ethnic Tuareg separatists in the North have long been a security problem for the region, their cause has consolidated under the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA). The MNLA are believed to have been armed by an influx of arms from Libya. Mali, an American ally against Al Qaeda in the region, and a long standing democracy with elections weeks away, has now been catapulted into an insecure and unstable country in a region with a humanitarian crisis on its hands. Of additional concern are comments by The Russian envoy  that there is “a direct connection between Libyan arms leakages and the intensification of the Boko Haram’s activities” in Nigeria.

Libya and Mali unhappily may not be the only dangerous pairing in the region.


In Syria the increasing numbers of defections by the security forces and militarization of the uprising have led to concerns of a loss of control over substantial weapons holdings.  The main focal point of the international communities’ concern is over Syria’s chemical and possible biological weapons, stockpiles of which are estimated at between 500 and 1000 tonnes. Such apprehension has led to speculation that if the Assad regime collapsed a rapid response would need to be coordinated in order to secure stockpiles of missiles and unconventional weapons.

If biological and chemical stockpiles are not secured, there could be major security issues as state and non-state actors in the region, such as Iran and Hezbollah, try to obtain stockpiles and increase their regional power. For Hezbollah this would mean a dramatic shift in their organisational capability.

Next Steps

In terms of a Syrian intervention, the supply of weapons to the Syrian rebels – a policy option discussed in recent weeks – risks further militarization of the opposition. Humanitarian corridors, as proposed by Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, would involve troops on the ground which raises awkward questions of US and NATO involvement in another Muslim country and the power vacuum left in the case of Assad’s removal.

Non-intervention has the advantage of ensuring Western powers are not contributing additional arms to the conflict which may be moved into the hands of unknown groups, further fuelling conflict in an unstable region. However, this policy option may mean less control securing and monitoring weapons stockpiles if the regime falls. 

Neither policy option is clear cut but what does remain apparent is the need for any policy formulation to take into account how the proliferation of conventional weaponry within and beyond unstable regions is impacted. The policy choice should focus on each of the three stages outlined below.

  1. Weaponry remains stationary at the point of origin: Weapons stockpiles should be identified as soon as possible when conflict and instability ignites. This can be done using human informants, satellite imagery and drones. A policy option that should be considered and discussed with partners in the country and region is the pre-emptive destruction of said weaponry stockpile in order to prevent movement of usage by hostile groups.

  2. Weaponry moves within the state of origins borders: As weaponry begins to move, continued tracking of their location needs to take place to see where they are likely to be headed. Strategic alliances in the country should be formed and strategies should be formulated to offer parties holding the weaponry incentives to turn them in. This can include financial incentives and a swap for weapons deemed less dangerous. The international community should be prepared to seize or destroy weapons should the opportunity arise.

  3. Weaponry moves beyond the borders of the state of origin:  As weaponry begins to move beyond state borders, a core threat is having them falling into the hand of non-state actors. In this instance the international community should work to influence the sovereign of that country to seize the weapons by a number of means; supporting weak governments to track weaponry, assistance gathering intelligence and sharing information, the provision of military consultants to provide technical support and logistical support (such as transporting national law enforcement authorities to weaponry locations).

All of the above require diplomacy and engagement with partners in the region in order to form strong alliances that information and intelligence can be shared with. In any of the above instances, risks need to be carefully considered. In many cases, weaponry will be unable to be secured. In this instance, and if the location is known, a final policy option would be the use of military attacks to destroy stockpiles.

Joanna Buckley is a member of the Young Atlanticist Network.