A Chemical-Free Middle East?

October 16, 2013 Topic: Arms ControlWeapons InspectionsWMDSecurity Region: Israel

A Chemical-Free Middle East?

Israel and its neighbors should use the Syria crisis as an opportunity for a regional dialogue on chemical disarmament.

Amid initial indications that the United States and Russia had reached a deal that would rid Syria of its chemical weapons and production capabilities, the spokesperson for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Yigal Palmor, told Haaretz that Israel would not ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which it signed in 1993, as long as other states in the region that possess chemical weapons refuse to recognize Israel and call for its destruction. This initial official reaction to the emerging deal seems to reflect Israel’s concern that pressure could mount for it to take this step now that the Syrian arsenal is due to be destroyed, neutralizing a major concern that Israel has in the chemical realm. Other Israeli officials have since made additional isolated statements—including President Shimon Peres, who reportedly said in late September that Israel would consider ratifying the CWC—but it seems that there is room for more serious and perhaps more creative thinking on this issue, possibly regarding new directions for regional arms control.

International crises that erupt into warfare or take a particularly violent turn create shock waves that are felt both near and far; when the dust settles, new perspectives on longstanding problems may be revealed. The 1991 Gulf War was such a crisis, and in its wake the United States created a forum for multilateral dialogue in the Middle East, to complement the bilateral talks between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors that were the major focus of the post-war Madrid peace process. The Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) working group, set up under the umbrella of the regional dialogue forum, reflected new American thinking focused on carving out a novel security architecture for the Middle East. This forced both Israel and the participating Arab states to begin thinking seriously about a common vision for Middle Eastern arms control and regional security.

Could the Syrian chemical crisis spark a similar process?

In light of the possibility that the United States and perhaps Russia may view the Syrian crisis as a platform to jumpstart more widespread WMD arms control in the Middle East, we believe that Israel needs to start thinking proactively about its options, so that when more difficult questions are posed, officials might have some constructive suggestions. In particular, one idea for moving forward could be to suggest initiating—once Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities have been verifiably destroyed—a regional dialogue with the goal of creating a Chemical Weapons-Free Zone (CWFZ) in the Middle East.

The Syrian chemical crisis presents an opportunity for launching a process which otherwise would not have been conceivable. A regional discussion of a CWFZ could have significant benefits in terms of building confidence among Middle Eastern states regarding nonconventional capabilities. The current deficit of trust in the region is significant and debilitating. Additionally, states could work together to create a regional organization to implement the CWFZ, drawing on the experience of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, linked to the CWC. This discussion should commence only after Syria’s chemical weapons dismantlement has reached a point of no return. The manner by which the zone is negotiated and implemented would impact any future processes of moving toward further arms control and disarmament in the Middle East.

The idea for negotiating a Chemical Weapons Free Zone has several advantages, especially when compared with calls for Israel to follow in Syria’s footsteps and ratify the CWC. The demand for ratification is problematic because it implies that Syria and Israel are on equal standing in the chemical realm: Syria signed, so now it is Israel’s turn. In fact, there is no reason for Israel to accept this linkage. Syria broke a strong international norm and a commitment it made according to the Geneva Protocol: the Assad regime actually employed chemical weapons against its own population, allegedly killing an estimated 1,400 people in its most recent attack, including hundreds of children. That is why Syria is being forced to join the treaty. This is obviously not the case for Israel. Moreover, if Israel were to be pressured to ratify, then of course the same logic and pressure would have to be applied to Egypt, which has not even signed the treaty. The regional dialogue idea, by contrast, would allow Israel (and Egypt) to consider a proposal that is connected to the chemical crisis in Syria but doesn't draw a direct link between Syria and Israel in the chemical realm.

The CWFZ idea also could be interesting for Israel because it would take the chemical issue out of the context of international treaties, and place it in the regional context instead. A regional arms-control approach would enable regional players to be more involved in the process, and especially in the verification of commitments made in the context of the agreement.

Finally, the CWFZ idea shows that there may be an opportunity for positive progress, and that the almost-automatic negative Israeli responses to calls for treaty ratification are not the only option. This would be an opportunity for Israel to be proactive, rather than passive or reactive. A proposal to discuss a Chemical Weapons Free Zone could also be raised in the context of a Middle East regional-security dialogue—one that would include a range of topics, from soft issues (such as the spread of diseases like “bird flu” and water issues) to difficult security issues, including weapons of mass destruction. (We have laid out the rationale for creating such a forum before.) Regional discussion of chemical weapons could be an important test case for the Middle East to deal with a core security issue by means of regional dialogue.

Ambassador Shimon Stein is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. He was Israel's ambassador to Germany from 2001 to 2007. Previously, he participated in the Arms Control and Regional Security working group, as well as negotiations of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and served as head of the Regional Security, Arms Control, and Nonproliferation Department at the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Dr. Emily Landau is the director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies. She is author of Arms Control in the Middle East: Cooperative Security Dialogue and Regional Constraints and the recently published Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation. She teaches nuclear strategy and arms control at Tel Aviv University, IDC Herzlia, and at the University of Haifa, and is an active participant in Track II dialogues on regional security in the Middle East.