Towards a Chemical Weapons-Free Zone in the Middle East?
The agreement reached by the United States and Russia on Saturday states that removing President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arsenal may avert US military action against him. The deal called for Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons to be removed or destroyed by the middle of 2014.
Prior to that date, the agreement noted, “the US and Russia expect Syria to submit, within a week, a comprehensive listing, including names, types, and quantities of its chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, and location and form of storage, production, and research and development facilities.”
In addition, initial on-site inspections of declared sites by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) must be completed by November, along with the destruction of production and mixing/filling equipment.
The agreement has prompted a new push for similar measures to be taken by Syria’s neighbouring countries such as Egypt and Israel.
Commentary by Words of Peace and War
The agreement reached by Russia and the US to ensure the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons program is a significant achievement in order to prevent the use of this indiscriminate weapon of war in the Syrian conflict, but what does this mean for other countries with major chemical arsenals?
At least two other countries in the Middle East have chemical weapons: Israel and Egypt. The former has never acknowledged having chemical weapons, but Foreign Policy magazine last week published new CIA documents about its not-so-secret program. Israel signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, but has not yet ratified it. Meanwhile, the Egyptians first acquired chemical weapons in the 1960s, and used them during their intervention in North Yemen. Since then, Egypt has improved its arsenal. Of course, Egypt has neither signed nor acceded to the Convention.
Due to the bad reputation linked to these weapons, Egypt and Israel justify their arsenals alluding to the allegedly stronger conventional military capabilities of their neighbours. In short, Israelis fear for the state’s existence and the rest of the Arab countries fear the huge military power of the Jewish state. Israel has always used the tactic of neither publicly acknowledging nor denying its nuclear and chemical capabilities, but its neighbours are too aware about its power.
But this appears to be a good time to change this reality, since a UN Security Council resolution aimed at forcing Syria to dismantle its chemical weapons program is about to be adopted. The argument here is that forcing Syria to give up its weapons should compel Egypt and Israel to do the same.
After all, Israel’s argument that “as long as Arab states, first and foremost Syria, have chemical weapons and threaten Israeli cities with it, there is no reason or sense for Israel to dismantle its arsenal” will not be sustainable anymore. As noted by Barak Ravid in this piece in Haaretz, the issue of chemical weapons can be compared with the Gaza disengagement plan, where Gaza went from being an asset for Israel to a burden.
The Egyptian prospects for dismatling its arsenal will depend to a certain point on the Israel’s moves in the same way. A senior Egyptian official said a few days ago that “all countries in the region, particularly Israel, needed to disarm if the international community hoped to see a region free of weapons of mass destruction.”
Finally, the new “rhetoric of respect” carried out by the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani might help to ease political and security tensions across the region.
However, the current debate should not be reduced to the issue of chemical weapons. At a time when every newspaper is full of news about the US-Russian accord and its future implementation, the Syrian situation on the ground is not better today than it was yesterday. As Anna Neistat, Associate director for Emergencies at Human Rights Watch, has put it on Twitter, “as US and Russia negotiate over Syria’s cw, remember that for victims method of killing is secondary”, linking to the HRW’s report “No One’s Left. Summary Executions by Syrian Forces in al-Bayda and Baniyas”, published two days ago.
Talking about chemical weapons usage is fine, and any effort to rid the Middle East of this abhorrent killing method must be applauded. But that will not stop the slaughter in Syria, the internal clashes in Egypt or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where conventional weapons still kill by the dozens.