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Experts from emerging and developing countries debate crucial, timely topics related to nuclear energy, nuclear proliferation, and economic development. Each author contributes an essay per round, for a total of nine essays for the entire Roundtable. This feature was made possible by a three-year grant from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry.

Time to ban chemical weapons from the Middle East?

In 2012, momentum ran out of an effort to establish a zone in the Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction. In 2013, a chemical attack in the outskirts of Damascus nearly brought about US intervention in the Syrian civil war and ultimately led to Syria's accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Against this backdrop, some have suggested that the time is right to establish in the region a zone free of chemical weapons. How might a chemical-weapon-free zone in the Middle East contribute to regional security, and could it revitalize the initiative to rid the region of all weapons of mass destruction?

Round 1

12/17/2013 - 08:33

Banning chemical weapons is not enough

Mostafa Elwi Saif
12/18/2013 - 05:37

A path toward trust

Emily B. Landau
12/19/2013 - 09:33

Insufficient incentives for improving security

Radwan Ziadeh

Round 2

01/16/2014 - 04:20

No use for nuclear weapons

Mostafa Elwi Saif
01/27/2014 - 11:31

Where to start: Win-win opportunities

Emily B. Landau
02/06/2014 - 12:47

Bring in the Security Council

Radwan Ziadeh

Round 3

02/13/2014 - 06:50

From dialogue, some hope—even in the Middle East

Emily B. Landau
02/27/2014 - 12:54

Delegitimizing the radicals

Radwan Ziadeh

Round 1

12/17/2013 - 08:33

Banning chemical weapons is not enough

Since the 1950s, the Middle East has experienced numerous conflicts and has consistently been among the most unstable regions in the world. This has made it very difficult to establish a regional security system capable of providing stability and consolidating the norms, values, and institutions that are necessary for long-term peace in the region. In the absence of a functioning regional security system, nations in the Middle East have often responded to conflict by amassing weaponry—weapons of a conventional nature, but also nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Calls are now emerging to establish a chemical-weapon-free zone in the region. It would not be surprising if Western nations began exerting strong pressure on Middle Eastern countries to participate in such a zone once the destruction of Syria's chemical arsenal is complete. But from Egypt's point of view, the important thing is to rid the region of all weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical, and biological. The rights and interests of people across the region will not be served by establishing a chemical-weapon-free zone as long as Israel continues to possess nuclear weapons.

Major flaws. Because the Middle East lacks a regional security system, management of the region's weapons of mass destruction has come in part through international arms control treaties and regimes. But the treaty regimes suffer from two core problems. One is that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is at heart an arms control treaty rather than a disarmament convention. The conventions that cover chemical and biological weapons require nations to destroy their chemical and biological stockpiles shortly after they become parties to the agreements, but the NPT makes no such demands of nuclear weapon states. Indeed, the distinction between nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states means that the treaty is discriminatory in the first place. The second major problem with the treaty regime is that Israel is not a party to the NPT—and, remarkably, is not a member of the conventions governing chemical and biological weapons. (Israel has signed, but not ratified, the Chemical Weapons Convention.)

Because the treaty regime has failed so far to rid the Middle East of nuclear weapons, significant effort has been expended on another disarmament approach—establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone. Since 1974, Egypt has consistently sponsored resolutions in the UN General Assembly calling for the establishment of such a zone. More significantly, the 1995 NPT Review Conference, which extended the treaty indefinitely, called for a zone to be established. That call was reiterated at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, and practical steps toward establishing a zone were identified. But UN-sponsored efforts to convene a conference on this subject in late 2012 were aborted, with the US Department of State announcing that the meeting could not be convened because of "present conditions in the Middle East" and because "states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions." Five nuclear-weapon-free zones were established around the world between 1967 and 2006, but attempts to establish a zone for the Middle East have come to nothing (though a number of Middle Eastern countries are parties to the Treaty of Pelindaba, which establishes a nuclear-weapon-free zone for Africa.)

Very little effort, meanwhile, has been expended toward establishing biological- or chemical-weapon-free zones in the Middle East. Why? In the case of biological weapons, technical problems such as the lack of an enforcement mechanism in the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention have prevented the issue from gaining much attention. In the case of chemical weapons, an enforcement mechanism does exist—and in fact the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons performs its job very effectively (including in Syria).

Now that Damascus has acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention, Israel and Egypt are the only states in the region not to have done so. It is these two nations whose participation would be most crucial to establishing a chemical-weapon-free zone. Egypt would be happy to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention—if doing so meant ridding the region of all weapons of mass destruction. But Egyptians see little point in establishing a zone that is free of chemical weapons but not free of nuclear weapons. So the first step forward is for Israel to accede to all the major global arms agreements—most importantly, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
12/18/2013 - 05:37

A path toward trust

Opportunity sometimes emerges out of tragedy. Following the August chemical attack near Damascus that killed nearly 1,500 people, an opportunity has arisen for Middle Eastern nations to engage in productive dialogue about establishing a chemical-weapon-free zone in the region.

Without the horror of the August attack, and without the Obama administration's response to it, the Assad regime would never have considered relinquishing its vast, varied arsenal of chemical weapons. Even though the US Congress appeared skeptical of military action in Syria, Obama's threat to use targeted force put the survival of the Assad regime in question, and this inspired action by Russia, Iran, and Syria itself. In these countries' collective view, it was better for Syria to renounce chemical weapons than for Assad to fall.

In the Middle East, opportunities born of crisis are nothing new. After the Gulf War ended in 1991, the United States pushed for the creation of a multilateral mechanism for regional dialogue to complement bilateral talks between Israel and its Syrian, Jordanian, and Palestinian neighbors, which were at the heart of the Madrid peace process. Part of this mechanism was a working group devoted to arms control and regional security.

The working group, which forced Israel and participating Arab states to think seriously about establishing a common vision for Middle East security and arms control, had the potential to produce a novel security architecture for the region. Truly revolutionary ideas about regional security, especially in the realm of confidence-building measures, were developing. But before these ideas could be implemented, the talks were put on hold. A major development that undermined the working group was Egypt's determined effort (made even though a regional arms control process was on track and making significant headway) to place a Middle East WMD-free zone on the agenda of the 1995 Review and Extension Conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The underlying rationale for establishing a zone in the Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction is to enhance security and stability in the region and reduce the risk of destructive war. These goals are worthy, but discussions about weapons and arms control cannot be detached from events within and relationships among states. States are not identical entities—not in their aspirations and interests and not in their behavior—and these differences cannot be ignored when pursuing interstate arms control agreements. Weapons of mass destruction must be considered in context.

Israel has two major concerns about any effort to rid the region of WMD. First, Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity and low-profile deterrence is an insurance policy against any enemy that would threaten the state existentially. Such threats are not theoretical—entities that reject Israel's legitimacy as a sovereign state issue existential threats regularly. Yet in the context of establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, Israel's neighbors seem bent on addressing the nuclear issue above all. Second, the Middle East suffers from a trust deficit regarding states' willingness to comply with nonproliferation and disarmament treaties. Four countries in the region—Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Syria—have made commitments about weapons of mass destruction only to conduct clandestine activities aimed at developing the very capabilities they had rejected.

Discussions toward establishing a chemical-weapon-free zone could help address Israel's concerns. For Israel, entering into an agreement on chemical weapons would represent a major concession—but pursuing such an agreement might also clarify whether other states are interested only in stripping Israel of its insurance policy against annihilation. Dialogue would also allow Israel to consider a chemical-weapons proposal that drew no direct link between Syria and Israel in the chemical realm, as the notion of Israel's joining the Chemical Weapons Convention would do.

Further, talks could build confidence among Middle Eastern states regarding an entire category of nonconventional weapons. They could begin to address the region's debilitating deficit of trust. And because discussions would be conducted on a regional basis instead of in the context of global treaties, they would provide nations the experience of working together, especially when it comes to verification of commitments. Indeed, nations could cooperate to create a regional organization for implementation of a chemical-weapon-free zone agreement, drawing on the example of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Discussions would also provide a useful test case for states' ability to deal constructively with hard-core security issues by means of regional dialogue and cooperation.

Discussions about a chemical-weapon-free zone should begin only after destruction of Syria's chemical weapons capacity has become irreversible. But ideally, chemical weapons could become part of a broader regional dialogue. (That would depend on the United States and perhaps Russia using the Syrian crisis as a platform for putting broader regional arms control efforts back on track.) Ultimately, the notion of a chemical-weapon-free zone should be integrated into a sorely needed Middle East Regional Security Dialogue Forum, something for which my colleague Shimon Stein and I have argued elsewhere. Such a forum, with inclusive membership and a comprehensive agenda, would allow states to discuss a full range of regional security topics, from the soft to the very hard. If discussions toward banning chemical weapons from the region were to help create such a forum, the discussions would represent a major step toward making the Middle East safer and more secure.

12/19/2013 - 09:33

Insufficient incentives for improving security

Now that Syria has joined the Chemical Weapons Convention and Bashar al-Assad's chemical stockpile is being destroyed, it is the Syrian people who will benefit—it is they who have been blatantly targeted with chemical weapons by their own political leadership. Similarly, ordinary people across the Middle East would benefit if a chemical-weapon-free zone were established in the region. Chemical weapons are above all a human rights issue.

When considering a chemical-weapon-free zone, it is crucial to keep the issue's human aspect vividly in mind. No more vivid illustration is possible than the events of August 21, 2013, when the Syrian regime attacked civilians in a heavily populated part of the Ghouta region, near Damascus, with sarin. The attack was carried out in such a way as to maximize suffering. The rockets carrying the chemical agent were fired in the dead of night when residents would be asleep. When they heard the rockets they sought shelter but—according to the report of the UN mission that investigated the incident—the attack had been launched under meteorological conditions that would "[maximize the weapons'] potential impact as … heavy gas can stay close to the ground and penetrate into lower levels of buildings and constructions where many people were seeking shelter." Women and children—entire families—were among those who perished. One survivor has testified that he lost 40 family members. The attack was meant to annihilate civilians.

This incident illustrates the horror of chemical weapons, and few would dispute the proposition that the world be better off with chemical weapons abolished. But would a chemical-weapon-free zone in the Middle East contribute to regional security?

Unquestionably, it would. It would eliminate the possibility of chemical warfare between states and reduce the risk that non-state actors could capture and utilize state-manufactured chemical weapons. Moreover, recent Western-backed agreements regarding Syria's chemical weapons and Iran's nuclear program have created diplomatic momentum that might be leveraged for establishing a chemical-weapon-free zone. And Syria's accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention and the ongoing dismantlement of its chemical arsenal remove a significant impediment to banning chemical weapons from the region. Israel and Egypt are left as the only Middle Eastern countries not to have ratified the convention.

But Israel seems unlikely to ratify the convention, and declare and destroy any chemical facilities it might have, without assurances that Egypt would do the same. Egypt's public stance, meanwhile, has been consistent: It will not ratify the convention and eliminate its chemical weapons unless Israel joins the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Any change in Egypt's position seems unlikely in light of that country's ongoing political turmoil. And Israel is, if anything, less likely now to accede to the NPT than it was before a deal was struck between Iran and the members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, that may lead to international acceptance of some elements of Tehran's nuclear program.

World powers with the capacity to pressure either Egypt or Israel on these issues—notably the United States—are clearly distracted by other priorities. The United States would much rather use its precious leverage to ensure a democratic transition in Egypt or achieve progress in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

In any event, establishing a chemical-weapon-free zone would do little to resolve many of the prominent security issues that afflict the region, in particular the Syrian conflict, Iran's nuclear program, and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Syria's conflict would mostly fall outside negotiations because Damascus has now ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. Iran would not occupy center stage either because it is has ratified the convention and claims not to possess a chemical weapons program.

In a region where diplomatic breakthroughs are so hard to achieve, it is tempting to reach for the seemingly low-hanging fruit of a regional chemical weapons ban, and even to regard progress on this front as a stepping stone for progress on larger issues. But it is hard to identify the incentives that would motivate Israel and Egypt to officially renounce chemical weapons. Both countries would be likely to regard such a step as exposing them to unacceptable security vulnerabilities—and neither country would perceive much benefit in it.

Round 2

01/16/2014 - 04:20

No use for nuclear weapons

Round One made clear that the key obstacle to banning chemical weapons from the Middle East is that Israel appears unwilling to renounce its nuclear arsenal under any circumstances—while Egypt is unwilling to participate in a chemical-weapon-free zone until Israel does renounce its nuclear weapons.

Why is Israel so unwilling to discuss nuclear disarmament? It is because, as Emily Landau put it in her first essay, Israel sees its "policy of nuclear ambiguity and low-profile deterrence [as] an insurance policy against any enemy that would threaten the state existentially." This statement, logical on the surface, in fact suffers from three serious flaws.

First, Israel cannot be said to face an existential threat when, in the many Arab-Israeli conflicts that have occurred since World War II, Israel has almost always been the aggressor. The 1956 Suez Crisis, the war fought in June 1967, the Israeli occupation of Lebanon beginning in 1982, and the Israel-Gaza conflict of 2012—all of these were initiated by Israel. Arab nations were the initiators only in 1973, when Egypt and Syria attacked Israeli forces on the Sinai Peninsula and in the Golan Heights to regain territory that had been occupied by Israel in 1967.

Second, Israel's nuclear weapons have served no deterrence function in the past. Despite Israel's nuclear arsenal, Arab states and even non-state political movements have continued over the decades to use military power to defend their strategic interests. This severely undercuts the argument that Israel uses nuclear weapons to deter attack.

The third issue is that nuclear-armed countries simply don't use their nuclear weapons. The only exceptions to this rule have been the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, carried out by the United States at a time when that nation was the world's only nuclear weapon state and thus faced no threat of nuclear reprisal. Since 1945, the other eight nations with nuclear arsenals have gone to war many times, and not once have they used nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the United Kingdom in the Suez Crisis, India in 1999's Kargil War, and the United States in its many conflicts—all these nations (among others) have declined to use nuclear weapons.

Some might argue that Israel is an exception—that as its region's sole nuclear power, Israel is similar to the United States in 1945, and need not fear nuclear reprisal. But this view does not take into account an important characteristic of Middle East security: Though Israel may well have the region's strongest conventional military, it is certainly not the region's most powerful nation. In demographic terms it is much smaller than several Arab countries. It lacks the financial resources of the major oil-producing states. So Israel, even if it used nuclear weapons, would not become preeminent in the region; it would only incite antagonism.

The conclusion one can draw from all this is that nuclear weapons serve no purpose in the Middle East—not for Israel and not for anyone else. Israel could only use nuclear weapons as a last resort, and in a way that no other state has ever used them before. Israel's nuclear arsenal should not stand in the way of eliminating all weapons of mass destruction from the region.

01/27/2014 - 11:31

Where to start: Win-win opportunities

The Middle East desperately needs to establish a regional security dialogue—but such a dialogue is only possible if parties work to identify common security problems and reasonable, win-win solutions to those problems. Admittedly, a process of this kind might require regional parties to let go of long-held political positions. But letting go is not impossible, as was demonstrated by the Arms Control and Regional Security working group, the security forum for the Middle East that produced some promising results in the early 1990s.

My colleague Mostafa Elwi Saif, unfortunately, has written nothing so far in this roundtable that would encourage establishment of regional dialogue or a search for win-win solutions. He seems to see only obstacles and negative dynamics. His Round Two essay was devoted almost entirely to Israel's alleged nuclear intransigence and a flat rejection of Israel's security concerns.

Saif also made a number of claims that—though I would prefer to avoid rehashing old debates—cannot go unanswered. In his attempt to portray Israel as the aggressor instead of the threatened party in the Middle East, Saif failed to mention that in 1948 the Arab parties rejected a United Nations partition plan and then set their sights on destroying Israel; that Arab states adopted a rejectionist approach after the 1967 war, vowing that there would be no peace with, recognition of, or negotiations with Israel; that Iran's nuclear program, coupled with rhetoric that denies Israel a place in the Middle East, is a matter of deep concern to Israel; that the expressed goal of the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah is the destruction of Israel; and that these groups' missiles and rockets deliberately target Israeli civilians. Moreover, Saif includes among his examples of "Israeli aggression" the June 1967 war and the Israel-Gaza conflict of 2012—claims that I consider bizarre.

More broadly, Saif argues that Israel's nuclear deterrent has not been effective because "Arab states and even non-state political movements have continued over the decades to use military power to defend their strategic interests." But the sole purpose of Israel's nuclear deterrent is to ward off existential threats. Israel's involvement in so many conventional conflicts is actually proof of its noteworthy restraint and iron-clad record of responsibility in the nuclear realm. This restraint also helps explain other states' long-standing if grudging acceptance of the nuclear status quo.

Radwan Ziadeh, meanwhile, introduces into the debate a broad range of regional issues—and this allows win-win opportunities to be explored. The horrors of the Syrian civil war, the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons, the threats associated with non-state actors, and Iran's nuclear program—discussing these issues sets the stage for a more productive debate based on the recognition that there are a host of security challenges in the region and not everything boils down to Israel. Moreover, Ziadeh takes an important step in the direction of understanding Israel's concerns in the nuclear realm when he notes that international acceptance of elements of Iran's nuclear program would make Israel less likely to accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

I take issue with Ziadeh on one key point, however. He portrays the establishment of a Middle East chemical-weapon-free zone as seemingly low-hanging fruit that, because Israel and Egypt lack incentives to participate, is really not so low-hanging after all. I do not share his pessimism, at least in Israel's case. As long as negotiations toward banning chemical weapons took place in the context of a regional security process, it is far from unimaginable that Israel would participate.

Progress on regional security issues is sorely needed. If initial progress were made on security issues where common interests can be identified, conditions might be created for addressing additional security issues that are more difficult to tackle due to the zero-sum positions of regional actors. But the first step is for the parties, within a regional framework, to begin holding meetings and undertaking discussions. Nothing will happen until that happens.

02/06/2014 - 12:47

Bring in the Security Council

Since August of last year, when Bashar Al-Assad launched a horrific attack against his own people at Ghouta, popular opposition to chemical weapons has grown across the Middle East. The region's people, having seen images of children killed by chemical weapons, now vividly understand these weapons' inhumanity.

The Syrian government has agreed to surrender its chemical stockpiles. The time seems right to establish a chemical-weapon-free zone in the region. But the obstacles to establishing a zone are serious, and the Middle East has a poor track record of establishing collective security mechanisms. What's needed, I believe, is a UN-backed initiative to ban chemical weapons.

In Round One I discussed the benefits of establishing a zone free of chemical weapons—it would protect civilians, contribute to regional security, and build on the diplomatic momentum established through recent agreements that Western countries have reached with Syria and Iran. I also catalogued the obstacles—primarily that Israel and Egypt are not likely to perceive sufficient incentives to establish a zone.

Emily Landau disagrees with me on this last point, writing that "As long as negotiations toward banning chemical weapons took place in the context of a regional security process, it is far from unimaginable that Israel would participate." But even if she is correct, her vision still requires a regional security process of a type that has never existed before.

I am not optimistic that countries in the region will initiate such a process on their own. But if the UN Security Council were to convene an international conference on banning chemical weapons from the Middle East, hesitant nations would feel significant pressure to participate. If the United Nations launched a high-profile effort to ban a horrible class of weapons from the region, no nation—neither Egypt nor Israel—would enjoy being perceived as a roadblock. Granted, a similar international effort to ban all weapons of mass destruction from the region ended in failure (or at least appears moribund for now). But banning chemical weapons is, at least in theory, much simpler than banning all weapons of mass destruction; political circumstances in the Middle East are changing in rapid, unpredictable ways; and if an international effort to eliminate chemical weapons has any chance of succeeding, the international community has a responsibility to try.

For decades the Middle East has endured too much war and suffering. Now, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, it is experiencing a crisis of instability. Egypt seems little closer to resolving its political tensions than it did in the first days of its revolution. Civil war rages in Syria and could spread to nations such as Lebanon and Iraq. A complete regional collapse is not out of the question. An international initiative to ban chemical weapons could, if successful, not only eliminate weapons of terrible brutality but also help create a mechanism for stability in a tumultuous part of the world.

Round 3

02/13/2014 - 06:50

From dialogue, some hope—even in the Middle East

The chemical weapons attack near Damascus last August was a low point in Syria's civil war. But chemical weapons have been responsible for only a small fraction of the conflict's fatalities. In war—civil war not least—horrific violence can be carried out through any number of means. In Syria, crude "barrel bombs" rolled out of helicopters have accounted for thousands of deaths. A recent report by a group of former war crimes prosecutors presents clear evidence that thousands of detainees have been killed, and many tortured, by the Assad regime. And a new United Nations report discusses the torture, maiming, and sexual abuse of Syrian children. The breakdown in Syria's security has been cataclysmic, but it is not chemical weapons that account for the breakdown. If Syrian security is to improve, it is the root causes of hostility and conflict that require attention. This is true in Syria and true throughout the Middle East—both within states and among states.

Nevertheless, chemical weapons could provide a way to initiate sorely needed dialogue on a wide range of Middle East security issues. Chemical weapons have been classified by the international community as weapons of mass destruction and are objects of nearly universal condemnation. This broad international agreement—and the potential to use it to initiate regional dialogue—are part of the rationale for beginning discussions about a chemical-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.

Such discussions can begin only after Syria has fully complied with its new commitment to eliminate its chemical weapons—but unfortunately, Syria seems to be dragging its feet. Reports indicate that, before a shipment of chemical weapons left Syria on February 10, Damascus had transported out of the country less than 5 percent of the chemical weapons it had agreed to remove by the end of 2013. Admittedly the Assad regime faces challenges in gathering and shipping its dangerous chemical materials—efforts are hampered both by the civil war and by winter weather. But the joint mission overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons has said that the country has the equipment and materials it needs to do the job. The United States has complained about Syria's stalling, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has expressed concern as well, and the UN Security Council has called on Syria to speed up the process. Meanwhile, US director of national intelligence James Clapper warned in late January that Syria may have the ability to produce lethal biological agents and deliver them via existing conventional weapons systems. Still, if Syria ultimately complies with its June deadline for eliminating all of its chemical weapons, progress toward establishing a chemical-weapon-free zone will become possible.

Convergence. Radwan Ziadeh, in his Round Two essay, argued that regional parties will probably not be able on their own to initiate a process toward establishing a zone free of chemical weapons. I agree. But whereas Ziadeh suggests that the United Nations take the initiative toward establishing a chemical-weapon-free zone, I would argue that the United States, Russia, and perhaps the countries of the European Union should spearhead the initiative. These nations have great clout in the region, individually and collectively, and I believe they would stand a better chance than the United Nations of bringing regional allies on board.

Ziadeh and I agree that negotiations about chemical weapons, because they seem to target a common interest among regional parties, could be a useful starting point for negotiations on broader regional security issues; and that discussions about chemical weapons could help establish a durable mechanism for regional security and stability. So this roundtable has revealed points of convergence—perhaps unexpected ones. It has emphasized that dialogue in any format is important and potentially fruitful. I come away with some hope that progress toward solving the region's problems is possible.

In the Middle East, nations' positions on regional security issues are well established. But hewing to these traditional positions has not solved the region's problems. Somehow the Middle East must break out of its existing security dynamic. Discussing and establishing a chemical-weapon-free zone—despite all the obstacles that stand in the way—could prove to be a first step.

02/27/2014 - 12:54

Delegitimizing the radicals

Many times over the decades, Western officials and analysts have declared the emergence of "a new Middle East." Such declarations have generally turned out to be premature, but today the people of the region are indeed constructing something new. Whether the transformation will turn out to benefit Middle Eastern publics is uncertain, but no one can doubt that the long-term implications will be profound.

In this roundtable, Emily Landau and I have argued that establishing a chemical-weapon-free zone in the Middle East would make a positive contribution to regional security. Mostafa Elwi Saif has argued that banning chemical weapons makes no sense without banning nuclear weapons as well. Disagreement on a point such as this is no surprise. What's difficult to dispute, I think, is that regional security will remain problematic until governments accept international norms such as the norm that forbids the use of chemical weapons—and until, more broadly, governance in the region is liberalized. Only when nations demonstrate greater respect for representative government, the rule of law, and the integrity of human life can the Middle East's enduring security challenges be addressed.

Syria, my own nation, demonstrates the consequences of failure to pursue such ideals. There, an already brutal civil war has been complicated by the actions of foreign non-state actors such as the militant Shiite group Hezbollah and the radical Sunni organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (which was affiliated with Al Qaeda until that group disavowed it in early February). These organizations, though they are rivals in the sectarian sense, have much in common. They adhere to extreme, arbitrary versions of Islam. They espouse ideologies focused on hatred of, and a desire to eliminate, those who do not share their points of view. They reject all notions of human integrity and other people's right to exist peacefully. They exhibit an extraordinary level of savagery. And neither group has displayed any compunction about crossing international borders to kill Syrians. But if it weren't for brutal, repressive regimes such as that of Bashar Al-Assad—regimes that display no respect for the rule of law or for basic humanity—factions like these would not exist.

As the Middle East turns a new page of history, one of its greatest security challenges is to strip radical movements of their legitimacy. Achieving this will require an embrace of liberalism—an embrace of democratization, devolution of power, and respect for basic human values.