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.