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.