The good and the bad of the Arab Spring

By Ehud Eiran, July 29, 2013

My colleagues and I have discussed at length the principles behind banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East. But any analysis of such a project’s feasibility should also include an honest examination of the region’s political and social circumstances. The Arab Spring, and its effects on efforts to ban WMD, particularly deserve attention. It seems to me that the Arab Spring and the instability surrounding it affect the initiative in five distinct ways.

First, as Martin Malin argued in Round Two, regional security issues such as the civil war in Syria seem more pressing than does the initiative to ban weapons of mass destruction. These security issues can be expected to soak up much attention that local and international actors would otherwise devote to advancing the WMD-free zone. Moreover, the initiative to eliminate weapons of mass destruction from the region can contribute little to resolving the pressing security issues that the Arab Spring has produced. This decreases the chances that the WMD initiative will be revived soon.

Second, the Arab Spring creates incentives for the WMD-free zone—both negative and positive ones. Israel may become even more reluctant, amid Syria’s ongoing civil war and the regime instability in Cairo, to advance the initiative. Israel might well feel that negotiations on this issue should only be conducted among stable and effective regimes. But, as Ayman Khalil pointed out in Round One, some states can be expected to adopt a more assertive approach to banning weapons of mass destruction as Arab publics demand more from their governments. The recent appointment of Nabil Fahmy, the former Egyptian ambassador to the United States, as Egypt’s foreign minister may also add energy to the effort. Fahmy has long been committed to the WMD-free zone, and in the 1990s was a forceful leader for Egypt’s delegation to the working group for arms control and regional security that grew out of the Madrid peace process.

Third, as Khalil touched on in Round One, the growing role of Arab publics in shaping policy might lead to a democratization of the initiative to ban weapons of mass destruction: New players from civil society and nongovernmental organizations might become involved. But if the WMD conversation is to retain any significance as it expands, Israel’s capabilities cannot be the sole focus of discussion, as some actors seem to prefer. Another challenge is that civil society organizations in countries such as Iran may not be able to participate fully due to political restrictions. In other nations—Syria today, and possibly Egypt at some point—civil society has other, far more pressing issues to address.

Fourth, militarized non-state actors are becoming more prominent in the region; Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict provides an example. Meaningful conversations about regional security should include a framework to engage these actors. Strong restrictions on non-state actors’ possession or use of weapons of mass destruction should be considered.

Finally, amid the instability of the Arab Spring, the Syrian government has used weapons of mass destruction against its own people. This is likely the third time that WMD have been used against the region’s civilians: Iraq used them against the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 and Egypt is thought to have used WMD during the North Yemen Civil War. This suggests that the traditional state-to-state framework that underlies discussions of weapons of mass destruction is inadequate; the need to defend civilians from their own governments should also be addressed. In international law, "the responsibility to protect" is becoming more prominent, and this might provide a basis for linking the WMD-free zone with the immediate dangers faced by civilians in the Middle East.

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