Chemical weapons in the Middle East remain sensitive

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

On 4 December I addressed a workshop on Nuclear Safety, Security and WMD Non-proliferation. The event was organised by Atomic Reporters and the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP), together with the Stanley Foundation and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS). The target audience consisted of more than 20 journalists from or working in the Middle East.

My presentation ‘Responding to chemical weapon use in Syria’ addressed the allegations of chemical weapon (CW) use in Syria since early 2013 and the international CW disarmament operation over the past 15 months.

The audience’s reactions at times illustrated how sensitive the question of CW remains in the Middle East. When people are forced outside their comfort zone offered by established reference frameworks, regional security discussions quickly become tense. If ever serious progress is to be made on the idea of a zone free of non-conventional weapons in the Middle East, preparing a common reference framework for the participants in the debates—particularly civil society constituencies who must prepare the ground to make proposed solutions politically and socially acceptable—will be an unescapable task.

Lale Kemal, a Turkish journalist, captured the exchanges very well in a piece for the Daily Zaman on 8 December. If she leaves you with the impression that the discussions were not just intense, but also most stimulating, then I can confirm they were.

Middle East’s ‘unique’ status on chemical weapons

A colleague from a Middle Eastern country reacted sharply when a speaker in a recent workshop in Vienna used the term “Muslims” in some of his references to the countries in the region during his presentation on the issue of chemical weapons. The colleague urged him to use the names of the countries instead of generalizing them with their affiliation to Islam. The topic of chemical weapons is a sensitive one. Jean Pascal Zanders, director of The Trench — a website specializing in reporting on chemical weapons — told the workshop audience in Vienna that with the exception of the First Indochina War, all cases of major chemical warfare after World War II have taken place in the Middle East.

Yet this journalist’s reaction to the speaker in his usage of the term “Muslims” does not change the reality that — in the words of Mehmet Dönmez, head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate — around 900 Muslims per day are killed by fellow Muslims around the world, including in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the topic of the workshop for journalists from the Middle East, held in Vienna between Dec. 3-5, was on nuclear safety, security and WMD non-proliferation. WMD is short for “weapons of mass destruction,” which are chemical, biological and nuclear weapons — the deadliest weapons that have so far been developed by humankind.

The workshop was sponsored by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), along with nongovernmental organizations the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), the US-based Stanley Foundation and Vienna-based Atomic Reporters. The event was hosted by the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP). It was a follow-up to the first workshop, which was held in I.stanbul in June of this year in cooperation with I.stanbul’s Okan University.

Going back to the topic of chemical weapons in the Middle East, Zanders from The Trench cited the known incidents of the usage of chemical weapons in the region, including Egypt during its war with Yemen in the 1950s and Iraq against Iran in 1984 during the long-lasting war between the two countries in the 1980s, as well as Iraq’s use of mustard gas against its own Kurds. Syria lately staged a sarin gas attack against its own citizens in Ghouta, near Damascus. Syria’s chemical weapons were destroyed under a deal it struck with some world powers, yet it is unclear whether the country is still hiding some of its chemical weapons stockpile.

Meanwhile, Israel is the only country in the Middle East widely known to possess nuclear weapons, even if it neither denies nor confirms their existence. Iran is accused by the international community of seeking to develop nuclear weapons under the guise of developing nuclear energy power plants.

Dr. Chen Kane from the CNS strengthened Zanders’ assertion, saying during the workshop that, concerning cases of the usage of chemical weapons as well as their possession, the region is unique. According to her, in the Middle East, all three categories of weapons of mass destruction — chemical, biological and nuclear — have been pursued by different states and chemical weapons have even been used in the region on several occasions. She mentioned fundamental ongoing territorial, religious, ethnic and other disputes that underline that the reality of WMDs and that the acquisition of WMDs in the region is interrelated and politically and security-motivated. Out of the seven violations of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), Dr. Chen said five are from the Middle East — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Egypt. This situation illustrates the risk associated with nuclear programs in unstable countries and war zones. It is unclear if any Middle Eastern country possesses biological weapons. The unstable nature of the Middle East also carries the risk of terrorist groups obtaining WMDs.

In February 2015, the Ja?far al-Tayya-r brigade and the al-Nusra Front gained control of the al-Kibar site (also called Dair Aizour) in Syria, where a nuclear reactor believed to have been under construction was destroyed by Israel during an air raid in 2007. According to Zanders, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — a terrorist group against which US-led Western and Arab coalition forces are currently carrying out an air campaign in both Iraq and Syria — has not obtained WMDs.

Turkey, a NATO member and a neighbor to the Middle East, came under criticism a long time ago for using white phosphorus — a kind of a chemical weapon — against militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). However, Zanders stated that such allegations from the PKK have never been confirmed by international organizations addressing WMDs.

The absence of a security framework or organization in the Middle East — where there is no regional conventional arms control culture — to mitigate the danger of WMDs poses a great threat to the region in particular and the world in general.

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