Middle East

WMD Regulation in the Middle East

Unidentified Syrian girls hold banners during a protest rally organized to raise awareness and commemorate two years of Syrian revolution on March 16 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo: Arindambanerjee, Shutterstock)

"For the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons on its people crosses a line that will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues," President Obama recently said. "So this is not an on and off switch. This is an ongoing challenge that all of us have to be concerned about."

Evidently, current methods to control WMD, such as relying on intelligence reports, sanctions and military intervention, are inadequate—especially in the Middle East. Iraq still stands as testimony to the many failings of those methods.

Take intelligence. Because of their covert nature, intelligence reports are always questionable. U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden, speaking about the intelligence reports on Syria's use of chemical weapons, says the chain of custody of the weapons used was "not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions." One thing is clear, however; spying violates the state's security, which always rebounds into a need for greater defense systems by the state under investigation. And true to form and precedent, they would ostensibly be sought by covert means. Either way, spying defies open channels of progressive communication between states. Drones undermine trust and transparency between governments, which is surely fundamental for broader ranging defense regulation and progressive security.

Are sanctions any better? The current ones against Iran's nuclear power and the nuclear weapons of North Korea have led to ostracism and discord within the state system rather than collaborative regulation of defense industry, both of which are also factors causing heavy militarization and drives for WMD in the first place.

Finally, following the consequences of intelligence and sanctions, what's left except the inevitable military intervention? To date, foreign interventions along with "training procedures" have fomented radicalisation and terrorism in the Middle East. Australian Federal Police Deputy Commissioner Peter Drennan recently pointed out that the international community's concern with Syria's civil war goes beyond the use of WMD to "the use of firearms, their potential to ... build improvised explosive devices or use rocket launches."

"Not all of them are radical when they leave, but most likely many of them will be radicalized there," E.U. counter-terrorism chief Gilles de Kerchove said of the 500 Europeans presently fighting in Syria. According to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, extremist groups such as Al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra have emerged over the past 12 months of the two-year war in Syria.

What then are Washington's options? Can it rise above its own precedents and recalibrate U.S. defense policies with respect to regional realities in Middle East? Can it stare down its own over-burgeoning military industry with its proclivity for strategic alliances and covert intelligence? It doesn't look like it.

The White House will "look at the past for guidance when it comes to the need to be very serious about gathering all the facts, establishing chain of custody, linking evidence of the use of chemical weapons to specific incidents and actions taken by the regime, and that's of course what we will do, because that's the responsible thing to do," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on Syria's use of WMD. "It's important to remember that there are options available to a commander in chief in a situation like this that include but are not exclusive to [military intervention]."

Iran, Syria and Israel

Key to any resolve is probably the regional option. But this is where President Obama's options seem to go out the window, as strategic alliances always seem to obfuscate systemic regulation within the state system on defense. Nevertheless, times are changing and there could be a shift in the approach to defense regulation on that score.

Going by the Jerusalem Post, a vital difference now exists between Israel and the United States on how to act in Syria. The relative importance of jihadists has been recognized by Israel, as it was by Australia and the European Union. Israel points to the problems of a dissolution of authority that should transcend the current concern on WMD in Syria, mainly because it allows radicals access to armoury. Of course, Israel's worry is with Hezbollah and subsequent Israeli security. And of course, Israel has again acted unilaterally on that basis with another bombing campaign.

Nevertheless, last month both the Syrian government and the rebels accused each other of using chemical weapons north of Aleppo. And with the complications of rebel groups in Syria comprising possible links to radicals such as al Qaeda affiliates, the general concern is real. But proving who is using WMD may not be the core issue here. Rather it could be the existence of WMD in the first place, correlative to the political instability that's manifested in Syria.

In this respect, the regional context is critical. With the political situation in Syria in severe internal turmoil, engendering political stability could rely on regional forces. From the Arab League and the GCO to the SCO and the group of Non-Allied nations plus Israel, these multilateral frameworks have both a political and economic composition capable of isolating and containing the Syrian government within the Middle East, while consolidating the rebels into a cohesive political entity. They have the aggregated strength to overcome the negative consequences of the standard procedure applied against terrorist regimes. Taken together, these groups possess a powerfully comprehensive basis from which to regulate state defense systems within the region and systemize its comprehensive security in respect of the United Nations.

Within the regional framework there is no state better placed to isolate the Syrian regime and stand by the new one than Iran. A long-time ally of Syria, Iran continually seeks regional accord, rather than dominance. Moreover Iran has been undergoing crippling sanctions at the behest of the United Nations and the United States for some time, to no avail for any nuclear resolve. Thus far the Obama administration has addressed Iran's nuclear program with punitive measures and little diplomatic outreach.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in March, "If the Americans sincerely want" to resolve the nuclear issue, "they should stop being hostile towards the Iranian nation in words and in action."

"I was in the [State] Department when they kept talking about the so-called two-track policy, and it was clear the whole thing was nonsense; there never were two tracks," said John Limbert, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran. "The sanctions took all the air out of the room. It was 95 percent sanctions, and that was on a good day." Little wonder Iran has stuck with other ostracized states like Syria for support, and reaches out to the multilateral systems of the region.

Critics say this jeopardizes negotiations. What, however, do these negotiations entail? As with sanctions, defense regulation involves trade, especially between bilateral strategic alliances. Removing sanctions from Iran could necessitate constructing progressive regulation on nuclear power and defense industry within these multilateral systems of the region. The Arab League, SCO, GCO and Non-Allied Group, along with Israel, are all well established and afford the surest diplomatic channels to pursue.

As Secretary Limbert noted, "Diplomacy with Iran, that's hard. Nobody knows how to do that, and every time we've tried, we've failed. And as soon as we fail we've given up and gone back to doing what we know how to do [sanctions]. ... We know how to do them. It's familiar. And to do them, we don't have to deal with the Iranians; we deal with the British, the United Nations, the Russians and the Chinese."

Limbert, who now teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy, is among a growing number of people calling for a recalibration of the U.S. strategy on Iran, according to Payvand Daily News. Interestingly the growing chorus calling for advanced diplomacy comes after the latest round of nuclear talks in the Kazakh city of Almaty failed to bridge the divide between Iran and the P5+1 group, namely the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

A report on the situation states that "it seems doubtful that pressure alone will change the decisions of Iran's leaders," though stronger diplomacy "that includes the promise of sanctions relief in exchange for verifiable cooperation" could lead to a deal.

The Atlantic Council has asked the United States for a roadmap clarifying a "step-by-step reciprocal and proportionate plan" to lift sanctions as Iran complies. "To make meaningful concessions, Iran needs to see off-ramps and an endgame." To this extent, proving Iran's insistence that its nuclear power is not for WMD is the crucial factor. Iran continually assures the world it does not want WMD. Addressing this issue in terms of the regional context places Iran's approach to the Syrian use of WMD front and center.


While neither Iran nor Russia agrees to internal interference within another state's political affairs, international law is an all-inclusive responsibility. And the fact remains, WMD, radicalization and terrorism transcend borders. Trade and industry of defense also transcends state borders with consequences that can profoundly affect a state's internal political situation. Both Iran and Russia have traded in defense with the current Syrian regime. As chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon notes, "Everyone is fixated with chemical weapons in Syria, while 70,000 may have been killed by conventional weapons. As long as we are fixated by chemical weapons, the regime can get on and kill in other ways."

Following the Khan al Assal attack, the Syrian government  called for the United Nations to investigate the weapons use by rebels, alleging it was the rebels who used chemical weapons. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expects the Syrian government to accept a comprehensive U.N. probe into the alleged chemical weapons. The Assad regime, however, insists thatgenu the investigation be limited to Khan al-Assal. Sound familiar? Where then does all this leave the rule of international law? For all President Obama's genuflection on "international norms and law," they could amount to nothing when push comes to shove.

"The world must take control of Assad's chemical weapons supply. ... The moment the international community sees that they indeed crossed a red line and used chemical weapons, they must understand that there is no choice but to take this action," Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel Ze'ev Elkin warned last month. Iran, Elkin points out, is watching the situation very closely. Is the latest Israeli military sortie against a weapons factory in Syria the answer?

Between the regional framework and the United Nations, a clear chain of command has never been applied in the Middle East. It's either "coalitions of the willing" or NATO, with the United States and its strategic ally Israel pushing for military actions on failed U.N. resolutions. Yet the consequences of free trade, military industry and strategic alliances based on military assistance in the Middle East have never been causally and systematically addressed on a geopolitical basis. As Israel points to the problems of a political void and radicals accessing armoury in Syria, so too is there a political void between the U.N. Security Council and the state, spurning problems that are proving overwhelming for the state system. From basic human rights to global security, international law keeps failing. Terrorism, warfare, WMD, environmental degradation and climate change are swamping the standard options of a state system rapidly running out of time to prevent their manifold consequences.

Streamlining regulation in respect of regional realities is shaping up as a precedent for addressing WMD and global security. As China acted with North Korea, so too Russia is positioned to act with Syria. Russia, an important U.N. security member is geopolitically relevant to Syria andtranscends the Israeli issue with Iran as well as the geo-inconsequence of the Israeli-U.S. strategic alliance.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Laurelle Atkinson.