WASHINGTON -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has agreed to transfer his massive stockpile of chemical weapons to international control where they can be destroyed, and now he is raising the stakes: He says Israel should also ratify the global treaty banning the stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction, for the sake of “stability in the Middle East.” His ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is supportive, insisting that Syria’s chemical weapons exist as a deterrent to Israel’s military capabilities.
Although U.S. officials have denounced any comparisons between Syria and Israel, a democracy that does not slaughter or gas its own people, Syria’s planned disarmament could build momentum for Israel to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention--and perhaps other agreements on nuclear and biological weapons. “There will be pressure on Israel,” predicts Ely Karmon, senior research scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel, who says the nation should ratify the agreement now, if only to eliminate potential excuses for Syria. “Syria can use the fact that Israel has not ratified to postpone the destruction of [its stockpiles] or part of the arsenal.”
Israel signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993 but remains one of the seven countries in the world that are not state parties to the pact (other outliers, in addition to neighbors Egypt and Syria, are Angola, Myanmar, North Korea, and South Sudan). The half-measure signals that Israel agrees with the treaty’s spirit but is not bound by international inspections or a commitment to destroy its own stockpiles, which the Jewish state will not confirm or deny it has.
Israel may view its policy of ambiguity on chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons as protecting its self-interest, if only to avoid pressure to give them up, says Henry Sokolski, former deputy for nonproliferation policy at the Defense Department and now executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. But Israel’s stance has blocked serious arms-control negotiations in the region, as other countries try to build their capabilities to challenge what they perceive as Israel’s advantage. And Israel’s posture has even constrained discussion between Jerusalem and Washington about these weapons and how they might be used.
If Assad actually gives up his chemical weapons, Washington may seize the opportunity “to jump-start the larger WMD-free zone efforts,” says Jon Wolfsthal, a former adviser to Vice President Joe Biden for nuclear security and a former National Security Council director for nonproliferation. Removing Syria’s chemical weapons, the major strategic threat to Israel on that front, “creates a little breathing room to open up a conversation,” says Wolfsthal, now deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies. Even without chemical weapons, Israel maintains a military advantage in conventional strength (and nuclear capabilities).
Israel supports the idea of a WMD-free zone in theory but is understandably wary of any agreement aimed at getting the Jewish state--which has not acceded to the chemical, biological, or nuclear nonproliferation agreements and is the only country in the Middle East thought to possess nuclear weapons—to disarm. It usually comes down to the nuclear issue. “Arab countries typically gang up and say, ‘[After] Israel comes clean and gets rid of its nuclear weapons, then we can talk,’ ” says Thomas Moore, deputy director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Proliferation Prevention Program. Israel believes regional strategic issues must be addressed first. The current political turbulence, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, may convince Israel this is not the time to join these treaties.
Aside from worries about Syria, Israel also has concerns about the Iranian and Egyptian arsenals, although it’s possible that if Assad follows through on the disarmament plan and remains in power, Iran could draw the lesson that it can trade away its WMDs and nuclear deterrents in exchange for international legitimacy.
The more immediate question, however, is what Syria does next. Assad’s agreement is “only words and papers,” and his stated compliance is no guarantee, says David Friedman of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies and the former head of the Israeli military’s Chemical/Biological Protection Division. Assad still claims he did not use chemical weapons in the August attack that killed hundreds of people, and, until recently, he for decades denied having chemical weapons. “It’s not a simple situation when you deal with someone whose nature is not to tell the truth,” Friedman says. Emily Landau, his INSS colleague and the director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program, adds that Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria have been found “cheating” on agreements or at least have been “deceptive” about their nonconventional arsenals. “Israel is wary of trusting these issues to an international agreement, because when Israel [ratifies] an agreement, it means it—and it will follow it to the letter.”
If Israel ratifies, fellow treaty members could demand “challenge inspections” of its facilities—and even try to target Israel with a false allegation of possible misuse of chemical weapons or other violations, CSIS’s Moore says. While two-thirds of the 41-nation executive council could overturn such demands, Iran or other members might “point fingers and say, ‘See? They won’t inspect people when there are doubts, because they are U.S. allies; the CWC is a big U.S. plot,’ ” Moore says. Then some countries may draw attention to the fact that even the United States has not met its commitment to destroy all its chemical stocks in 10 years.
The durability of the entire Chemical Weapons Convention is in danger if it becomes politicized, Moore says. “That’s the big fear: That folks would say, ‘To heck with it.’ ”