Regional Security from the Ground Up

February 27, 2020
Bilal Y. Saab, Chen Kane

The following is an excerpt of an article in the Middle East Institute.

Consider the following examples. Given the repeated use of chemical weapons during the Syrian civil war, and the suspected failure of the international process to rid the Assad regime of its remaining chemical stockpile, if there were ever a time to push aggressively for the elimination of all chemical weapons in the Middle East, this is it. But for regional stakeholders to credibly take part in this conversation, either as part of a weapons of mass destruction free zone or as a standalone measure, they need to appreciate the legal gaps in the existing international measures that ban the use of chemical weapons and the means to address them. While a country’s expertise alone can’t stop its adversary from transforming chemicals into weapons, ignorance makes that goal virtually impossible. The same logic applies to nuclear materials and biological weapons. Without expert knowledge and verification skills one cannot distinguish sufficiently between peaceful and militarized nuclear programs and thus be able to reduce the chances of cheating.

As to nuclear security and safety, international attention has understandably focused on Iran’s and Israel’s nuclear programs. But even if the region manages to avoid mushroom clouds, it still has to grapple with the enormous challenge of the proliferation of civilian nuclear programs that lack adequate safety and security measures (Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE all see nuclear energy as a long-term solution to their dependence on fossil fuel).

For countries to cooperate and prevent a Fukushima-like scenario, they have to better appreciate how natural disasters including tsunamis could disable even the sturdiest reactor cooling systems and cause nuclear meltdown and contamination that can easily spill over to neighboring countries. However, that level of technical understanding is lacking in many parts of the region. So is the emergency response infrastructure and regional cooperation necessary to deal with such a potential disaster. The 2018 Nuclear Security Index, an independent assessment conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, found that the Middle East ranks poorly in safeguarding nuclear materials from theft and is highly vulnerable to nuclear sabotage.

We’re not arguing that high-level regional security talks shouldn’t even start before countries in the region develop the technical and bureaucratic capacities to effectively engage with various aspects of regional security or become more familiar with concepts of arms control. Rather, our point is that should there be continued under-appreciation of and lack of investment in solutions to these intellectual and practical handicaps among most states in the region, progress is unlikely to take place or be sustainable. It’s worth recalling that to materialize and ultimately produce accords, arms control talks during and after the Cold War, be it between the superpowers or among the European states, took years to prepare for.

Continue reading at the Middle East Institute.

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