WASHINGTON -- The best hopes for drawing additional countries into a global ban on chemical weapons in the near future rest entirely outside of the Middle East, according to a leading international arms control official.
In an interview with Global Security Newswire, Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons chief Ahmet Üzümcü suggested a tempering of optimism on new Middle Eastern membership in the Chemical Weapons Convention amid dramatic changes that have overtaken the region.
Two years ago, he said a key result of the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference created an opening for pressing Egypt, Israel and Syria to join the convention. Member nations to the nuclear treaty had that spring called for a 2012 meeting on establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.
Since then, the Mubarak government in Egypt has fallen, tens of thousands have died in the ongoing rebellion against the Assad regime in Syria, and Israel has threatened to use military force against what it suspects is an Iranian nuclear weapons program.
Prospects remain uncertain for a planned December international conference in Finland on banning weapons of mass destruction from the region, much less persuading those three nations to permanently renounce chemical arms.
“I never thought that this part of the [NPT] conference would be an event which would produce concrete results immediately, overnight. I always thought that this could be the beginning of a fruitful process,” Üzümcü said.
“The situation has become more complex now, because of Syria, because of changes in other Middle Eastern countries,” he added last week following a high-level U.N. meeting marking the 15th anniversary of the entry into force of the convention.
Among the eight holdout states to the pact, Angola, Myanmar and South Sudan are today the most likely candidates for membership “for different reasons,” Üzümcü said.
North Korea and Somalia -- one an isolated nation widely assumed to possess chemical arms and the other still striving to establish a functional government after decades of chaos -- “do not seem to be very close to” CWC membership, he added.
The Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force in 1997 and today has 188 member nations. It bans the development, production, stockpiling and use of materials such as mustard gas and VX and sarin nerve agents. Üzümcü leads hundreds of people assigned to make sure that prohibition is enforced; they have already overseen elimination of tens of thousands of tons of chemical agents once held by Russia, the United States and a handful of other nations.
Complete worldwide membership is crucial to ensuring that all nations declare and eliminate any existing chemical stockpiles and allow OPCW monitoring of government and private sites that could be used to produce banned warfare materials, Üzümcü said during his Oct. 1 address at the United Nations. Universality would also serve to curb the threat of new national production of chemical weapons or terrorist acquisition of the the lethal substances, proponents say.
Efforts to ensure no state is left behind when it comes to joining date back to the organization’s inception, OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan stated by e-mail on Tuesday. “We make direct bilateral interventions with holdout states, urge states parties that have influence over them to use their influence to encourage accession, and make similar representations to regional bodies of which states not party are members,” he said.
The last state to join the convention was the Bahamas, in April 2009.
The OPCW chief told GSN his Hague, Netherlands-based organization has had “no recent contact” with Syria, which is today by far the greatest source of worry regarding the use or proliferation of chemical weapons.
“With the Syrian civil war breaking out, the bad news is that civil war broke out, but the good news was that it brought a lot more attention to Syria’s acknowledged stockpile of chemical weapons,” said chemical disarmament expert Paul Walker. “Although Syria is not a member … [its actions have] pushed the OPCW to make a couple statements” on the situation, he said.
The Assad government is thought to hold hundreds of tons of blister and nerve agents and various weapons for delivering those materials. A spokesman in Damascus in July said the nation would only use its biological or chemical arms against foreign aggressors; that has not resolved fears the regime might also employ such materials against its own people or hand them off to violent extremists.
In the wake of the July comments, Üzümcü’s agency said in a statement it would be “‘reprehensible’ if anybody was contemplating the use of weapons of mass destruction, like chemical weapons, in Syria.”
Two Syrian officials sat quietly and showed no reaction at last week’s U.N. session as a succession of senior diplomats similarly pilloried their government’s July comments. The delegation did not address the meeting, and the Syrian mission to the United Nations did not respond subsequently to requests for comment.
“They apparently asked for an opportunity to speak … but since the list was long, several states parties in fact did not have a chance to speak,” Üzümcü said.
Regime change in Syria would offer an opportunity for the international community to demand that a new government join the convention and eliminate its chemical stockpile, said Walker, who heads the Environmental Security and Sustainability Program for Global Green USA.
He expressed doubt that the Israeli legislature would take corresponding action to bring its nation into CWC adherence. “The Knesset is so very conservative these days and so very cautious about giving up any of their military options,” Walker said.
Egypt and Syria, meanwhile, continue to link their willingness to join the Chemical Weapons Convention to Israel’s readiness to renounce its widely presumed nuclear arsenal. Until that connection is addressed, “it may be very difficult to get everybody onboard,” Walker said.
He argued, though, that there is some cause for “cautious optimism” when it comes to the Middle East. Both Israel and Egypt have sent observers to recent annual meetings of CWC member states, and Syria was there in 2011, Walker said. Üzümcü meets regularly with Egyptian officials posted in The Hague, and he said the government of President Mohamed Morsi appears likely to support the WMD-free region concept championed by its predecessor.
The veteran Turkish diplomat had meetings with U.N. representatives from South Sudan and Myanmar during his 48-hour trip to New York last week. A hoped-for discussion with Angola did not materialize, but the nation is accessible through a newly opened mission in The Hague, Luhan said.
“We want really to convince them it’s in their interest to join the convention as early as possible,” Üzümcü said. “There is nothing that should prevent them from doing so.”
He cautioned that there are “no clear timelines” for the three states to join the convention.
The organization sent a delegation to Myanmar in 2011 as the Southeast Asian state shifted from military to civilian leadership. The government has accepted an offer for training in implementing the convention, which is one of several international accords waiting for approval in Naypyidaw.
Angola is also particularly “low-hanging fruit” for CWC membership, Walker said. The nation has a limited foreign ministry, so the main challenge might be simply guiding it through the process of joining.
South Sudan became independent of Sudan just last year, so it would be a "simple formality" to prepare the documentation needed to join the accord and inform the U.N. secretary general of its action, Üzümcü said.