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Disarming Syria Can Be Done—But Will It?

December 3, 2013
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The Good—Game-Changing Politics


Perhaps the cleanest, best and easiest example of disarmament is that of South Africa. The situation wasn’t perfect, but it provides an exemplary model for Syria—or Iran and North Korea for that matter. Experts point to a key factor in the South African decision to give up their nuclear weapons: namely the removal of neighboring threats. Faced with the risk of invasion by communist forces, South Africa set up their nuclear program. But in the late 1980s that threat dissolved. Dr. Waldo Stumpf, a former Chief Executive Officer for the Atomic Energy Corporation of South Africa, believes that political change helped set the stage for South Africa’s decision to abandon nuclear weapons. They simply didn’t need them anymore.

In his presentation, “Birth and Death of the South African Nuclear Weapons Programme,” Dr. Stumpf said, “International pressure by a superpower from outside the region on a would-be proliferator can be helpful but only up to a point. In the final instance, regional tensions must be resolved before the cause of non-proliferation can be fully realized.” In other words, remove the reason for having the weapons, then removing the weapons becomes easier.

In the case of Syria, that makes a ceasefire in their civil war all the more important. As long as the regime is massacring its people and fears a similar revenge if they lose, chemical weapons still have a clear and present use in the country.

The Good—Impose Pressure

South Africa faced a range of tough sanctions that lasted for years. While those were focused on their racist Apartheid system, it nonetheless left South Africa with a clear message—if you want the sanctions lifted, then you have to meet the world’s expectations. As a non-member of the global Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), South Africa had yet another strike against it. To ensure sanctions relief, it made sense to go for it all and abandon its nukes along with its Apartheid policy.

For Syria, this means that the international community shouldn’t relax its sanctions and pressure until the regime has fully complied with its obligation to disarm. In fact, now would be a great time to take a page from the South African situation and keep the sanctions tied to the Syrian regime’s abuses, rather than their WMDs. That way Syria is pressured to sign a ceasefire and end the civil war—which is a key reason for keeping its chemical weapons in the first place.

The Good—Deliver Threats

Another country that saw some success in disarming its weapons of mass destruction is Libya. While they have yet to destroy all their chemical weapons—10 years after promising to do so—Libya did go from a rogue regime with budding chemical and nuclear weapons programs to a more compliant nation. What were the key reasons for this success? Depends on who you ask, but the Arms Control Association’s timeline on the Libyan situation highlights some important threats made to Libya by the United States prior to Libya giving up its program.

US fleet in the Arabian Gulf The first major event was the war in Iraq. The US invaded because of WMD allegations against the regime of Saddam Hussein. While the US was already negotiating with Libya to give up their WMDs before the Iraq War, Libya was later caught red-handed trying to smuggle in components needed for a nuclear program. Along the way, the US kept making public threats that Libya had better give up their WMDs. The Arms Control Association noted that John Bolton, then the US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said that nations still working on WMDs would “pay a steep price for their efforts.”

The threats worked. With another dictator in Iraq getting kicked out of power for WMDs, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi realized it just was too risky to openly defy the Americans. So Libya agreed to relinquish their chemical and nuclear weapons programs, as well as their long-range missiles. It hasn’t worked out as perfectly as it was laid out, but that’s a concern for Syria we’ll address later in this article. The good angle is that a real and concrete threat of war, alongside the interception of Libya’s nuclear smuggling efforts, led to compromise.

For Syria, that means one thing: keep the heat on. If the Syrian regime believes it can get away with not meeting its obligations, it probably will. So the US and the West need to keep making threats to punish Syria if they don’t comply, as well as maintain a legitimate investigation to catch them if they do. Threats against Syria for specific violations, such as not meeting certain deadlines or stonewalling inspectors, would also help.

The Bad—Slow and Unsteady

Nuclear missile in a silo, ready to launch John Wollwerth/shutterstock.com

Even in South Africa’s case, it still took years to verify that their nuclear program was defunct. In the case of Libya, it still hasn’t been fully resolved. The plan, for one thing, was far too loose. It gave Libya years and years to disarm. The US and Europe kept giving incentives for Libya to comply, by renewing diplomatic relations and relaxing sanctions. Gradually, these “rewards” took the pressure off. According to NPR (National Public Radio), Libya eventually became dissatisfied with the rewards from the West for compliance, feeling that the West broke its side of the bargain.

And so there were delays by Libya, even suspension of some of its agreements with the US. And while the chemical weapons were removed for the most part, Libya wasn’t totally forthcoming. Foreign Policy magazine reported that in late 2011—nine years after Libya promised to give up its weapons—previously unknown chemical weapons were found. In other words, Libya lied.

For Syria, this reality is critical to remember. No matter how compliant a regime appears, it still may be lying and hiding its weapons. Ultimately, disarmament depends on the nation voluntarily giving up its weapons or having them forcibly removed. For this to work peacefully, Syria has to be kept on a short leash. Any violations or disruptions to the inspections or disarmament process need to be handled severely. Similarly, the short timeline placed on Syria—it’s supposed to take only until next year to disarm them—should be upheld. The more time and delays, the more opportunity for deception.

The Bad—Diplomatic Deception

Soldiers in full chemical gear Perhaps the worst example of WMD diplomacy gone wrong is that of North Korea. Time and again some type of deal has been reached with the regime, and time and again they have broken it. After a deal was signed in 1994, The New York Times reported that in 2002 the North Koreans revealed they had been secretly breaking the agreement and working towards the development of nuclear weapons. But rather than apologize and reform its ways, North Korea kept moving forward, testing a nuclear device in 2006. In other words, all the handshakes of the deal and even the rebukes for breaking it weren’t enough to actually stop North Korea from developing WMDs.

One key problem is that North Korea has had help. China was highlighted by Mark Hibbs, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as one culprit in an interview with The Atlantic in April 2013. Hibbs said that China “tolerates North Korea.” The Chinese weren’t really cooperating with international agencies and groups to prevent North Korea’s quasi-smuggling and deception campaign to acquire the supposedly harmless parts they need for nuclear weapons. Hibbs said to The Atlantic, “It’s not a secret that China is a source for a huge amount of dual-use items that get into the country. These are things you can use to make bicycles, but you can also use them to make centrifuge equipment or nuclear-weapons parts.”

This is a real concern with Syria, too. Russia, and China for that matter, have long been friends with Syria and have so far vetoed, more than once, efforts by the United Nations to crackdown on the Syrian regime for its brutality. Even though the Russians helped forge the deal to rid Syria of chemical weapons, that doesn’t mean Russia won’t help them avoid their obligations. Amos Yadlin, Director of The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel, wrote on the INSS website that Russia could be Syria’s unofficial partner in crime, though Yadlin felt it was unlikely. Russia’s veto ability in the powerful United Nations Security Council could make punishing Syria for breaking the deal more complicated.

The Bad—Sanctions Breakdown

Sebastian Kaulitzki/shutterstock.com

Another problem with North Korea is that the sanctions placed on them haven’t always pressured them enough. True, North Korea is impoverished, but too many other nations and groups were willing to work with them, so the sanctions hadn’t really hurt their economy, according to a 2010 paper by Randall Newnham for the Korea Economic Institute. Newnham contrasted this with the Libyans, who took quite a hit to their economy—and it still took years for the Libyans to give up their WMDs. What’s more, economic relief has been sent to North Korea too easily without enough real, verifiable compromise on their part. In his speech to the United Nations earlier this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used North Korea as a prime example of what must not be done with Iran.

“Like Iran, North Korea also offered meaningless concessions and empty promises in return for sanctions relief,” said Netanyahu. “In 2005, North Korea agreed to a deal that was celebrated the world over by many well-meaning people…A year later, North Korea exploded its first nuclear weapons device.” Quite simply, the North Korean situation has demonstrated what not to do with sanctions. The ones in place haven’t been tough enough to really drive North Korea to bargain in good faith. What’s more, the sanctions were lifted too soon, and economic benefits were given too easily whenever North Korea made any concessions.

For Syria, this means that every single chemical weapons plant and weapon must be destroyed. Leaving a facility to be converted to a supposedly peaceful use isn’t going to work. And if Syria starts to stonewall the inspectors, they should be hit hard and fast. In addition, sanctions shouldn’t be lifted and militaries shouldn’t stop watching Syria just because they signed a deal. As noted above, Syria’s allies in Russia, Iran and Lebanon should also be pressured not to help Syria secretly break its deal. The sanctions on Syria itself aren’t enough. At least the threat of sanctions on their friends is needed too.

Good, or Bad?

Despite their past, there is still hope that Syria could really disarm—especially if the Syrian regime is replaced. But the world needs to suspect them at every turn and keep the pressure turned way up. Even though South Africa proved that full disarmament can be done, they volunteered to do so. Syria is being forced into it. Syria can be disarmed—but will they be?

Source: By Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update

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