Libya's decision to abandon its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs has helped resurrect an Arab call for a Middle East free of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
Syria and Israel, bitter enemies, are coming under intensified pressure to give up their WMD programs. But neither country is likely to comply before a regional peace treaty is signed, analysts say. And with Saudi Arabia reportedly considering acquiring nuclear weapons, prospects for an imminent WMD-free zone in the volatile region look bleak.
The United Nations Security Council meets Monday at the request of Arab nations to discuss a Syrian proposal to abolish WMD from the Middle East. The draft, which was first submitted in March, calls for implementation of two previous resolutions "aimed at freeing the Middle East region of all weapons of mass destruction." It also urges Middle East states to sign international treaties barring the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
"We have been pursuing this for years because we believe it's the only solution for the Middle East to be truly peaceful and stable," says Bouthaina Shaaban, Syrian minister for emigrants' affairs.
The immediate intention of Syria and other Arab countries is to score political points against Israel.
"Israel is under a great deal of international scrutiny - its treatment of the Palestinians, the construction of the separation barrier, and the general mood in the West that Israel is a bully," says Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst. "There is a political gain for Syria in saying that 'Israel has nuclear weapons, but we don't. So why don't you go after Israel.' "
Syria has aimed its proposal at Israel, which is believed to be the only country in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons. Israel refuses to confirm or deny the claim and is not party to treaties banning WMD.
"We believe that the reason Israel is not paying attention is because of the weakness of the international order," Ms. Shaaban says. "If [the international community] was strong and believed in justness, it would treat all countries equally. If the US decides at this moment to take a leading role in the Middle East and treat countries fairly, and the UN takes a strong role, then I don't see why Israel should not give up its nuclear weapons. It's up to the international community now to say what is right."
Syria, though more frequently criticized for its support of alleged terrorist organizations, is also facing renewed pressure from the United States over its suspected WMD.
President Bush earlier this month signed the Syria Accountability Act, which provides for sanctions against Damascus unless it fulfills a number of measures, including renouncing its support for terrorist organizations, abandoning its WMD programs, and entering peace talks with Israel.
Syria was listed last year with Cuba and Libya on a second tier of "axis of evil" countries pursuing WMD programs. The Damascus regime has never officially confirmed that it has WMD, although US officials claim it has dozens of ballistic missiles filled with Sarin and VX nerve agents. It also is suspected of having manufactured small amounts of biological agents.
Analysts believe that Syria's decision to acquire chemical weapons, which reportedly began in 1973, is based on achieving a strategic deterrence against Israel's nuclear capabilities.
"The whole reason for its [the WMD program's] existence is Israel," says a European diplomat in Damascus. "If Israel was to disarm then I am sure that Syria would follow suit."
But Syria will not make the first move, the diplomat adds.
Arab states have long called for removing WMD from the region. Egypt mounted an unsuccessful diplomatic effort several years ago to force Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Both Syria and Egypt were quick to renew the call following Libya's decision to abandon its WMD programs.
Israel "should be obliged to withdraw from all occupied Arab lands and return to the 1967 [Mideast war] borders and to remove its arsenal of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons," Syrian Prime Minister Naji al-Otari said in a speech last week following talks with his Egyptian counterpart Atef Obeid.
Despite significant strategic changes in the Mideast over the past 12 months with the downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, Israel argues that the region is still far from stable. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned of Libya's nuclear weapons program over a year ago. More recently, Israeli officials have claimed that Iran's nuclear ambitions represent an "existential threat" to the Jewish state. That has fueled speculation that Israel may seek to emulate its 1981 air raid against Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor with an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
But in a deal brokered by the European Union, on Dec. 18 Iran signed the additional protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, allowing snap inspections of its nuclear facilities. The move will make it harder for Iran to embark on a clandestine nuclear weapons program. Sunday, UN inspectors visited weapons-related sites in Libya, with full-scale inspections to come.
Although the WMD threat from Iran and Libya has declined, Israel is likely to brush off continued pressure to abolish its nuclear arsenal, says analyst Mr. Young. "The call for a WMD-free Mideast is very embryonic," he says. "The pressure [on Israel] will come with a regional peace settlement and a multilateral process, but this is a long-term issue."