US Foreign Policy
Policy Paper

Confidence-Building, Peace-Making and Aerial Inspections in the Middle East

in Program

Confidence-building measures (CBMs) have been defined as “arrangements designed to enhance…assurance of mind and belief in the trustworthiness of states and the  facts they create”. CBMs, by definition, must promote confidence on both sides of any dispute. Non-symmetrical or unilateral measures not acceptable to the other side tend to increase rather than decrease tensions.

If states in the Middle East wish to create facts associated with trustworthiness and peace-making, a wide range of CBMs might be employed to lessen tensions, quiet borders, or introduce a measured degree of transparency that does not impinge on the security of any participating state. A significant number of these measures-some acknowledged, some not – have already been employed in various parts of the Middle East to mitigate the Arab­ Israeli dispute and tensions in other parts of the region as well.

Aerial inspections are a unique type of confidence-building measure. In theory, aerial inspections can have broad applicability as a CBM. They can be used to ease tension along borders, provide early warning of troubling activities, or confirm data exchanges about the disposition of military forces and the conduct of military exercises. Aerial inspections can also be used to monitor multilateral  agreements barring or limiting certain types of weapons. Most important, they can be used to verify formal troop disengagement agreements, thin-out zones, and peace treaties between states.

While an “Open Skies” treaty has been difficult to negotiate for the nations of North America, Europe, and the former Soviet Union, more limited forms of cooperative aerial inspections have been carried out quietly and successfully for over three decades. Because the East-West Open Skies Treaty calls for the use of highly capable sensors and far-ranging overflights by foreign nationals, it has logically fallowed less intrusive or more restrictive CBMs. Only after a long list of CBMs had been agreed to in bilateral and multilateral accords, ranging from the establishment of communication links to the provision of observers and inspectors at military exercises, did negotiators turn in earnest to Open Skies in the fora of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

This progression is understandable given deeply rooted concerns about the intelligence-gathering potential of surveillance aircraft and the sensors carried by them. The “reach” of aerial inspections is potentially far greater than that of inspections on the ground. Aircraft that provide transparency also can provide targeting information, and states that have sophisticated sensors and processing equipment can easily secure advantages in times of war or peace over states with lesser capabilities. When sophisticated offensive capabilities exist in large numbers and at close proximity in regions of tension, as was the case in Central Europe and continues to be the case in the Middle East and the Korean peninsula, too much transparency can do more harm than good.

The European progression on CBMs, however, need not be the model for other regions. More limited forms of cooperative aerial inspections may precede data exchanges, formal crisis communication links, and on-site inspections, depending on the unique conditions within a troubled region. This has, in fact, been the case in the Middle East, where tension levels are appreciably higher than in Europe, where all but one Arab state do not maintain official diplomatic relations with Israel, and where wars with fearsome loss of life occur on the average of once per decade. Nevertheless, in this violence-wracked region, where formal peace treaties are a rarity and where many basic confidence-building measures appear to be unacceptable, several countries have accepted and lived with carefully circumscribed aerial inspections on a systematic basis for a decade and a half.

The most public of these arrangements have been carried out by the United Nations peacekeeping operations in Lebanon, along the Iran-Iraq border, and elsewhere in the region, and by peace-keepers in the Sinai implementing formal arrangements enshrined in disengagement agreements and  the  Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. As discussed below, third party aerial inspections have also been carried out by the United States to ease tensions over sensitive border areas in the region, but the operation of these arrangement have not been widely acknowledged.

The existence of cooperative aerial inspections in a tension­ filled region appears to present many theoretical contradictions, yet these operations have compiled a quietly successful track record.

This record suggests  that cooperative aerial inspections  might  play an expanded role in attempts to negotiate solutions to a number of territorial and border disputes between some of the Arab states and Israel.

This essay will provide a conceptual framework for the expanded use of aerial inspections for four related tasks: (1) enhancing border security; (2) observing areas where levels of military personnel and equipment have been limited by agreement; (3) monitoring exclusion or demilitarized zones; and (4) monitoring facilities of special interest. Finally, the essay will suggest specific ways in which aerial inspections might be useful in  possible scenarios for peace in the years ahead.

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices