With reports that Syria’s chemical weapons have been “locked and loaded inside the bombs,” according to NBC News, Israeli experts noted Thursday that Muslim regimes, which may have initially armed themselves with chemical weapons in order to threaten and deter Israel, have thus far used them only on their own countrymen or co-religionists.
In addition, although everyone from NATO Sec.-Gen. Anders Fogh Rasmussen to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned Syrian President Bashar Assad that the use of chemical weapons would trigger a swift response – Clinton called it “a red line” – the movement of the weapons could well be defensive, some of the experts said. Assad might be seeking to keep the nerve agents out of the hands of rebels, who are said to be battling near one of his chemical weapons sites, they suggested, and to ready them for transportation in the event that the president and his clan are forced to flee Damascus.
“I see the developments as a card he’s holding against a slaughter at the hands of the Sunnis,” said Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terror at the IDC Herzliya, who teaches a masters course on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear terrorism. “He could be trying to keep [the weaponry] away from the jihadist opposition and he could be preparing for a retreat.”
Karmon believes that Assad has a “plan in the drawer” in case he needs to flee the capital: relocating to the largely Alawite area along the coast between Latakia and Tartus and the banks of the Orontes River.
Karmon told the Times of Israel back in July that he had seen a concerted effort “to purge” those areas of Sunni residents and to create “a sterile zone” for the president’s Alawite sect.
Despite these assessments, however, there is ample precedent of Muslim rulers using chemical weapons against other Muslims.
Egypt, fighting with republican forces, is widely believed to have used bombs and artillery shells filled with phosgene and mustard gas against the royalist troops and civilians in the North Yemen Civil War, killing an estimated 1,500 people in 1966-67.
Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons early in the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 — primarily mustard gas, a blistering agent — and then again in 1988, during the genocidal attack against Kurds in Halabja, killing an estimated 5,000 people. During that aerial attack, the Iraqi dictator apparently employed both mustard gas and nerve agents such as VX and sarin.
And Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez, is said to have pumped hydrogen cyanide into the homes of Muslim Brotherhood activists in Hama in 1982, during the slaughter of some 20,000 civilians in the span of several weeks, according to the Syrian Human Rights Committee.
Chemical weapons, in an illustration of the cruel calculus that governs the Middle East, have thus far been used against the defenseless.
“The two common denominators are that the target populations were not protected and they had no unconventional response,” said Dr. Dany Shoham, an authority on chemical weapons in the Middle East and a researcher at Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center.
Syria, Shoham said, first amassed chemical weapons before the Yom Kippur War, when Egypt supplied Hafez Assad’s regime with sarin and mustard gas, the first known transfer of chemical arms between Arab states.
Hafez Assad habitually called them “the other kinds of weapons,” according to Shoham, and said that “Syria and the Arabs are ready to get rid of them but only after Israel’s nuclear disarmament.”
Today, Syria possesses over 1,000 tons of deadly nerve agents, Shoham said.
Amid reports that Assad had given orders to ready the weapons for use – the precursor chemicals often need to be combined and then mounted on missiles or planes — the United States and its regional partners, including Israel, were “working the problem round the clock,” according to CNN on Wednesday.
This may be true from an intelligence perspective, with some pooling of information or plans, but the threats presented by the chemical weapons are varied and Israel would only have a role in some of the scenarios, the experts said.
A joint American, Jordanian and perhaps Turkish force is set to intervene if Assad uses chemical weapons against his own people, said Karmon. The mission would demand 75,000 soldiers and would not require Israel’s assistance. “Just as in the Gulf War, the United States will not want Israel interfering in the Sunni coalition,” Karmon said.
If Syrian rebels are able to capture one of the roughly 10 chemical munitions storage sites, the Sunni coalition will likely try to replicate its success in Libya, where an unknown storage depot of sulfur mustard gas was found in Ruwagha, in the southeast part of the country. In post-Gaddafi Libya, the transitional government summoned inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague to help plan the destruction of the weapons.
The same cannot be expected from Jihadist groups, of course — but in this instance, too, especially if the weapons remain in Syria, Israel would likely allow the Sunni coalition to act first.
Hezbollah is a different story, and likely Israel’s primary focus. Any sort of transfer of chemical weapons to the Lebanese Shi’ite group will trigger an immediate response, Israel has made clear. In July, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman called the transfer of those weapons to Hezbollah “a clear casus belli” and said that in such a scenario, Israel “will act decisively and without hesitation or restraint.”
Israel and the US have the capacity to monitor the Syrian weapons sites.
Karmon suggested that, if a convoy of trucks carrying chemical weapons were detected, Israel would have to decide whether to attack in Syria or Lebanon – he thought Lebanon was more likely – and whether to strike from the air or deploy commando troops.
In the event of an airstrike, Shoham said, “significant environmental pollution should be anticipated.”