Threat of Syrian chemical attack on Israel all but over

Threat of Syrian chemical attack on Israel all but over

Jerusalem has had to admit that the agreement dismantling Assad’s stockpiles is serving the interests of Israel as well as those of the citizens of Syria

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Illustrative image of members of a UN investigative team taking samples near the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack, in Syria, August 28, 2013. (AP/United Media Office of Arbeen)
Illustrative image of members of a UN investigative team taking samples near the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack, in Syria, August 28, 2013. (AP/United Media Office of Arbeen)

Various key figures in the Israeli security establishment, including several senior IDF officers, question the new recommendation made by defense officials to stop the production and distribution of gas masks. Nevertheless, the efficiency with which Syria has destroyed its chemical weapons capabilities has succeeded in pleasantly surprising many, including Israeli supporters of the US-Russian agreement on the arsenal, signed in late September.

The latest progress reports from Syria regarding the complex task of destroying its nonconventional weapons are as follows: In the next 24 hours, Damascus is expected to present the UN delegation and the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) with a detailed description of its plans for destroying or removing from Syria all of the chemical weapons in its possession.

The plan will also include disposing raw materials used to manufacture nuclear weapons. Last week, the OPCW reported that it had searched all of the facilities in 21 of the 23 sites used to produce chemical weapons, sealed them off and destroyed the machinery used to manufacture these weapons. The Syrians showed videos that documented an additional site being dismantled and sealed off by the Syrian army, meaning that only one facility remains.

This final site is accessible only by routes that are currently controlled by the opposition, thus preventing the UN supervisors from reaching it.

This means that the threat of Syria launching a chemical attack against Israel has all but dissipated. Progress on this scale would have been considered inconceivable only two months ago, but it happened nevertheless thanks to America’s indecision and Russia’s persistence.

There is still the “small” problem of destroying or transporting these materials. There are currently 1,300 tons of chemical warfare materials on Syrian soil, including raw materials — materials that do not become lethal until they make contact with other materials — that the Syrian government committed to destroying by mid-2014.

Multiple inspections have led the international supervisors to the conclusion that the only option is to transport a significant amount of these materials outside of Syria where they can be neutralized. This means guaranteeing that the material is safely transported to a secure port such as the one in Latakia, though many of the routes that connect Damascus to the port city are controlled by rebels.

The Syrian army has recently compiled a long list of equipment that it will need in order to safely transport these materials outside of the country. The list includes dozens of armored vehicles, which western countries adamantly refuse to provide to the Syrian army, fearing that it will use the vehicles against the opposition forces. Another challenge is finding a country willing to receive and destroy these dangerous materials.

One of the countries that the US considered was Albania, though several days after the Albanian government announced that the US had contacted it, concerned Albanian citizens began to protest the government’s intention of accepting the request. It remains unclear where the Syrian chemical weapons will be taken.

What about the possibility of the Syrians hiding chemical weapons or attempting to deliver them to Hezbollah? This scenario is possible, considering Bashar Assad’s long rap sheet and his past attempt to conceal a nuclear reactor that he was having built. US and Israeli sources suspect the Syrian regime is concealing chemical weapons, though the general consensus is that its capabilities are no more than “residual,” to use the term coined by Israeli experts. In other words, the supervision and control mechanisms that have been put in place as a result of the US-Russian agreement will make it extremely difficult for Syria to conceal a substantial quantity of chemical weapons.

The agreement was drafted after Russian and American intelligence experts cross-checked the information that they had regarding the Syrian chemical weapon cache — and if any country has accurate information about this, it is certainly Russia. After Washington and Moscow compared information, and reported it in great detail back to Moscow, supervisors arrived in Syria equipped with the necessary data.

In addition, Damascus submitted its own version of the quantities of chemical weapons in its possession and the location of all of the materials; and the supervisors found only minor discrepancies between the two versions. The probability of Syria delivering chemical weapons to Hezbollah is negligible as well — first, due to the accurate information about existing chemical weapons; and second, because of Israel’s proven ability to foil attempts to smuggle “game-changing” weapons from Syria to Lebanon.

Hezbollah, for its part, does not appear at all enthusiastic about receiving chemical weapons. Therefore, even at this early stage (less than two months since the agreement) and despite the erratic route that the US took to reach its decision, the Israeli government has had to admit that the agreement is serving the interests of the State of Israel as well as those of the citizens of Syria.

The Americans can also celebrate a preliminary triumph on another complex Syrian issue. The Syrian National Council, the central political opposition organization that operates outside of Syria, has announced the establishment of a temporary government that will take responsibility for all of the territories under opposition control. What’s more, the Council has agreed to participate in Geneva II — the international conference aimed at finding a political solution for Syria set for later this month.

The Council has meanwhile retracted its demand that no representatives of the Syrian regime attend the conference, a demand it stood by for months. The opposition did, however, precondition its own attendance at the conference on the release of political prisoners and the creation of humanitarian corridors leading to territories under its control.

The dramatic announcements means that if and when Geneva II convenes, the opposition leaders will finally meet with representatives of the regime and attempt to resolve the crisis in Syria.

The armed militant forces that fight the regime on Syrian soil vehemently object to the Council’s announcement and refuse to sit with members of the regime. This was the reason for the fierce arguments at the Syrian National Council meeting held in Istanbul late last week.

The political opposition may have finally comprehended the situation in Syria — realizing that continuing to boycott the regime means intensified fighting and increased instances of violence and terror. Or, to echo the US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who attended the meeting in Istanbul and is of course not in Syria, in a conversation with representatives of the opposition (as quoted in The New York Times) — your alternatives are to sit with representatives of Assad’s regime or with those of al-Qaeda.

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