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Syria’s Chemical Weapons, Israel and Hezbollah

The US statement about Syrian chemical weapons; Israel weighs in; the debate within Hezbollah about Syria.
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) listens to remarks by Jordan's King Abdullah prior to a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House to discuss issues like the Syrian crisis and regional security, in Washington, April 26, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Theiler (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - RTXZ19P

King Abdullah’s Warning on Syria

King Abdullah II of Jordan, meeting at the White House on April 26 with US President Barack Obama, warned of the threats of the “fragmentation of Syrian society, which is becoming more and more alarming” and of “militant terrorist organizations,” which are on the rise in Syria. He called for a political solution as “our last hope.”

Obama’s announcement at the same press conference of a further investigation into the use of chemical weapons by Syria, which might take some time, disappointed those clamoring for the revelation to be proof positive that the “red line” had been crossed and should be the final straw for the US to arm the Syrian opposition, establish no-fly zones or even take military action.

Given the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq war, it might appear bewildering that some hype military action based upon (according to the April 25 White House letter to Senators John McCain and Carl Levin, chairman and ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee) an intelligence assessment made with “varying degrees of confidence” of “small-scale” use, based upon “physiological samples” where “the chain of custody is not clear” — far from definitive evidence that perhaps would even be dismissed, according to UN inspection standards.

Last month, Syria requested a United Nations investigation into chemical-weapons use by rebel forces, but Damascus has so far denied inspectors access to those areas where the weapons may have been used. The UN again pressed Syria on April 25 to allow unconditional and unfettered access for inspectors. The question over chemical-weapons use will not go away, and Damascus should allow the investigation to proceed immediately.

While the allegations of chemical-weapons use may in the end prove to be a “game changer,” as Obama and his team like to say, and have already sparked more discussions of military options, King Abdullah is right to remind us of the bigger picture. 

Syria is ground zero for a regional sectarian war which, in addition to the human costs, is destroying what remains of the Syrian state, contributing to its collapse and partition and fomenting the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq’s al-Nusra Front, “one of the best organized and most capable of the Sunni terrorist groups,” according to US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq and its Syrian partner are linked to the same al-Qaeda that killed nearly 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, numerous terrorist plots and murders around the world and the death and maiming of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians in the brutal sectarian civil war which followed the US toppling of Saddam Hussein. 

Al-Qaeda has been America’s most deadly enemy for more than a decade, and it is gaining in Syria.

So the consequences of “arming the rebels” — around a still-to-be-built “moderate” force when the most effective fighters among the opposition are terrorists with a history of murdering Americans, our allies and innocents; with the collapse of the Syrian state empowering terrorists, who have also increased their deadly operations in Syria and Iraq; with the Syria spillover already evident by the refugee crises in Jordan and Turkey, increased terrorism in Iraq and tension on Israel’s border; and with Iran continuing to back Syria to the hilt — the result, it seems, would only be more war, more killing and the intensification of the breakup of the country.

The allegations of chemical weapons is another urgent cry — as if one were needed — to press for a negotiated political transition in Syria and not military options, which remain as problematic as before the US assessment last week.

It worth recalling here what Kristalina Georgieva, European commissioner for international cooperation humanitarian aid and crisis response, told Al-Monitor: “Our experience, from what we do as humanitarians, we just have not seen so far the pouring of arms into Syria to be helping raise the probability of a political solution or a negotiated exit. We haven’t seen it — with the exception of the Patriot missiles in Turkey that have had a deterrent impact on a part of the territory. The rest of throwing arms into Syria only meant more fighting, more suffering, more people running into neighboring countries.”

A political solution might benefit from a potential new angle with Iran, which has offered to engage the US and its allies on Syria and which is also threatened by Sunni terrorist groups linked to al-Qaeda. 

Barbara Slavin reminds us this week that Iran, the key backer of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s government, was itself a victim of chemical weapons by Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Therefore, in the spirit of opportunity in crisis — and the Syrian crisis is among the most dire in the world — the allegations of chemical weapons might provide context for another means to open the long-overdue dialogue between the US, Iran, Russia and others, as this column has called for time and again, to both end the war in Syria and prevent the use and spread of chemical weapons.

The Israeli "Slip"

On April 23, two days before the White House letter, and with US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel wrapping up his visit to Israel, Gen. Itai Brun, the director of Israel’s Military Intelligence Research Department, at a meeting of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, said, “Assad used chemical weapons against his citizens, and on more than one occasion.”

Brun used the term “in my best judgment,” although as Alon Ben David reported this week for Al-Monitor, Brun had cleared his remarks with superiors.

On April 24, when asked about Brun’s comments at a press availability in Cairo the next day, Hagel said “Well, when I was in Israel, they did not give me that assessment.”

According to Ben David, the Brun comments might have been an ambush to pressure Washington to come around to the positions of Israel, the United Kingdom and France on Syria’s chemical weapons, and to test Obama’s warning of a "red line" not just in Syria, but in Iran as well.

Ben Caspit writes this week that Brun's comments were no ambush, but a "slip of the tongue." But Caspit agrees that the US is now put to the test on its "red lines," with implications for Iran: “This becomes even more poignant because Assad isn’t the problem. On the contrary, when he disappears — if he disappears — he will be missed. Under Assad, the region was stable, under control and managed. The Syrian border with Israel was quiet for over 40 years. The problem lies in Tehran. Over there, they are very curiously watching the US stick. Right now, they have no reason for concern.”

The Hezbollah Debate and Drone

On April 25, the Israeli military reported that it shot down a drone assumed to have been sent by Hezbollah over Haifa. 

The drone incident occurred as some in Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon are questioning why the Party of God is squandering its resources and credibility on the fight in Syria when the struggle remains with Israel, as reported by an Al-Monitor correspondent in Beirut.

In this context, the drone can be seen as a distraction from Hezbollah’s support for Assad.

Shlomi Eldar picked up this theme from Israel. Asking if Hezbollah has lost its grip, Eldar writes that Nasrallah “wants to prove that even though he has thrown his support behind Assad’s wobbly regime, Hezbollah has never once forgotten its jihad against Israel. At the same time, if possible, he would also like to draw media attention to an attractive new target: Israel’s natural-gas fields along the Mediterranean coast.”

But if Hezbollah sought such a distraction, Ali Hashem reported for Al-Monitor, why would Hezbollah quickly issue a statement saying, "Hezbollah denies that it sent any of its planes to occupied Palestine?"

The bottom line from the past week is that if there were doubts before, the Syria conflict is now a regional one, with Jordan, Israel and Lebanon increasingly threatened by its spillover.

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