The Race for Assad's Chemical Arsenal

Article Summary
Jerusalem and Washington are paying close attention to Assad's large chemical stockpile as they monitor the crisis, write Ahikam Moshe David and Tzach Yoked. Israel fears that anarchy in post-Assad Syria will enable Hezbollah and other terror groups to take advantage of the situation to launch attacks.

While opposition forces hammer the Syrian army in the streets of Damascus, Israel is gearing up for President Bashar al-Assad’s final collapse and is expressing its concern regarding the fate of the unconventional weapons in Assad’s hands. The United States is also keeping close tabs on the chemical-biological arsenal, concerned about it being used to suppress the rebellion within Syria. On Thursday it was reported that sources in the White House conversed with their counterparts in Jerusalem on the possibility of destroying the weapons in a preemptive strike.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak toured the Israeli-Syrian border on Thursday and reviewed the possible scenarios that the IDF is preparing for. Barak visited one of the most anterior of the  posts in the area, from where he was able to see mortar shells falling on a Syrian village and hear the loud machine-gun fire between the rebel and army forces. “Syria’s disintegration is real, and the recent events in Damascus will accelerate Assad’s downfall,” said the defense minister. “No one can predict what will happen afterwards. There are all kinds of agents there like opponents [of the regime], [army] deserters and World Jihad activists. The longer this process takes — the greater the disorder that will reign after Assad’s fall.” Regarding Syria’s unconventional weapons, Barak says, “We are concerned that the disarray will lead to the collapse of sensitive systems. There are quite a lot of chemical agents in Syria, scattered throughout the entire country; there are also numerous firearms held by civilians. We are keeping tabs on the possibility that during Assad’s collapse, Hezbollah will try to transfer heavy ground-to-ground missiles or chemical weapons to Lebanon.”

Another scenario cited by the defense minister is the possibility that hordes of Syrian refugees will try to escape en masse to Israel. In such a scenario, says Barak, the IDF will prevent their entrance to the country. The defense system is also preparing for a situation in which Syria becomes a no-man's land from where terrorists may operate against Israel unimpeded. Only a few minutes after Barak left the stronghold, it seemed that his words were prophetic — about 10 Syrians shot toward the protective fence. No damage was caused. A regional high-level alert was announced, but after a few hours of vigilance the alert was downgraded. As a result of recent events — both in Bulgaria [terrorist attack on vacationers] as well as Syria — IDF announced a cancellation of military leaves. A while later, the cancelation was partly revoked and some of the units were released [to their scheduled leave].

The United States Sends Out Feelers                                                

Washington is also keeping close track of the chaos that is developing in Syria. Thursday’s New York Times reported that the White House is becoming concerned that Assad will use his unconventional weapons stockpile — thought to be among the largest in the world — as a last-resort attempt to suppress the riots. Washington is also aware of Israel’s concern over the leakage of the weapons to foreign hands. According to the report, sources in Washington’s Defense Department held talks with their Israeli counterparts to investigate the possibility of Israel destroying the stockpiles. Nevertheless, it was noted that the Americans are careful not to push for this kind of action that might backfire: it could strengthen Assad’s public position and allow him to channel the anger of his citizens against Israel.

This report connects to an earlier article from last week’s Wall Street Journal, which cited the concern over possible use by Assad of the ammunition dumps in his possession or the falling of the unconventional weapons into rebel hands. According to that report, American intelligence agencies detected recently some worrisome transfer of stocks of chemical warfare. Some of these weapons were even placed outside of the usual storage place. “Obama’s government is greatly concerned about the sarin nerve gas,” was written at the time. Simultaneously, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little had warned that “it is very important that the Syria government retain control and security over those dangerous weapons.”

Jordan Also Worried 

Israel and the United States are not the only ones who are following the fate of the chemical-biological weapons. Jordan’s King Abdullah also expressed worry this week about weapon stockpiles falling into al-Qaeda hands. “Our information points to their [al-Qaeda] presence in several regions within Syria, a process that began long ago,” said King Abdullah to CNN. Later on he emphasized in this context that “one of the terror scenarios is that part of the chemical weapons stockpiles will fall into unfriendly hands.”

* * *

What is Assad holding? 

Dozens of rockets that reach Israel, by Ahikam Moshe David

Syria is considered a world-wide chemical weapons super power, retaining a large quantity of unconventional weapons scattered throughout the country, together with ground-to-ground missiles capable of carrying the rockets for long distances.

In recent years, Syria has invested a great deal in developing chemical weapons and increasing its capability to launch its rockets, thanks (in part) to Iranian assistance. According to foreign news reports, one of the reasons for this is the failure of Syria’s nuclear enterprise, due to Israeli damage inflicted on the nuclear facility in 2007. Recently, Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Nave stated that Syria has the largest chemical weapons arsenal in the world. According to recent estimates, the Syrian arsenal includes sarin gas (considered especially deadly) and from 70 to 80,000 rockets and missiles that can reach Israel —some of them with chemical warheads.

Ever since Assad's regime started to collapse, Israel began tracking the Syrian arsenal, for fear it would fall into foreign hands in the event of a coup d'état. Jerusalem is very concerned over the possibility that weapons would trickle into Hezbollah hands and then be moved to Lebanon. According to articles in the Wall Street Journal, the Syrians recently moved their unconventional weapons storage site, a red light in Israel and other countries.

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Found in: refugees, king abdullah, chemical weapon, borders, terror, tehran, lebanon, idf, hezbollah, ehud barak, assad

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