Tracing Back Syria's Chemical Weapons Stockpile to Gulf War

Article Summary
Mossad reportedly told European intelligence officials that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has transferred his weapons to Hezbollah, sparking fear of regional war. Meanwhile, American sources sing another tune. Ronen Bergman tells the story of Syria's chemical stockpile, starting with the First Gulf War.

Bashar al-Assad will probably not be Syria’s president for much longer, and the question under discussion these days is the exact nature of his red lines. When he is up against a wall and serious danger hangs over the future of his regime, will he behave like Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War and fire missiles at Israel, which he loathes? The head of the UN Special Commission on Iraq after that war, Rolf Ekeus, said that Saddam Hussein had armed 25 Al-Hussein missiles with biological and chemical warheads, and aimed them at Israel. The missiles were ultimately not fired because Saddam was deterred, understanding that Israel would respond with destructive weapons against Iraq. What will Syria do? What will President Assad do? Should Israel preemptively strike its chemical weapons sites?

Anxieties are on the rise in the wake of reports from the last few weeks about Syrian chemical danger. Israel has already relayed strong messages to the United States and Europe, warning that any Syrian move entailing chemical weapons, even just a preparatory one, will constitute grounds for an Israeli attack. A senior Israeli official involved in decision-making told me, “If Syria takes out the weapons, arms them with chemical warheads, or transfers them to Hezbollah, that will be seen as a declaration of war, and an attack on Syria will be launched, even if it turns into a general war. A country needs to have its red lines.”

According to a report in the German weekly Der Spiegel [July 30 2012], Mossad recently told European intelligence officials that it has information that chemical warfare agents, along with long-range missiles, have already been transferred to Hezbollah. This assessment contrasts with conclusions reached by intelligence services in Western Europe and the US. The magazine reported that the German counterpart to Mossad, BND, has received information that the Syrians have taken extreme security measures in the last three weeks in order to protect their chemical weapons stockpiles, and have not transferred anything to Hezbollah. Chemical warfare agents that were stored in an air force base near Homs [Western Syria], which was considered less guarded, were transferred to a site in Masyaf. The same appears to have happened with materials that were stored in a base near Hama. Additionally, the military leadership at a site in Al-Safir was replaced in full, such that only Alawite officers (not Sunnis or Christians), who are considered particularly loyal to the regime, remain.

Over the last few weeks, American sources also relayed a harsh message to Damascus, stating that any use of chemical warfare, whether aimed domestically or externally, will prompt US military intervention. Assad most certainly does not wish to worsen his situation by having the Americans join those fighting him.

The gap between Israel and Syria

Everything started with the first Gulf War [1990-1991], which broke out after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The US convened an international coalition, and took care to ensure that Arab states also took part, at least symbolically.

Syrian President Hafez Assad, who understood how the winds were blowing after the fall of the Soviet bloc, reluctantly took up the invitation and ordered the 9th Mechanized Division to join the forces. The division did not end up fighting, but its mere presence in the battlefield was of great importance. The division’s commander, along with Chief of Staff Hikmat al-Shihabi, were present in the coalition’s command and control rooms. They would occasionally observe from afar the battlefield, in which the Americans first used their best weapons, supervision and battle management systems, developed using the most advanced technology in the world and massive budgetary resources.

The two Syrians grew excited. They were especially impressed by the exact munitions the US Air Force used against Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. Chief of Staff Al-Shihabi was particularly enthused. In March 1991, he returned to Damascus and told Assad what he and his officers had witnessed. In 2002, after falling out with the president, he traveled to visit his son who was studying in Los Angeles, and used the trip to defect to the US. There, he told of the dramatic developments he relayed to the president 11 years prior.

One of the things that Al-Shihabi told the Americans was that following his reports, Assad convened a series of meetings in the latter half of 1991 — meetings he led that were attended by leaders from the military, intelligence establishment, and the SSRC, Syria’s weapons development agency (somewhat similar to Israel’s Rafael). These meetings became known for their significance to subsequent Middle Eastern developments, and they are deeply linked to growing tension in the region in recent weeks, and the alertness levels declared by the IDF out of a concern for Syria’s possible use of chemical weapons or their transfer to Hezbollah.

Against the backdrop of the 1991 meetings were repeated war losses by Syria against Israel. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Syria surprised the IDF but still lost the war. Despite generous Soviet assistance with planes and anti-aircraft batteries, Syria’s planes did not succeed in penetrating Israeli territory or achieving aerial superiority. After the war, the Soviet Union agreed to provide Syria with a few dozen Scud-B surface-to-surface missiles, each with a range of 300 kilometers. However, that wasn’t enough for the Syrians: a 300-kilometer range only covers part of Israeli territory, and even then, the missiles must be launched from near the border, making them vulnerable to an Israeli attack. In June 1982, Syria suffered another stinging defeat, when roughly 100 of its planes were felled during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, [the beginning of what is known as Israel’s 'first' Lebanon war ] during which it didn’t manage to bring down even one Israeli plane. President Assad, formerly the commander of the air force, began freeing his resources for new things. He gave Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini permission to establish an armed Shi’ite militia in Lebanon (Hezbollah), transferred far less money to Syria’s regular army, and used the money that had freed up to rehabilitate the air force and develop missiles.

In March 1990, North Korean Prime Minister Yi Chong-ok visited Damascus, and the two countries signed a secret agreement on military and technological cooperation, with a focus on the provision of Scud-C missiles to Syria. In early February 1991, the first shipment of 30 missiles left North Korea for the Latakia port in northern Syria. The US National Security Agency, as the Mossad learned later, knew of the development, but the Americans feared that Israel would make use of the information to try to sabotage the shipment, and did not report it.

But Israel had its own sources. A former Mossad official who now resides in Canada, known as Michael Ross in his book The Volunteer: The Incredible True Story of an Israeli Spy on the Trail of International Terrorists [2007], wrote that Mossad tracked the shipment. Agents from the Caesaria Division [a special operation division of Mossad], which is trained in penetrating Arab counties, prepared to ambush a ship in Morocco carrying 30 Scud-C missiles and roughly five launchers, sailing from North Korea via several North African ports en route to the Mediterranean and the Latakia port. The plan was to attach a powerful homing device to the ship. An Israeli F-15 plane was meant to locate the ship through the device and fire torpedo missiles at it, blowing it to shreds. But ultimately, then-prime minister Itzhak Shamir decided to call off the attack, fearing a huge flare-up in the Middle East.

Al-Shihabi told the Americans that during the meetings held after the Gulf War, Assad announced that he believed that if the Americans had such impressive weaponry, then Israel must have the same, indicating an increased technological and qualitative gap between the two armies. (Assad attributed this gap to weapons systems only, and not, as Israel claims with some condescension, to manpower training.) Al-Shihabi said that in high-level meetings, the Syrian debt to Russia for arms was said to reach some $11 billion. The collapsing Syrian economy had no way to pay this money. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia would not agree to continue subsidizing the Syrians, and announced that it would not defer payment on the advanced anti-aircraft missiles the Syrians were requesting.

Al-Shihabi added that Assad spoke in these meetings about the US remaining the world’s only superpower, and after the series of meetings, the president took some decisions that would prove fateful to Syria. First, he decided to reluctantly accept a US invitation to join the Madrid Conference with Israel, in opposition to everything that had been previously declared. [The Madrid international conference hosted by Spain convened on October 1991. The conference presented a first step towards the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and towards the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan, in a multilateral framework, including Israel and most Arab countries.] But alongside this moderate political decision, other decisions were taken. Assad announced that he didn’t believe there was any way to close the qualitative gap between the two armies in the foreseeable future, and therefore Syria would invest in other horizons in an attempt to create a “counterweight” to Israeli power. The main horizon that was agreed upon was the establishment of a separate, powerful missiles corps, and the arming of these missiles with deadly chemical weapons.

The Russian adviser

At the heart of the decision to invest in missiles was Assad’s assumption that the Syrian Air Force was unable to penetrate Israeli air defenses, but a battery of missiles could. Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamist militant groups would come to adopt the same assumption. The decision promoted the signing of additional agreements with North Korea. In the first stage, Syria was provided with 150 Scud-C missiles, with a range of 500 kilometers each. But the Syrians didn’t want to remain dependent on other countries, and feared a closure of world markets as a result of the international weapons inspections regime, which was becoming stricter. Since 1995, Syria has continuously produced Scud-C missiles. Their production was first carried out with close supervision of engineer delegations from North Korea, and the Syrians eventually managed to acquire the knowledge and experience for production on their own.

Scud-C missiles cover all of Israel’s territory, but in order to reach the south of the country, the Syrians need to place the missiles near the border. As a result, Assad ordered massive financial investments for the production of Scud-D missiles, which reach as far as 700 kilometers. At the end of September 2000, Syria undertook a few successful Scud-D trials, reaching 580 kilometers. In early July 2001, a new Israeli system detected a Scud missile launched from around Aleppo in northern Syria, which landed 700 kilometers away, in southern Syria. The Scud-D allows Syria to deploy its missile system in a broader and more flexible manner.

Syria’s arsenal now stands at some 500 Scud-B and C missiles, with roughly 60 launchers for each type. The Scud-B can hold warheads weighing 1,000 kilograms, which can reach as far as 300 kilometers, and the Scud-C can hold 770-kilo warheads and go as far as 500 kilometers. According to intelligence assessments, Syria has some 250 Scud-D missiles, which can reach as far as 700 kilometers. Some of the missiles are powered by solid fuel. This is a significant achievement for Syria, as a missile propulsion system working off of liquid fuel must be powered just before launching. The material is extremely poisonous and volatile, constitutes a health risk to those dealing with the missile, and can easily ignite. Moreover, the need to refuel the missile in open air — meaning outside the bunker in which it is stored — and only just before it is fired creates a relatively long period of time during which both missile and personnel are exposed to detection and attack by the enemy. Thus, for example, a Syrian Scud-C unit generally includes 18 launchers and 50 missiles. Preparations for the launch of the first missile take about an hour and a half — an eternity in terms of fear of a hostile aerial attack. Solid fuel, on the other hand, is in the missile at all times. The missile just needs to be taken out and fired.

In addition to acquiring missiles, the Syrians also launched efforts to obtain chemical weapons. The initial intention was to use these weapons as tactical tools in heavy-armored combat against Israel, in a way that harms tank crews or at least disrupts them. Later, when Assad reached the conclusion that he could no longer afford an old-fashioned frontal confrontation with Israel on the battlefield, the weaponry became intended to deter Israel from attacking Syria, due to the threat that such an attack could result in the use of chemical warfare on Israeli cities.

Syria did not sign the UN Chemical Weapons Convention [188 countries have signed the CWC. Israel signed the convention, but has not yet ratified it. Syria is one of the five countries which did not sign the agreement.], and started to produce chemical warfare agents in the mid-1980s. Initially, these were bombs full of sarin gas meant to be dropped from planes. Later, warheads were developed for Syria’s Scud missiles. Israeli intelligence officials say that most of the equipment and knowledge that went into producing the chemical weapons came from the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, alongside assistance from private entities from Europe and Japan.

In the mid-1990s, Syria succeeded in producing the most deadly chemical weapon of all — VX. It is comprised of two components, kept separately in the missile’s warhead. When it hits the ground, they mix and produce a particularly deadly substance, which as opposed to the other chemical weapons doesn’t dissipate after several days. The knowledge required for the production of the substance came from an advisor to Russian President Boris Yeltsin on chemical weapons disarmament, then the most senior authority in Russia on the matter. General Anatoly Kuntsevich, born in August 1934, Mossad learned, was an expert in physics and organic chemistry, and was considered to be a leader in the field in the Soviet Union. He was a senior official in the top-secret Soviet chemical weapons program. With the collapse of the empire, President Yeltsin decided to dismantle the program, and appointed the general to head the process, including in negotiations with the US. But Kuntsevich also wanted to look out for his own interests. Under the pretext of a routine work visit to Syria in 1995, as good military relations remained between the countries (the Russians still have an intelligence base in the Golan Heights [on its Syrian side] and in northern Syria), he started to establish personal contacts with the Syrian regime’s leaders. He received massive sums of money from them and provided the knowledge and some of the equipment (which he had purchased in Europe) to produce these types of weapons.

Some of the details of the deal became known to Mossad in 1998. Then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak tried to warn leaders in Moscow of the general’s actions, but to no avail. It seemed that President Yeltsin couldn’t or didn’t want to intervene. Michael Ross claims that when Israel saw that the pressure wasn’t working, some Mossad agents in Europe disguised themselves as independent researchers working on a documentary film on gas warfare. They repeatedly called high-level officials in the Kremlin and the Red Army and said that according to information they had obtained, Kuntsevich was selling chemical weapons to Syria. The idea was to scare Moscow, since the information was about to be publicized, but this didn’t help either. Beyond a strict warning, nothing was done with the general.

Israeli officials were furious. On April 29, 2002, the general died in a flight from Aleppo to Moscow in circumstances that remain a mystery to this day. A top-secret CIA assessment from the same period ruled that Syria had managed to create, up to that point, a large amount of chemical weapons, and that “there is a high reasonability that Syria is now making efforts to develop its offensive capabilities with biological weapons.”

The sites

Syrian efforts to produce chemical weapons mostly happen through the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), which was established in 1971. It operated under various names in its dealings with research bodies and business groups in the West, until US and French intelligence services identified it as a front for the Syrian security system, and banned it.

The SSRC answers directly to the Syrian president, and its staffers also direct other groups within the system. Thus, for example, the head of the agency also serves as one of the directors of the Supreme Council for Scientific Research and the Syrian Atomic Energy Agency. His status equals that of a senior government minister. The highest institute for training for scientific professions (HISAT) is beneath the SSRC. HISAT is essentially the top training school for the workers who fill the agency’s wide variety of positions. Among other activities, the institute trains mechanical and electric engineers, software engineers, aeronautic engineers, experts in biology and chemistry and more.

The SSRC also operates Syria’s main sites for the production and storage of surface-to-surface missiles and chemical weapons (intelligence officials estimate that some 10,000 people deal with missiles and chemical warfare). There are two principle sites. The first is near the stunning eighth century fortress in the city of Masyaf, located roughly halfway between Baniyas and Hama, in northwestern Syria. The second is the Al-Safir site north of Damascus. This site is home to the production of chemical weapons including sarin and VX. Some Scud missiles and launchers are also stored there. In addition to the two sites, some smaller sites operate within a separate framework from within Syrian Air Force bases, near Hama and Homs.

Sarin is a chemical weapon that is 500 times more poisonous than cyanide, and a tiny amount — some 0.01 milligram for every kilogram of body weight — is enough to cause certain death within a minute. The gas was first invented in Germany in 1939. It has no smell, and before its dispersal looks like a liquid of varying shades of brown. Sarin paralyzes the nervous system, causing its victim to lose control over his or her muscles. It enters the body through inhalation or through the skin. Its initial symptoms are similar to congestion, but the pupils and chest muscles then dilate, followed by difficulty breathing, loss of muscle control, and suffocation.

During the first Gulf War [1990-1991], American soldiers were wounded by small amounts of sarin, due to time spent near Iraqi sarin stockpiles. They have since suffered serious damage to their immune systems.

VX, like sarin, is also an odorless nerve gas that is very difficult to detect. It is also based on organic phosphorus. It is the most fatal chemical warfare agent in the world, invented in 1952. According to experts from Tel Aviv University, a small, three-square-meter cloud of VX can kill hundreds of people. The differences between VX and sarin lie in their deadliness (you need a lot less of the former to kill someone) and effectiveness over time. VX remains deadly days after its dispersal, and a special purification process is required in order to get rid of it completely.

Satellite images of the primary site in Al-Safir — which, except for military and presidential facilities in Damascus, is considered the most guarded spot in Syria — reveal that the Scud missiles are not produced on site, but rather brought there from a different site and stored in underground tunnels. It is a massive site, spreading out over dozens of kilometers, comprised of several portions, surrounded by patrol roads and high double fences. The satellite images demonstrate enormous investment in the site’s protection, out of fear of an Israeli attack, in the areas devoted to the massive production of chemical weapons and in the area storing missiles and chemical weapons in guarded bunkers. Surface-to-air missile batteries protect the entire site against an aerial attack, using the most advanced missile in Syria’s possession, a significant source of Israel’s headaches — the Pantsir-SA22.

Anyone who tries to just approach Al-Safir will encounter, many kilometers away from the site, the first checkpoint, which is just an introduction to a string of checkpoints and thorough checks that anyone seeking to enter the site will undergo. The area is heavily guarded by elite ground forces that belong to the Air Force and are considered the most loyal to the regime and to the president. To this day, they have experienced very few defections. The satellite images also reveal the preferential treatment enjoyed by those dealing with missiles in Syria. The residences in Al-Safir are fancy, dotted with swimming pools and green lawns — far better than the typical conditions in Syrian military facilities.

The images from Al-Safir clearly show the special cooling towers that characterize facilities for the production of chemical weapons. The images also reveal a power station several stories high, which attests to expansive industrial activity. These bases are part of the “missiles system,” which is bureaucratically part of the artillery corps of the Syrian Army, but which essentially constitutes an autonomous, prestigious, and independent body within the army. At the head of the administration is an officer who holds the rank of general, subordinate directly to the chief of staff, but who can fire the missiles only by order of the president.

On July 25, 2007, a horrible glitch took place in the assembly line producing components of VX, which had been constructed by North Korea and Syria. One of the pipes carrying the materials blew up, and within minutes, the entire assembly line turned into a firetrap. The strength of the explosion blew doors open, and the contaminated air started to spread throughout the Al-Safir site. The initial blast killed 15 Syrians. According to one report, 10 Iranian engineers present also died in the blast. An unknown number were seriously injured. In total, an estimated 200 people were hurt. Rescue and aid teams who are on the site in case of a disaster could not deal with all of those affected, and the Syrians were forced, against their desire for secrecy, to call on rescue teams from outside the site. Inquiries made after the incident by a special team appointed by the Syrian president reached the conclusion that it had been an act of deliberate sabotage, but to this day no evidence has been found to that effect.

In total, according to Western sources, the Syrian chemical arsenal is comprised of some 1,000 tons of chemical warfare agents, consisting mostly of sarin and VX. It should be noted that estimates by the Syrian opposition and Israeli intelligence put that figure at much higher. European officials say that Israel is purposely inflating the figures in order to spark panic.

2010: Trucks make their way to Lebanon

Bashar al-Assad replaced his father in June 2000. He enacted various changes and reforms to the Syrian security establishment, and appointed General Mohammad Suleiman to coordinate all special programs, including responsibility for Syria’s chemical arsenal. The new president used existing contacts with North Korea and signed a deal for the provision of a nuclear reactor, which was destroyed by Israel in September 2007 [the nuclear reactor at the Deir ez-Zor region in an operation known as ‘Orchard’]. With the encouragement of Suleiman, who was assassinated, the Syrians claim, by elite Israeli forces in August 2008, Assad strengthened his links with Hezbollah. Most contacts with the group were conducted through mediation by Suleiman and Imad Mughniyeh [described as the head of the security section of Hezbollah. He was associated, amongst other terror acts, with the bombing of the US embassy in Beirut.], the group’s military commander, whose assassination in February 2008 has been attributed to Mossad.

Assad completely changed his father’s approach to the [Hezbollah] organization, and instead of closing his eyes to the provision of weapons from Iran, sometimes via Syria, began providing the group massive military aid. In the summer of 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, the IDF took control of Hezbollah’s arms stockpiles, and discovered many weapons from which the Syrians hadn’t erased the producer’s name: the SSRC. Assad did something even more significant: he transferred from his arsenal of surface-to-surface missiles between 70 and 100 of each type to Hezbollah, to sites that were constructed for the organization in western Syria. The point was to supply the group with strategic capabilities, but also to make it immune from an Israeli attack by placing the sites within Syria, where Israel is hesitant to act.

As a result of all of this, Hezbollah can fire missiles at almost any point in Israeli territory. With the outbreak of the war in the summer of 2006, Meir Dagan, then the head of Mossad, said in a government cabinet meeting that there was no point in attacking Hezbollah without also destroying the bases in Syria. Ultimately, Prime Minister Olmert decided not to order an attack there, out of fear of an all-out war with Syria.

In February 2010, Israeli intelligence identified a convoy of trucks from Al-Safir crossing the border into Lebanon. Israel believed that the trucks were carrying Scud missile parts that were now being supplied to Hezbollah in Lebanon. For Israel, a red line had been crossed, and Netanyahu was faced with a suggestion to target the convoy. He deliberated, and ultimately decided not to attack. Instead, the information was transmitted to the Americans. On March 1, the Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, was summoned to the State Department, where he received a stern warning that transferring “destabilizing” weapons to Hezbollah could spark a war. The Syrians, at the time, desisted.

An Israeli intelligence official who deals with the matter of Syrian chemical weapons says that even if the weapons are transferred to Hezbollah, that doesn’t mean that Hezbollah will know what to do with them. “The weaponry that Syria developed is pretty complicated and a lot of people and knowledge are required to effectively operate it,” he says. “These are two components that are not stored together for safety reasons, they need to be brought from two separate sites, and knowledge is required to assemble them onto one warhead, which is then assembled on a missile that arrives from a third site. You need to know how to attach all this to a launcher, and to launch and to calibrate it so that it explodes at the right time. All of these things may seem simple in movies, but they aren’t actually so simple.”

The various developments regarding the Syrian missile and chemical arsenal haven’t passed without a response from Israel. The arsenal was at the basis of Israel’s decision to invest huge budgets (with the support of the US) in developing the anti-ballistic Arrow system, which is considered the most advanced in the world, and is meant to protect Israel from missiles that may be fired from Iran or Lebanon. [The arrow system is a family of transportable anti-ballistic missiles. Its development begun in 1986 by Israel and the US.] At the same time, Israel is taking steps to ensure that most of the population possesses gas masks as protection from chemical warfare agents.

The last card

In the last 20 years in Israel, and especially within Military Intelligence, many resources have gone into attempts to understand the details of the Syrian missile apparatus. Israeli figures are tracking the Syrian gas warfare strategy to learn when Syrian would use such weapons, what its red lines are, and whether it would dare use them in an attack on Israel, likely prompting a harsh Israeli response. “In general,” says an Israeli intelligence source, “it is pretty clear that they see chemical weapons on the whole as a strategic means to try and somehow balance what they see as the State of Israel’s capabilities. Strategic weapons are generally intended to be a last resort that is not to be used at all. We believe that the Syrians also see it this way.”

According to Israeli assessments, over the last 10 years there have been several missiles armed with VX gas ready to be fired at any moment in Syria, in case of a surprise Israeli attack. Israel, for its part, fears a surprise Syrian attack, like the one that took place in October 1973, and therefore demanded, in secret peace talks that took place during Ehud Barak’s term as prime minister, guarantees that Syria won’t attack. [Former PM Ehud Barak met with his Syrian counterpart in January 2000, in the framework of the Shepherdstown conference. More meetings took place later on between Israelis and Syrians, up until 2008, when PM Olmert visited Turkey. Ankara hosted at least four rounds of secret meetings between Israeli and Syrians during that year.] Among the guarantees demanded by Israel was the withdrawal of the Syrian “shock division” to a line north of Damascus. Strangely, the question of chemical weapons wasn’t raised, and Israel didn’t bring it up.

According to one of the senior participants in the negotiations, “Before we went to the United States we received a full report about the sites and the amounts for the production and storage of chemical weapons and the threat they present to the citizens of Israel. Ultimately, there was a sort of [policy of] mutually assured destruction balance, with a wink: we didn’t mention their chemical weapons and our demand that they disarm, and they didn’t mention the reactor in Dimona and what’s going on there. It was clear to both parties, without us speaking about it directly, that raising the issue would significantly complicate the negotiations."

The talks would eventually fail, despite the fact that the matter of non-conventional weapons wasn’t raised. The threat of a Syrian missile armed with chemical weapons continues to be a central feature in Israel’s map of threats, and needs to be taken into account in war plans of an attack. On the other hand, it should be noted that Israel attacked Syria at least three times in recent years (so the Syrians believe) without being provoked — the bombing of the reactor in Deir ez-Zor, the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus, and the assassination of the General Suleiman in Tartus. Despite all of this, President Assad did not respond, not with chemicals and not through any other means. There are officials in Israel who believe that this can be seen as a positive sign of a moderate and restrained man with whom a peace agreement can be reached.

Intelligence services in western Europe believe that Assad has no interest in transferring his chemical warfare agents to Hezbollah. He sees them as the “last card” in his deck, to be used in the final moment of drama, which hasn’t arrived, and he doesn’t want to lose control over them. Nasrallah [Secretary general of the Hezbollah], for his part, also isn’t rushing to become the owner of weapons of mass destruction, fearing that such a development could spark an all-out war with Israel, in which he is not presently interested. Officials in Europe claim that they have not yet seen any Hezbollah training or preparation ahead of the reception of chemical weapons, such that the organization does not have the ability to operate them.

Is Assad likely, as a last resort, to use these weapons? On this as well, the Europeans are relaying a moderate and comforting assessment. If the regime in Damascus will indeed reach the point of collapse, says the assessment, its leaders will prefer to quickly find a place of refuge and asylum before making a suicidal move like using chemical weapons. Now we just have to make sure they are right. 

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