Security and Defense: Chemically unstable
Syria’s chemical weapons program has been focus of Israeli intelligence operations since the mid-1970s.
Chemical WMDs (illustrative) Photo: Reuters
It was July 2007 and in Aleppo, Syria, the muezzins were just starting to issue
the early-morning call for prayers. It was a different Syria at the time – Bashar
Assad’s rule appeared stable and was not threatened by rebels. Barely anyone
knew that not far from the city, Assad was building a nuclear reactor that would
be destroyed a few months later in a lightning Israeli airstrike.
then the city was rocked by an explosion. Looking out their windows, residents
could see smoke rising from a military base located on the outskirts of the
The damage was isolated to a single building, one that very
few people – even those who served in the base – knew the purpose
Fifteen people were reported killed and several dozen more were
rushed to the Aleppo University Hospital nearby with severe burns all over their
bodies. Later, some residents would hear rumors about a number of Iranians being
among the wounded and yelling out in Farsi as they were treated for their
The Syrians immediately blocked off the base and prevented the
media from reaching the scene. They also tried to destroy any evidence of the
work that was taking place inside.
Syrian state TV ran a story claiming
that the hot summer temperatures, which can reach up to 50 degrees Celsius in
the area, set off some explosive material that was being stored in an old arms
The problem with the Syrian claim was that the explosion took
place at 4:30 a.m., almost two hours before sunrise, when cool breezes were
still coming in over the hilltops from the Mediterranean Sea some 150 kilometers
A few months would pass before the real nature of the explosion was
to be revealed.
Apparently, the base everyone in Aleppo thought was an
old arms dump was really one of the most secretive installations in Syria’s
chemical weapons program. The nondescript building that was destroyed in the
blast had been a sophisticated laboratory used to manufacture non-conventional
warheads with VX, Sarin and mustard gas.
The explosion took place as
Syrian and Iranian engineers were reportedly trying to weaponize a Scud missile
with a mustard gas warhead. The blast led to the dispersion of various chemical
agents, causing the severe burns on people outside the facility who were not
wearing the necessary protective gear.
One report quoted Syrian
opposition sources who claimed that the base was also used to manufacture car
bombs under the supervision of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps for attacks
The Syrian-Iranian alliance was the result of a series of
defense agreements the countries had signed since 2005 aimed at advancing
military cooperation, including assistance each side would provide the other in
the event of a military confrontation with Israel or the United States. The
agreements also reportedly included a Syrian commitment to allow Iran to store
weapons on Syrian soil if it ever needed to.
Two years later, Maj.-Gen.
(res.) Amos Yadlin, then-head of Military Intelligence, gave a little more
insight into the way the relationship worked between the
Weapons were usually designed and developed in Iran, Yadlin
said in 2009, while production took place in Syria. When it was time to test the
weapons, special invitations would be sent to Hezbollah and Hamas headquarters
as well as to North Korea, which often sent its own military representatives to
In recent weeks, The Jerusalem Post spoke with a number of
senior government and military officials – some retired and others currently in
office – about the nature of the threat that Israel faces from Syria’s chemical
weapons and what it might need to do to stop it.
Israel’s concern focuses
on two stark possibilities.
The first is that the weapons will fall into
rogue hands – either al-Qaida or Hezbollah, which is believed to already be
working to move some of the advanced military systems it has been storing in
Syria to Lebanon out of fear that they will be captured by rebel forces. The
takeover earlier this week of an air defense base in Syria by rebels underscores
The second option – considered more unlikely – is that Assad
will use the weapons against Israel if he starts to think that his end is near.
This way, he will try to divert attention away from the massacres his military
forces have been perpetrating throughout Syria and instead have his people rally
behind him in a war against Israel.
Syria’s chemical weapons program
began in the mid 1970s. According to Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yehoshua Saguy, who served
as head of Military Intelligence from 1979 to 1983, Egypt assisted the Syrians
in starting the program.
“It was after the Yom Kippur War which they
ultimately lost, and there were rumors about Israel’s purported nuclear
capability,” Saguy recalled this week. “It was a totalitarian regime so they
just diverted funds, purchased some basic capabilities from Egypt and later,
with the help of experts from the former Soviet Union, began to build their own
It took only a few years for the program to
take off, and in 1982 the world witnessed what a dictator with chemical weapons
was capable of doing. Hafez Assad ordered his military to quell Muslim
Brotherhood protests in Hama. In addition to heavy shelling, the forces also
used poisonous gas to kill the protesters.
At a later stage and as a
cover, the Syrians established a civilian research facility near Damascus –
called the Scientific Studies and Research Center – to purchase the dual-use
technologies it needed for the production of its various chemical weapons: Sarin
and VX nerve agents as well as mustard gas.
According to Maj.-Gen. (res.)
Shlomo Gazit, Saguy’s predecessor as MI chief, the chemical program gained
importance following the First Lebanon War in the summer of 1982.
Israel Air Force’s elimination of Syria’s surface-to-air missile systems during
the war led to an understanding by the Syrians that they had nothing to do with
an air force or combat aircraft,” Gazit said.
“Instead, they began to
invest in surface-to-surface missiles as well as chemical weapons.”
Syria began to upgrade the capability, Israeli and American intelligence
agencies watched with grave concern. The CIA, the MI and the Mossad led the
intelligence efforts and no resources were spared as the countries learned more
about the program.
Saguy said that a main point of concern was the Soviet
scientists’ involvement in the program. Israel had some experience in dealing
with foreign scientists from the 1960s when German scientists were helping Egypt
develop a rocket capability.
The covert campaign then – overseen by
Mossad head Isser Harel – started with warnings to the scientists to stop their
involvement in the program.
When they ignored the warnings, the
scientists became targets.
“We had some experience dealing with this kind
of thing before,” Saguy said, alluding to the Mossad’s activities in the
But in addition to working to reportedly undermine the program,
Israel also began to consider operational plans for what to do if a future war
broke out with Syria and Assad decided to use his chemical weapons against
Israel. As delivery systems, the Syrians had invested billions of dollars in
establishing a ballistic missile capability, largely with Russian and North
It is not known how many times the Syrians were close to using their chemical
weapons against Israel. One case, though, was in September 2007, shortly after
Israel bombed the Al Kibar nuclear reactor Assad was building covertly along the
According to a US diplomatic cable from 2008 and
published by Wikileaks, Assad had put his mobile missile forces on high alert
after the strike but ultimately ordered them not to fire.
“Bashar is no
dummy,” then-prime minister Ehud Olmert told a delegation of US congressmen
visiting Jerusalem. “That took discipline.”
In recent years, as the
explosion in 2007 demonstrated, Iran has played a key role in helping Syria
upgrade its chemical weapons and missile capabilities. Israel has also long
suspected that Saddam Hussein transferred some of Iraq’s weapons of mass
destruction to Syria in the weeks leading up to the US invasion of the country
Today, Syria is assessed to have one of the largest chemical
weapons arsenals in the world with thousands of bombs that can be dropped from
the air alongside dozens of warheads that can be installed on Scud
In addition, in the late ’90s, the US warned that Syria was
also developing warheads that can detonate in midair and disperse smaller
bomblets packed with various nerve agents.
While Israel has developed the
Arrow missile defense system to protect against Syrian Scuds, the major question
is what it will do if intelligence one day shows the chemical weapons beginning
to proliferate to rogue actors throughout the region.
Israel makes no
secret of its concern or of the fact that it is closely tracking the weapons
“At this stage, the Syrian regime has firm control over the
chemical weapons arsenal, but there are al-Qaida elements in Syria and therefore
we are maintaining close scrutiny," Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon said
earlier this week.
Israel is, however, not alone, and last month the US
and Jordan held a large multinational military exercise which could have
included drills aimed at preparing forces to enter Syria to secure the chemical
weapons if and when Assad falls.
The Washington Post revealed that the US
was looking into the possibility of establishing permanent bases in Jordan for
small units of Marines or special operations troops who could be deployed
rapidly throughout the region, including to Syria.
In late May, OC
Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan articulated this dilemma, saying that the
government would need to consider attacking convoys carrying sophisticated and
advanced Syrian weaponry if they are detected ahead of time.
“Would it be
wise to intercept such a transfer or would this be nonsense?” Golan asked,
presenting the dilemma.
Israel’s options vary. One possibility could be
to attack from the air convoys of chemical weapons or bases where the weapons
are stored. While this would be seen as an act of aggression by Israel, if done
in the twilight of Assad’s regime, the chances that it would spark an all-out
war would be slim.
On the other hand, an Israeli strike against a weapons
convoy in Syria could provide Assad with the opportunity to use Israel as a
scapegoat and divert attention away from his violent crackdown to Israeli
“This is one of the most pressing issues on the country’s
agenda at the moment,” a top defense official said recently.
None of the
options are particularly appealing for Israel but with the situation in Syria
escalating daily, a decision will need to be made. What Israel does could
determine the future balance of power in this ever-changing Middle East.