When considering the potential fallout from Bashar Assad’s downfall, at the top of Israel’s list of concerns is the possibility that Syria’s chemical weapons will fall into rogue hands, possibly al-Qaida or even Hezbollah.
That is why – depending on developments in Syria – the day may come soon when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will need to make a critical decision if presented with intelligence that the weapons are on the verge of proliferating.
Started in the mid-1970s, Syria’s chemical weapons program is run by the Scientific Studies and Research Center and includes the industrial production of Sarin and VX nerve agents as well as mustard gas, all deployable in warheads that can be carried by its operational Scud missiles.
As a result, it is likely that Israel, like other Western countries, is considering its options to stop the potential proliferation.
This dilemma was articulated last week by OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan, who said in a speech at Bar-Ilan University 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 potentially be to attack convoys of chemical weapons or bases where the weapons are stored from the air. 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.
Israel is however not the only country that is likely considering such scenarios.
The United States has reportedly been leading talks with a number of countries to prepare for the day after Assad falls.
Earlier this month, the US and Jordan held a large multinational military exercise, which reportedly included drills aimed at preparing forces for such operations. The Washington Post recently 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.
“This is a major concern for the IDF which is seriously looking at the threat and considering a variety of scenarios,” a senior defense official explained.
Concern is also growing within Israel over the possibility that Syrian nationals will rush the border in the Golan Heights in an attempt to escape Assad’s continued violent crackdown.
Israel is concerned with two scenarios – firstly that Syrian civilians from cities like Hama or Houla, which have seen some of the worst fighting in recent weeks, would rush the border. The other scenario is that following Assad’s downfall, his former loyalists – mostly of Alawite origin – will also try fleeing to Israel to escape possible retaliation.
A senior IDF officer said over the weekend that the military has obtained video recordings of the violence in Syria from villages and cities “close to the border with Israel.”
Over the past year, the IDF has beefed up its defenses along the border, laying new minefields and fortifying the security fence separating both sides of the Golan. In addition, there are increased IDF patrols to prevent infiltrations as well as possible terror attacks against Israel.