Do chemical weapons in Syria threaten Israel?

Among the most horrifying aspects of the five-year-old Syrian civil war was Assad’s use of chemical weapons, including the massive August 2013 sarin gas attack that killed more than 1,400 civilians.

December 10, 2016 19:13

Employees of the Research Institute for Protective Technologies, Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection (WIS) inspect a dummy sample which is contaminated with a substance similar to the chemical weapon Sarin.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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With Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman's revelation last week that Israel is intervening militarily in Syria - especially when it comes to chemical weapons -how much of a danger does that technology pose for Israel? The answer depends on whether those weapons continue being used by the hands of the Bashar Assad regime or whether they are acquired by Hezbollah.

Assad and ISIS, of course, have used chemical weapons against each other, with a spike in usage by regime forces in recent months in Assad's fight to re-take Aleppo.

But does this spike mean Israel is in greater danger of those same chemical weapons being directed against it? If so, why hasn’t the government adopted the State Comptroller’s recommendations to continue to distribute gas masks – instead completely halting distribution? If not, why would transferring chemical weapons to Hezbollah change anything? A recent history recap is required.

Among the most horrifying aspects of the five-year-old Syrian civil war was Assad’s use of chemical weapons in late 2012, including the massive August 2013 sarin gas attack that killed more than 1,400 civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.

The attack on Ghouta led the US to threaten to intervene militarily to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal. After some of the most intense rounds of diplomacy in recent memory, Russia convinced the US to back off as part of an agreement in which Assad would quickly and verifiably declare and eliminate Syria’s arsenal of 1,308 metric tons of chemical agents, storage and production facilities, and associated equipment.

While the Obama administration was criticized for backing off its now infamous “red-line,” there was also at least a partial net-gain for Israel in that the deal did effectively eliminate the threat of further large-scale chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime against the Jewish state, which is technically still in a state of war with Syria.

But in October, after a 13-month-long investigation, the fourth report of the UN-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) confirmed that Assad’s forces have continued to drop chlorine-filled barrel bombs on civilian areas from Russian-supplied military helicopters.

The JIM report also said that the helicopter flights originated from two bases where the 253rd and 255th and 618th Assad Syrian air squadrons are located.

Arms Control Association Executive Director Daryl Kimball has recently noted that “although less destructive and deadly than sarin nerve agent, Assad’s industrial chlorine barrel bomb attacks violate the CWC and are war crimes. These are the first-ever documented cases that a CWC member state has used chemical weapons.”

As far as Israel is concerned, Kimball and most Israeli intelligence assessments have said that the chemical weapons being used now by Assad in Syria are primarily chlorine and not the more dangerous chemical weapons such as sarin, VX and sulfur mustard (the US has said ISIS is using a small volume of poorly weaponized mustard gas).

Although the deal removed the most dangerous substances, but it did not get rid of stocks of chlorine, which can be used in everything from purifying drinking water to whitening laundry.

Eliminating chlorine is an ardurous process; Assad seems to be implementing ad-hoc chemical warfare, packing chlorine canisters into barrel bombs - crude metal containers pushed out of helicopters onto the target, including civilian neighborhoods.

The Syrian American Medical Society has published a report stating there have been 161 documented chemical attacks in Syria from the beginning of the conflict through 2015. The report said that 77 percent of attacks came after the UN resolution and deal that got rid of its more dangerous weapons, with the vast majority of attacks being chlorine-based.

Chlorine can absolutely be fatal, and its use in World War I was what led to the first convention banning the use of chemical weapons, the 1925 Geneva Protocol, one of the oldest and most widely observed conventions on the planet.

But unlike hitting poorly armed Syrian civilians and rebels, in a battle with Israel, it is more of a poor-man’s weapon than a game-changer.

Israeli intelligence posits that the “really bad” chemical weapons really are close to all gone, with an extremely reduced capability to deliver them. The barrel bomb tactic would be ineffectual against Israel, as the regime's helicopter fleet would come up against the vastly superior Israeli Air Force.

It is then no mistake that the Israeli government stopped handing out gas masks, with observers saying that distribution was more of a show for the public.

Besides the primary chemical weapons threat being gone, commentators say that the main deterrent against Syria from using chemical weapons was never gas masks – it was the same deterrent which got the Germans, the English, and eventually the rest of the world to sign on to the anti-chemical weapons protocol.

Since everyone saw the mutually assured battlefield destruction in World War I, observers argue that no country has used chemical weapons against another country with equal or more powerful WMDs, including during World War II and throughout the Cold War.

Imagine Syria trying to use chlorine or any remaining sarin, VX or mustard gas against Israel, with Israel reportedly capable of responding with an estimated 75 to 400 nuclear weapons, according to foreign sources.

In other words, all of the chemical weapons use by Assad on his own civilians has no bearing on the chances of his using them on Israel.

If that theory is correct, and Assad is not going to use chemical weapons on Israel, why does Israel feel the need to attack regime facilities? Therein lies the true threat – transferring weapons of mass destruction to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah may not be any more likely to launch a major chemical weapons assault on Israel than Assad. But it might be far more likely to use them in small increments in any future military engagements with the IDF.

Whether in short skirmishes or in the next war, it would be another strategic increase in Hezbollah’s firepower that Israel would rather prevent.

Israel’s strategic doctrine is still primarily to win quickly or “bring the pain” to the other side to leverage a ceasefire from rocket attacks. Whether it is antiaircraft weapons or even lower-grade chemical weapons, any additional powerful and unpredictable weapon that Hezbollah acquires could kill more soldiers on the front, or alter that balance and keep rockets flying longer than in the past.

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