Security and Defense: Chemically unstable

Syria’s chemical weapons program has been focus of Israeli intelligence operations since the mid-1970s.

weapons of mass destruction 311 R (photo credit: Reuters)
weapons of mass destruction 311 R
(photo credit: 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.
But 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 ancient city.
The damage was isolated to a single building, one that very few people – even those who served in the base – knew the purpose of.
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 wounds.
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 depot.
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 away.
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 inside Iraq.
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 countries.
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 the events.
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 that fear.
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 independent infrastructure.”
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.
“The 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.”
As 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 1960s.
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 Korean assistance.
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 Euphrates River.
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 in 2003.
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 missiles.
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 themselves.
“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 violence.
“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.