Containing Syria

There is real danger that loose weaponry and WMDs might fall into the wrong hands, endangering not just Israel’s security, but the security and stability of the entire region.

Scud B missile 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Scud B missile 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In times of insurgency when regimes are in varying stages of collapse, there is a real risk that unsecured weaponry – including weapons of mass destruction – will fall into the wrong hands. Militias and insurgents who are more likely to be ruthless power-seekers than enlightened proponents of human rights exploit these situation to grab caches of weaponry by the tons.
During the US-led invasion of Iraq, there was a real fear that in the midst of the anarchy, one of the militias roaming the country would get its hands on the WMDs thought to be held clandestinely by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Since US troops and other allied forces were on the ground there, however, the vast majority of weapons stockpiled by Iraqi military were destroyed or confiscated.
In contrast, the allied presence on the ground in Libya was much less pronounced, and the Obama administration adopted a strategy of “leading from behind” – emphasizing the importance of enlisting a wide coalition of states over aggressive military action.
As a result, little could be done to stop militiamen – some affiliated with al-Qaida – from looting Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s stockpiles of rockets and surface-to-air missiles. In the wake of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and the subsequent opening of the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, Islamist terrorists – including Hamas and Islamic Jihad – have managed to smuggle thousands of these missiles into the Gaza Strip to be used against Israel.
Now a similar danger exists in Syria. While Bashar Assad receives support from Iran, al-Qaida has been taking an increasingly prominent role in the opposition campaign. The longer fighting continues, the more al-Qaida-affiliated groups entrench themselves and the more Tehran increases its influence. Under cover of the ongoing anarchy, Syria’s WMDs – in particular, its biological and chemical weapons – might fall into the hands of extremist elements. This would have direct ramifications for Israel’s security.
Nearly any scenario poses dangers for Israel, perhaps not immediately but in the near future. Whether Assad, backed by Iran, succeeds in surviving the uprising or, alternatively, slowly loses control and al-Qaida-affiliated groups gain power, the time is not far off when Israel once again becomes a target. IDF officials – including OC Northern Command chief Yair Golan – have noted that either al-Qaida elements or the Syrians or Hezbollah in Lebanon might be tempted to renew attacks against Israel. He said that the IDF was preparing for such an option by strengthening positions in the North.
But the loss of control over weaponry – including WMDs – poses a threat not just to Israel but to the entire Western world.
Admittedly, there are no easy solutions. A military option in Syria would be complicated for a number of reasons. Unlike in Libya, the opposition, though growing, is too weak and divided to forcefully overthrow Assad. Arming the Free Syria Army might only encourage the Assad regime to do away with the few restraints still imposed on the armed forces. Imposing a no-fly zone is irrelevant since Assad’s forces do not need control of the air to rule, and all sides in the conflict are intertwined in areas with heavy civilian populations, which makes the use of air strikes to enforce “safe areas” highly impractical. Russia, which maintains in Syria its only military base outside the former Soviet Union, and China have consistently opposed military action in the UN Security Council.
As a result, the US would have a difficult time garnering international support for a military endeavor that is likely to fail.
Still, there is real danger that loose weaponry and WMDs might fall into the wrong hands, endangering not just Israel’s security, but the security and stability of the entire region. Therefore, alongside sanctions and strenuous diplomatic efforts – such as additional attempts, backed by China and Russia, to re-enforce a cease-fire while providing support where possible to the saner elements in the opposition movement – more efforts need to be made to locate Syria’s WMD caches. If they cannot be destroyed, they should at the very least be contained. The safety of many people depends on it.