Israel is on edge as the Syrian regime slowly collapses, fearing that its chemical weapons stockpile could fall into the hands of vigorous adversaries, writes Saleh Al-Naami
A Free Syrian Army fighter vents anger amidst an air strike by a fighter jet loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Azaz city, north Aleppo (photo: Reuters)
Over the past few months, political correspondents in the Israeli media were surprised that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was absent at a number of official engagements he was scheduled to attend. His office always said that he cancelled for personal reasons. Journalists thought Netanyahu was holding secret meetings at Mossad headquarters in north Tel Aviv to discuss sensitive matters, so they were surprised to find out he was shuttling to Amman for talks with the king of Jordan on what Tel Aviv views as “imminent danger” to its security — namely, large amounts of chemical weapons that could fall in the hands of Israel’s enemies.
While Amman and Jordanian media were able to mute these visits, Israeli media had a field day. Israeli coverage revealed that Tel Aviv is relying heavily on Jordanian cooperation to offset the threat of Syria’s chemical weapons. Israeli television’s Channel 10 revealed that Mossad officials visited Amman several times to discuss “military solutions” that Israel could adopt to get rid of chemical weapons stockpiles. They also explored how far Jordan would cooperate in implementing these options. News report also revealed that Mossad agents infiltrated Syria across the border from Jordan to gather intelligence about chemical weapons warehouses, something that had already been reported in the Western media.
Strategic circles in Israel believe that Jordan can play a critical role in assisting Israel to eliminate the threat of Syria’s chemical stockpile, because of its long border with Syria and the experience of Jordanian security agencies in dealing with Syrian affairs. Israel is even more intent on asking for Jordan’s help because Tel Aviv believes Amman can obtain highly critical and vital intelligence about Syria’s chemical arsenal, by debriefing Syrian politicians and military officers who defected from the regular army and fled to Jordan.
Israel is relying on its close ties with the Jordanian regime and has also asked Washington to put a lot of pressure on Amman to agree to cooperate with Tel Aviv on the issue of chemical weapons. Israel’s deputy prime minister in charge of confronting strategic threats, Moshe Yalon, said that Israel’s action on Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons is based on strong and close support from the US. “[Washington] made it clear to Jordan how important it is to stand by Israel in confronting the threat of Syrian chemical weapons,” stated Yalon.
The Israeli media, meanwhile, reported that Mossad and CIA agents are exchanging ideas on the best ways to confront Syria’s chemical threat. Israeli political and military officials claim that based on “accurate” intelligence, Syria possesses the largest chemical weapons stockpile in the region and that is stored everywhere in Syria.
Israeli Cabinet Minister Yigal Ordan said that Israel’s nightmare scenario is that as Bashar Al-Assad’s regime is near collapse, there is a possibility that chemical weapons will be transferred to “hostile powers that would not hesitate in using them against Israel”. Ordan warned that chemical weapons in the hands “of extremist groups is a strategic threat to Israel. This requires overt and covert moves to eliminate this threat as quickly as possible, without hesitation.”
Aviv Kokhavi, director of military intelligence, known as AMAN, believes there is a real possibility that a large number of chemical weapons will be transferred to Sunni Islamist groups that are operating under the banner of the Syrian revolution, which recently made great progress on the ground. Israelis are particularly concerned that these groups already control several villages and towns next to the occupied Golan Heights, only hundreds of metres away from Jewish settlements there.
Israel’s Channel 2 aired on Friday a report showing bullets and rockets that fell on the settlements and settler homes after clashes in Syrian villages on the other side of the border.
Israel fears another scenario, namely that as the Syrian regime collapses it would hand over these weapons to Hizbullah, which is already stationed everywhere in Syria. Some in Israel believe that Hizbullah will not wait for the regime to hand over the weapons, but could seize them and transport them to Lebanon to build a deterrence force. For Tel Aviv, that would be a major shift in the balance of power between Israel and Hizbullah because it could encourage Hizbullah to take provocative steps against Israel.
Strategic circles in Israel realise that Sunni Islamist groups, as well as the Syrian regime, cannot be deterred and could use chemical weapons against Israel, which is a serious strategic threat. Ephraim Kam, deputy director of the Institute for National Security Studies, stated that since armed groups do not run a country it would be difficult to deter them by threats of attacking the state’s infrastructure, the tactic Israel has always used in its wars against Arab states. Kam concludes that the weakness of Arab states in the era of the Arab Spring and the rising tide of Islamist groups poses a strategic threat for Israel, because it curbs Israel’s ability to utilise its excess power to exercise deterrence.
The debate in Israel shows that any military move by Israel to attack Syria’s chemical weapons would require close cooperation with the US and Jordan. Also, that despite Israeli claims that it has enough intelligence about where chemical weapons are stored in Syria, there are signs that these claims are false, which is why Mossad and AMAN want to gather more intelligence. The US and British media reported that members of AMAN’s elite Sayeret Matkal along with Mossad agents are covertly searching Syria for chemical weapons depots.
Israel believes intelligence should be gathered not only through advanced technology but also human sources, which is what Mossad and AMAN agents are doing. They are searching Syria on foot using detectors and technology to uncover chemical depots remotely. This requires Mossad agents to infiltrate the border into Syria at various points: they cross the border from Jordan to South Syria; from western Iraq where there is a US military presence into eastern Syria; and from Kurdistan into North Syria.
Israel’s dilemma, however, is not just about gathering intelligence because after acquiring the information its hands remain tied. Israeli intervention now would embarrass Jordan, Gulf States, Europe and the US because it would boost the Syrian regime’s position and frame the countries supporting the Syrian revolution as partners with Israel in conspiring against the state of Syria, not the regime.
Meanwhile, there are technical problems in dealing with the threat of Syria’s chemical weapons, because seizing it in a land operation and incinerating it in a safe way would be a complex process since the stockpile is spread over a large geographic area, which could pit Syrian revolutionaries against Israeli troops. At the same time, firebombing it from the air could result in a humanitarian disaster for hundreds of thousands of civilians and the fallout could travel beyond the borders of Syria.
This is why Netanyahu visited Jordan several times to discuss the best way to confront the threat of chemical weapons with the least collateral damage