Tel Aviv — For years, Israel has sounded the alarm about the misuse of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile amid the civil war. The new U.S.-Russian initiative to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons is a mixed bag for the Jewish state.
On the one hand, if the initiative is implemented in full, it would remove one of the Middle East’s largest caches of non-conventional weapons — a longtime strategic threat to Israel that sent residents here scurrying to get gas masks just a few weeks ago in case of war.
On the other hand, numerous experts cautioned that the prospects for implementing such a disarmament deal are far from certain.
“It is a good agreement if it will be implemented as written,” said Amos Yadlin, the former head of the Israeli army intelligence branch, who said the initiative represents a positive development for Israel regarding Syria’s chemical weapons. “But we have to take it a step further, and to ask ourselves what are the chances this agreement will be implemented? Unfortunately, I think the chances are low, but we will know very soon.”
The prospects for implementation depend in large part on the calculus of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian patrons. Regarding Assad, Israeli analysts seem to be divided.
Dore Gold, a former foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said that the track record on disarmament of rogue regimes in the Middle East isn’t good.
In a paper published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Gold detailed efforts by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1990s to thwart and slow down the chemical weapon inspection regime imposed after the first Gulf War.
Gold warned that Syria is likely to try to avoid full disclosure on its chemical weapons program, allowing it to move part of it outside of the country to places like Lebanon.
“The key to making this work is the threat of military force by the U.S.,” he said, noting that means keeping U.S. warships armed with cruise missiles stationed in the eastern Mediterranean within range of Syria. “Once the naval presence is removed — without the sense of urgency, Assad is likely to move to get out of the agreement … As regrettable as it is, when you are dealing with rogue states, the credible threat of use of force is an essential element to getting them to adhere to international arms control agreements.”
Gold was expanding on a talking point made this week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been emphasizing the parallels between the international standoffs with Syria and with Iran. The Israeli prime minister said that the U.S.-Russian deal was a direct result of U.S. threats to take military action.
“The recent days have demonstrated to us something that I have been saying for a long time: for diplomacy to have any chance of working, it must be accompanied with a credible military threat. What is true for Syria is true for Iran.”
Israeli and international experts have cautioned that it will be technically and logistically difficult to get control of and destroy Syria’s chemical stockpiles amid a brutal civil war — a feat that would be unprecedented.
Analysts have also noted that the disarmament will rely on a high degree of cooperation with the Syrian regime — which until recently didn’t even admit to having a chemical weapons program.
The first tests for Assad will come in the next week, when the government will have to deliver information on all of the locations of the components of the country’s chemical weapons.
Yadlin, who heads Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said that Western intelligence on those sites is robust enough that it will be possible to check the Syrian lists to see whether they are providing credible information. In November, he’ll have to provide site access to international inspectors to further confirm the veracity of the Syrian reports.
But some Israeli observers believe that Assad has a compelling incentive to cooperate in the disarmament. That’s because holding the chemical weapons has become a burden in his efforts to remain in power.
“I think there is a good chance. This is a rational regime. They can give it up, because [chemical weapons] are not essential for its survival,” said Eyal Zisser, a Syria expert at Tel Aviv University. Giving up the chemical weapons will remove a threat of U.S. intervention, he added.
“It will give him immunity. What the Americans are saying is that you can go on killing your own people just don’t use chemical weapons. He can focus on beating the rebels.’’
Assad also has an incentive to uphold the agreement because it confers international legitimacy on his regime at a time when countries like the U.S. and France have insisted that he step aside.
“The international community is signing an agreement with Assad,” said Alon Liel, a former director general of the Foreign Ministry. “The question is, what does such an agreement do to his position inside Syria? It’s legitimizing him inside Syria. We have to be very careful that this is not perpetuating his regime. I am afraid even if the world decides he is respecting the agreement, what do we do afterward?”
Liel, a proponent of a land-for-peace deal with Syria — which would require Israel to give up the Golan Heights — said that leaving Assad in power would make such a treaty between the countries virtually impossible.
“Can we have peace with a war criminal? Should we even consider it? It’s problematic to leave him in power.”
Yadlin said he also thinks that Assad comes out strengthened by the agreement and that the big losers are the Syrian opposition and the Syrian people who are exposed to the regime’s weapons.
However, he believes that Assad is likely to try to wriggle out of the commitment on disarmament, and try to secretly shift weapons to Hezbollah. That would put the ball back in the court of President Barack Obama, and up the stakes for a U.S. strike. The question is whether Assad will do this flagrantly, making the administration’s case for an attack easier, or more subtly. The international is likely to get an indication in the coming weeks.
Says Yadlin, “The next month is crucial.”