September 19, 2014

Israel believes Syria retained some chemical weapons - no surprise

Syrian chemical warfare rocket in the Damascus suburbs - September 2013

Israeli military intelligence officials are claiming that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad did not dispose of all of its chemical weapons as it committed to do as part of an agreement made last summer following its use of the nerve agent sarin on Syrian opposition fighters in the suburbs southeast of Damascus. Veteran Syria watchers and Middle East specialists will not be surprised by this Israeli assessment.

For years, the Syrian government of the late President Haziz al-Asad and the successor government of his son, current President Bashar al-Asad, had maintained a stockpile of chemical weapons as a deterrent against Israel, which it believes has nuclear weapons. Although chemical weapons are not in the same category as nuclear weapons, it does provide the Syrians with a level of strategic capability. The Syrian armed forces can deliver chemical weapons by ballistic missiles or tactical aircraft, and as demonstrated in August 2013, by battlefield rockets.

When confronted with an almost certain American military response, the Syrians agreed to a quick Russian-brokered deal by which they would turn over their chemical weapons arsenal in return for a commitment on the part of the United States to refrain from military strikes.

When the agreement was announced, I was in Washington as a military analyst for the CNN news network. When asked for my views on the deal, I expressed skepticism that the Syrians would willingly divest themselves of what they consider a vital military capability. Without chemical warheads, Syria's ballistic missile force of Russian, Iranian and North Korean missiles would be reduced to essentially long range artillery rather than potent weapons of mass destruction.

Soon after the announcement that Syria agreed to turn over its chemical weapons arsenal and the stockpiles of precursor chemicals to be destroyed, independent analysts reported an unusually high level of Syrian Air Force IL-76 (NATO: CANDID) heavy transport aircraft between Syrian and Iranian military installations. Although there is no way to determine the exact cargo moved on the aircraft, many analysts (including this one) believe that there is a high probability that the highest-priority chemical weapons - I judge that to be the ballistic missile warheads - were moved to Iran for clandestine safekeeping.

It makes sense - I just do not believe that Bashar al-Asad would give up all of his chemical weapons, especially when he has an ally like Iran that would be happy to store his weapons for a period of time.