Israel is deeply concerned that Syrian chemical weapons could end up falling into the hands of the Lebanese group Hizbullah should Bashar al-Assad’s regime collapse, according to current and former Israeli officials.
The scenario is one of several that Israel’s security establishment has gamed out in internal deliberations recently, in trying to assess the wider impact of Syria’s spiraling protest movement. Under another scenario, Assad might resort to desperate measures should his grip on power slip, such as firing chemically tipped rockets at Israel.
Although it’s not unusual for Israeli security officials to prepare for a range of possibilities on its tense borders, the deliberations in this case reflect the deep anxiety Israel feels over uprisings across the Arab world that have already overturned three regimes.
“The danger is that the situation in Syria will deteriorate to a point where there will be an absence of an orderly transfer of authority from one power base to another,” says former Mossad intelligence chief Efraim Halevy.
“In this kind of situation, the immediate danger is that concentrations of weaponry, including chemical weapons, will fall into Hizbullah’s hands,” he tells The Daily Beast, echoing the remarks of officials who did not want to be quoted referring to sensitive discussions.
Halevy says another concern is that Syria would break up as a state, creating a power vacuum that could be filled by “nonstate actors”—a reference to groups like Hizbullah and Hamas.
Israel has fought three all-out wars with Syria and remains adversarial with the Assad regime over the fate of the Golan Heights, which Israeli forces captured in 1967. Though the border between the two countries has been mostly quiet for years, in neighboring Lebanon, Syria is widely believed to be arming Hizbullah, which regularly threatens to strike at Israel.
The Islamic group fired thousands of rockets at Israel during a monthlong war in 2006. Having chemical weapons at its disposal would allow Hizbullah to project significantly more power in the region and likely raise the prospects of a new war.
It also would mark the first time a nonstate actor—in this case, a group classified by the United States as a terrorist organization—gets its hands on weapons of mass destruction in large quantities.
Syria has never acknowledged possessing weapons of mass destruction, but experts say its arsenal includes thousands of chemical-laden artillery shells and missile warheads.
Leonard Spector, who directs the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, D.C., says Western intelligence agencies probably have only a vague idea of where the arsenal is stored and who guards it, making it difficult to prevent leakage.
“We don’t know where everything is, and there’s no obvious way to destroy these things or parachute teams in to intercept them,” he says. “It would be a very big enterprise.”
A large-scale attempt to move the weapons would likely be visible to Western satellites, he says. But the theft of a few hundred shells or warheads would be much harder to detect.
“It’s not clear if the soldiers protecting these sites … would see responsible stewardship as their mission or would flee, fearing they would be condemned [by the protesters] along with the rest of the regime,” Spector says.
In the best-case scenario, he says, Assad’s regime would give way peacefully to an elected government that would voluntarily dismantle the weapons.
But Itamar Rabinovich, who served in the 1990s as Israel’s lead negotiator in peace talks with Syria and is the former president of Tel Aviv University, says Assad should not be counted on to go quietly.
“My advice to Israeli policymakers would be to take these scenarios seriously,” he tells The Daily Beast. “Suppose that Assad knows he has a few hours left. He may decide to go down in a blaze of glory and fire the missiles in all directions, including at Israel.”
Rabinovich says Israel must communicate “strong messages” to Assad that would reduce his incentive to lash out.
Asked if that means making clear to Assad he would personally be targeted if he orders an attack on Israel, Rabinovich says: “Exactly.”
Israeli officials are divided over whether Assad can survive the uprising, in which regime forces have so far killed at least 5,000 civilians.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said last week that the Syrian ruler had just weeks left in power. But others believe that without the kind of Western military support that helped end Muammar Gaddafi’s reign in Libya, Assad could survive for months or even years.