July 17, 2012
By Yaakov Lappin
JINSA Visiting Fellow
Like blurred windows into another world, cell phone video footage and hastily written messages seep through the Internet from Syria, giving outsiders a glimpse of the civil war raging in multiple locations.
The defense establishment in Israel has long ago concluded that there can be only one eventual conclusion to the 16-month struggle that has claimed up to 17,000 lives so far; The ejection of the minority Alawite dictator, Bashar al-Assad, from power at the hands of Sunni fighters.
In recent days, the battles have edged into Damascus, and are slowly making their way to the center of the Syrian capital. This, in all likelihood, marks the beginning of the end for the Assad regime.
From Israel's perspective, the earthquake now shaking Syria has several consequences, some immediate.
The most pressing issue is the fate of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons, which is the largest in the Middle East.
Assad is in possession of deadly Sarin and mustard gas compounds, as well as nerve agents, some of which have been fixed onto Scud missiles as chemical warheads, and, according to some reports, placed in specialized artillery shells.
Israel is surely utilizing all of the needed surveillance capabilities to track Syria's chemical stockpiles around the clock, without looking away for a second.
There are three immediate dangers for Israel in the immediate future. First, with Assad's back increasingly against the wall, there's no telling what he may choose to do to try and cling to survival.
Assad's ability to take rational decisions may falter as he approaches the abyss. Could he launch chemical attacks on the rebels, thereby destabilizing the entire region and guaranteeing international military intervention? Or might he even try to launch chemical warheads at his neighboring enemies, Turkey and Israel? The chances are low, but no scenario can be dismissed outright by responsible military planners.
Second, al Qaeda is infiltrating Syria in ever-growing numbers to take part in the war against the secular Assad regime. Jihadis have been responsible for many roadside bombings, suicide vehicle attacks, and shootings. The possibility of an attempted al Qaeda reach for Syria's chemical weapons in the event of the collapse of the regime cannot be discounted.
Third, Assad's close ally, the Lebanese Shi'ite terror organization Hezbollah, may try to take possession of the chemical warheads.
Israel would not allow these scenarios to develop very far in the event that the international community failed to act.
Last Week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Syrian regime had moved its chemical weapons. The report set off alarm bells around the world. While it highlighted the precariousness of the situation in Syria, it is fair to assume that the movement of the weapons was a controlled maneuver by Assad, possibly to distance the unconventional weapons from the rebels.
The supporting evidence for this theory is the fact that Israel did not intervene to destroy the weapons.
The United States clearly shares Israel's deep concern about the future of the chemical warheads. Washington has naturally kept its contingency plans to itself.
It is highly likely that the United States and Israel are exchanging classified up-to-the-minute intelligence reports on Syria's chemical weapons. In the event that either Washington or Jerusalem acts to neutralize the threat, the move would be coordinated with the other party.
With Israel's enormous airpower and considerable special operations force capabilities on hand so close to Syria, and its millions of civilians in proximity to the threat, an Israeli response to an evolving chemical weapons situation could be more likely than an American strike. Even in an Israeli-led response though, U.S. involvement would be inevitable.
Alternatively, the United States may decide it should take the lead.
Whoever might intervene would end up relying on devastating aerial strikes combined with special forces operations on the ground.
Recently, U.S. intelligence officer Kris Alexander wrote that the Pentagon could choose to move forward on Syria's unconventional arms with the U.S. Strategic Command's Standing Joint Force Headquarters for Elimination, backed by forces from the U.S. Army's 20th Support Command.
Earlier this year, CNN claimed that Washington would have to deploy no fewer than 75,000 soldiers to fully secure the weapons sites around Syria. But such a large-scale intervention in war-torn Syria seems improbable in light of the likelihood that Syria's Sunnis and Alawites will continue their sectarian war after Assad's demise.
Syria has also been accused of operating a secret biological weapons program. While few details are available on Israeli counter-measures in this field, Israel has the most advanced defense against biological weapons in the world.
The chaos that is slowly but surely bringing down the house of Assad has not yet had a direct impact on Israel.
But Jerusalem is watching every development across the border - especially Syria's chemical weapons - with its finger quietly on the trigger, just in case.
Yaakov Lappin, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a journalist for the Jerusalem Post, where he covers police and national security affairs. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.