Israel's Red Line: Fate of Syrian Chemical Weapons May Trigger War
As the battle against Syrian rebels reaches a new stage, Israel is worried that President Assad might use his vast arsenal of chemical weapons against his own people or neighbors -- or perhaps even give some to Hezbollah. Though many experts view this as unlikely, Israel is still weighing whether to strike.
The small village of Buqata is located on the Israeli side of the border that extends across the Golan Heights. From here, it's possible to see deep into Syrian territory. Right at the foot of the hill lies Jubata al-Khashab, a town just 55 kilometers (34 miles) southwest of Damascus, Syria's capital.
Every day, hundreds of concerned Israelis have been gathering along the barbed wire at the border and using binoculars to gaze at their neighbors in Jubata al-Khashab, who have been subjected to artillery fire in recent days. Thick clouds of smoke have been billowing from concrete apartment complexes there.
The war is close by and, whenever an Arab dictator falls, anxiety spreads throughout Israel: Will the toppling tyrant drag the Jewish state and perhaps the entire region into chaos? This fear already existed back in 2003 when the US and its allies attacked Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein. It was a similar story with the fall of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and, to a certain degree, the demise of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Now, this fear has been rekindled.
Last Thursday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan saw Syrian ruler Bashar Assad on the way to stepping down and thought preparations for a "new era" were underway. The regime in Damascus, though, announced the decisive battle in the power struggle with the rebels -- in Aleppo, the country's largest city, right near the Turkish border.
Last week, Assad deployed thousands of soldiers to the north to win back this city of 2 million inhabitants, where 5,500 regime opponents are reportedly entrenched. A decisive battle in, of all places, Aleppo, this ancient center of trade and commerce, whose old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site? US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland subsequently warned of an impending "massacre."
Aleppo lies some 400 kilometers from the Golan Heights, but the Israelis have reinforced the border barriers in the last few days and dispatched additional soldiers to the area. They fear that a wave of refugees will also wash across the border into Israel.
"We can see the fighting from here, the mortar shells; we can hear the echoes of the bullets of the battles in the battle between the Syrian army and the rebel groups. Two-hundred meters south we can see the United Nations, and 800 meters west there is the border fence. It just shows to what extent the disintegration of the regime is far from abstract; it is real, and it is getting closer." That is how Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently described the situation. He said that Israel has to be prepared for every scenario.
In Jerusalem, one can imagine several of them. For example, a horror scenario in which terrorists could attack Israel with rockets, including from the Golan Heights, amid the general chaos. But military leaders are even more concerned about the Syrian regime's chemical weapons. They could be slipped into Lebanon by Hezbollah or fall into the hands of terrorists in Syria. Or, as a last resort, Assad could launch missiles armed with poison gas at Israel, as well as at Jordan and Turkey.
On the other hand, seeing that Syria has not fired a single shot at Israel in three decades, why would it now resort to using chemical weapons? Indeed, experts in Jerusalem are astonishingly unanimous in their assessment that a direct attack is unlikely. But that hasn't stopped Israel from conducting exercises simulating a poison gas attack on Haifa, and the number of Israelis picking up gas masks at distribution centers has nearly doubled within just a few days.
There is a deep-seated fear that despots react irrationally whenever their survival is threatened. Chemical weapons have already been unscrupulously used in the region on more than one occasion. In the 1960s, Egypt used poison-gas bombs during Cairo's intervention in the civil war in Yemen. And, in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein used poison gas against Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War -- and to murder large numbers of his own population.
"Once Hezbollah gets its hands on chemical weapons, someone will teach them how to use them," says Isaac Ben Israel, the former head of the Israeli military's research department. "The Iranians and the Syrians have already taught them how to launch long-range missiles."
A Massive Chemical-Weapons Infrastructure
It's also likely that the Americans and their allies are preparing to secure missiles, poison gas and modern weapons systems in the chaos of a collapse of the Assad regime. In May, under US leadership, 12,000 soldiers from 19 countries trained in Jordan for a joint mission. This force would certainly be too small in the event of a full-blown military operation in Syria. According to an internal Pentagon study, 75,000 troops would be required just to bring the chemical-weapons storage facilities under control.
The chemical-weapons depots are among the best-secured locations in all of Syria. Assad's army controls checkpoints on the access roads already kilometers before the gates, and the depots themselves are shielded by two ironclad rings of protective fences and guards. The troops who are responsible for guarding these facilities rank among the regime's loyalest supporters. One of the facilities lies northeast of Damascus, another near Homs, and a third -- where the nerve agents VX, sarin and tabun are allegedly manufactured -- is located near Hama.
The two main sites are in the cities of Masyaf and al-Safir, in northern Syria, where chemical munitions are produced and Scud missiles and launch ramps are stationed. According to Jane's Intelligence Review, a British magazine focusing on global security issues, Iran has helped the Syrians with a number of these facilities. The production and storage facilities are operated by the Scientific Studies and Research Center, which employs over 10,000 people. Reports on the extent of the chemical arsenal vary widely, but conservative estimates obtained by the German government put it at roughly 1,000 metric tons.
Located in a valley some 20 kilometers southeast of Aleppo, the al-Safir complex is said to be the largest and most important chemical-weapons facility in all of Syria. A total of three production plants operate in an area that covers five square kilometers (two square miles). Sprinkler installations, a cooling system and two large underground tanks suggest that al-Safir is no ordinary military base. In its northeastern and northwestern corners, the grounds are protected by Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles, which are supposed to offer comprehensive protection against airstrikes. A satellite photo from 2008 reveals the positions of radar facilities and launch ramps.
Syria probably started producing chemical weapons in the 1980s. The original idea was to deploy them in the event of a war with Israel. Later, the weapons were only intended to be used as a deterrent.
They initially consisted of bombs that were filled with sarin gas and designed to be dropped by aircraft. Warheads for Scud missiles were also subsequently developed, and it's now believed that Syria has roughly 700 of these weapons. According to Israeli intelligence sources, most of the expertise came from the Soviet Union and the former Czechoslovakia, but private companies from Japan and Western Europe also reportedly aided the Syrians.
In the mid-1990s, Syria reportedly managed to manufacture VX -- the most toxic nerve agent of all. A Russian played a leading role here: General Anatoly Kuntsevich, the man whom former Russian President Boris Yeltsin had appointed in the 1990s as, of all people, his adviser in efforts to eliminate chemical weapons.
Moscow had been Syria's closest ally since the 1960s. Up until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin supplied its satellite state in the Middle East with conventional weapons worth some $26 billion (21 billion), including aircraft, tanks and Scud missiles.
Moscow has always categorically denied that Damascus also received chemical weapons. "The Soviet Union generally didn't export weapons of mass destruction abroad or any chemical weapons," says Igor Korotchenko, chairman of the Public Council at the Defense Ministry and editor-in-chief of the magazine National Defense.
But back in 1963, shortly after the socialist Baath Party took power in Damascus, the Kremlin launched a comprehensive training program. Over 50,000 Syrian students would go on to attend Soviet universities, including 9,500 who studied at military academies.
As late as the 1990s, the Russians were still stationing intelligence officers in the Golan Heights and in northern Syria. Yeltsin's emissary Kuntsevich entered the country on numerous occasions during this period. The chemical weapons expert allegedly established connections with leading members of the Syrian regime, received large amounts of money from them and, in exchange, provided them with details on how to manufacture VX. He reportedly also shipped 800 liters of chemicals to Syria that were required to produce the poison gas.
Israeli Efforts to Stymie Chemical-Weapons Production
The Israelis were seething. But on April 3, 2002, Kuntsevich -- a winner of the Lenin Prize and, most recently, an employee at the Moscow-based Zelinsky Institute of Organic Chemistry -- died on a flight from Damascus to Moscow. The circumstances of his death remain mysterious, along with the inscription on his headstone at the Troyekurovskoye Cemetery in western Moscow, where his date of death is marked as March 29.
Kuntsevich's demise is just as murky as the death of the Yuri Ivanov. The deputy head of the GRU, Russia's foreign military intelligence service, died late in the summer of 2010, allegedly following a swimming accident in Syria.
There is speculation that the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, may have had a hand in the deaths of both men. Furthermore, a classified CIA dossier compiled during the last years of Kuntsevich's life comes to the alarming conclusion that Syria has managed to manufacture large amounts of chemical weapons.
It also remains a mystery what happened on July 25, 2007 at the al-Safir chemical weapons depot. On that day, an accident occurred in the production line for poison gas components, a facility that had been jointly built by Syrians and North Koreans. One of the pipes that supply the facility burst -- and, in a matter of seconds, the entire plant was in flames. The explosion was so massive that the doors were blown out of the building, causing gas to escape and spread throughout the entire complex. The blast reportedly killed 15 Syrians as well as 10 Iranian engineers who were said to be on the premises at the time.
Investigations conducted by a team appointed by Assad concluded that the incident must have been the result of an act of sabotage. An Israeli minister would later wryly describe the al-Safir explosion as a "wonderful accident."
Up until then, the Israelis thought they more or less knew the extent of Syria's efforts to produce chemical weapons. But, in February 2010, the red line was crossed for the first time when Israeli intelligence spotted a convoy of trucks that had left Safir and was headed across the border into Lebanon.
The Israelis assumed that the shipment consisted of Scud missile components and was on its way to Hezbollah. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was advised to launch airstrikes against the convoy. Although he decided against this, he had the information passed on to the Americans. On March 1, the Syrian ambassador in Washington was summoned to the US State Department, where it was made clear to him that, due to the real danger of war, the US expected Syria to refrain from arming Hezbollah.
If Hezbollah has already been stationing nonconventional weapons systems in neighboring Syria for quite some time now to protect them from Israeli attacks, then the world would in fact be well-advised to remain vigilant. Indeed, abandoning these weapons because the supply lines through Syria would probably be cut off would represent a great loss for the terror organization. The moment Assad has been toppled, Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards would likely decide to transport these weapons to Lebanon. This, in turn, would be a reason for Israel to go to war.
Safeguarding Chemical Weapons
Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that Israeli intelligence services are closely monitoring every movement around known Syrian chemical-weapons facilities, such as the one in al-Safir.
A few weeks ago, they noticed that the Syrian army had begun evacuating one of its chemical-weapons depots at a military airstrip near Homs. Empty trucks rolled into the storage facility and were loaded. It appeared as if the entire inventory was being transferred elsewhere. According to findings by the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency, VX and sarin were relocated during the transport.
Nevertheless, there are no signs that Assad intends to use the poison gas in the ongoing military conflict. Instead, there are many indications that the regime has been transferring these risky weapons into the eastern desert region. This supposition is also supported by the fact that the government has massively boosted security measures at all military installations, replaced some of the guard details and put regime-loyal Alawites in key positions.
The debate has been fueled, however, by reports that the Mossad sent to various partners weeks ago, including the German government. The Mossad warned that Hezbollah may already be in possession of some parts of the chemical arsenal, and it contends that Assad has dispatched initial deliveries to Lebanon by truck as a kind of life-insurance policy.
The news was a minor sensation in the world of intelligence services -- but it is most likely not true. Anyone who intends to use highly advanced poison gas needs specially trained experts and the requisite launching systems. Until now, there have been no signs that Hezbollah possesses these capabilities or of Scud launch ramps in Lebanon.
And, from a political viewpoint, the reasons not to engage in such a transfer of technology outweigh the expected benefits. Assad would be playing his strongest and perhaps last trump card; he would be arming Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who has long since emancipated himself from the influence of Damascus -- without knowing whether Hezbollah would act in the dictator's interests. It's already become painfully apparent that the Shiite militia is keeping an amazingly low profile when it comes to Assad's struggle for survival. Whether, when and how Nasrallah would employ chemical weapons is incalculable -- even for Assad.
Crossing the Line into War
Meanwhile there are also intelligence reports circulating through Europe's capitals that maintain that the Syrians have already prepared some of their poison gas for deployment. According to these reports, individual chemical weapons have been made ready for combat so that they only need to be mounted on launching systems, such as a Scud missile or a special military transport aircraft. However, no one can say how credible or reliable these various intelligence reports are.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Netanyahu reaffirmed last week that it would be a casus belli if chemical weapons fell into the hands of Hezbollah. By saying that neither Israel nor the US could accept this, Netanyahu indirectly confirmed speculation that the US could give Israel a free hand to attack a Hezbollah convoy transporting chemical weapons from Syria to Lebanon.
"If we have information that Hezbollah or al-Qaida are about to put hands on non-conventional weapons, we will spare no effort in preventing this," adds Danny Yatom, a former chief of the Mossad. He adds that even airstrikes on a weapons depot could not be ruled out if Hezbollah was about to get its hands on poison gas.
This was confirmed last week by a high-ranking official from Jerusalem: "If the Syrians pull out their missiles, arm them with chemical warheads or leave them to Hezbollah, this would be seen as a reason to attack Syria -- even if it led to a war. A country has to maintain its red lines."
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2012
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles