Bashar Assad won’t give up his deadly weapons
Finding something positive to say about events in Syria in the past decade is almost an impossible task, at least for those who put the future of Syrians of all hues first. Yet surely a large number of us can agree that the Syrian regime’s agreement to give up its chemical weapons program back in 2013 and their subsequent destruction was one positive outcome from this nightmare.
It came on the back of the regime having killed 1,400 Syrians at Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus using sarin. This is a nerve agent the Nazis discovered back in the 1930s that is 26 times more lethal than cyanide. The regime deployed mixing trucks to combine the precursor chemicals to sarin, allowing the weapons to be mobile and disguised.
Why is this relevant now? An article in the Washington Post has revealed that Israeli strikes on June 8 this year hit three sites in Syria close to Damascus and Homs linked to an effort to reconstitute this capacity. Israel had also conducted an attack on a villa also allegedly a part of the chemical weapons programme in March 2020. If true, this would all be in violation of that agreement and the Chemical Weapons Convention which Syria joined in 2013.
The Syrian chemical weapons capability was never minor. Only the crackpot conspiracy theorists questioned whether the Syrian regime used or had even possessed such weapons. As with anti-vaxxers, evidence and science was totally irrelevant to their distorted world view.
It must have been confusing for these geniuses when under the Russian-US brokered deal, a total of 1,300 tons of the most-lethal materials on the planet, including Sarin and VX, was disposed of. The 2013 agreement was meant to lead to the removal of all the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal, but it retained a residual capacity. It was in fact an extraordinary operation to secure the weapons sites, transport the materials to the port at Latakia, and dispose of them at sea. Nothing like this had ever been done before.
The US and the Soviet Union had done this during a time of peace. In Syria, there was not one but several active battle fronts, numerous actors including groups like Daesh and Al-Qaeda, who were actively seeking to procure these toxins. According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Daesh did use sulphur mustard. At various points during the Syrian conflict, the fear of regime collapse gave nightmares to American and Israeli officials because of residual chemical weapons capabilities falling into these extremist jihadist hands.
Could this story be true? The Syrian state media did report the June attacks, although not of course referring to chemical weapons sites. The Israeli action may only indicate that it saw activity that could possibly be linked to chemical weapons production. One doubts that the evidence bar was set too high. After all, who was going to hold Israel to account? Israeli leaders would also wish to send a strong message to Damascus. Other evidence suggests the regime has been rebuilding its capacity. In 2015, the Belgian authorities prosecuted three Flemish companies for illegally providing the Syrian regime with precursor chemicals to sarin.
Israel certainly is prepared to take action. The Washington Post points out that typically Israeli strikes had been narrowly focussed on Iranian and Hezbollah targets. In the eight years of Israeli strikes this is largely true. The Netanyahu government had set clear red lines on the transfer of high-tech weaponry to Hizbollah or the establishment of Iranian bases and weapons facilities. Israel did not wish to see Syria as an Iranian forward base.
Above all, if true, the resumption of the Syrian program highlights the regime’s continued contempt for the Syrian people. It is not at all ashamed of its appalling past crimes.
ue, it confirms that Assad has zero intention of remaining without chemical weapons cover. Even since the 2013 deal, the regime has been accused of perpetrating numerous chemical weapons attacks. The Trump administration launched military strikes in 2017 and 2018 after the regime was accused of two chemical attacks including the use of sarin.
The Syrian regime always believed that its chemical weapons program gave it security. It never acknowledged possession until 2012. However, since the 1980s, the Syrian regime had referred to a deterrent, hinting that this was against a nuclear-armed Israel, but perhaps more importantly, as many Syrians discovered, it was also threatened against those who dared to oppose the regime. During the current conflict, the regime redesigned its chemical weapons capability to be used in tear-gas grenades and small artillery rockets.
The regime’s motivation therefore has, if anything, grown. In 2010, the regime and its loyalist base was supremely confident in its position, and even as the Arab Spring erupted, steadfastly believing it would survive immune from the protests spreading across the region. Now having seen so much of the country turn on the regime, the need for a deterrent may seem even more appealing.
Assad may well also believe that Russia would no longer pressure him on the issue. Relations between Washington and Moscow are so poor that it is unlikely the two powers will work together to disarm the regime as it did in 2013.
But the regime will be highly aware that its ally, Russia, continues to green light Israeli attacks in Syria. Russia could make life very hard for Israeli planes, but has not even permitted them to fly as far north as Homs close to the Russian’s own air base at Hmeimim. In early December, Israel reportedly hit an Iranian arms shipment at Latakia. Far from a let up in strikes, if anything Israel has intensified its bombing campaigns.
A renewed chemical weapons program comes with huge risks for the regime. If there were Israeli attacks, this is one of them. In the past, Israel had done nothing to take out Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities, perhaps because it hoped that US-orchestrated strikes would do it. In 2021, Israeli leaders may well have calculated that Washington simply is not focused on the issue.
Yet any Israeli strikes will only slow down and limit this process at best. If the regime is determined, it has the know-how. Its ability to conceal weapons programs will possibly have improved. Israel and others, such as Jordan, may fear that such weapons or the know-how to manufacture them could be transferred to Hezbollah, or be captured by resurgent Islamist groups.
Above all, if true, the resumption of the Syrian program highlights the regime’s continued contempt for the Syrian people. It is not at all ashamed of its appalling past crimes. The media reports will serve to help the regime to intimidate its own people, not least those still opposing it in the northwest. To its immense discredit, at a time of financial destitution and near-famine conditions, the regime is still more interested in developing these weapons of mass murder.
* Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech