JERUSALEM – High-ranking Israeli defense and intelligence officials scoff at the notion that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will divulge his entire arsenal of chemical weapons to UN officials.
The skepticism is widespread throughout government and military circles and belies Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cautiously optimistic comments, expressed at a joint press briefing with Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday in Jerusalem, regarding the U.S.-Russia deal to identify and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons cache.
In various Israeli TV interviews, current and former military and intelligence officials said it was “wishful thinking” that Assad, who is closely aligned with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard generals, would deliver a complete list of his chemical weapons depots and biological warfare research centers, some of which are scattered in secret locations across the war-torn nation.
A former IDF intelligence official told Israel’s Channel 2 News, “The timetable set by the Americans and Russians for the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons by mid-2014 is impossible. We are speaking about several hundred tons of various chemical weapons, which are toxic and extremely dangerous. You need hundreds of people on the ground in Syria – from inspectors to security guards. And the country is in the midst of a civil war. You can’t dismiss these issues.
“Dismantling chemical weapons is not a simple process. Based on what we know, it would take several years to dismantle Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal.”
IDF intelligence officials also believe that Assad has already transferred an undetermined amount of chemical weapons to Hizbullah units operating in Syria. The Israel Air Force had previously bombed at least two Hizbullah convoys, which were allegedly trying to smuggle game-changing weapons across the Syrian border into Lebanon.
On Sunday two senior officials of the political wing of the Free Syrian Army rebel group, which has been trying to depose Assad for the past two years, denounced the U.S.-Russia deal, saying that Assad would do everything in his power to “deceive the West and the Americans.” The group accused Assad of transferring chemical weapons caches to Iraq, which features a mainly pro-Iranian Shiite government. British media has reported that England’s MI5 and Israel’s Mossad secret service agents are in direct contact with generals inside the Free Syrian Army.
Meanwhile, both Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, attempted to put a positive spin on the U.S.-Russia agreement.
Netanyahu said, “We have been closely following and support your [Kerry’s] ongoing efforts to rid Syria of its chemical weapons. The Syrian regime must be stripped of all its chemical weapons, and that would make our entire region a lot safer. The world needs to ensure that radical regimes don’t have weapons of mass destruction because, as we’ve learned once again in Syria, if rogue regimes have weapons of mass destruction, they will use them.
“The determination the international community shows regarding Syria will have a direct impact on the Syrian regime’s patron, Iran. Iran must understand the consequences of its continual defiance of the international community by its pursuit toward nuclear weapons.”
Lieberman told Army Radio, “We will understand Assad’s intentions only in a week when he is meant to hand over a full list of all the chemical weapons at his disposal, and I think Israel has an idea of what chemical weapons he has. The Syria deal is good for Israel. But its test will be in implementation,” he said.
For its part, Israel’s Maariv newspaper, reflecting the mixed feelings of Israelis, editorialized, “And what of Israel? The assessments in Israel on the eve of Yom Kippur were that disarming Syria of non-conventional weapons is a great achievement, if indeed it occurs. On the optimistic side, it is possible to see that the tangible threat of an attack can lead to results, and that perhaps this will lead to results in the future regarding Iran as well.
“The less optimistic assess that America’s overall conduct broadcasts a weakness that can only encourage Iran to continue with its nuclear program based on the assumption that the U.S. will always find a reason not to attack.”