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Fears over Syrian chemical stores

    Damaged houses in Homs after Syrian forces thrust into the city this week, reportedly killing up to 100 civilians
    Damaged houses in Homs after Syrian forces thrust into the city this week, reportedly killing up to 100 civilians

    Concern is mounting in Israel regarding the fate of missiles and chemical weapons as the civil war in Syria deepens.

    The Syrian army, which is currently involved in the bloody repression of the uprising against President Bashar Assad, holds major stores of artillery shells and warheads capable of delivering nerve gas and biological agents.

    Syria's delivery systems include a wide range of artillery pieces and tens of thousands of missiles with ranges of up to 400km.

    While thousands of Syrian soldiers have already defected to the opposition, the government retains a tight grip on its chemical weapons: the units that look after them are hand-picked members of the ruling Allawite minority.

    The fate of those units, however, will be uncertain once the Assad regime collapses, which now seems to be just a matter of time.

    In a media briefing last month, Major General Amir Eshel, the head of the IDF's Planning Directorate and the next commander of the Israeli Air-Force said: "The main concern is giant stores of chemical and biological weapons and strategic capabilities still reaching Syria, mainly from east European countries."

    The IDF is also concerned about advanced anti-tank, anti-aircraft and naval missile systems that could severely constrain its operations. "I don't know who will hold these weapons on the day after the regime falls," said Eshel. "How many of these weapons have already been transferred to Hizbollah? What will Hizbollah still get? What will be distributed between the various Syrian factions?"

    Some of the missile stores in Syria are already under control of Hizbollah. According to intelligence sources, Hizbollah has already moved some of its missiles from Syria to bases in the Lebanese Beqah Valley out of concern for their safety.

    Anecdotal reports from Syrian opposition members suggest that Hizbollah members, along with officers from the Iranian Al-Quds force, the regime's elite unit for international operations, are aiding the Syrian forces currently putting down the uprising.

    Syria is an integral part of the Iranian axis, the geographical link between the two Shia entities in Iran and Lebanon. More positively, therefore, Assad's fall will not mean only make it much harder for Iran to arm its Lebanese proxy, Hizbollah, it will signal a momentum for the Sunni forces in the region, which are aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Hamas's departure from Damascus over recent weeks and the high-profile meetings by its leaders in Cairo, Amman and Ankara, are a sign of this shift away from Iran.

    Another Israeli concern over Syria's missiles is that Assad will use them as a "last gasp" strike on Israeli targets in the hope that it will boost his flagging popularity. Such a scenario is being monitored but is not seen as probable.

    Another potential development is a third attempt by Palestinian refugees living in Syria to storm across the Israeli border on the Golan Heights, as happened in May and June. IDF officers accused Assad then of trying to use the Palestinians to deflect attention from the massacres being carried out by his security forces. However, new fences have been rebuilt, new minefields laid and the IDF forces along the border reorganised to prevent a future surge.

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