While Israeli tourists were flocking to the Golan Heights this week for a glimpse of warfare across the border between the Syrian rebels and forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, Israel’s leaders were also monitoring events on the other side of the fence.
As more and more senior Syrian officers and officials have either defected to neighbouring countries or been assassinated by the opposition forces, Israel has become more worried about the side effects of a total disintegration of the Syrian armed forces.
Should this happen, the fear that terror organisations such as Hizbollah — already closely aligned with the Assad forces — plunder advanced weapons including anti-aircraft systems, long-range ballistic missiles and, above all, chemical weapons, could be realised.
So far, despite some accusations by the Syrian opposition, there has been no proof that the regime has used chemical weapons against civilians, although it has intensified the use of attack helicopters, jet aircraft and artillery on civilian neighbourhoods controlled by the rebels in Damascus and Aleppo.
The situation, however, has deteriorated enough for Defence Minister Ehud Barak to issue the bluntest warning to Syria since the beginning of the revolution 17 months ago.
In a television interview last weekend, he mentioned the possibility of arms being transferred to Hizbollah and said: “I have directed the IDF to prepare in case situations are created in which, if we have to consider action, we will consider it. I don’t think I should say any more.”
Other officials have been more specific, saying that some of the IDF’s units are on alert for an imminent operation to prevent the transfer of chemical weapons to Hizbollah.
A Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman heightened the tension on Monday when he admitted for the first time that Syria indeed has chemical weapons. “All of the stocks of these weapons that the Syrian Arab Republic possess are monitored and guarded by the Syrian army,” he said. “These weapons are meant to be used only and strictly in the event of external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic.”
But, on Tuesday, in an attempt to calm the atmosphere, Israeli government sources said fresh Western intelligence suggests that the danger of chemical weapons falling into the hands of Hizbollah had decreased.
Apparently, Syrian air-force intelligence, which is in charge of these weapons, had transferred them away from battle zones to remote desert locations in eastern Syria.
Senior figures in the Syrian opposition have promised that, if and when the Assad regime collapses, securing its stockpiles of chemical weapons and making sure they do not fall into the hands of terror groups is one of their first priorities. But they are not the only ones who know these locations and the opposition is made up of diverse groups with conflicting agendas.
For now, it seems that, despite the deepening chaos, the Syrian government is still trying to keep its chemical weapons out of foreign hands. Its main foreign backer, Russia, has also warned it not to consider using such weapons under any circumstance. But, as Assad’s hold on power becomes more tenuous, his agenda could drastically change. Furthermore, once he falls, any of many players in Syria could make a grab for the chemical stockpiles.