Analysis |

U.S.- Russia Agreement on Syrian Chemical Weapons, Is, Theoretically, a Godsend for Israel

The pitfalls are obvious, but the successful removal of Syria’s chemical arsenal would eliminate a major strategic threat to Israel’s security. Tel Aviv and Tehran will both be watching closely.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

It’s probably best to wait a bit before adopting the fatalistic frowns and almost universal skepticism with which most Israelis and many Americans are bound to greet the new agreement between the United States and Russia over Syria’s chemical weapons.

If it doesn’t work out, of course, the knee-jerk naysayers will be vindicated. If they are wrong, however, the agreement could turn out to be a strategic godsend, especially for Israel. Like someone winning the lottery without even bothering to purchase a ticket.

Because the dismantling of Syria’s chemical arsenal has been a longstanding goal of Israel’s disarmament efforts: not as crucial as Iran’s nuclear weapons, of course, but critical nonetheless. The gruesome pictures of the victims of the August 21 massacre near Damascus demonstrated the kind of strategic danger – less than existential, perhaps, but only barely – that Syria’s stockpile of over 1000 tons of toxic gases could pose.

So although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will face a tough crowd when he comes to Israel on Sunday to explain the ins and outs of the agreement, he and his Russian mate Sergey Lavrov may have contributed significantly to Israel’s national security. And they have done so, for now at least, without demanding any Israeli concession in return.

By extracting this agreement from the Russians, Kerry has also gone a long way towards extricating his boss, President Barack Obama, from his own Syrian quagmire. It may take a long time for Obama’s image to fully recover from what is widely perceived to be his semi-incoherent handling of the Syrian crisis, but judging only by the bottom line, Obama and Kerry have achieved everything they could have dreamed of: a credible mechanism for securing Syria’s chemical weapons - and prevention of its transfer to Hezbollah, hopefully – without having to confront Congress or public opinion and without having to fire a single shot in a military operation that Obama felt uncomfortable with from the outset.

Obama is now being criticized and ridiculed for allowing Russia’s Vladimir Putin to take center stage, but before that he was being lambasted for Moscow’s intransigence and mocked for his first term pledge to “reset” relations between the two countries. What we’ve seen in the last few days is a reset in spades – perhaps even a reboot - but whether it’s good or bad news, and for whom, remains to be seen.

In this context, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent assertion that “the message sent to Damascus will be received in Tehran” may manifest itself in unexpected ways. Putin, for example, could decide to ride on the coattails of his Syrian success and to take on his broad and exposed shoulders the Iranian nuclear crisis as well.

And while Israel may not be happy with Putin’s sudden prominence, Tehran should also be feeling more than a bit uncomfortable with a precedent that sees its Syrian ally surrender its strategic deterrence under threat of U.S. military action.

Many experts claim that Assad can now establish himself as an indispensable partner in implementing the new agreement, and that the rebels can thus forget any meaningful outside assistance that might turn the tables and sweep Assad from power.

But the portrayals of Assad’s triumph may be both premature and exaggerated: if he agrees to the deal, he will be giving away what many Arabs view as their main strategic response to Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal, in exchange for the Syrian presidents’ personal preservation. Assad, “the lion”, won’t be happy being portrayed as a pussycat.

The focus in the next few days will thus shift to Damascus, where Assad will react to the new agreement; to the Hague, where the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will hammer out details of the proposed seizure of Syria’s stockpile and to New York, where Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will unveil the “overwhelming” report of UN inspectors on the August 21 attack on Sunday and where the world’s leaders and foreign ministers will soon gather for the 68th General Assembly.

Most Israelis and many Americans will take one look at the involvement of famously biased international bodies and of diplomats from half-hostile foreign countries and quickly reach the conclusion that this chapter in the Syrian chemical weapons’ saga cannot have a happy ending, from Israel’s point of view.

Based on prior experience, admittedly, the odds are in their favor. Only if there is a big surprise will one be able to speak of a new chapter with potentially positive ramifications for Israel and the region as a whole. Until now, you must admit, the Syrian affair has been full surprises.

An Israeli worker at the "Shalon" gas masks factory in Kiryat Gat, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013Credit: AP

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