Israeli intelligence is afraid that the regime of President Bashar Assad in Syria is acting to conceal a small percentage of the chemical weapons in its possession, while misleading the international community. This assessment joins similar ones heard in the past two weeks from intelligence sources in the United States and Great Britain, and which have been cited in the international media.
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The deal for the dismantling of the chemical weapons was achieved, under American and Russian pressure, in the summer of 2013, following the massacre perpetrated by the government, in which about 1,500 civilians were killed in neighborhoods controlled by organizations of Syrian rebels in east Damascus. The Syrian regime was forced to accept the agreement, in light of the threat by the United States to attack military targets in Syria from the air, in punishment for the slaughter. To date about 92 percent of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenals have been dismantled, and the means for producing and launching such weapons are also being destroyed. Assad's regime missed a second deadline on Sunday, April 27, for the for the destruction of its arsenalfor the destruction of its arsenal.
However, recently the West received intelligence information, which appears quite reliable, indicating that the regime is nevertheless making an attempt to maintain residual chemical capability for itself, apparently for the purpose of warning the opposition in the country’s civil war, which is now in its fourth year. In recent months there have also been reliable reports of a renewed use by the regime of chemical weapons against rebels and against civilians in rebel-controlled neighborhoods.
As opposed to the massacre last August, recently there has been use of chemical weapons that neutralize but do not kill. From several regions in Syria it was reported that the Syrian air force is dropping chlorine bombs on populated areas, in order to rid them of rebels. Israel sees the use of these bombs as evidence of the government’s difficulty in conducting ground operations against the rebels, and its choice of using what it considers relatively moderate methods, from dropping bombs from planes (including the widespread use of incendiary bombs from planes) to the firing of missiles and rockets.
Despite increasing reports of the use of chemical weapons, the Israeli defense establishment has no intention at this stage of reversing the decision to discontinue the manufacture and distribution of gas masks for civilians. At the start of this year the cabinet froze the plan to distribute them, due to the assessment by Military Intelligence that there has been a significant decline in the risk that chemical weapons will be used against Israel, after the agreement to dismantle the weapons arsenals in Syria.
Israeli intelligence believes that the Assad regime has no interest in a conflict with Israel at present, and certainly not in crossing as blatant a red line as the use of chemical weapons against it. Nor has there been any evidence that Syria is transferring chemical weapons to Hezbollah, although the Assad regime continues to try to transfer other advanced weapons systems to the Lebanese organization, including anti-aircraft missiles and surface-to-sea missiles.
A senior military source admitted this week in a conversation with Haaretz that the intelligence community has amended its assessments of the chances of survival of the Assad regime, compared to the estimates two years ago to the effect that the regime was approaching its end. The source said that the regime does in fact look more stable than a year ago, and in many regions has succeeded in checking the progress of the rebels, thanks to assistance from Iran, Hezbollah and Russia.
The senior source added that as opposed to the situation a year or two ago, the Israeli defense establishment no longer considers the commitment to bring down the regime in Damascus as necessarily positive for Israel. One reason is that it is now clear that if Assad falls, the dominant factors among the rebels will be extremist Islamic organizations, some of which are identified with Al Qaida. “Morally speaking, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Assad is a war criminal who is murdering tens of thousands of civilians. But in terms of security, it’s not that we have positive expectations of those likely to replace him,” he said.
He said that it is not Israel that will determine the outcome of the internal war being waged in Syria, “but it’s clear that in terms of the balance of deterrence, it’s easier for us when we’re dealing with an official address in Damascus, rather than a chaos of gangs as in Somalia.”