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Assad's Chemical Attack in Syria: Two Failures and Two Lessons to Consider

Assad's chemical attack also demonstrates the long-term danger facing Israel, even with Putin playing mediator in Syria.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin.
Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin.Credit: Alexei Druzhinin/AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Only a few days have passed between the American announcement of its change in policy concerning the fate of the Assad regime in Syria: "Our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out," as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said last week; and the use by the Syrian regime made of chemical weapons on Tuesday morning in a bloody attack that killed dozens in the city of Idlib in northwest Syria.

The attack itself may have been a bit unusual in its characteristics, but not in its results. Almost every week the Assad regime butchers hundreds of people using supposedly "legitimate" means, such as artillery bombardments and incendiary barrel bombs dropped from planes and helicopters.

Haley's statements, combined with previous signals from the Trump administration, certainly contributed to the Assad regime's self-confidence, which in any case has been gaining momentum since the completion of the conquest of Aleppo at the end of December. But the massacre in Idlib stills points to a failure of the Obama administration. In July 2013, after Assad killed over 1,000 civilians in a poison gas attack on a suburb of Damascus under rebel control, Obama announced Assad had crossed a red line and promised a punishing attack against the regime.

Soon after Obama changed his mind, did his U-turn and reached an agreement with Russia on dismantling Assad's chemical weapons stores, in which about 1,000 tons of chemical weapons were destroyed. It was not just an about-face, but a full retreat because with this move the United States signaled that it had no intention of taking a risk in Syria, and in doing so paved the way for even larger involvement of other forces, with Russia at their head.

Tuesday morning's attack, in which it seems Sarin nerve gas was used, shows that the agreement to remove the chemical weapons was not carried out in full. Western intelligence organizations, including the Israeli intelligence community, have estimated in the past that between 95 percent to 99 percent of Syria's chemical weapons stocks were removed from the country and neutralized. But the use of chemical weapons continues to be rather common: Every once in a while the regime uses "standard" chemical weapons, but more often it uses materials that are not banned explicitly by international accords, such as chlorine, while at the same time reports have been appearing on similar chemical attacks carried out by the rebels.

In the summer of 2014, with the drop in the threat of a chemical weapons attack on Israel, the cabinet decided to stop the distribution of gas masks for civilians. This was taking a calculated risk, which was the result of budgetary constraints and a desire to transfer the resources used for the annual refurbishment of the gas masks and protection kits (hundreds of millions of shekels every year) for other purposes. But the latest attack on Idlib could put these questions concerning Israel's policy for protection against chemical weapons back on the agenda.

Other major questions concern Russia's part in reaching decisions related to the chemical weapons attack. Moscow has provided full backing to Assad for all his actions, and has led the murderous aerial attacks that tilted the balance in the Syrian campaign in favor of the regime, and led to the defeat of the rebels in Aleppo and other cities. Were the Russians in on the secret of Assad's thinking when he decided once again to use chemical weapons?

In 2013, Moscow proposed the arrangements for the dismantling of Syria's chemical weapons in order to save Assad from Washington's fury, and the compromise reached did take the American punishment attacks off the table. But the Russians have continued since then to take a lenient line as to all of their vassal's bloody acts, including the use of chemical weapons.

In the past, when Islamic terrorists took control of a theater in Moscow and held hundreds of hostages in 2002, the Russian commando forces used an unknown gas during their attempt to free the hostages, during which dozens of the hostages were killed, it seems mostly from the gas the rescuers filled the hall with.

In recent months, the interest of the international community in Syria has fallen a bit, because of the political drama in the United States and a partial stabilization of Assad's government. But in practice, the fighting and massacres have continued, even if at a slower pace than in the past. As far as Israel is concerned, this provides two lessons: The first, that even international agreements guaranteeing the dismantlement of weapons of mass destruction must be taken with a grain of salt, and cannot be relied on completely. The second, that the improving relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the day-to-day channel for coordination with Moscow do not grant Israel immunity from the implications of the events in Syria.

In the long run, the military and diplomatic support Moscow has been providing for the Assad regime includes potential harm for Israel because behind the back of the Syrian dictator hide Iran and Hezbollah. His continued success, with Russian aid, could lead to further problematic steps from Israel's point of view, and most important, the presence of Hezbollah forces and Iranian Revolutionary Guards along the Israeli border with Syria on the Golan Heights.

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