Wednesday, January 30, 2013

30-Jan-13: Drawing the line between regional warfare and mass-destruction-by-terrorism in Syria

Better to show some kind of red line here [Image Source] than to reach for illustrations of what nerve gas does to people. Such pictures do exist online; many of them are from Syria.
The picture is not clear yet about what happened, and has been happening, up north today, but there's plenty of speculation around. We posted earlier about the reports of Israel having carried out some attacks on something on the ground near Syria's Lebanese border. When one of the parties makes an official statement, we may have a basis for being better informed. So far there is mainly silence from everyone except the news reporting media.

There's a background: Israeli officials have been warning for months, using language that has been growing clearer and more explicit, that any transfer of Syria’s advanced weapons, chemical and biological weapons in particular, to terrorist organizations will just not be tolerated. Syria's government is falling apart in front of the world's cameras, but still possesses the largest arsenal of 'non-conventional' weapons on the globe. The air strike this morning may indicate (according to this source) that the Assad regime is testing Israel's resolve on its red line.

Much earlier in the day today (Wednesday) in Jerusalem, a well-informed Israeli official, Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Amnon Sofrin addressed journalists about where Israel's red line is drawn. Sofrin established - and between 2000 and 2003 led - the IDF's combat intelligence corps. Few media experts will have his authority in interpreting what's on the mind of Israeli security officials. Some of his points:
  • For Israel, the red line is crossed with the transfer of any of Syrian non-conventional weapons to Hezbollah.
  • Non-conventional weapons? There's Sarin, an extremely potent nerve gas; that's the one that worries him less. The other is VX. Wikipedia calls it "an extremely toxic substance that has no known uses except in chemical warfare as a nerve agent. As a chemical weapon, it is classified as a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations in UN Resolution 687. The production and stockpiling of VX was outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993". For a sense of their devastating effects, take a look a recent piece in, of all places, New Yorker: "The Case of Agent 15: Did Syria Use a Nerve Agent?"
  • Assad, who controls "hundreds of warheads", might decide that his regime's days are running out and think, as Sofrin put it: "If I go down and I leave my chair, at least one of the heritage I will leave will be that Hezbollah will have capability to hit Israel very bad. Is it something that you can rule out, I can't.
According to Sofrin, an Israeli failure to prevent such a Syrian transfer to Hezbollah would leave Israel in the very difficult position of having to
"build up a new equation of deterrence against Hezbollah and to make it clear to Hezbollah that if you are going to make any attempt to even think about using it, the price will be very, very high and very painful."
Israel remains conscious of the burdens it carries. The Australian newspaper quotes Sofrin saying this morning that
Israel was unlikely to carry out air strikes on chemical weapons stocks because of the environmental risks. "When you go and attack a... chemical weapons depot, you're going to do unwarranted damage, because every part will leak out and can cause damage to many residents... But if you know of a convoy leading these kind of (chemical) weapon systems from Syria to Lebanon, you can send a unit to the proper place and try to halt it" on the ground.
Those comments were made, as we noted above, before today's reports of an air attack by the IDF emerged. But they came after a series of reports like one from the New York Times ["Hints of Syrian Chemical Push Set Off Global Effort to Stop It"] three weeks ago which spoke of Syrian troops appearing to be mixing chemicals - probably Sarin - at two storage sites and filling dozens of 500-pounds bombs that could be loaded on airplanes and be "airborne in less than two hours".

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