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Syria’s Chemical Weapons: A Motivation for an Israeli Strike on Iran

March 30th, 2012 - 3:23 am

The Obama administration, as former UN ambassador John Bolton observed yesterday, is taking extreme measures to forestall a prospective Israeli strike on Iran. Since when does one ally tip off an enemy about another ally’s possible route of attack, in this case, via Azerbaijan? The utter fecklessness of the administration’s foreign policy, though, is forcing the Israelis to act, whatever the administration’s concerns about the price of gas.

Insufficient attention has been given to the prospective collapse of Syria as a motivation for an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program. In the past several days, Israel has sounded public warnings regarding Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, estimated to be the world’s largest. As the Financial Times wrote on March 22nd, Israel has “profound concern that parts of Syria’s vast stockpile of arms, including long-range missiles as well as chemical and biological weapons, will end up in the hands of militant groups in Lebanon or elsewhere. Speaking to the Israeli parliament this week, Ehud Barak, the defense minister, emphasized the short-term dangers posed by turmoil in Syria. ‘We are monitoring events in Syria, with an eye on any efforts to transfer weapons that would alter the balance . . . Events in Syria increase the uncertainty and the need to prepare for any scenario,’  he warned.”

Israeli officials warn that an even graver risk would emerge if Iran were to intervene in Syria with regular forces to support the Assad regime, perhaps in response to actual or perceived Western backing for the Syrian opposition. In that case Iranian regular forces might have control over Syria’s chemical weapons, and with it the capacity to retaliate against any Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear capacity.

There has been extensive mention of Syria’s chemical weapons capability in the usual outlets, for example, Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel blog. But there has been virtually no mention of what should be the greatest source of concern. Deterrence has always worked with the Assad regime: if Syria were to use chemical weapons against Israel, Damascus would be turned to glass. The Assad family does not want that to happen, but the mullahs in Tehran do not care much one way or the other; they have never liked Arabs to begin with. If Iran gains control of some part of the chemical stockpile, it gains a retaliatory capability against Israel outside its own borders, and that is something Israel cannot tolerate.

There really is nothing to be done about the Syrian disaster without neutralizing Iran’s malignant influence, as I’ve tried to explain throughout.

For both Iran and Israel, the window of opportunity is closing. Iran cannot sustain the sanctions regime indefinitely, and its probable response is to accelerate its nuclear program. Israel faces the risk that Syria may become a platform for non-nuclear WMD attacks by Iran.

(Thumbnail image on PJM homepage assembled from multiple Shutterstock.com images.)

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