Syrian Chemical Weapons to Lebanon: How Likely?

When Israel struck targets in Syria on 30 January, global attention turned to the possibility that the Assad regime might have decided on transferring weapon systems to one of its staunchest backers, the Hizbollah in Lebanon. A prime motivation, so some of the speculation goes, is the Syrian desire to avoid sophisticated weaponry from falling into the hands of insurgents. The column hit by Israeli planes reportedly transported anti-aircraft missiles, a weapon system the Syrian army hardly has any use for at present, but which could threaten its aerial monopoly in rebel hands. Syrian sources claimed that Israel also hit a military research facility, presumably involved in chemical and biological weapon (CBW) development. Unless there were several Israeli raids, the claim must amount to the Middle Eastern equivalent of the magic bullet theory in President John F. Kennedy’s murder investigation. Weapons transfers and a presumed CBW facility: the question whether the Syrians are passing on their chemical weapon (CW) holdings to Hizbollah cannot linger far behind.

As usual in such hypotheses, certain aspects are rooted in fact, while other ones are nothing but the figment of creative conjecture. Syria, together with Iran, are Hizbollah’s main backers and arms suppliers. Each time the grouping engaged Israeli forces, whether conducting raids across the Israeli-Lebanese border or resisting Israeli incursions into Lebanon, both countries replenished and upgraded Hizbollah’s arsenals. Among the weaponry in the hands of the militant Islamic entity are various calibers of rockets (reportedly up to 302mm) and heavy artillery rockets (including the 610mm Zelzal-2, which can lob a 600kg explosive payload onto a target 210km away), air defence, anti-shipping and anti-tank systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, and so on. In 2010, Israel’s President Shimon Peres told journalists in Paris that Syria had supplied Hizbollah with Scud missiles, an accusation strongly rejected by Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Another fact is that Syria possesses a significant CW arsenal and that, in the current state of the civil war, government forces are strained to keep those munitions, storage sites and production installations secure. Over the past few months, several press reports have referred to movements of CW, ostensibly to consolidate the stockpiles. However, in a couple of instances, interpretation of Syrian intent hinted at possible preparation for use, provoking some strong statements by Western leaders and diplomatic demarches by Russia. Apparently, the US government harnesses internet-based social media such as Skype, Facebook or Twitter, to contact and dissuade Syrian officers from unleashing the chemical genie. Yet, to the public intelligence snippets neither confirm nor deny the realities on the ground; all too often they are but a rich nutrient for talking heads and other opinion shapers. Think Iraq.

No impotence

In contrast to CW falling into the hands of Syrian rebels, transfer of CW to Hizbollah would imply a deliberate move on behalf of the Syrian government. Absent the specialised training to manipulate the highly toxic chemicals, plan for their use and actually deploy the weapons on the battlefield, it is hard to envisage how the Hizbollah fighters could assimilate CW into their war fighting tactics. It is also hard to imagine how such a transfer could go unnoticed by Lebanese authorities and foreign—particularly, Israeli and US—intelligence agencies.

If such a scenario were to unfold nonetheless, would the international community be helpless? The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), of course does not apply to Syria, which has neither signed nor acceded to the treaty. At first sight, Hizbollah—a non-state actor—also falls outside the CWC. In other words, a traditional scenario of a terrorist entity beyond the reach of disarmament law.

The movement, however, is more than a non-state militia. Rooted in the armed resistance against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in 1982, it has also become part of Lebanon’s political and social fabric and now holds a government position. Lebanon became a party to the CWC in December 2008, that is five months after a Hizbollah representative assumed cabinet responsibilities and the movements and its allies obtained a blocking minority in parliament.

The country has thus assumed a number of obligations and responsibilities:

  • it cannot tolerate the transfer of CW onto its territory on whatever pretext;
  • it cannot accept any preparations for chemical warfare taking place within its borders;
  • no Lebanese national or legal person, irrespective of whether he operates inside or outside the country, can engage in any type of activity proscribed by the CWC without facing criminal prosecution (this would cover Hizbollah fighters operating inside Syria); and
  • similarly, it cannot tolerate similar acts by foreign physical or legal persons on Lebanese territory.

To meet these obligations and responsibilities, Lebanon must enact national implementation legislation that, inter alia, criminalises and penalises these types of activity. However, it does not appear to have done so yet. Given the crisis in neighbouring Syria, regional states party to the CWC, drawing on resources available through the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), could/should assist Lebanon in meeting this legal obligation the soonest possible as a preventive measure.

Should the worst come to the worst and serious indicators of CW transfers from Syria to Lebanon emerge, then the international community has a range of tools available from the collaborative consultations to the more contentious clarification requests and even snap challenge inspections, which the Lebanese authorities have no right to refuse under the terms of the CWC.

True, since entry into force in 1997, nobody has called for a clarification request or challenge inspection. The international community might thus enter uncharted waters, even though the treaty contains detailed provisions and the OPCW has already realistically simulated a challenge inspection. The mere consideration of the respective options should pressure the Lebanese government to take preventive or corrective action.

The single most important uncertainty in such an eventuality would be Hizbollah’s response to the international demands and pressure from other parts of the Lebanese government. Again, the CWC ought not to be hamstrung. Iran, the grouping’s main external sponsor, cannot abet any type of activity that would violate the convention and could therefore be expected to exert its influence so that Hizbollah does not accept custody of Syria’s CW. And Tehran, itself the victim of large-scale chemical warfare, would have a major persuasive argument: Hizbollah was after all part of the coalition that approved Lebanon’s accession to the CWC.

The transfer scenarios, of course, remain purely hypothetical for the present. At the same time, belief in the efficacy of the CWC should not engender naivete about possible violations. However, it is important to realise that for once disarmament law would not be impotent. If the international community were to fail in this regard, it would not be for lack of legal tools.

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8 Comments on “Syrian Chemical Weapons to Lebanon: How Likely?”

  1. A useful assessment of the legal regime involved here.

    Unfortunately it’s mostly irrelevant for two reasons:

    1) Syria would never transfer CBW weapons to Hizballah, first because it would be blamed for doing so, possibly with military repercussions, and second because if Hizballah ever acquired them, let alone used them against Israel, Hizballah would face military repercussions. Hizballah has never been motivated to tempt Israel to conduct another full-scale invasion of Lebanon, knowing that it would be blamed for the civilian casualties results, just as it was in the 2006 war. Hizballah has explicitly said that if it knew Israel would react as it did in 2006, they would never have seized those Israeli soldiers.

    2) The precise and entire point of the Syrian crisis is to enable Israel to attack Hizballah in Lebanon to degrade its missile arsenal.

    To recap my argument for this view:

    Back in 2006, Bush and Cheney were pushing for Israel to attack Iran. However,
    Israeli leaders balked because they believed that attacking Iran would result in
    Iranian, Syrian AND Hizballah missiles raining down on Israel, causing Israelis
    to hide in bomb shelters for most of every day, damaging the economy, and
    possibly causing the electorate to vote out the leadership in the next election.

    In short, Israel wanted a “cheap” Iran war where they only had to deal with a
    couple hundred missiles from Iran (if that, once the US air strikes had taken
    out most of Iran’s missiles or where Iran had used most of its missiles on US
    assets in the region.)

    So Israel decided with US blessing to attack Hizballah in Lebanon, hoping to
    force them far enough north that their (at that time limited-range) missiles
    would be ineffective in an Iran war. As we know, Israel failed miserably due to
    Hizballah’s superior preparation.

    At that point, Middle East expert Colonel Pat Lang pointed out that the only way
    Israel could take out Hizballah in southern Lebanon would be to attack Hizballah
    in the Bekaa Valley, which provides Hizballah with “defense in depth”.

    To do this, however, would require Israeli forces to enter Syrian territory and
    engage Syrian forces. Not that Israel couldn’t do this, but it would result in
    Israel forces facing Hizballah guerrilla war in their front while the remnants
    of Syria’s forces engaged in guerrilla war in Israel’s rear – not a good
    position to be in if you want to minimize casualties and get Israel electorate
    support.

    BUT…IF Syria were ALREADY under attack by the US/NATO/Turkey air strikes for
    “humanitarian reasons”, that would make such an attack feasible because large
    concentrations of Syrian forces would be suppressed by air strikes.

    And this is why Syria is where it is today. And this is what will happen:

    1) The US and NATO and Turkey will find a way to bypass the lack of UNSC
    Resolution authorization and will attack Syria before the end of this year. Note: I predicted this would happen LAST year, but the US and Israeli elections appear to have put that on hold until this year.

    2) In the course of that war, Israel – using the excuse that Syrian weapons are
    being sent to Hizballah (already floated in the Israel press as an excuse that
    Israel “will have to” attack Syria and Lebanon) – will send one armored division
    into Syria to protect a second armored division which will proceed up the
    Lebanese/Syrian border and then turn into the Bekaa Valley, while a third
    armored division attacks Southern Lebanon as before, in a classic “pincer
    movement”.

    3) IF Israel succeeds in damaging Hizballah enough (which I am not sure is
    feasible but Israel has to try) and IF the US and NATO can damage enough of
    Syria’s missile inventory, then in the next year or so Israel and/or the US will
    attack Iran.

    The ENTIRE purpose of the Syrian crisis is to remove Syria and Hizballah as
    effective actors in an Iran war, and thus to enable the Iran war to proceed.

  2. Solon says:

    Former National Security Agency Director Lt. General William Odom discussed “the international system” in this “major policy speech- America’s Strategic Paralysis, at Brown University for the Watson Institute for International Studies. ” Audio is here: *****http dots n slashes hammernews dot com/odomspeech.htm

    As I recall from the Live webcast, Flynt and ??? tossed back and forth critiques of the “realist” school and the way that Hans Morgenthau and Ken Waltz have cast the study of international affairs in a dangerous and delusional fashion.

    In his talk, Odom lists the goals of the “international system” post-WWII, and asserts that the Bush administration completely misunderstood the use of military power, therefore upset the International System that had, Odom said, brought prosperity and peace to a great number of people for a long time, without violence.

    The focus of Odom’s speech, and the “Bush” that I think he was referring to, was Bush 43, and the great blunder of the invasion of Iraq 2003.

    However, a speech by Jeffrey Engel, recently appointed Director of Bush 43’s Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, suggests to me that Bush 41’s decision to “liberate” Kuwait (and save all those incubated babies) was, in Engel’s own words, the “transformational point” in US foreign policy. It pinpoints that moment in time when, as Flynt and Hillary Leverett argue, the US succumbed to the seduction of imperialism.

    Engels’s speech & the Q&A afterward are remarkable for several reasons — this being Mr. Joyner’s blog, I’ll just post the link and keep my own thoughts & notes to myself — *****http dots n slashes www dot booktv dot org/Watch/14247/Into+the+Desert+Reflections+on+the+Gulf+War dot aspx

    Why post this on Dan’s article about Syria? Because Bashir Assad — and the Iranians — are the last holdouts for Islamic/Arab/Middle East self-determination:

    -WWI was, after all, a contest between Britain, France, and Germany for who would slice off the biggest chunk of the Ottoman empire. Arabs were promised “self Determination” by Wilson’s 14 Points, but that promise was betrayed. Zionists and the US won that war.
    -WWII was a contest between Britain and Germany over who would control financial affairs and essential resources & technology. Zionists and US won that war, too. Iran, not a party to the war, lost in several ways for several generations.

    -Bush 41’s Gulf war was a major and deliberate humiliation of Arabs, for the purpose of defending with the last drop of Arab blood, US hegemony. Two major–tho inadvertent– themes in Engel’s talk were the persistent efforts of Arabs to persuade Bush that Arabs could and should manage the situation among themselves; and the equally persistent efforts of Gorbachev to intervene nonviolently to save lives and even US honor. Both bids for a peaceful resolution were overwhelmed by Bush 43’s manic — even psychotic — urge to get into a bloody war in order to assert US control — hi-testosterone males swinging their appendages.

    -This past week, two reports have crossed the ‘nets: Assad has declared that Syrians will rule Syria, and — this is significant — EU is dithering on whether to intervene militarily in Syria. The Bush “coalitions” are no longer as bribeable as they once were; Russia is definitely off the reservation — over a year ago Sergei Lavrov announced Russia’s principled policy toward Syria — similar to what Gorbachev tried to convince Bush 41 to pursue in 1990.

    It may just be the case that 100 years after the war that destroyed the Ottoman empire, and after four betrayals, Assad, with Iranian and Russian principled support, but, ironically and tragically, counter to the agenda of fellow Arabs, will achieve self-determination for Arabs.

  3. Nope. He’s going to be bombed.

    Note, however, that I don’t think “regime change” is NECESSARILY the bottom line in this campaign. I think the minimum requirement of the US and Israel, however, IS to degrade the military capabilities of both Syria and Hizballah so that they can not be effective actors in an Iran war.

    So Assad might actually survive, or at least in an enclave for Alawites. But I doubt Syria is going to be very functional once the Syrian military has been degraded by the US, NATO and Israel, and the insurgents have been armed – reports today say Britain is pushing for that – and thus the country further fractures into a civil war or a collapsed state.

    In other words, I don’t think the US and Israel CARE what happens to Assad OR Syria as long as they aren’t an issue for Israel, either directly or indirectly (through Hizballah in Lebanon.)

    • Rene says:

      I appreciate the military analysis, Richard. And I agree that much of what’s happening to Syria today has to do with Iran and Hezbollah. But I think the main point is to cut off Hezbollah’s supply route via Syria so that it won’t be able to replenish its stocks after another war–which Israel will launch against Lebanon sooner or later. I don’t think the point is to ward off potential Hezbollah or Syrian reaction in an Iran war. Because I don’t think Hezbollah, much less Syria, would attack Israel if the latter attacks Iran.

      • I agree that it’s not a given that either Syria or Hizballah would attack Israel in an Iran war. Nasrallah has said as much: that he would “think about it”. And frankly I don’t think Syria would ever honor its mutual defense treaty with Iran – it would be suicide. And I’m certain Iran would never invite a US attack by attacking Israel under that treaty either.

        But that doesn’t matter. For Israel’s strategic planners have to ASSUME the worst case scenario of having to deal with Iranian, Syrian AND Hizballah missiles all at once. That is not an acceptable position to be in. Therefore they HAVE to take out the Syrian and Hizballah missiles – or at least TRY to – while relying on US air power to contain Iran’s missile capability once the war starts.

        Because there can be no doubt that Israel wants an Iran war. And sooner or later they’ll get it. They would prefer the US start it, but if they have to they will, if only to drag in the US.

        Also, as an aside, dropping Syria won’t prevent Hizballah from getting weapons. They can be smuggled by ship or air as well as through Syria. Syria is just convenient at this point. So that isn’t as big a consideration as the current Hizballah missile threat.

  4. JP Zanders says:

    The connection of this discussion to the topic of my posting is what … ?

    While I appreciate some of the issues raised, I also think that arms control and disarmament questions (from a legal perspective) should remain the backbone of this blog.

  5. You posted a scenario with the title “How Likely?” and then described the international law relevance.

    I posted that the scenario was essentially irrelevant because the likelihood was in fact nil and the reasons why. I think that was relevant.

    I agree we shouldn’t go too far afield, however.

  6. […] a transfer to (and, hence, use by) surrogates of the Syrian government, I have already expressed my views on such a […]


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