Syrian Chemical Weapons to Lebanon: How Likely?Posted: February 16, 2013
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.
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.