The Syrian civil war, which has so far claimed the lives of more than 45,000 people, has recently taken a turn for the worse with the introduction of chemical warfare by President Bashar Assad's forces. The international community and Israel are concerned about the fate of the chemical weapons on the day after Assad's regime falls.
Over the past few months the rebels have been reporting of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Initially the West doubted the credibility of these reports, assuming the rebels were trying to drag the West into a military operation by spreading false information. However, a few weeks ago Western intelligence sources learned that they have been wrong and that the rebels' reports were accurate.
A close examination of footage and other material by experts in the West proved that the regime's army has in fact been using paralyzing chemical agents for a few months now against the rebels and civilians who support them. These agents are not mustard gas, sarin nerve gas or VX, which are classified as chemical weapons, but they can definitely be considered toxic and harmful to humans.
For now, there have been less than 20 incidents in which Syrian army forces and the Shabiha militia have sprayed gas or a toxic liquid in rebel-held residential neighborhoods. Since the rebels did not display any bomb remnants, it is safe to assume that the gas was sprayed manually.
These gases do not necessarily cause death and are not as lethal as gases that are classified as chemical weapons. They also evaporate quickly and do not leave an odor, making them difficult to identify. However, they can cause a sense of asphyxiation, harm the airways and cause skin burns. The gases can be lethal if inhaled by people who not healthy.
The Assad regime is most likely using these chemicals to instill fear without risking an international response. The last incident in which toxic gas was used was in Homs a few days ago. Six people died.
Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu and senior intelligence and security establishment officials are dedicating much of their time to the Syrian issue. The possibility that international action may be required to neutralize the Syrian chemical weapons threat - and to prevent the weapons from ending up in the hands of extremists - is increasing.
Netanyahu and the Americans apparently initiated a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah at his palace to discuss these very issues. Abdullah agreed because the ramifications of the fall of the Syrian regime are so severe that they warrant an intimate conversation with Netanyahu, despite the fact that the Israeli premier is accelerating construction in the territories. It appears that the meeting with Netanyahu also gave the Jordanian king an opportunity to express his concern over the escalating dispute with Abbas and the stalemate in the peace process. For Netanyahu the meeting was an opportunity to allay the king's concerns vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue and hint that the current plans to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank would not be implemented.
American, Israeli, Jordanian, Turkish and Iraqi security officials – as well as their allies in NATO - have been holding intense discussions on the Syrian issue for some time now. The war in Syria has recently become a matter of great urgency in Israel, Turkey and Jordan due to the fact that Assad's army has lost control of most of the country and the rebels are attacking army bases, stealing the regime's weapons and advancing toward the chemical weapons sites. Meanwhile, Hezbollah, whose members are helping Assad's regime retain its military assets, is trying to get its hands on a number of "tie-breaking" Syrian weapons systems.
Syrian army missile seized by rebels (Photo: Reuters)
A military operation against Syria will not be launched as long as Assad controls the main arms caches,
and particularly the chemical weapons sites. Assad, who is aware of this, wants to avoid any act that will lead to international military intervention in Syria. However, his army is fighting the rebels with brutal determination and is using all the means at its disposal. One of the army's main goals is to kill Kurdish and Sunni civilians in areas that are controlled by the rebels. By doing so, the army is trying to indirectly pressure the armed opposition groups into retreating from the areas they have seized or deter them from launching additional attacks. This is the main goal of the heavy bombardments and the use of bombs that are not only lethal and indiscriminate, but also have a psychological effect. Cluster bombs, for example, 'contaminate' large areas and are dangerous mainly to children living in urban areas.
According to reports in the US media, the Assad regime is also dropping naval mines on civilian population from the air. These large, round mines, studded with hollow lead protuberances, are very daunting. Only one of them is needed to sink a ship.
It was also reported recently that the Syrian army fired ballistic Scud missiles toward rebel-controlled areas. This puzzled military experts, as the Scud is inaccurate and dropping a ton of explosives from the air has a much more devastating effect. It turned out that the Scuds were aimed at the army camps and vital facilities in the Homs and Aleppo areas which the rebels had attacked or seized. The scuds were not fired at civilians, as the rebels claimed. Their launching from the Damascus area was apparently meant to deter the rebels and cause them to flee the army bases they had taken over.
Destruction after Syrian army aerial attack (Photo: Reuters)
The Scuds were also meant to destroy weapons the Syrian army had left behind, mainly anti-aircraft missiles. Firing the Scuds achieved these goals without putting Syrian planes at risk of being hit by anti-aircraft missiles fire from the ground (the rebels were supplied with anti-aircraft missiles from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and they also seized some of these missiles from the Syrian army).
As of now, Assad fears that the use of lethal gases against his people or neighboring countries would draw a military response from NATO - and perhaps even Israel – that would end his rule. Experts predict that he will not use these weapons in a final act of despair or vengeance before the end, but the possibility that chemical weapons will fall into the hands of rebels belonging to an extremist Islamic (Sunni) terror group does exist. Experts believe that as long as Assad is fighting for his survival the rebels will not be able to seize any chemical weapons, but they will be able to do so once the regime in Damascus falls.
The international community also fears that the Alawite minority will use the chemical weapons in a desperate attempt to force the international community to intervene and save it from being massacred.
It is safe to assume that Assad's fall will not end the bloodshed in Syria. According to all indications – like in Afghanistan 20 years ago – tribal wars and wars between the various ethnic groups and minorities will only intensify after the regime falls and its army is disbanded. There is no telling who will end up controlling the vast arsenal of conventional weapons and about 1,000 tons of chemical warfare agents Assad currently holds – or what they will do with it.
American and Israeli officials believe that Assad has essentially lost control of the country, but he may be able to keep his survival war going for some time. The communist regime in Afghanistan survived for three years after the Soviet army that supported it withdrew/fled from the country. Communist Afghan ruler Najibullah controlled only a very small number of cities, but he was able to last despite the fact that his army was much weaker than the current Syrian army. Moreover, the Afghan rebels were much more united than the opposition forces in Syria are today. The conclusion – it may take a while before Assad's regime collapses, but it is inevitable.
The question is what kind of Syria will emerge after Assad's fall. Will it remain one sovereign country in its current borders, or will it split into two or three ethnic countries? Will the new regime that will be established under the auspices of the West, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar control only Damascus and Aleppo or will it control the rural regions as well? The current regime in Afghanistan barely has a hold on the capital Kabul and a few other cities in the south. Another question is whether political radical Islam (Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis) will control Syria just as the Taliban controlled Afghanistan at the time, or will a secular and liberal regime be established in Syria, which has a long tradition of secularism.
The final question is whether Syria will become a stomping ground for al-Qaeda-inspired Islamists and global jihadists (just as Afghanistan became a haven for them with the Taliban's support) and whether they will use the country as a base to launch terror attacks against neighboring countries.