Israeli officials and analysts questioned the likely success of Russia’s proposal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons, which has led U.S. President Barack Obama to postpone a decision on a military attack.
“Diplomacy is always preferable to war, but the main issue at present is integrity, and in particular the integrity of the Syrian regime,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said today, according to an e-mailed statement from his office. “If Syria is honest and will take real steps to remove and destroy the chemical weapons on its territory, the U.S. will not attack; if Syria will not with integrity I have no doubt the U.S. will act militarily.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office refused to comment, and officials have said he has instructed his ministers to do likewise so Israel won’t be dragged into the domestic U.S. political debate over military action.
Eliminating Syria’s chemical arsenal would answer a key Israeli concern that those stockpiles might fall into the hands of Syrian ally Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that has warred with Israel, or radical Islamist groups backing the rebels. Israel has said it reserves the right to act militarily to stop that from happening, and reportedly has carried out at least three air strikes on Syrian targets since January aimed at preventing that possibility.
While destroying Syria’s massive chemical arsenal would serve Israel’s interests, analysts say it would be a difficult undertaking because the country is in the midst of a civil war that according to United Nations estimates has claimed more than 100,000 lives.
“While it may be possible if the political will is truly there on the part of Syria, Russia and the international community, it would be very difficult technically and hugely expensive to carry out, and almost impossible in the midst of a war zone,” said Yiftah Shapir, director of the Military Balance Project at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “The U.S. and Russian have spent billions of dollars over several years trying to eliminate their own chemical arsenals, and still aren’t finished,” Shapir said in a phone interview.
Even if the effort is successful, some Israelis expressed concern that U.S. authority in the region has been weakened by the manner in which Obama has dealt with Syria.
“I don’t think it’s an issue of Obama’s presidency as such, but overall U.S. policy,” said Avi Dichter, former minister of home front defense, in remarks broadcast on Army Radio. “The name of the game here is deterrence, and the moment the world’s No. 1 power can’t project deterrence in the face of a country such as Syria, despite the fragility of the situation, that has to worry us very much.”