The plan to seize Syria’s chemical weapons may do for Israel what decades of wars and diplomacy have failed to achieve: end the threat from one of the world’s largest arsenals on its doorstep.
The accord the U.S. and Russia reached Sept. 14 would see hundreds of tons of chemical weapons destroyed by mid-2014. Israeli markets rose after the proposal and extended the gains yesterday. Israelis streamed to distribution centers for gas masks over the past month on concerns Syria may attack or see its arsenal fall into the hand of militants.
“If it’s implemented, the agreement will be great for Israel,” Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, said in a telephone interview. “It would change the balance of power and eliminate at least one threat that’s been a significant concern for decades.”
Possible Israeli attacks on Syrian soil this year underscore the concern. Unconfirmed media reports have attributed three airstrikes on Syrian arms convoys or storage sites to Israel. At least 42 Syrian soldiers were killed in one attack, according to the Coventry, England-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Israel’s TA-25 Index of stocks jumped the most since Jan. 1 yesterday, taking the five-day gain to 5.2 percent as investor concern about a widening conflict eased. The shekel extended gains today, rising 0.6 percent to 3.5243 per U.S. dollar, its strongest since Aug. 5, 2011 at 10:04 in Tel Aviv. The currency is the best performer this year among an expanded list of 31 major currencies tracked by Bloomberg.
Investors Coming Back
Israel has been caught in the crossfire of other conflicts in the past. During the first Gulf War in 1991, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles at the Jewish state after the U.S. attacked Iraq for invading Kuwait.
“As the possibility of a military attack on Syria seems behind us, investors are coming back to buying Israeli assets,” said Yshai Shilo, a trader at Tel Aviv-based I.B.I.-Israel Brokerage & Investments.
Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons dates back to the time it last fought a war with Israel. Israel’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism said in a Sept. 8 report that Syria began producing its own chemical weapons after 1973, the year it joined Egypt in an attack on Israel, intensifying the program after Israel and Egypt made peace in 1979.
According to the report, Syria has amassed about 1,000 tons of chemical weapons since the 1980s, storing them in 50 cities, many near the northern border with Turkey. Most are stored as two separate ingredients that must be combined to act lethally, making them hard for non-professionals to detect, according to the report.
The primary worry has been that the weapons could fall into the hands of the Lebanese Hezbollah militant group that fought a monthlong conflict with Israel in 2006, or other extremists allied with Syrian rebels. Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel.
The pact has also revived talk about pressing Israel to disclose its weapons. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in a Sept. 12 interview with Russian state broadcaster Rossiya 24, said disarmament is a “two-way street.”
Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz had no direct reply when asked yesterday how Israel would respond to pressure to give up non-conventional weapons.
“Israel is a responsible country, a country that needs to defend itself in this difficult region filled with threats,” Steinitz told Army Radio.
While Israel signed the chemical weapons treaty in 1993, it never ratified it.
Beneficial in Theory
“We will not accept attempts by the Syrian regime, which is in noncompliance with its safeguards agreement and has used chemical weapons on its own people in violation of international norms, to compare itself to Israel, a thriving democracy which doesn’t brutally slaughter and gas its own people,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
In theory, the agreement to rid Syria of its chemical arms “is good for Israel, because Assad will give up thousands of kilograms of chemical weapons, as well as the infrastructure to build it,” said Avigdor Liberman, head of the Israeli parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee.
At the same time, Assad “has a very problematic credibility record” -- and Israel has the tools and data to measure him against his claims of compliance, Liberman said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday said he expects Russia to hold Assad accountable and that he was “clear-eyed” about the challenges. U.S. President Barack Obama was in the process of lobbying a reluctant Congress to approve military action against the Syrian government when the Russians stepped in with their proposal to ask Syria to surrender its chemical stockpile.
Syrian Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Heidar was cited yesterday calling the pact a “victory” for the Assad regime.
“It offers the possibility to resolve not only the chemical weapons problem but all of Syria’s problems,” Heidar said, according to RIA Novosti news agency. “These agreements are the work of Russian diplomacy and the Russian leadership. This is a victory for Syria.”
Even if Syria reneges on its commitment to disarm, Israel would benefit because that would reset the clock on threatened U.S. military action, said Cameron Brown, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
“It increases the likelihood that the U.S. would attack if he doesn’t abide by the deal,” Brown said of Assad. “If the Syrians don’t observe the agreement, Obama will have less of a problem getting it through Congress.”
Syria and Israel fought three wars since the Jewish state’s establishment in 1948. Multiple efforts to make peace since the 1990s have failed, and Israel continues to hold on to the southern Golan Heights plateau it captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed in a move that is not internationally recognized.
For the most part, the frontier has been quiet since 1974, though shells from the Arab country have struck Israel since the Syrian fighting began in 2011, causing no injuries and largely characterized by the Israeli military as stray fire.
Kerry yesterday flew to Israel to brief Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the agreement.
“The threat of force remains,” Kerry said after the meeting. “Make no mistake: We’ve taken no options off the table.”
Netanyahu linked the pact to international efforts to prevent Iran, a Syrian ally, from becoming a nuclear power.
“The resolve the international community will display with regard to Syria will directly affect its patron regime, Iran,” Netanyahu said after meeting Kerry. “Iran must understand the implications of its continuing disregard for the international community in its drive to obtain nuclear weapons. Recent days have shown us something I have long said: For diplomacy to have any chance of succeeding, it must be accompanied by a credible military threat.” Iran denies its nuclear program is meant to produce weapons.
Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli military intelligence, said the “elephant in the room” in the talks was Iran.
“It’s a positive signal” that if they can deal with Syria, they can do something similar in Iran, Yadlin, who now heads the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told reporters in a conference call. “This is possible only if the Iranians will be convinced, as the Syrians were convinced, that the American military threat is credible.”