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Syria's Chemical Weapons in the Hands of Hizballah?

There have been a number of media reports that address heightened concerns in Israel with respect to the possibility that the ongoing strife in Syria may result in Syria transferring chemical weapons and other significant military hardware to Lebanon for safekeeping with Hizballah. There are even some allegations that the Iranians are pressuring their Syrian allies to do this in order not to lose this military asset should the Syrian regime implode and a new, Sunni-dominated regime come to power that is likely to be much less friendly to Iran. The weapons systems in question could include long-range missiles with very large payloads, anti-aircraft systems that could compromise Israel’s ability to undertake intelligence-gathering flyovers of Lebanon or air operations during a conflict with Hizballah, and missiles with chemical warheads. It is thought that these weapons systems are currently securely under the control of elements of the Syrian military loyal to Bashar Assad, but it is unclear as to what might happen should the regime be on the verge of collapse (and it is likely that when that time comes, a collapse will be extremely rapid).

In terms of regional stability, Syria has, ironically, probably been a net contributor rather than a net detractor. While it is entirely true that Syria has actively supported Hizballah and Hamas and thus helped stoke the fires on the guerrilla warfare and terrorism fronts, it has also been very careful to avoid involving itself in conventional warfare with Israel, something that could have led to far more instability and destruction than the engagements fought between Israel and Hizballah in 2006 or Israel and Hamas in late 2008-early 2009. Syria also supported the insurgency in Iraq, but this too represents a far lower-level of regional conflict than an outright war.

A collapse of the regime in Syria will, however, pose unique problems that will need to be addressed by American policymakers. The collapse of the Libyan regime, with its stockpiles of chemical weapons and other weapons systems, has left many question marks regarding the fate of all of those military assets. A collapse in Syria is likely to also lead to the dissemination of some of Syria’s military hardware, possibly including some, or all, of its chemical weapon stockpile. In addition to Hizballah, elements of the Iraqi insurgency may be recipients of Syrian equipment, and this could potentially lead to a new phase in the civil strife in that country. The Kurdish PKK could also be a potential recipient of equipment as Syria implodes, and this could certainly up the ante in the PKKs war with Turkey. In short, there are multiple ways in which Syria’s conventional and non-conventional weapons could reach the wrong hands.

In the case of Hizballah, it is likely that Israel will view that organization’s acquisition of certain categories of conventional weapons, not to mention chemical weapons, as a potential game changer, and Israel is likely to undertake military operations to destroy the equipment in question (either before or after it reaches Hizballah). That, in and of itself, could potentially spark another Israel-Hizballah war that the United States will have to contend with. Beyond that arena, the United States may have to contend with a significant collapse of security and stability in Iraq as well as a possible uptick in the conflict between Turkey and the PKK.

What is certain is that policymakers in Washington will need to assess what their interests are and which contingency plans need to be set up to manage what is likely to be one or more significant crises in the region coming in the wake of the collapse of the Assad regime.

Nadav Morag blogs on intelligence, counterterrorism and Middle Eastern affairs. Read More