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July 24, 2012, Tuesday

Can Israel intervene in Syria?

The claim that Syria has chemical weapons is an old one. After all, Saddam Hussein had those weapons, so why wouldn’t Bashar al-Assad? Moreover, one can trust the sources of these claims as these very sources are the countries that have probably sold Syria these weapons.

If Syria indeed possesses weapons of mass destruction, why were they not seen as a problem until now? Anyway, it seems that, as of today, they are considered a serious security problem. The only reason for this concern is not the certitude that the Syrian regime may use them against the insurgents. Assad may indeed be tempted to use these weapons if the Kurds, for example, try to establish an autonomous zone, like in northern Iraq, or even an independent state. It will be a real problem if these weapons are used against civilian populations.

According to a number of Israeli sources, the Assad regime is about to fall and it has lost control of most parts of the country. Israel believes that Damascus may fall into the hands of radical Islamist movements and that these can easily transfer these weapons to Hamas or Hezbollah, sooner or later.

It is not easy to predict what kind of government Syria will have after Assad; we don’t even know if this country will preserve its territorial integrity. Furthermore, even if Islamists accede to power, who can be sure that they will hand chemical weapons over to Israel’s enemies? Nonetheless, Israel has already made public its intention to launch a pre-emptive strike.

Chemical weapons make a country, any country and not just Syria, dangerous. It is not easy, however, to pretend that a military strike is enough to eradicate a chemical arsenal. On the contrary, it can be very risky. Israel’s eventual attack against Syria may even help Assad to ameliorate his image in the Arab street. Besides, such an attack’s political consequences, for the region and for the international system, are hard to foresee.

If Israel intervenes before Assad’s fall, the latter will have the opportunity to present himself as an Arab leader under Israeli attack. Such an attack will also put Israel and Turkey, which have difficult bilateral relations right now, on the same side. Moreover, the Syrian people will naturally not be happy about being attacked, especially by the Israeli army, and they will see it as another chapter in the long series of Arab-Israeli wars. Maybe the Syrian Kurds will be the only ones to have a relatively more positive opinion about that.

In Iraq, the Kurdish region was seen as the most reliable part of the Iraqi territory by the Americans, who decided to make this region the base of the country’s reconstruction. However, today the US is not governed by George W. Bush and the current administration has no intention of being drawn into a war in Syria. Maybe that is why this time Israel may decide to take action.

Israel highlights the danger that Syria represents as a country with chemical weapons. Nevertheless, Israel’s declaration that it is getting ready to intervene does not necessarily mean that they will. The main purpose of such declarations is to test the international community’s reaction. Israel may take action only if the US and Russia give their implicit consent and if such a military operation will accelerate the fall of Assad and Syria’s disintegration. However, if these two great powers consider that the chemical weapons issue is no big deal, they will not approve Israel’s plans and then there will be no attack.

The existence of such weapons constitutes a serious risk, but the biggest risk is the possible confrontation between Israel and Iran. This is the real time bomb in the region. Let’s hope that the “big bargain” between Russia and the US comes to an end soon, making sure that the “detonation” of this bomb is delayed.

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