The US-Russia agreement on a framework to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons stockpile comes ahead of the expected release of a UN report tomorrow that is likely to confirm that chemical weapons were used outside Damascus on Aug. 21 but probably won't make a determination of who was responsible.
Though not as big a threat in Israeli eyes as the possibility of an Iranian nuclear bomb, the removal of chemical weapons from an enemy neighbor – especially one with close ties to the militant Hezbollah movement in Lebanon – would nevertheless remove a significant danger to Israel’s regional security. And if the international community follows through on the deal, it will send a clear message to Iran.
“The determination the international community shows regarding Syria will have a direct impact on the Syrian regime's patron, Iran,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today, apparently crediting the threat of a US strike for making this weekend’s diplomatic breakthrough possible.
“What the past few days have shown is something that I have been saying for quite some time, that if diplomacy has any chance to work, it must be coupled with a credible military threat,” said Mr. Netanyahu.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has engaged in intensive personal diplomacy in the Middle East since being appointed earlier this year, had reportedly talked extensively with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about the possibility of removing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile even as President Obama was pressing for a US strike after an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in Damascus killed more than 1,400 Syrians.
A done deal?
Yesterday, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov announced a deal under which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would give up his full chemical weapons arsenal by the middle of next year.
Israeli officials and security analysts seem pleased by the details of the deal, but remained somewhat skeptical that Mr. Assad will abide by the agreement after escaping the imminent threat of a US strike.
"Like any deal it will be judged on its results. We hope it will succeed," said Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, an ally of Netanyahu’s.
“It is a good agreement if the agreement will be implemented as written…. I think it’s a win-win-win-win to the US, Russia, Syria, and Israel,” said Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin (ret.) in a conference call with reporters organized by The Israel Project. “Unfortunately, I think the chances are low, but we will know about it … very soon.”
Under the deal, the Assad regime is required to provide a full accounting of its chemical weapons and production systems by next week.
“This will be compared to what some very good intelligence agencies know about these weapons of mass destruction in Syria,” said Gen. Yadlin, chief of defense intelligence for the Israel Defense Forces from 2006-10.
Yadlin pointed out that Syria will be required to allow inspectors full access to chemical weapons facilities in November.
“So in a very short time we will know whether the Syrians … are fully cooperating or they are just buying time,” Yadlin said.
Like Netanyahu, Yadlin emphasized the connection to the Iranian nuclear issue and warned that a failure to implement the Syria chemical weapons deal could send a signal that Europe, the US Congress, and the United Nations security council are hesitant to make good on military threats.
“Then the chances that they will be encouraged to accelerate their nuclear program is very high and this will return to the ball to the Israeli court,” he said.