BEIRUT: The renewed speculation on the potential use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war has taken a twist toward Hezbollah with Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. warning that a “red line” will be crossed if the Lebanese resistance group receives such weapons from the regime of President Bashar Assad. Michael Oren said in a recent interview with Fox TV that he could not confirm that Hezbollah has acquired chemical weapons from the Assad regime, but added that it would be a “game changer.”
“We have a very clear red line about these chemical weapons passing into the wrong hands,” he said. “Can you imagine if Hezbollah and its 70,000 rockets would get its hands on chemical weapons? That could kill thousands of people.”
This is not the first instance of accusations or speculation that Hezbollah may have received chemical weapons. As long ago as 2003, some of the more breathless Western media outlets were claiming that Hezbollah was a recipient of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction smuggled into Syria prior to the U.S.-led invasion in March that year.
The U.S.-based World Tribune Internet newspaper claimed in August 2003 that Washington had detected a “stream of tractor-trailer trucks” moving from Iraq through Syria and into Lebanon two months before the invasion.
In July 2004, a top Israeli military intelligence officer told the Israeli Knesset that Iran could give Hezbollah unconventional weaponry. In December 2004, Israel’s Maariv newspaper cited a classified intelligence report as saying that Hezbollah was working to reach unconventional military capabilities.
In 2008, Kuwait’s As-Siyassa newspaper – not the most reliable news provider on Hezbollah-related subjects, it must be said – reported that chemical weapons stored in a Hezbollah camp in the northern Bekaa had leaked and teams from the Syrian and Iranian militaries were called in to clean up the contaminated areas. As-Siyassa said that the chemicals had caused sickness among residents of Nabatieh, but left it unexplained how a leak in the northern Bekaa could affect people living in a south Lebanon town.
More recently, in September, Maj. Gen. Adnan Sillu, head of Syria’s WMD arsenal before he defected in June, told The Times of London that the Assad regime had “considered” in the past giving chemical weapons to Hezbollah for use against Israel. He said that fear of repercussions had prevented the transfer, but speculated that “if they have nothing to lose, why not share these weapons?”
Thus, the reporting to date remains spurious and unconvincing and based mainly on speculation. Furthermore, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, said in August that his party would never seek to acquire or use chemical weapons for “legitimate and humanitarian reasons.”
“We do not need chemical weapons or nuclear weapons. There are targets in Israel which if hit would lead to the same results,” he said, referring to industrial facilities in Israel which if attacked by rockets could spread poisonous chemicals.
If one assumes for a moment that Hezbollah has acquired chemical weapons from Syria there are two possible reasons for doing so: either as a form of military deterrence vis-a-vis Israel or simply to store them on behalf of the Assad regime while Syria is engulfed in violence.
A WMD deterrence, such as rockets tipped with chemical-filled warheads, is only effective if your enemy has knowledge or strongly suspects that they are in your possession and that you would employ them if pushed.
Hezbollah would not have to explicitly confirm in public that it possesses WMD. But there would have to be detectable indications to simultaneously allow Hezbollah to claim plausible deniability while leaving Israel convinced that its Lebanese foe had acquired chemical weapons.
However, nothing in Nasrallah’s comments nor any open source information suggests that Hezbollah has received chemical weapons to enhance its military posture.
If Israel genuinely believed Hezbollah had acquired chemical weapons, the news would have been leaked to the media by now, similar to Israel’s accusations in 2010 that Scud ballistic missiles had been transferred to the resistance.
That leaves the second scenario – that the Assad regime has shipped some of its chemical weapons arsenal to Hezbollah’s safekeeping. The recent reports that chemical weapons are being moved around Syria suggest that the Assad regime is attempting to ensure that the stockpile remains under state control rather than fall into the hands of the armed opposition.
Opposition gains in the north of the country have reportedly placed rebel units on the edge of the Al-Safira base, one of several sites where chemical weapons are believed to be manufactured and stored.
Some reports have suggested that chemical weapons have been transported to Syria’s coastal mountains where the regime could redeploy in the event that Damascus is seized by the opposition. In such a case, chemical weapons could be used as a deterrence against attacks by rebel forces on the Alawite coastal stronghold or used as a bargaining chip in negotiations.
It is not entirely clear, therefore, why Hezbollah would be asked to look after some of the chemical arsenal nor whether it has the technical expertise and facilities to handle such hazardous material safely and undetected.
Little is known about the composition of Syria’s chemical warfare stockpile. Experts say it is considered one of the largest in the world and probably includes Sarin, and possibly VX, nerve agents and mustard gas blistering agent.
Charles Blair, senior fellow for State and Non-State Threats at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists, assesses that Syria has “thousands of tons” of chemical agents with an emphasis on the mustard-based variants rather than nerve agents like Sarin and VX.
Usually, chemical agents are stored either in bulk, which makes it harder to transport, or loaded into munitions which could be more vulnerable to leakage if poorly manufactured and incorrectly stored.
“Likely the Syrians store their chemical weapons both ways,” said Blair. “The former seems obvious and ... respected commentators on chemical warfare have stated that Syria possesses between 100 and 200 Scud missiles carrying warheads loaded with Sarin nerve agent.”
Either way, chemical agents should be maintained in conditions that exclude oxygen and moisture to enhance safety and the lifespan of the agent.
It is not inconceivable that Hezbollah would agree to stockpile some of Syria’s chemical arsenal if asked. But assuming responsibility for such a consignment would be a high-risk undertaking for Hezbollah, bringing plenty of headaches and few benefits.