The transfer of chemical weapons from Syria to Hezbollah would be tantamount to a declaration of war, a senior defense official said on Tuesday, adding that Israel would not accept such a move and would act to prevent it.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been facing a nearly 11-month-long popular uprising in which more than 5,000 Syrians have been killed, according to U.N. estimates. Rebel forces briefly gained control of the eastern suburbs of the capital, Damascus, in a startling advance last week but Syrian government forces launched a swift offensive Monday and Tuesday to crush the remaining resistance. Yet the fact that rebels made it to the doorstep of Damascus, the seat of Assad's power, was a dangerous development for the regime.
The bloodshed in Syria has increased in recent days as Western and Arab countries have stepped up pressure on Russia over action at the U.N. Security Council. A draft resolution submitted demands that Assad halt the crackdown and implement an Arab League peace plan that calls on him to transfer power to his vice president, and allow creation of a unity government to clear the way for elections. If Assad fails to comply within 15 days, the council would consider "further measures," a reference to a possible move to impose economic or other sanctions.
In light of the recent events unfolding in Syria, Israeli officials are concerned the regime may try to transfer its advanced weapons – including non-conventional weapons – to the Lebanese-based terrorist organization Hezbollah.
Syria has transferred advanced weapons to Hezbollah control in recent years, but the weapons have remained on Syrian soil in accordance with Assad's instructions, to avoid their possible destruction by Israel. With the increasing belief that Assad's rule is expected to end in the near future, some analysts have warned he may decide to transfer arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The delivery could include a large number of long-range missiles, advanced anti-aircraft systems that could threaten Israel Air Force flights in the north, and chemical weapons.
Syria is believed to possess the world's largest stockpile of chemical weapons, including some of the deadliest chemical agents known, such as sarin and the nerve agent VX. Their chemical agents have already been integrated in warheads mounted on advanced Scud missiles.
The weapons are currently under the tight supervision of military forces loyal to Assad, but may be transferred to Hezbollah – possibly even at Iran's behest – because Lebanon is currently perceived as more stable than Syria. "We are seeing a paradoxical process unfold, in which Syria is undergoing a process of 'Lebanonization' and vice versa," said the senior Israeli defense official. "Syria, which was an island of stability in the past is now being torn apart by military clashes. Lebanon is now perceived as being the more stable of the two," the official added.
For Israel, the transfer of such weapons – and especially chemical weapons – to Hezbollah would be crossing a red line. The senior official said such a situation would be tantamount to "a declaration of war." Unlike Syria, whose weapons are mainly a deterrent, "Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that is much less predictable and cannot be allowed to entertain itself with unconventional weapons," the official said.
The subject of a possible weapons transfer from Syria to Hezbollah has been the subject of much discussion in security and defense-related forums both in Israel and abroad. The West shares Israel's concerns, and some officials have warned Damascus not to succumb to the temptation to move weapons into Lebanon.
Israel Air Force Commander Maj.-Gen. Ido Nechushtan last week warned that the current instability in Syria could lead to conflict on Israel's northern front and insisted that Israel must prepare for such an eventuality.
Speaking to reporters last Wednesday, Nechushtan reiterated, "Everything that is happening [in Syria] every day is reason for us to reexamine the situation, closely follow the developments and make decisions as necessary."
Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council held a session on Tuesday to discuss the Syrian crisis and the draft resolution backed by the Arab League and Western countries to demand that Assad transfer authority to Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa within 15 days. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby were among those present.
Diplomats said the proposal is supported by 10 of 15 Security Council members, which would force Russia or China to veto the move to prevent its approval.
Clinton called on Council members to approve the Arab League's plan, saying, "It is time for the international community to put aside our own differences and send a clear message of support to the people of Syria. I know that some members here may be concerned that the Security Council is headed toward another Libya. That is a false analogy. We all have a choice: Stand with the people of Syria and the region or become complicit in the continuing violence there."
Clinton told Security Council member, "Despite its ruthless tactics, the Assad regime's reign of terror will end and the people of Syria will have the chance to chart their own destiny. The question for us is: How many more innocent civilians will die before this country is able to move forward toward the kind of future it deserves?"
Russia, for its part, remained at odds with the West's position. "The Western draft Security Council resolution on Syria does not lead to a search for compromise," Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov wrote Tuesday on Twitter. "Pushing this resolution is a path to civil war."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday at a news conference in Amman, Jordan, that he was "encouraged by the League of Arab States' initiative to seek a political solution" to the Syrian crisis. "It is more urgent than ever to put an end to this bloodshed and violence, to start a credible political solution that addresses the legitimate aspiration of the Syrian people and to protect their fundamental freedoms," Ban said.
Violence throughout Syria continued on Tuesday with more than 50 people killed in clashes between forces loyal to Assad and the "Free Syrian Army" defectors on the outskirts of Damascus.