THE BLOG

Chemicals in Syria, Russia's Time to Act

The previous chemicals scare about Syria, according to which Bashar Assad was going to unleash this lethal weapon against his own people was proven to be a false alarm. This was predicted by this blog, and there still are no signs that the dictator, even at his moment of extreme despair, is resorting to the use of his vast proven arsenal of biological and chemical weapons. Yet, there has been, in the last 72 hours, a new wave of rumors/information and possibly disinformation about this alarming prospect; but, on balance this time, it all has a different emphasis, and one that seems to be more credible than before.

First, some background about the state of the Syrian civil war in the last few days. The gradual collapse of the regime is obvious, as more military units are disintegrating, more important facilities succumb to the rebels, sometimes without even the pretension of a battle, sometimes after fierce battles. The bulk of the fighting is in the Damascus area, and the regime does not even try to deny the fact that miles away from the presidential palace, the rebels are in control and threaten to finally storm the last bastions of support for Assad in his own capital. Signs are clear also that the Alawistan option, i.e. the creation of an autonomous, self-sustaining Alawite territory in northwest Syria is in full gear, and the latest in this regard is the construction of an airfield in Latakiyya, no doubt in order to give the Alawites an aerial outlet when push comes to shove, and the dictator himself will be based in the mountains. On top of all that, there are two even more dramatic indications, signaling that the end is near.

One is the public admission by Dimitri Medvedev, Russia's PM, that these are the last days of the Syrian regime, due to the mistakes committed by Bashar Assad. This was an unequivocal statement, which must have displeased Bashar Assad; though, in the bizarre reality of Middle East politics, and the way the Russians operate, may have been coordinated between them and the beleaguered Assad. Then, there are repeated reports that the Iranians, the other stalwart supporters of Assad, are putting enormous pressure on him to hand over to Hezbollah the cachets of chemicals. Moreover, according to unconfirmed reports, Hezbollah units which were positioned in Damascus are moving to locations close to the places where the chemicals are stored, in order to take control and move them to Lebanon.

Back again to the conspiracy-infested climate of the Middle East, it may be that, like in the previous round, the Syrian regime is trying at the near twelfth hour to turn attention to the chemical issue as a desperate means to indicate that Bashar Assad is still relevant, and his enemies should get into talks with him about a negotiated end to the mayhem. This is not a completely implausible option, and comments made by the Sunni Grand Mufti of Syria, a stooge of Assad, raising the possibility of Assad's resignation as part of an agreement, may add some credence to this scenario -- but not really.

The major change now is the Israeli reaction. Whereas before the Israelis showed a distinct complacent attitude to the reports about the possible use of chemicals, this time they talk and act differently. Two Iron Dome batteries, whose effectiveness was much on display during the recent Gaza campaign, were moved to northern Israel to protect highly-strategic installations there, and PM Netanyahu spoke a few times about the danger of having the chemicals falling to the hands of Hezbollah. Clearly, the Israelis know "something"; clearly also it is the most pressing interest of Israel to prevent the chemicals from ending up in the hands of the Iranians and their allies. But then, is it only an Israeli interest and concern?

Of all the countries surrounding Syria, Israel has the best means to deal with a chemical attack, as the Israelis have braced themselves for many years for exactly this situation. Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan are all in the immediate danger zone if chemicals are ever to be used. The U.S. surely, as well as NATO at large, cannot be indifferent when such a scenario seems ominously realistic, and there is another country whose interest is definitely to prevent the use of chemicals.

This is Russia, which already has military personnel in Syria, and a proven measure of political leverage over Assad. The Russians, as has been repeatedly argued in this blog, want to be part of an agreed solution to the crisis, if not for another reason, so for their obvious need to cut the losses when Assad is finally no more. They can still salvage some of the lost ground, and a lot of good will and respect if they will take the plunge and seize the chemicals, most likely in cohort with Assad himself. They can do it better, more quickly and in a much-less bellicose way than any other interested party.

If that happens, the Russians will do a great deal for Middle East stability as well as be well-positioned to stake a significant claim in shaping up post-Assad Syria.

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