Israel faces potential challenge from Russia over Syria

This article first appeared on The Media Line.

Periodically throughout the four and half years of the Syrian civil war weapon shipments destined for Hezbollah were intercepted and decimated by airstrikes inside Syria. In each instance Israel, whose air force has enjoyed unrivalled dominance of the airspace around the Jewish state’s borders, was believed responsible. But with the deployment of Russian combat aircraft to bases in Syria several weeks ago this hegemony may have ended.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Moscow underscores Israel’s uncertainty over the future in Syria. Israeli officials worry that, inadvertently or otherwise, Russian fighter jets and air defense systems may act as a screen for Hezbollah to move new arms convoys into Syria.

Several days ago Israeli artillery units fired on Syrian army positions in response to errant shells crossing the border. This represented the first time Israel has attacked Syria since Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed troops and jets into the country. Yet the incidents took place in the Golan Heights, far south of any Russian units which are stationed on the coast.

“The most immediate issue is one of having Israeli flights over Syrian territory (and) ensuring that Russia flights won’t have any confusion or accidental fire incidents (with them),” Yezid Sayigh, a Senior Associate with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told The Media Line. But, he added, “This doesn’t need Netanyahu to visit Moscow.” In a similar manner to back channel communications between the US and Syria, Israel and Russia could have cooperated quietly to ensure that both states air forces operated in the same airspace without coming into conflict. A high level visit by Netanyahu demonstrates a deeper agenda, Sayigh said.

“(Its) more a question of working out how far will Russia go in protecting the regime (of President Bashar Al-Assad) – air defenses, new high tech combat aircraft,” Sayigh explained. Of chief concern to Israel would be the delivery of the S-300 air defense system to the Syrian military, something Russia has repeatedly said it will do, Sayigh said. The Russian built anti-aircraft system is capable of targeting planes and cruise missiles and is considered one of the most capable air defense systems in the world. The Israeli government has stated in the past that it would not accept the S-300 being transferred to the Syrian army.

Although Israel has not actively sought to undermine the Assad regime during the ongoing conflict the two countries are still technically at war. Israelis debate whether Assad’s fall or his survival is better for Israel. Russia, on the other hand, has stated that it will work to ensure Assad remains in power, with Putin declaring that supporting the regime is the most effective way to both fight Islamic State and end violence in the region.

A possibility exists that Russian and Israeli jets could come into conflict over Syrian skies but such a scenario is highly unlikely, Zvi Magen, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line. “Russia is not fighting on the ground and in the air there is enough technical solutions (to ensure an accidental clash would not occur),” Magen said.

On the issue of Hizbullah, Israel retains the right to strike at weapon shipments and this will be understood and accepted by Russia, Magen said. “Russia is not looking for war,” and understands that Israel has certain requirements, the researcher explained. But this is not a disadvantage for Hizbullah however. “It’s good for them because they are part of this coalition – Russia, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah,” Magen concluded.

Israel’s freedom of action over Syria could be curtailed by the Russian deployment, Raymond Hinnebusch, the director of the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St. Andrews, told The Media Line. “To the extent a Russian air defense umbrella reaches outward from their base in the coastal areas… this would potentially limit Israeli options,” the professor said.

The boost to the beleaguered Syrian regime that Putin’s actions represent could have far reaching implications for the whole of the region if they are enough to ensure Assad’s survival. This could alter Israel’s view of the near future and reverse assessments previously made by Israeli intelligence chiefs that Assad’s demise was inevitable.

“The main strategic change is… that the Russian presence will tend to push back against those pressuring for turning the US/Western airstrikes from (targeting) ISIS to hitting Assad,” Hinnebusch said.

Putin is “hoisting the Americans on their own petard,” by lauding the US sentiment that all states must work together to combat ISIS and then including Syria in this equation, Yezid Sayigh argued. Effectively, the Russians have created a “back window” for Assad to survive by, he suggested.

Obama’s Kobani Crossroads

Obama has consistently disregarded the advice of his military experts on the ISIS threat. And he seems to have written off the Kurdish-Syrian town of Kobani, which may soon be overrun by ISIS.

Whatever the U.S. accomplished after about a decade of war in Iraq has, in a matter of months, deteriorated to a situation that may become unprecedented in its instability and threat to Western interests. Obama’s clumsy departure from Iraq, his military mismanagement of the mess that ensued, and his refusal to intervene in Syria – again, overruling his top security advisers – are what produced the current quagmire. 

The loss of Christianity in Mosul didn’t have to happen. Obama’s tardy airstrikes managed to prevent the Mosul Dam from falling, but the city may never be the same. Similarly, why did the Yazidis have to find themselves besieged on Mount Sinjar before the U.S. took action? 

Instead of preemptively stopping ISIS from spreading into Iraq, Obama effectively waited until some high-profile beheadings forced him to focus on the danger. While such gruesome murders can reliably rally public opinion in favor of military action, the duty of the Commander-in-Chief is to lead and take military action when and how national security requires it, and not just when terrorists provoke some tardy and token airstrikes into empty buildings.

As the next disaster is about to unfold on Obama’s watch, he should recognize that there is much more at stake with the fight for Kobani than just the loss to ISIS of a small town on the Syria-Turkey border.

Above all, letting Kobani fall means betraying our only ally fighting ISIS on the ground, and allowing them to be massacred while the world watches. What message does the U.S. send to Mideast partners and the world at large, if the Kurds are the only force providing the ground troops that Obama so desperately needs now, and yet Obama is unwilling to support them enough to avoid the horrific slaughter that will follow an ISIS victory in Kobani? 

Kobani also has geostrategic importance to the Iranian nuclear threat. The more ISIS succeeds at capturing territory and recruiting fighters, a trend bolstered by Kobani’s fall, the more desperate the U.S. becomes for help from Iran, which, as leader of the Shiite world, is the natural enemy of the Sunni ISIS fighters. Because Iran also has one of the most powerful militaries in the region, and has – even before the ISIS crises – outmaneuvered the West in talks to curb Iranian nuclear ambitions, Iran could easily leverage the situation to secure tacit Western acceptance of its nukes. Indeed, Iran has already signaled its fight-ISIS-for-nukes strategy

Even more important, as Iran watches how feebly the U.S. responds to the loss of Iraq and how Obama cowers from a relatively minor fight in Kobani, the Ayatollahs can rest assured that there really is no U.S. military option to stop their nuclear program. This conclusion becomes all the more inevitable, when they look at Obama’s waning influence at home, as he enters the lame-duck period of his presidency.

There is also a moral dimension to Kobani. Obama – in his  2009  and  2012  speeches on Holocaust Remembrance Day – proudly recalled how his great uncle helped to liberate a Nazi death camp. Yet Obama’s inaction in Syria has left about 200,000 dead, including many who were simply massacred, and Kobani may be where the next atrocities happen. Does the U.S. not hold itself to a higher standard than that of  Turkey, which has  thus far  chosen just to watch the fighting  a mere mile from its border? Turkish history already includes genocides against the  Armenian Christians and the Kurds (in the  Dersim Massacre), so it’s no surprise that the Islamist regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would let his army stand idly by, watching and waiting for ISIS to slaughter thousands of Kobani Kurds. But does the U.S. really want to be in the same camp as the Turks on this one? How much more shame will fall upon the United States, and the Obama legacy, when the Internet overflows with images of mass graves containing Kobani’s brave and abandoned fighters, along with Kurdish civilians who were too weak, infirm, or elderly to flee the approaching ISIS barbarism?

As if the above concerns weren’t enough to goad Obama into action, there is also the strategic impact of letting Kobani fall. As good as ISIS recruiting on social media already is, the popularity of this terrorist army among Islamists worldwide will surge when ISIS can boast about one more example of how even the mighty US military can’t stop them. 

Having foolishly telegraphed that he won’t send ground troops to confront ISIS, Obama can still try to convert his error into a feint, by doing the opposite and sending troops to Kobani. At least that would restore some element of unpredictability to how ISIS regards U.S. military moves in the region.

Obama is effectively a month away from the lame-duck portion of his presidency. If Republicans take Congress in next month's midterm elections, then Obama will become that much more ineffectual. But the president can still try to demonstrate some leadership by changing his strategic approach to Mideast threats — if only to prevent his legacy from going into freefall. If the Middle East has only one lesson for Obama, it is that much can go terribly wrong in very little time. With Iranian nukes around the corner and ISIS on the march, two years of Mideast deterioration is a frighteningly long time to be on Obama’s watch. 

Noah Beck is the author of The Last Israelis, an apocalyptic novel about Iranian nukes and other geopolitical issues in the Middle East.

Syria’s Assad denies chemical weapons use; U.S. presses case for strike

Syrian President Bashar Assad denied that he was behind a chemical weapons attack on the Syrian people, as the White House on Sunday pressed ahead with the uphill effort of persuading Congress to approve a military strike to punish Assad.

The Obama administration faces a crucial test vote set for Wednesday in the U.S. Senate and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough made the rounds of five Sunday talk shows to argue for a resolution authorizing a limited strike on Syria.

In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did not rule out France's suggestion that it go to the U.N. Security Council for an authorization of a possible military strike once U.N. inspectors complete their report on the August 21 attack near Damascus in which more than 1,400 people were killed.

Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, have blocked previous efforts to punish the Syrian government. The United States and France hold that Assad was behind the attack and should be deterred from using chemical weapons again.

Assad denied involvement the attack and said if the United States has evidence, Washington should produce it, CBS reported on Sunday on its news program “Face the Nation.

“There has been no evidence that I used chemical weapons against my own people,” CBS reported Assad said in an interview conducted in Damascus. The report was a summary of the interview and did not contain any audio or video of Assad.

Assad said he feared an attack might degrade the Syrian military and tip the balance in the 2-1/2-year-old civil war, CBS reported.

The Syrian president also warned that if there was a military strike by the United States, there would be retaliation by those aligned with Syria, CBS said.

In London, Kerry countered Assad, saying “The evidence speaks for itself.”

President Barack Obama faces an uphill climb to persuade U.S. lawmakers returning from a summer recess to vote for military action. During the break, their constituents voiced strong objections to the action, worrying that it would drag the country into another costly, and broader, Middle East conflict.

Opinion polls show most Americans oppose a strike. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll said 56 percent of Americans believed the United States should not intervene in Syria; 19 percent backed action.

McDonough, the White House chief of staff, led the administration's lobbying effort on Sunday, part of an intensive push for support that will continue on Monday when Obama sits for six network television interviews and culminate with an address to the country on Tuesday night.

“Are there consequences for a dictator who would have used those weapons to gas to death hundreds of children? The answer to that question … will be followed closely in Damascus, but will also be followed closely in Tehran, among Lebanese Hezbollah, and others. So this is a very important week,” McDonough said on the “Fox News Sunday” program.

While Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is a supporter of the strikes, he said Obama had made “a hash” of his argument to punish Assad.

“It's very clear he's lost support in the last week,” Rogers said on CBS' “Face the Nation.” He said Obama should have called Congress back from its summer break for classified briefings on the proposed strikes, and the administration needed to “regroup.”

“The president hasn't made the case,” Rogers said.

Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said that “if I were the president, I would withdraw my request. I don't believe the support is there in Congress.” He spoke on CNN's “State of the Union”

Congressional surveys make it clear Obama has a difficult task. A Washington Post vote count showed 223 House members either against or leaning against authorizing the use of military force in Syria. That is more than the 217 needed to block the resolution.

The White House has said the president could go ahead with a military strike without congressional authorization, but has not said he would do so.


French President Francois Hollande, increasingly under pressure at home and among European partners to seek a U.N. mandate before any military intervention in Syria, on Saturday suggested he could seek a U.N. resolution despite previous Russian and Chinese vetoes.

U.N. inspectors are likely to hand in their report later this week roughly at the same time as the U.S. Congress votes on military action. The United Nations has said the inspectors will only determine whether gas was used, not who was responsible for its use.

“On President Hollande's comments with respect to the U.N., the president (Obama), and all of us, are listening carefully to all of our friends,” Kerry told a news conference in Paris earlier Sunday. “No decision has been made by the president.”

Later, a U.S. official said Washington was not seeking a U.N. vote at this time.

Kerry said key Arab countries were leaning towards supporting a G20 statement – already signed by 12 countries – that called for a strong international response.

The top U.S. diplomat met in Paris with Arab ministers, including from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, following talks in Lithuania with European foreign ministers, who blamed the attack in Syria on Assad but refused to endorse military action.

Iran's new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, warned the United States that it would ignite a fire across the Middle East if it attacks Syria.

“We are concerned about warmongering in this region,” Zarif told a news conference while on a visit to Iraq. “Those who are short-sighted and are beating the drums of war are starting a fire that will burn everyone.”

Underscoring the dangers of the Syrian conflict spreading beyond its borders, an Israeli official said on Sunday the United States would notify Israel hours in advance of an attack on Syria.

While formally on the sidelines of the Syrian crisis, Israel fears coming under reprisals from its northern foe should the United States launch strikes to punish Damascus.

A German newspaper, citing German intelligence, reported that Assad may not have personally given permission for the August 21 attack.

Syrian brigade and division commanders had been asking the Presidential Palace to allow them to use chemical weapons for the last 4-1/2 months, according to radio messages intercepted by German spies, but permission had always been denied, the newspaper Bild am Sonntag said.

This could mean Assad may not have personally approved the attack, intelligence officers suggested.

Reporting by John Whitesides in Washington and Arshad Mohammed in Paris and London; additional reporting by Rachelle Younglai, David Brunnstrom and Jackie Frank in Washington; Dan Williams in Israel; Natalie Huet in Paris; Alexandra Hudson in Berlin; and Raheem Salman and Yeganeh Torbati in Baghdad; writing by Eric Beech; editing by Jackie Frank

Red Lines

Israel did not warn U.S. on Syria attacks, U.S. official says

Israel did not provide advance warning to the United States on its alleged Israeli airstrikes on Syria, a U.S. intelligence official said.

The unnamed official said the United States was told of the attacks as they were in progress, Reuters reported Monday.

The Israel Defense Forces has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for attacks Friday and Sunday on what has been reported to be a shipment of long-range missiles from Iran en route to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Sunday afternoon that President Obama believes “the Israelis are justifiably concerned about the threat posed by Hezbollah obtaining advanced weapons systems, including some long-range missiles.” Earnest added that the U.S. “is in very close contact” with the Israeli government.

Syrian state media accused Israel of an early Sunday morning attack on what it identified as the Jamraya military research center located approximately 10 miles from the border with Lebanon.

The New York Times reported late Sunday, citing rebels and local residents, that the strike on the research center killed more than 100 Syrian soldiers, many of them members of the country's elite Republican Guard, along with hitting the long-range missiles.

Reuters cited an unnamed “Western intelligence source” who confirmed the attack and said Israel targeted stores of long-range Fateh-110 missiles. The missiles have the capacity to strike Tel Aviv from Lebanon.

Over the line

White House: U.S. intelligence community believes Syria used chemical weapons

The U.S. intelligence community believes Syria used chemical weapons on anti-government rebels.

The White House on Thursday informed Congress that intelligence shows that Syrian President Bashar Assad ordered government troops to use sarin gas against the rebels.

“Our intelligence community does asses with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin,” Miguel Rodriguez, director of the White House office of legislative affairs, wrote in a letter.

Rodriguez said the use of chemical weapons in Syria is a “red line” for the United States. But he said that the U.S. is not ready to take action yet.

“Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient — only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making, and strengthen our leadership of the international community,” Rodriguez wrote.

Also Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking in Abu Dhabi, reiterated the message in the letter, saying that the use of chemical weapons “violates every convention of warfare.”

Hagel said Wednesday that an Israeli official's revelation that Israel believes Syria used chemical weapons caught him by surprise.

Israel to request U.S. support for strike on potential Syrian weapons transfers

Israel will ask President Obama for U.S. support should Israel strike a Syrian weapons convoy bound for Hezbollah.

The request, according to the Guardian, will come during Obama’s visit to Israel later this week. It may include a request for U.S. participation in the strike, according to an unnamed Israeli official.

“Maybe it would be better if Israel doesn't do it, but who is going to deal with it?” the official told the Guardian. “These missiles are not just a problem for Israel.”

Israel reportedly destroyed a Syrian weapons convoy bound for Hezbollah in December.

The U.S. has committed to taking military action should Syria deploy any of its chemical or biological weapons, or transfer them to extremist groups. The Israeli request, by contrast, would pertain to all missiles.

Obama is scheduled to land in Israel on Wednesday afternoon and will be in the country until Friday. Syria is one of the topics the president is set to discuss with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the trip.

White House: Obama won’t bring new peace ideas to Israel

President Obama's visit to Israel will focus on Syria and Iran, and he will not initiate new peace moves, the White House said.

“This is a trip the president looks forward to making that is timed in part because we have here obviously a second term for the president, a new administration and a new government in Israel, and that's an opportune time for a visit like this that is not focused on specific Middle East peace process proposals,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters at Wednesday's briefing.

“We expect that Iran and Syria will be topics of conversation, but I'm sure a variety of issues will be discussed, as they always are, when the president meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders. And that is certainly the case when he meets with Palestinian Authority officials.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last September said Iran could reach the point of no return with its suspected nuclear weapons program by the spring. Israel is also concerned that the embattled Assad regime in Syria could unleash its chemical weapons against rebels or transfer them to Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, and also that the chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists among the rebel groups.

Carney announced Tuesday that Obama would be making his first presidential visit to Israel and the West Bank sometime in the spring. He also will visit Jordan.

Assad chemical weapons plans blocked by Moscow

Increasingly under pressure by rebels intent on unseating him, Bashar al-Assad has considered using chemical weapons against his enemies but Washington and Moscow have formed an unlikely alliance to force him to abandon such plans.

Analysts and diplomats across the region and beyond do not doubt that the Assad government, recoiling from a devastating attack on its security establishment last week and struggling to contain rebel offensives across Syria, is capable of using agents such as Sarin gas if its survival is at stake.

Yet some believe that the government’s unprecedented admission that it possesses a chemical stockpile – although in safe storage and only to be deployed against “external aggressors” – is an attempt to allay international alarm that might prompt outside intervention to secure the weapons.

“They have a keen instinct for regime survival and this is an issue which didn’t play well for them, which would really bring serious consequences, not the type of stuff we have been seeing so far from the international community,” said Salman al-Shaikh of the Brookings Doha center.

“I think they wanted to move quickly to take us away from that, to reassure in many ways.

“This regime is capable of anything, but in this case it felt there may well be consequences, that they are perhaps crossing some red lines.”

There has been a barrage of warnings about Syria’s chemical arsenal this month, especially strident from the United States and Israel, but accompanied by firm but private advice from Russia, Assad’s main international ally, to put an end to speculation he might use it.

One Western diplomat in the region said: “There was talk of them using it two weeks ago, but the Russians intervened quickly to stop him.

“If you think how desperate these people are and what they have done in the past, you have to assume they would be prepared to use it. All of us think he (Assad) is capable of using it and will do it if he was pushed to the wall,” the diplomat said, referring to credible reports that Assad was preparing to use Sarin gas against Syrian rebels.

But “the Russians got hold of him and told him ‘don’t even think about it’”.

Moscow went further on Monday, publicly warning Assad not to use chemical weapons, which it said was barred by Syria’s 1968 ratification of an international protocol against using poison gas in war.

“The Russian side proceeds from the assumption that Syrian authorities will continue to strictly adhere to the undertaken international obligations,” it said.


The diplomat believes Syria’s statement, by foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi, was put out at Russia’s insistence.

Despite the diplomatic “debacle” over Syria at the UN Security Council, where Moscow has vetoed tougher action against Damascus, “there is a clear shared interest between Russia and the United States to control the chemical weapons”, he said.

“The Israelis are pretty serious about trying to stop it happening, and the Americans too,” the envoy said.

Diplomats said the United States, Israel and Western powers were in close contact on how to deal with the nightmarish eventuality of Assad losing control and his chemical weapons falling into the hands of militant groups – al-Qaeda style Sunni Jihadi insurgents or Assad’s pro-Iranian Shi’ite Lebanese fighters from Hezbollah.

Israel has publicly discussed military action to prevent Syrian chemical weapons or missiles from reaching Hezbollah.

Some Western intelligence sources suggested that Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, both close allies of Syria, have sent some special units to back Assad in his fight against Sunni insurgents and might get hold of the chemical weapons in the case of a total collapse of government authority.

Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, has tried to distance itself publicly from the Syrian quagmire but it believes a defeat for Syria would mean the group might be targeted next.

Asked whether Hezbollah would try to obtain Syria’s chemical weapons, one diplomat said: “If you think of this as a fight to the death, either with Sunnis or Israelis or both, you’d have an interest in trying to get your hands on chemical weapons.

“It’s one more deterrent against Israel and a big stick to wave,” he said.

President Barack Obama said on Monday that Assad would be held accountable if he made the “tragic mistake” of using his chemical weapons.

Washington said it was keeping a close eye on Syria’s chemical stockpiles and was “actively consulting with Syria’s neighbors and friends to underscore their common concern about the security of these weapons, and the Syrian government’s obligation to secure them”.


For the Kremlin, revelations about the chemical arsenal will add to its fears about how chaos in Syria could pose risks to Russia, but will not prompt a shift in Moscow’s stance on a crisis that is poisoning its relations with Arabs and the West.

For President Vladimir Putin, making the point that foreign interference is unacceptable trumps other concerns when it comes to Syria.

But Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, suggested Russia was working with the United States and other countries to try to safeguard chemical weapons or at least is discussing it, although the Kremlin probably believes the concerns are overblown.

“I think Russia is working with everyone, with America first of all … Putin met the Turkish prime minister, he was in Israel, and is in constant contact with the Americans. Of course, nobody wants chemical weapons to be used, let alone to get into the hands of terrorists”.

Russia has blunted Western efforts to condemn Assad and push him from power after voicing anger over NATO air strikes that helped Libyan rebels oust Gaddafi last year.

Since Putin announced in September that he intended to return to the presidency this year, Russia has vetoed three resolutions designed to step up pressure on Assad, angering Western and Arab states that say Moscow is protecting a brutal regime.

That contention will only be compounded by Syria’s acknowledgement on Monday that it has chemical and biological weapons and warning that it could use them if foreign countries intervened.

Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst, said:

“Russia’s position is not dictated by the nature or the actions of the Syrian regime. Russia’s position is very much dictated by an ideological approach – by 19th century Realpolitik, if you will: the overthrow of our ally, our son of a bitch, is a victory for our opponent. Putin still thinks in terms of a zero-sum game.”


Damascus has not signed a 1992 convention that bans chemical weapons, but officials had in the past denied it had any.

It has officially stated that while it supports a Middle East-wide ban on weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it cannot unilaterally renounce chemical arms as long as Israel continues to pose a threat to its security.

Syria began to acquire the ability to develop and produce chemical weapons agents in 1973, including mustard gas and sarin, and possibly also VX nerve agent.

The Global Security website, which collects published intelligence reports and other data, says there are four suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria: north of Damascus, near Homs, in Hama, and near the Mediterranean port of Latakia.

Analysts have also identified the town of Cerin, on the coast, as a possible producer of biological weapons. Several other sites are monitored by foreign intelligence agencies and are listed only as suspect. Weapons Syria produces include the nerve agents VX, sarin and tabun, the website said.

Exact volumes of weapons in the Syrian stockpile are not known. However, the CIA has estimated that Syria possesses several hundred liters of chemical weapons and produces hundreds of tonnes of agents annually.

David Friedman, WMD expert at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said “for weaponisation, the material is poured into warheads, which can be anything from ballistic missiles to standard artillery shells to air-dropped munitions. The weapons can be as small as mortar bombs. Some of Syria’s chemical weapons are already in launch-ready, warhead form”.

Abdelbasset Seida, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said: “A regime that massacres children and rapes women could use these types of weapons.”

There are many scenarios under which Assad could fall but the worst-case scenario envisages a chaotic and messy downfall with militants and rebels seizing chemical arsenals.

While observers say the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government cannot be excluded, they believe it is not imminent.

“We cannot rule it out but we are probably some ways away from that scenario,” a diplomat said.

But another diplomat said Assad’s acknowledgment that he has nonconventional weapons was an “act of desperation by a regime on its last breath, behaving like a wounded animal who would use anything to fight back”.

Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman and Dan Williams; Editing by Giles Elgood

The Arab Spring and Iraq

The Arab Spring, as a moniker for the revolution that seemed about to sweep the Middle East earlier this year, has given way to far less cheerful seasonal metaphors — from long, hot summer to dark, dismal winter. In Egypt, where “people power” toppled Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt dictatorship, the dream of freedom has morphed into a nightmare of mob violence and military crackdown. In other countries whose dictators have been more willing to use extreme savagery to hold on to power, the opposition is getting slaughtered — except for Libya, where Western intervention has made the difference.

What lessons should we learn from these depressing developments? And should these lessons include a reassessment of the war in Iraq?

The first lesson is that when it comes to world politics, cynicism is, alas, a safe bet. A few months ago, people who cautioned that the upheaval in the Mideast could lead to the rise of dangerously radical regimes were commonly labeled as paranoid naysayers if not bigots. When Sen. John McCain sounded such a warning last February, the leftist Web site lambasted him for negativity toward a movement pursuing “freedom and self-determination.”

Concerns about politicized Islamic fundamentalism were dismissed because the victorious anti-Mubarak activists were mainly young and modern. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof shrugged off Islamism as a “bogeyman,” asserting that the Coptic Christians he interviewed in Egypt were baffled and offended when he asked if the revolution might end in a more oppressive society.

What would those Copts say now when their community faces escalating aggression? A recent protest by Christians demanding a stop to the violence was brutally dispersed by soldiers, leaving 25 dead and hundreds injured. Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper al-Watani, tells Reuters that “the new emerging faction of Islamists and Salafists [Muslim ultra-fundamentalists] has created havoc since the January revolution.” Nearly 100,000 Christians have fled Egypt.

Other pessimistic predictions, too, are looking prescient. The upcoming parliamentary elections are almost certain to make the Muslim Brotherhood Egypt’s single dominant party — and the military is poised to indefinitely delay full transfer of power to civilians. Meanwhile, measures to stop weapons smuggling to Hamas across the Egyptian border have been virtually discontinued.

The point is not that any revolution in a Muslim country is likely to slide into violent fanaticism; rather, revolutions in general are liable to fall into the hands of the worst factions, be it communists or Islamists. (Even the much-praised secular activists who helped bring down Mubarak are probably more likely to be Che Guevara lovers than classical liberals.)

Critics of the Arab Spring have been accused of supporting democracy in other countries only when those countries do what the West wants. That’s a crude caricature, but it is related to a pesky fact: Peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy is more likely when the revolution is friendly to America and its allies. This was evident in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism. Today, of the Arab Spring countries, the most encouraging situation is probably in Tunisia: While a moderate Islamic party is set to lead in the upcoming elections, it is a party that pledges to respect secular law, boasts female candidates who don’t wear the veil and promises expanded trade with the United States.

Unfortunately, Western and American involvement is no panacea either. We do not know whether the Libyan rebels effectively backed by the United States will bring about positive change or a Taliban-style fiasco: despite their professed liberal values, some of their leaders have jihadist ties and are evasive on whether they favor a sharia-governed Islamic state. Now, foreign-policy interventionists lament the West’s failure to help rid Syria of its homicidal tyrant, Bashar al-Assad. But who or what will follow in his wake?

In a recent column, Washington Post deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl suggests that the woes of the Arab Spring cast the now-reviled Iraq war in a better light: Today’s Iraq, where violence has quieted and rival groups are learning coexistence, is a model for “what Syria, and much of the rest of the Arab Middle East, might hope to be.” Yet the road to this peace lies through several years of strife that took more than 100,000 lives — and it’s not all in the past: An outbreak of violence against Christians took dozens of lives less than a year ago.

Diehl argues that if Syria’s Assad falls, the sectarian and tribal violence could be even worse, without American and allied troops to curb it. Most controversially, he concludes that the invasion of Iraq has been somewhat vindicated — and that “Syrians may well find themselves wishing that it had happened to them.”

There have been predictable cries of outrage at the claim that anyone would welcome a U.S. invasion. But that’s not an outrageous notion unless one wears left-wing blinders: For all the hardships in Iraq, polls consistent ly show about half of Iraqis supporting the 2003 invasion. Still, another Iraq with its human and social costs on both sides is now unthinkable. Too many roads to hell have been paved by humanitarian intentions.

Today, democracy promotion tends to be viewed as naively arrogant: Who are we to bring freedom to other countries? One answer is that “we” — the United States and other industrial democracies — are, for all our flaws, the possessors of the only working model of a free society, as well as a civilization with unmatched economic, cultural and military power. There is no arrogance in seeking to advance the universal values of liberty and human rights — as long as we do so with a sense of realism, and of our own limitations.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe. She is the author of “Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.”

Obama renews Syria sanctions

President Obama renewed Syria sanctions for a year, noting among other factors its continued backing for terrorist groups.

Obama wrote to the U.S. Congress on Monday saying that he was renewing congressionally mandated sanctions first implemented by President Bush in 2004. The continued sanctions affect trade with Syria and the assets of individuals and entities associated with the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Obama recently lifted another of the sanctions Bush imposed and nominated an ambassador to Syria, part of his outreach to pariah states to induce them to end their rogue status.

However, the White House insists that it maintains a carrot-and-stick policy, and Obama’s letter to Congress made it clear that Syria is far from out of the woods.

“While the Syrian government has made some progress in suppressing networks of foreign fighters bound for Iraq, its actions and policies, including continuing support for terrorist organizations and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States,” the notice said.

Syria was accused recently of arming Hezbollah with Scud missiles.

McCain advisors: No to Syria talks, little interest in Middle East peace process

LEESBURG, Va. (JTA)—A McCain administration would discourage Israeli-Syrian peace talks and refrain from actively engaging in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

That was the message delivered over the weekend by two McCain advisers—Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Richard Williamson, the Bush administration’s special envoy to Sudan—during a retreat hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy at the Lansdowne Resort in rural Virginia.

One of Barack Obama’s representatives—Richard Danzig, a Clinton administration Navy secretary—said the Democratic presidential candidate would take the opposite approach on both issues.

In an interview with the Atlantic magazine over the summer, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) insisted that in his presidency he would serve as the chief negotiator in the peace process. But at the retreat, Boot said pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian deal would not be a top priority in a McCain administration, adding that as many as 30 crises across the globe require more urgent attention.

Boot called the Bush administration’s renewed efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian talks a mistake.
He also cast Israel’s talks with Syria as betraying the stake that the United States has invested in Lebanon’s fragile democracy.

“John McCain is not going to betray the lawfully elected government of Lebanon,” Boot said.

Williamson was slightly more nuanced in addressing the issue of how the message would be sent.

“Israel should not be dictated to in dealing with Syria or dealing with Lebanon,” he said, addressing Israeli and some pro-Israel resentment in recent years at pressure by the Bush administration to stifle such negotiations. “Hopefully as friends they will listen to us.”

That Williamson was endorsing such views at all signified how closely the McCain campaign has allied itself with neo-conservatives. A veteran of the Reagan and first Bush administrations, Williamson in other circumstances would be more closely identified with Republican “realists” who have vociferously eschewed the grand claims of neo-conservatives to a new American empire.

Yet here he was echoing their talking points on several fronts.

McCain until the last year or so has kept feet in both the realist and neo-conservative camps. The session at Lansdowne appeared to suggest that the Republican presidential nominee has chosen sides, opting for policies backed by the outgoing Bush administration and its neo-conservative foreign policy architects.

Both McCain advisers insisted, however, that their candidate was synthesizing the two camps as a “realistic idealist.”

McCain would be a “leader who will press for more liberal democratic change ” and “is realistic about the prospects of diplomacy and just as importantly its limits,” said Boot, echoing what has become the twin walking and talking points of neo-conservatism: a muscular foreign policy and an affinity for promoting democracy.

Surrogates for Obama, an Illinois senator, re-emphasized their commitment to stepping up U.S. diplomatic efforts. Danzig said an Obama administration would revive the idea of a special envoy for pursuing a peace deal.

The “appropriate level of presidential engagement requires that the United States designate someone whose energies are predominantly allocated to this,” Danzig said.

Someone like Tony Blair, the former British prime minister now leading efforts to build a Palestinian civil society, might fit the bill, he added.

Surrogates from both campaigns appeared to agree on the need to further isolate Iran until it stands down from its suspected nuclear weapons program. Each side emphasized that it would keep the military option on the table and enhance sanctions.

It was clear that each campaign had devoted a great deal of attention to the issue. Officials from both campaigns signed on to a Washington Institute for Near East Policy policy paper this summer that called for closer U.S.-Israel coordination on Iran, borne out of concerns that Israel’s leadership was getting closer to contemplating the option of a strike.

Williamson and Richard Clarke, the former top anti-terrorism official in both the Clinton and current Bush administrations who spoke for Obama, described the near impossibility of taking out a weapons program that is believed to be diffuse and hidden in population centers. Clarke added the possibility of covert action against Iran, without details—a first for either campaign.

The sole difference was over Obama’s pledge not to count out a meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president who has denied the Holocaust and rejected the legitimacy of Israel’s existence.

“What could such a meeting possibly accomplish?” Boot challenged.

Danzig replied that it would make it easier for Obama to rally worldwide support for sanctions.

“These things require a community of nations,” he said.

Danzig cast Obama’s emphasis on sanctions and diplomacy in terms of Israel’s security, a pitch tuned to the Washington Institute’s pro-Israel orientation.

“The threats and dangers are more substantial than they were eight years ago,” he said.

McCain’s advisers attempted to deflect comparisons between McCain and Bush. In trying to turn such comparisons against the Obama campaign, Boot noted that eight years ago he favored “another presidential candidate with not much experience in national security policy”—George W. Bush—“and we’ve seen the implications.”

The Washington Institute crowd, hawkish in its predilections and likelier to favor McCain’s foreign policy, would nonetheless only allow the McCain surrogates to take the character and experience issue so far.

Fred Lafer, the institute’s president emeritus, pressed Boot on why McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a foreign policy novice, as his running mate if he was committed to national security.

Boot said “she has as much” foreign policy experience as Obama, prompting cries of “No!” and “what?”

Negotiating with Syria, still with the Rev. Wright brouhaha, Museum of Tolerance expansion

Talks With Syria

M.J. Rosenberg opens with the unqualified claim that former Israeli Ambassador Dore Gold is “appalled” by Israel’s negotiating with Syria. (“Israeli Talks With Syrians Make Sense,” May 29). False. Gold has expressed no such view.

Indeed, he actively participated in negotiations with Syria nearly a decade ago.

The only basis the author cites for this claim is a quote in which Gold warns against one possible outcome of these talks: A complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan. But to reformulate that as opposition to Israeli-Syrian talks altogether, even being “appalled” by them, exceeds even the most creative interpretation.

Far worse, the author joins political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in the libelous charge that certain Israeli officials goaded the United States into invading Iraq. Rosenberg states this outright about Gold, in particular, at least twice in the article. That is not only false but spectacularly so. Gold’s only known statement on the issue was a position paper taking great pains to dispute that very claim about Israel’s role (see “Wartime Witch Hunt,” at

Jeff Helmreich
Los Angeles

M.J. Rosenberg argues that Israel would be wise to negotiate with Syria to stop Hezbollah attacking it, showing he has learned nothing about Israeli negotiations with other terroristic, unreconstructed Arab parties.

Talking to Yasser Arafat and Syria’s Hafiz Assad achieved nothing, even when massive concessions were offered. And in Arafat’s case, where concessions were made, Israel ended up with a terror regime on its doorstep and the loss of more than 1,000 Israeli civilians to terrorism, more than all the Israeli civilians lost to terrorism in the 47 years that preceded Oslo.

Rosenberg might fantasize about Syria leaving Lebanon and reining in Hezbollah, but why would the Syrian Baathist regime be willing to do this? If a groundswell of Lebanese revulsion and international condemnation didn’t achieve this in 2005, it’s hard to see how negotiations with Israel will achieve it today.

The conflict with Israel is the Syrian regime’s warrant for power and oppression. It shares (and increasingly encourages at home, despite its putative secularity) the Islamist goals that drive Iran, and it prefers absolute power over economic reform and opening up to the West. Until that changes, Israeli concessions will only bring dangers, not security.

Morton A. Klein
National President
Zionist Organization of America

Museum of Tolerance Expansion

[Daniel] Fink’s letter misrepresenting the Museum of Tolerance needs to be addressed (Letters, May 29).

The Museum of Tolerance is not a Holocaust museum. It is the educational arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and its mission is to educate, using the history of the Holocaust. It exposes intolerance, racism, terrorism and modern-day genocides, and it empowers all to take responsibility for their own words and actions. One should never forget but remember by the example of how we live our lives.

As someone who has been involved with the Museum of Tolerance for many years as a volunteer/docent, I take exception to Fink’s assertion that the museum wishes to “build a commercial catering facility” on its premises.

I see how young and adult visitors alike are made more aware of their potential to prejudge and are moved by their experience. The museum has an outstanding education and diversity-training program for law enforcement, educators, professionals and school and college groups that reaches far and wide. Its contribution to many walks of life makes an enormous difference. I am so proud to be affiliated with this institution.

Joyce Trank
Culver City

The Wright Flap

Raphael Sonenshein errs in characterizing Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) as “the black candidate,” as he is mixed race — and that may be the point (“The Wright Flap and the Black Candidate,” May 9).

The senator has played every side of the race issue: mixed race, black, African American, post-race, racial evangelist. From adopting the Rev. Jeremiah Wright as a virtual blood relation and throwing his (Obama’s) own grandmother under the bus for Wright, to rejecting Wright when Wright didn’t play by the (Obama) rules.

Sonenshein errs equally if not more seriously in presuming that an endorsement of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by the Rev. John Hagee, who is at least a supporter of Israel, is equivalent to Obama’s 22-year relationship with Wright, who considers Israel a terrorist state.

More to the point, Hagee has sent a formal written apology to Bill Donahue of the Catholic League. Wright has not apologized for anything.

Even without the apology, Sonenshein’s premise is overreaching, and he does not address a fundamental question: What is more potent? Obama’s facile dismissal of Wright’s vicious anti-Israelism or Wright’s embrace of Louis Farrakhan’s hatred for the Jewish state.

The issue is not whether a superficial dismissal of his crazy (suddenly) “former” pastor by Obama placates Jewish supporters, but actually whether Wright poisons the minds of many thousands of African Americans against Israel — and that Obama has avoided this issue like the plague it is.

If Obama is as qualified to be president as Sonenshein believes, he should be far more concerned that his chances have been virtually torpedoed by Wright — while somehow discounting any effect of other unsavory associations — while Hagee will, in fact, have no such effect on McCain, despite the columnist’s obvious attempt to distract by arguing that it should be otherwise.

Jarrow L. Rogovin
Los Angeles


In an April 25 letter refuting The Journal's reporting that Scott Radinsky isn't Jewish ("Dodgers Hit Grand Slam in History of Jewish Players," April 18), Ephraim Moxson, co-publisher of Jewish Sports Review, wrote that Radinsky is the son of a Jewish mother and Polish father. The Journal contacted a representative for the former Dodger pitcher, who confirmed that neither Radinsky nor his mother are Jewish.