A More Immediate Threat

On July 23, 2012, Syria—one of seven nations not to sign the Chemical Weapons
Convention—admitted owning a stockpile of chemical and biological weapons. A
foreign ministry spokesman warned that Damascus would use these weapons against
any force intervening in its civil war. NATO estimates that Syria produces
several hundred tons of chemical/biological (chem/bio) agents annually.

Since World War I, when chemical weapons were widely used, no nation able to
retaliate in kind has been subjected to this type of WMD attack. Chem/bio
weapons provide non-nuclear states with a "poor man’s deterrent." Dr. Jill
Dekker, a NATO expert on WMDs, estimates Syria’s arsenal includes chemical
weapons (sarin, tabun, VX, and mustard gas) along with biological agents
(anthrax, bubonic plague, tularemia, botulinium, smallpox, aflotoxin, cholera,
ricin, and camelpox). In addition to a robust air force, Syrian artillery
stationed near Golan can hit Haifa and SCUD missiles—with chem/bio warheads—can
target all of Israel. Syria possesses 1,000 Russian SS-21 missiles capable of
carrying 265-pound warheads to a range of 75 miles. Should chem/bio agents fall
into the hands of Hezbollah, Hamas, or al Qaeda, suicide bombers could spread
death and destruction on a global scale.

The day after Syria revealed its deadly stash, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor
Liberman declared his country would act "decisively and without hesitation"
should Hezbollah or Hamas gain access to these weapons, stating such an act
would "constitute an act of war." Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz
warned the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel must take
action "when the time is appropriate," implying this is a matter of "when" not
"if." President Barack Obama also recently declared any transfer of WMDs to
terrorist groups might prompt U.S. intervention.

Logically, the "appropriate" time to address this threat is before—not
after—terrorists gain control of WMDs. By then, locating and destroying them
becomes infinitely more difficult, and there is a much greater risk of
casualties among innocents that Hezbollah and Hamas use as cover. For Israel,
the threat posed by Syrian WMDs poses a potentially greater and more immediate
threat than the yet-to-be realized (but increasingly inevitable) Iranian nuclear

Some analysts think Israel may attack Iran’s nuclear-weapons production sites
before Americans go to the polls in November based on Israeli speculation that
in a second Obama term, without the need for Jewish votes, Jerusalem’s leverage
in Washington will be nil. In that case, an Israeli Air Force attack, following
conventional operational dynamics, will be at the edge of the IAF’s
capabilities—involving 2,000 miles of flying through hostile territory and then
fighting its way into and out of well-defended Iranian airspace. Furthermore,
the IAF’s bunker-buster bombs are not large enough to penetrate the deeply
buried production facilities spread out over a dozen target sites. This adds up
to great risks with little long-term benefit.

Gideon’s descendants are renowned for military ingenuity. If there are other
ways to deny Iran its stated goal of annihilating the Jewish state, Israel will
explore them. Furthermore, the Obama administration’s political calculation may
well be that since, at present, it can count on 60 to 70 percent of the Jewish
vote, which constitutes only 3 percent of the electorate, it may not be worth
risking supporters reacting to a doubling of gas prices in the weeks before the

On the other hand, Syria’s WMDs present an immediate threat but one within easy
range of Israel’s air force. While a ground attack might be possible, it risks
exposing Israeli troops to chem/bio agents. While aerial attack risks spreading
deadly gases, bacteria and viruses, weapons generating extreme heat minimize
that danger.

There’s one other possibility. Russia could take control of the Syrian arsenal,
securing them on its naval base at Tartus. Even though the base is frayed and
constitutes little beyond a mooring pier, Israel, NATO, or the United States are
unlikely to risk war with Russia. Moscow, however, isn’t inclined to do
Washington any favors, although doing so might relieve the Obama administration
of doing something that could jeopardize a second term; something Vladimir Putin
needs to consider.

That’s the way it stands: American foreign policy—and leadership—in the Middle
East has devolved to a limited number of risky alternatives, save Moscow’s
possible good graces. In this second decade of the 21st century, [4]a growing
global-leadership vacuum makes a bipolar future between Beijing and Moscow
increasingly likely. The Syrian question becomes, "Is this the world Americans
want?" The answer will come in November.

— Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East &
terrorism with [5]The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. A
retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American
and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to
2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies
Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City
College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and
international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.

© 2012 by The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. The views &
expressed herein may, but do not necessarily, reflect the views of Grove City

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