Israeli workers at the Shalon gas mask factory



In this  Aug. 29, 2013 file photo, Israeli workers are seen at the Shalon gas mask factory in Kiryat Gat, Israel.

Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Reopen the Syrian 'Chemical File'

| May 10, 2017


A Hebrew-language version of the op-ed appeared in Haaretz on May 6, 2017. The translation was provided by the author.

In a world of flexible moral prohibitions, the international community has succeeded in making the use of chemical weapons — and even more so nuclear ones — an almost complete taboo. Chemical weapons have been used in only a handful of cases since World War I, unfortunately overwhelmingly in the Middle East, while nuclear weapons have not been used at all ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now, Syrian President Assad's recurrent use of chemical weapons, in flagrant contravention of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and his official commitment to dismantle the Syrian chemical arsenal in 2013, risks turning the cracks in the international prohibition into a major fissure.

President Trump's response to the killing of nearly 100 people in the recent chemical attack was thus important, even if the few tens of missiles fired caused Syria little damage, because of the clear red line it drew. In reality, however, the response was little more than a short-lived spasm of righteousness and the United States and international community have remained silent in the face of the slaughter of half a million Syrians by conventional means. To those killed, it does not matter how they met their deaths. Moreover, in the face of the ongoing international yawn, Assad is likely to now conclude that he can continue with the conventional slaughter.

If there is any meaning to the words "never again," who bears greater moral responsibility to raise their voices in condemnation over the mass slaughter of civilians, especially by chemicals, than we do?

It is not, however, just a matter of morality, but of foremost strategic interest. Syria's chemical arsenal was built with Israel in mind, partly in response to its concerns regarding the strategic capabilities attributed to Israel, and may still be turned against it. If Assad, who officially declared that he dismantled his entire chemical arsenal, is allowed to escape without true punishment, he may derive far-reaching conclusions in the future, as may others who succeed in acquiring chemical and nuclear weapons. Admittedly, the magnitude of both the chemical and nuclear threats and of the international prohibitions against them are not the same, but the precedent of an ineffectual international response will undoubtedly register in Tehran and other capitals and will further reinforce previous international failures to prevent the proliferation of WMD.

In circumstances in which international (and Israeli) willingness to take action to prevent the slaughter in Syria is limited, the following measures may prove effective.

First, Israel should encourage the United States and international community to make the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons an ironclad commitment. To this end, it should try to convince Trump to declare that in the event of a further Syrian use of chemical weapons, Assad himself will become the target of the response, not just his military. Having proven that there is nothing he values more than his own neck, this may prove to be an effective deterrent and may also convince Russia and Iran to restrain him. The military effort required by the United States would not be significantly greater than that required to launch the recent missile strike. Should Assad be killed, neither Israeli nor American long-term interests would be harmed, not just because of the atrocities he has committed, but because Syria under Assad’s leadership has become an Iranian stronghold.

Second, Israel should try to convince the United States to reopen the Syrian "chemical file," i.e. demand that inspectors be granted access to Syria in order to assess its compliance with the 2013 agreement, and in reality to expose its hidden capabilities and enable their destruction. That Assad hid part of the arsenal is not a surprise, it was to be expected, but we now have the opportunity to bring about its destruction. Assad should also be brought before an international tribunal for war crimes.

Concomitantly, Israel should encourage a U.S.-Russian deal on Syria's future, based on Assad's gradual replacement and a significant reduction in Iran's presence in Syria, in exchange for long-term U.S. recognition of Russia's special standing there. For Russia, Assad is little more than a pawn and it does not wish to pay the long-term price required to keep him in power. Both sides seek an end to the fighting in Syria.

Israel should further leverage the Syrian violation of the CWC, as well as the commitment to dismantle the chemical arsenal, in order to ensure Iranian compliance with the nuclear agreement. On far too many occasions, the international community has blindly ignored violations of the international nuclear and chemical weapons regimes, which is how Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Iran built their arsenals. Time and again, the United States and Israel have brought the violations to the attention of international actors, only to meet with apathetic responses. The lesson from the Syrian case must be crystal clear: Iranian violations of the nuclear agreement will meet with an unequivocal response on the part of the other signatories.

Israel should also continually assess the decision to end its production of gas masks. Based on current intelligence assessments, as reported in Haaretz, there does not yet appear to be a need to change course, but the situation must be watched closely and the necessary preparations made in advance.

Finally, Israel must assess whether its long-standing decision to refrain from ratifying the CWC, which it signed, continues to serve its interests, or merely provides a PR advantage to its adversaries. At a time when the use of chemical weapons has become more common in the region, a change in policy may be appropriate.

Neither the world, nor we, have any chemistry with Assad. We never should.

Statements and views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, the Harvard Kennedy School, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Freilich, Chuck. "Reopen the Syrian 'Chemical File'." Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, May 10, 2017.