by Yaakov Lappin
The threat keeping defense officials up at night is what might happen to those weapons of mass destruction after Assad’s collapse.
Syrian rebels have taken control of the border with Israel, and are consolidating their presence in the area, according to Israeli defense sources.
One source said that the rebels managed to oust the Syrian military from the area after months of battles, which on occasion saw shells and bullets fired over the border into Israel.
The rebels, according to the source, have spent recent weeks consolidating their shaky control of the border.
The development is one of a growing number of signs that the Assad regime is on its last legs.
The IDF has been readying itself for a “changing of the guard” on the Syrian side of the border. As a result, from the IDF’s standpoint, no operational changes are currently necessary.
The IDF is not resting on its laurels – quite the opposite. As another IDF source put it this week, “Our finger is on the pulse.” In short, the IDF is ready to respond to any incident.
As some of the rebel groups are heavily armed radical Islamists, Israel must now be on high alert for terror attacks on the Golan Heights.
In addition, Israel remains deeply concerned by the danger of Hezbollah or Al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels trying to seize control of chemical weapons, ballistic missiles, or other strategic weapons.
Israel has adopted a “wait-and-see” policy, but has indicated it will not tolerate any attacks from the jihadi component of the Syrian rebel groups.
The Israeli defense community is not displaying overt concern about the scenario of a chemical attack directed by Assad at Israel as a desperate last-ditch move to ignite the region. The threat that is keeping defense officials up at night is what might happen to those weapons after the Assad regime’s collapse.
As the former Israel Air Force commander Maj.-Gen. (res.) Ido Nehushtan said this week, the fact that the largest chemical weapons possessor in the Middle East – if not the world – is falling apart, creates a nightmarish security situation, not just for Israel or the Middle East, but rather, for the whole world.
With radical Sunni and Shi’ite [Hezbollah] forces freely running around in the country, a failure to secure or destroy the weapons could lead to terrorists getting hold of weapons of mass destruction.
Hence, it remains likely that the international community, or Israel, or both will have to activate contingency plans to secure – or destroy — the chemical weapons upon Assad’s collapse.
Israeli intelligence reports note the heavy and ongoing involvement of Hezbollah and Iran in propping up the dying Assad regime.
Iran provides training and arms to the regime’s beleaguered forces, while Hezbollah provides highly trained combat forces to assist the Syrian army in its battles against the rebels, as well as its massacre of Syrian Sunni civilians.
Although the wider regional implications of Assad’s pending collapse remain unknown, the fall of the Alawite regime will undoubtedly strike a major blow to Iran’s strategic standing. Tehran will lose its main regional ally, and its link to its powerful Shi’ite proxy, Hezbollah, in southern Lebanon.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah has no choice but to prepare to face a new reality without its key ally in Damascus.
It will also have to face some serious domestic hurdles in the form of a Lebanese Sunni population (and other sectarian groups), emboldened by the success of Syrian Sunnis against Assad.
A growing number of Lebanese are finding the courage to voice their frustration with Hezbollah’s monopoly of military power and its shadow state in southern Lebanon.
The growing sectarian tensions in Lebanon and their linkage to events in Syria are like a trail of gasoline between the two countries. Lebanon could easily be set alight by the flames in next-door Syria. Sparks have already been seen in Tripoli, where Sunni gunmen engage in lethal battles with Alawite supporters of Assad.
The Syrian conflict has also seriously dented the alliance between Iran and Hamas, with Tehran diverting resources away from Hamas and towards the Islamic Jihad, its closest proxy in the Gaza Strip, in the wake of Hamas’s backing of the Syrian rebels. Relations between the two have not, however, been terminally damaged, and Hamas continues to rely on Iranian rockets and logistical assistance.
If the Syrian civil war has had such a dramatic effect on the region before the collapse of Assad, it is possible to contemplate the enormous effect a headless Syria will have after Assad’s fall.
The power vacuum in Syria, and the scramble by various groups to fill it, will send waves of instability and chaos throughout the area.
Syria’s neighbors are bracing themselves.
Yaacov Lappin is a visiting fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). On a daily basis, Lapppin provides breaking security and defense news coverage on Israel and the Middle East. He is also a journalist for the Jerusalem Post, where he covers military and national security affairs, and author of the book The Virtual Caliphate.
The above article was originally published by Gatestone Institute and is reprinted with kind permission of Gatestone Institute.
(Photo source: Hizb ut-Tahrir)