Syrian chemical pact may erase threat on Israel's doorstep

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JERUSALEM -- The plan to seize Syria's chemical weapons may do for Israel what decades of wars and diplomacy have failed to achieve: end the threat from one of the world's largest arsenals on its doorstep.

The accord the United States and Russia reached Saturday would see hundreds of tons of chemical weapons destroyed by mid-2014.

"If it's implemented, the agreement will be great for Israel," said Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. "It would change the balance of power and eliminate at least one threat that's been a significant concern for decades."

Possible Israeli attacks on Syrian soil this year underscore the concern. Unconfirmed media reports have attributed three airstrikes on Syrian arms convoys or storage sites to Israel. At least 42 Syrian soldiers were killed in one attack, according to the Coventry, England-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Israel has been caught in the crossfire of other conflicts in the past. During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles at the Jewish state after the U.S. attacked Iraq for invading Kuwait.

Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons dates back to the time it last fought a war with Israel. Israel's International Institute for Counter-Terrorism said in a Sept. 8 report that Syria began producing its own chemical weapons after 1973, the year it joined Egypt in an attack on Israel, intensifying the program after Israel and Egypt made peace in 1979.

According to the report, Syria has amassed about 1,000 tons of chemical weapons since the 1980s, storing them in 50 cities, many near the northern border with Turkey. Most are stored as two separate ingredients that must be combined to act lethally, making them hard for non-professionals to detect, according to the report.

The primary worry has been that the weapons could fall into the hands of the Lebanese Hezbollah militant group that fought a monthlong conflict with Israel in 2006, or other extremists allied with Syrian rebels. Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel.

The pact has also revived talk about pressing Israel to disclose its weapons. Syrian President Bashar Assad, in an interview last week with Russian state broadcaster Rossiya 24, said disarmament is a "two-way street."

Israel's minister of intelligence and strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, had no direct reply when asked how Israel would respond to pressure to give up non-conventional weapons.

"Israel is a responsible country, a country that needs to defend itself in this difficult region filled with threats," he told Army Radio.

While Israel signed the chemical weapons treaty in 1993, it never ratified it.

"We will not accept attempts by the Syrian regime, which is in noncompliance with its safeguards agreement and has used chemical weapons on its own people in violation of international norms, to compare itself to Israel, a thriving democracy which doesn't brutally slaughter and gas its own people," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.

In theory, the agreement to rid Syria of its chemical arms "is good for Israel, because Assad will give up thousands of kilograms of chemical weapons, as well as the infrastructure to build it," said Avigdor Liberman, head of the Israeli parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee.

At the same time, Mr. Assad "has a very problematic credibility record" -- and Israel has the tools and data to measure him against his claims of compliance, Mr. Liberman said.

Even if Syria reneges on its commitment to disarm, Israel would benefit because that would reset the clock on threatened U.S. military action, said Cameron Brown, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

"It increases the likelihood that the U.S. would attack if he doesn't abide by the deal," Mr. Brown said of Mr. Assad. "If the Syrians don't observe the agreement, Obama will have less of a problem getting it through Congress."

Syria and Israel fought three wars since the Jewish state's establishment in 1948. Multiple efforts to make peace since the 1990s have failed, and Israel continues to hold on to the southern Golan Heights plateau it captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed in a move that is not internationally recognized.

For the most part, the frontier has been quiet since 1974, though shells from the Arab country have struck Israel since the Syrian fighting began in 2011, causing no injuries and largely characterized by the Israeli military as stray fire.

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