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May 21, 2003

A Syrian ploy on weapons of mass destruction

This letter which ran in Ha'aretz simply speaks volumes, and debunks the claims of Arab states "needing" WMD as a deterrent to Israel

Fearing a similar fate to that of Saddam Hussein, key Arab leaders redoubled their efforts to deceive America and the world, rather than come clean about their own weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Thus, the first Syrian reaction to U.S. complaints about its chemical weapons was to focus on Israel's arsenal. Not only is Syria allegedly devoid of any chemical or biological weapons, but it is also entitled to such means in order to counterbalance Israel's nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, many in the West rushed to embrace the theory that the Middle East's arms race has been fueled by Israel's nuclear effort. Yet, even a cursory glance at the record will suffice to debunk this falsehood.

The introduction of WMD into the Middle East wars was first recorded in 1963 when Egypt employed chemical weapons in attacks against royalist forces in the Yemen civil war. The Egyptians used Soviet-built AOKh-25 aerial bombs to deliver phosgene, and Soviet-built KHAB-200 R5 aerial bombs to deliver mustard gas. Artillery shells were reportedly also used.

This was well before the Israeli nuclear program supposedly reached maturity, and in fact has only strengthened Israeli incentives to acquire a strategic deterrent. The fear was that Arab countries would not hesitate to unleash such weapons against Israel, given that they used them against their brethren.

In 1982, Syria used lethal cyanide gas to suppress a revolt by members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama, in Syria itself. Amnesty International reported that the attack killed 18,000 of the city's inhabitants. That same year Syria suffered a humiliating defeat by the Israel Air Force over Lebanon, losing 90 planes to none of Israel's. Syrian President Hafez Assad then decided to abandon his efforts to achieve "military equality" with the Israel Defense Forces. Instead he opted for a force of surface-to-surface missiles armed with chemical warheads, or, as he called them, "special weapons," to threaten Israel. Thus, the Syrian effort to acquire WMD came in response to Israel's conventional superiority, not its alleged nuclear arsenal.

In general, the notion that the Arabs have sought WMD to deter an Israeli resort to nuclear weapons is ludicrous. Why would Israel turn to such weapons given that its conventional military forces have proved more than adequate to defeat Arab armies on the battlefield time and again?

As early as in 1983, if not before, Iraq had begun using chemical weapons systematically in its war with Iran. On March 17, 1984 it became the first nation in history to use nerve gas, in this instance tabun, on the battlefield. By 1988 chemical weapons, including simultaneously blister and nerve agents, served as an integral part of Iraqi offensive battlefield operations. For its part, Iran sought to counter the devastating effect of the Iraqi chemical warfare by acquiring and using its own poison gases. Moreover, Iraq's efforts to get the bomb spurred Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

It is well-documented that Libya employed Iranian-supplied mustard gas bombs against Chad, its southern neighbor, in 1987. Elsewhere, the government of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was accused of using mustard gas by opposition forces. The opposition Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and Sudanese National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and Ugandan security officials repeatedly asserted, especially after 1995, that the Sudanese government produced chemical weapons with Iranian and/or Iraqi assistance, and used mustard gas in attacks on civilians and SPLA forces in the Nubian region of Sudan.

Even this brief history reveals that Arab search for weapons of mass destruction had little to do with Israel. Indeed, Arabs resorted to WMD most often against each other. The reason they have so far eschewed using them against their foremost enemy is their belief that the latter possesses a strategic deterrent. But given that all Arab and Muslim countries in possession of poison weapons actually used them, for Israel to give up its last-resort weapons could be suicidal. The draft resolution introduced by Syria to the United Nations Security Council on April 14, which called for the establishment of a "zone free of weapons of mass destruction, in particular nuclear weapons," in the Middle East must be seen as a sinister ploy. But given the sorry record of arms inspections in Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell's call for "the entire region [to] be free" of such weapons, was also ill-advised. Indeed the price of any Israeli-Palestinian and/or Israeli-Syrian peace agreement could well be to increase Israel's reliance on its strategic deterrent, given that any territorial concessions would aggravate Israel's vulnerability to conventional attack.

Avigdor Haselkorn,
Palo Alto, California