“At the moment, [Syria’s] chemical weapons are under control,” said senior Israeli defense official Amos Gilad Sunday, Dec. 23, echoing the statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Saturday that “the Syrian government has consolidated its chemical weapons in one or two locations amid a rebel onslaught and they are under control for the time being.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu then said enigmatically: “We are facing a near possibility of far-reaching changes in the Syrian regime with ramifications for the sensitive weaponry [chemical, biological] present there.”
Like Lavrov’s comments, neither Israeli statement accounted for the sudden reversal of events in the last 48 hours in the turbulent history of its northern neighbor. As recently as Friday, Bashar Assad’s Scuds and warplanes were battling the rebels to keep his big chemical and biological warfare arsenals at the Al Safira complex near Aleppo out of the hands of al Qaeda adherents who were moving in fast on this target. Twenty four hours later, the Russian foreign minister asserted the weapons were secure.
Military sources disclose that the battle of al Safira was abruptly interrupted by a foreign military force which stepped in and stopped the fighting in order to commandeer the chemical and biological stocks. This force has been identified as a Russian special unit.
The entire episode is covered in a heavy blanket of secrecy, imposed from Moscow, Washington, Jerusalem and Damascus. They are using the public preoccupation with the holiday period in the West to keep it dark. However, from the scraps of evidence available, it is transpires that the foreign special unit reaching al Safira gave both sides, the Syrian army and the rebels, an ultimatum to hold their fire until the arsenals were removed, or else this special unit would mete out crushing punishment.
Since then, the Syrian army and rebels do not appear to have resumed fighting and it is not clear which side remains in control of the al Safira military complex.
One of the many enigmas surrounding this episode is whether the Russians carried out their operation for the capture of Assad’s WMD alone, or in conjunction with the US and Israel. And whether this cooperation extended up to and including implementation, or was confined to the intelligence and preparatory stages.
Amos Gilad’s comment points to a measure of international cooperation. Furthermore, it is not clear whether the Syrian ruler gave permission for the removal of his unconventional weapons out of the reach of the rebels. Neither is their destination known. And most of all, what makes Russian and Israeli officials so sure that they are in safe hands?
In his statement Saturday, Lavrov divulged that it had been “consolidated in one or two places” and that “Russian military advisers… kept close watch over [Syria’s] chemical arsenal.”
The Israeli defense official was in rare tune with Moscow on the fate of the Syrian ruler. He asserted that the civil war between Assad and opposition forces fighting to topple him had become deadlocked, but that the Syrian leader showed no signs of heeding international calls to step down.
“Suppose he (Assad) does leave, there could be chaos … in the Middle East you never know who will come instead. We need to stay level-headed; the entire world is dealing with this (another reference to multinational action in Syria). At the moment, chemical weapons are under control, despite the fact that President Bashar al-Assad has lost control of parts of the country,” Gilad said.