Mutual chemical deterrence between Israel and Syria may be soon put to test
Syria is not Libya; it is neither Egypt nor Tunisia. Despite the Western thinly-disguised attempt to destabilize the Syrian regime, the latter is still in power after roughly a year and a half. Neither the USA nor Israel had developed yet a computer virus capable of destroying a human government. Yet, despite the Syrian government holding on, violence rules the ground, with violent explosions rocking this society daily, including sites located near stockpiles of chemical weapons. Far from the mainstream media eyes, there is a silent chemical-deterrence race between Israel and Syria. The June 16, 2011, edition of the Economist, included an article named “Nuclear endgame: The growing appeal of zero;” it analyzed a previous Wall Street Journal article by Henry Kissinger, Bill Perry, George Shultz and Sam Nunn. In the article, it was claimed that: “The risk of accidents, misjudgments or unauthorised launches… was growing more acute in a world of rivalries.” This referred to nuclear weapons; sadly it is no less true for chemical weapons of mass destruction. A chemical countdown between Israel and Syria may be taking place these days.
This race has been kept secret by the two sides involved. One of the reasons for that is that the “Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction” (find it at Chemical Weapons Convention) is very strict, and Israel is a signatory country. It is administered by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is based in The Hague. Syria and Israel keep stockpiles of various chemical weapons.
The Syrian program is easier to follow. Syrian chemical weapons production facilities have been identified by Western nonproliferation experts at Cerin, Hama, Homs, Latakia, and Palmyra. Homs is one of the most restive cities in the ongoing conflict, thus creating real safety concerns. The sites apparently manufacture Sarin, Tabun, VX, and mustard gas types of chemical weapons, which can be launched on Scud missiles towards any location in Israel.
The situation in Israel—with the exception of one type of weapon—is extremely secretive. Much more is known on Israel’s nuclear weapons program that on its chemical one. There are credible claims that Israel Military Industries are involved in the production of certain chemical weapons, apparently through their Nazareth plant. Then, Israel’s largest ordnance stockpile—placed next to one of the country’s nuclear reactors—keeps a large amount of chemical artillery. NATO keeps bunkers in Israel filled up with military equipment. There is an understanding that the IDF will use their undisclosed—but rumored—content in the case of need. One of these bunkers is placed next to the abovementioned ordnance base.
The previous paragraph is not good enough; that’s the result of the Israeli administration secrecy. However, on one topic, this secrecy has been publicly breached; explaining that demands a short preamble. The Chemical Weapons Convention is a political document; as such, it includes political compromises. In order to avoid misinterpretations, it includes a list of forbidden chemicals and their precursors. It includes also a definition of what a chemical weapon is. Not surprisingly, these two slightly contradict each other.
The convention article’s “Definition and Criteria” defines a chemical weapon in subparagraph 1.b as “Munitions and devices, specifically designed to cause death or other harm through the toxic properties of those toxic chemicals specified in …” Paragraph 2 clarifies what a “toxic chemical” is: “Any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals. This includes all such chemicals, regardless of their origin or of their method of production, and regardless of whether they are produced in facilities, in munitions or elsewhere.”
This is so clear, that there is no way of excluding white phosphorous from this list. White phosphorous has been used in smoke, tracer, illumination and incendiary munitions since the 19th century; notoriously in the Vietnam War. Ammunitions containing it burst into burning flakes of phosphorus upon impact and can cause serious burns. Phosphorous reacts exothermically with water; since human bodies contain large amounts of this liquid, it ignites upon content and burns until it is completely consumed. Its wounds are brutal and difficult to heal, thus it has been banned. Yet, white phosphorous is not part of the Chemical Weapons Convention, but is banned by the less strict Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which prohibits the use of said incendiary weapons against civilians (already forbidden by the Geneva Conventions) or in civilian areas.
Yet, the IDF regularly uses White Phosphorous munitions; they are labeled “white smoke” (ashan lavan) and are used mainly for creating smoke screens. However, during the Cast Lead Operation they were used against civilians and UN targets. This included at least one brutal attack against a civilian hospital. The very clear pictures broadcast over the mainstream media by international networks, forced Israel to admit the crimes, though no sanctions were imposed by the international community, with the clear exception of defining Israel as a terror inflicting entity by the UN Human Rights Council. That is not all. On October 4, 1992, El Al Flight 1862, crashed into the Groeneveen and Klein-Kruitberg flats in the Bijlmermeer neighborhood of Amsterdam. Many people died and were injured by this Boeing 747 cargo plane. The cargo included over 280 kilograms of depleted uranium, which is used for certain types of missiles, and 190 litres of dimethyl methylphosphonate, which could be used in the synthesis of Sarin nerve gas. The owner of the latter was the IIB (see Mossad, Sonic Weapons & Khaled Mashal). This is enough to show a chemical stand-off exists between Syria and Israel.
“Deterrence” is defined as the use of threats by one party to convince another party to refrain from initiating an attack; more often than not is used in regard to nuclear weapons, but it is not restricted to that. In order for a deterrent to succeed, the parties must preserve their ability to retaliate either by responding before its own weapons are destroyed or by ensuring a second strike capability. Israel keeps a nuclear second strike capability through a steadily growing fleet of German submarines. The chemical second strike is even easier, since every artillery battalion—and they are widely spread out—is capable of delivering chemical artillery. An important point in every deterrence race is credibility; the threats of using weapons of mass destruction must be credible. In this case, both sides are credible, having shown incredible savagery in their conflicts.
The deterrence approach used by Israel is known as “mutual assured destruction;” this is the crudest and most simplistic approach, which shaped the Cold War between the USA and the USSR. More sophisticated cultures—the war race between Pakistan and India being the best example—use a softer version known as “Credible Minimum Deterrence.” This means the parties formally declares “no first use” of nuclear weapons while keeping a “second strike” capability (see Germany Creates New Nuclear Front in the Middle East). The bottom line is clear; Israel and Syria may engage in an especially cruel war.
Israel owns an impressive amount of chemical industries. The largest dangers are concentrated in two zones, both of them densely populated: Haifa and Beer Sheva. Haifa is home to the Oil Refineries, the Gadot Chemical Port and various industries. The docks of Gadot hold large quantities of highly reactive chemicals at all times, especially for the plastic and agrochemical industries. Its location implies the whole of the Haifa Bay could be contaminated if the containers were harmed to the extent of stopping the port activities at all, or at least limiting them seriously. Wait a sec… did I say Oil Refineries? Does Israel have oil wells? During the days of the British Mandate on Palestine, there was an oil pipe from Iraq to Haifa, marked in old maps with an “H.” It still exists and is strategically important, though it is inactive. However, the refineries at its end are very active. What is the economic point of importing crude oil and distilling it for local consumption? That is not the point, the financial side seldom is the key when dealing with Israel. Oil refineries use mono- di- and tri- ethanol amines in the oil purification process. Triethanolamine—usually known as TEA—is a precursor of chemical weapons and is smuggled out from the refineries to other industrial locations. The spilling of these and other chemical products stored and used in refineries may cause a serious ecological disaster. The adjacent streams are already heavily polluted; many soldiers from the marine commando suffer of cancer due to their training sessions in these waters.
Related to the oil industry are vast subterranean reservoirs of military and civilian grade gasoline. If spilled they could contaminate the limited water subterranean wells under the West Bank. Access to these waters is one of the main drives of Israel for holding empty mountainous areas along the Samarian mounts. The extensive use of these waters in recent years caused a serious lowering of their levels, transforming the surrounding ground (i.e. the whole of central Israel) into a highly thirsty sponge readily absorbing any liquids, and increasing thus the rate of the contamination process in the case of a spill.
Chemical industries in Beer Sheva include mainly those related to by-products of salts extracted from the Dead Sea by the Dead Sea Works, formerly known as the Palestine Potash Company. The salts are used for the production of agrochemical products and for the bromine related industries, mainly for the production of fire retardants. Most synthetic carpets in the world use fire-retardants produced here. The extraction of the salts is done on the southern side of the Dead Sea, where all the evaporation pools can be seen, but its chemical processing is done in several plants in the outskirts of Beer Sheva. There, two corporations make the processing: Makhteshim-Agan for the agrochemical products and ICL (Israel Chemical) for the bromine industry. Even those knowing very little chemistry know bromine is highly reactive and poisonous; the same goes for fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. That means unusual quantities of pollutants are produced and stored next to the city. Yet, the danger here is unexpectedly large since the Makhteshim plant produces methyl isocyanate. This extremely toxic substance is used in the production of pesticides. It became famous during the night of December 3, 1984, when it was spilled in the Bhopal installations of a company now owned by Dow Chemical. Defined as the worst industrial disaster in history, it caused the death of thousands, many more were crippled and the ground is still contaminated there. Dow Chemical learned nothing; it is a major provider of Oil Refineries, Makhteshim, Agan, ICL and others (see The Cross of Bethlehem). At all times, there are hundreds of kilograms of this substance waiting for further process at Makhteshim. Israel has the potential of becoming the scene of the worst industrial disaster, overtaking Bhopal by several orders of magnitude. A chemical war with Syria may unleash this danger.
Back to Kissinger
Quoting an article by Kissinger is difficult on the moral level; yet—what can one do?—sometimes he is right. His remark on the possibility of human errors taking place in a deterrence war scenario is correct; it should be better defined as the “certainty of a human error.” Considering the Israeli involvement in the Syrian uprising (see Lebanon Beats Syria) it is inevitable to consider that the military ranks of the Syrian army are not seeing Israel in favorable terms. It is conceivable to assume that at the least credible provocation they may launch a preemptive chemical attack. Israel leadership will react similarly, maybe even in a harsher fashion. The chemical countdown clock is ticking.