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After Syria strike, showdown looms over the future of the Iran nuclear deal

The success of a coordinated military strike on Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles actually bodes well for the Iran nuclear deal. 

By Shemuel Meir

The ruins following the 2018 American-led bombing of Homs. (Fathi Nizam/CC BY 4.0)

The ruins following the 2018 American-led bombing of Homs. (Fathi Nizam/CC BY 4.0)

Western powers made good on their warning to the Assad regime on April 14, 2018, and attacked the production and storage sites of the chemical weapons in his possession. The coordinated, wide-ranging operation by the United States, Britain and France (in contrast to Trump’s unilateral and hasty attack following the use of chemical weapons in Syria in April 2017) was aimed solely at chemical weapons sites. The Western powers emphasized that this was not the opening salvo of massive military intervention in Syria. The attack by three NATO members was intended to punish the Assad regime and deter it from using chemical weapons again.

Assad, however, was not the only address. The Western powers took action in order to prevent the erosion of international norms regarding the prohibition on the development, manufacture and use of chemical weapons. It is their responsibility to prevent the emergence of other rogue states, and to ensure that there are no violations of the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, as well as other conventions in the realm of unconventional weapons. In this sense, Trump sent a clear message: even if the United States intends to withdraw from the Syrian arena, it will continue to enforce laws to prevent the proliferation of non-conventional weapons.

The lessons of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 for the elimination of non-conventional weapons under false premises (Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent nuclear weapons) were well understood. Western powers understood that they were required to provide conclusive evidence of violations of the chemical weapons treaty carried out by Assad’s army. The White House published a special document that presented a “large and extensive body of evidence” for Assad’s use of chemical weapons on April 7th. It was emphasized that the information was based on reliable intelligence materials that were verified by various sources. Meanwhile, France published a report based on open material and classified intelligence. Both reports clearly and unambiguously place responsibility on the Syrian army (mainly through identifying military communications and helicopters that dropped the “barrel bombs”).

How, you may ask? Syria’s chemical arsenal was dismantled between 2013-2014. Indeed, following the use of sarin gas on the outskirts of Damascus in August 2013, which led to hundreds of deaths, we witnessed an exceptional occurrence in the global efforts to ban non-conventional weapons. Obama and Putin forced Assad to sign the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (CWC) and to get rid of its chemical weapons.

A U.S. 34th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron B-1B Lancer prepares to launch a strike mission from Al Udeid AIr Base, Qatar, April 13, following Syria's recent use of chemical weapons. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Phil Speck)

A U.S. 34th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron B-1B Lancer prepares to launch a strike mission from Al Udeid AIr Base, Qatar, April 13, following Syria’s recent use of chemical weapons. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Phil Speck)

The chemical disarmament in Syria was an unprecedented American-Russian achievement. Syria had a vast arsenal of chemical weapons (Assad built it as part of his doctrine of “strategic balance” doctrine with Israel), a total of 1,300 tons of chemical warfare material. According to Israeli military intelligence assessments, most of the chemical arsenal was dismantled, leaving Assad with a limited “residual capability” of two or three tons. The attack by the Western powers on sites in Syria was intended to damage and destroy that residual capability.

Throughout the civil war, Assad has continued to carry out chemical attacks against his citizens. Most of the attacks are carried out using barrels of chlorine gas, which are not prohibited per se, since they are used for civilian purposes. Chlorine, however, is forbidden as a weapon. Only in a few cases did Assad’s forces use sarin nerve gas, which is forbidden to posses or use. As far as Israel is concerned, the Syrian chemical threat has been removed and therefore the need to distribute protective kits and manage distribution stations has also disappeared.

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The dismantling of most of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, and the exclusive focus of the Western powers on chemical weapons, have created a new reality in the Middle East, which Israel is inclined to ignore. Israel (which has signed the Chemical Convention but has not ratified it) and Egypt (which has not yet signed the treaty) are the only two Middle East countries operating outside the international norm of non-use of chemical weapons. Iran and other Arab countries have ratified the treaty and hold no chemical weapons. It should be noted that Iran’s response to the NATO attack on chemical sites in Syria was relatively moderate, and in the past Iran expressed reservations and displeasure with Assad’s use of chemical warfare against his citizens.

The official statements that followed the Western attack on Syria, especially by France and Britain, emphasized that they had no interest in interfering in the civil war, striking Iran, or leading to the downfall of the Assad regime. The emphasis was on deterrence and on the obligation to prevent the proliferation of non-conventional weapons. Paraphrasing Carl von Clausewitz, military intervention in Syria is the continuation of diplomacy by other means.

In this context, it is worth noting France’s leading role. It seems that President Macron — perhaps the only European leader President Trump is willing to listen to — has succeeded in persuading Trump to work jointly with NATO allies. Macron had the full support of Germany’s Angela Merkel. France and the United Kingdom made a significant contribution to Secretary of State Jim Mattis’ support for a focused military assault, as opposed to the near-theological tendency of National Security Adviser John Bolton to act against the forces of the “Axis of Evil.” That is, Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks through binoculars during his visit to the border with Syria, August 18, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks through binoculars during his visit to the border with Syria, August 18, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The close diplomatic coordination between the two branches of the North Atlantic Alliance vis-a-vis non-conventional weapons in the Syrian sector will likely be favorable to the preservation of the Iran nuclear agreement. Trump’s ultimatum to France, Britain and Germany, all of whom signed the nuclear agreement, will expire on May 12th. Trump’s claims of Iranian violations of the agreement will be met by a unified front of the International Atomic Energy Agency, U.S. intelligence, and European powers that have declared their adherence to the agreement. Trump may be required to present conclusive evidence of Iranian non-compliance, similar to the “substantial body of evidence” that served as justification for an attack in Syria.

This is the diplomatic background against which Netanyahu’s tireless efforts to thwart and torpedo the nuclear agreement should be examined. Leaks in the run-up to May 12th by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen (who is directly subordinate to Netanyahu) who is “100 percent sure Iran is seeking a nuclear bomb” and Netanyahu’s speech on Holocaust Day, which chose to emphasize the Iranian nuclear threat and compared the nuclear agreement to the 1938 Munich Agreement, puts Israel on a collision course with the international community. There are no buyers in the world for Netanyahu’s argument that “the nuclear agreement, like the Munich agreement, is not worth the paper on which it was written.” According to an interview with IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot on Passover Eve — not even in the IDF and in the Intelligence Branch, which is responsible for the national estimate in Israel (and not the Mossad).

Shemuel Meir is a former IDF analyst and associate researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. Today he is an independent researcher on nuclear and strategic issues and author of the “Strategic Discourse” blog, which appears in Haaretz. Read this post in Hebrew here.

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