Will Hezbollah Get Assad’s Chemical Weapons?

2013-01-02 By Richard Weitz

Since the beginning of Syria’s uprising against the Assad regime, there have been worries that Lebanon’s Hezbollah could obtain and use some of Syria’s chemical weapons.

This could happen either through the Assad regime’s deliberately transferring the chemical weapons to Hezbollah or through Hezbollah’s seizing them in the midst of anarchy that would arise should the Assad regime fall to the rebel factions.

According to the U.S. State Department, many terrorist networks operate on Lebanese soil.

The most prominent and well-known group is Hezbollah, which is funded, trained, and sheltered by Iran and Syria. Hezbollah is a militant Shia Muslim organization whose original aims were to establish a radical Shia Islamist theocracy in Lebanon, and to destroy Israel.

Hezbollah emerged on the Lebanese political scene in the early 1980s, primarily as a Syrian-sponsored armed resistance group against Israel’s presence in Lebanon. It rapidly filled the gap created by the expulsion of the Palestinian Liberation Organization from Lebanon following the 1982 Israeli invasion of that country.

Hezbollah became a legitimate part of the Lebanese establishment by providing extensive social services for Lebanon’s Shia community.  This allowed them to capture many votes in Lebanon’s 2005 national elections, and playing a key role in recent Lebanese politics.

Since the beginning of Syria’s uprising against the Assad regime, there have been worries that Hezbollah could obtain and use some of Syria’s chemical weapons on Lebanese territory. This could happen either through a deliberate transfer or the chemical weapons to Hezbollah or through them being seized in the midst of anarchy in post-Assad Syria. Credit Image: Bigstock

Despite UN Security Council Resolution 1701 (2006), which ended the Lebanese-Israeli conflict during the summer of 2006, the presence of international peacekeepers, and pleas by Lebanon’s political authorities, Hezbollah has adamantly refused to disarm its armed military wing, claiming it needs to defend Lebanon against future Israel threats.

The 260-km border between Syria and Lebanon is poorly secured and has approximately 70 crossing points, only a handful of which are manned by Lebanese government personnel. 

Goods ranging from consumer items to weapons are frequently smuggled across the border. To reduce the trafficking of illicit materials across the Lebanese-Syrian border, Resolution 1701 established a UN-mandated Lebanon Independent Border Assessment Team (LIBAT) to assess the border’s porosity.

LIBAT described Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria as wide open to smugglers and criticized Lebanon and Syria for not improving the situation. It states that the official border crossings have significant security vulnerabilities due to outdated equipment, poorly trained personnel, and inadequate inspections of possible smuggling.

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has been operating on Lebanese territory since 1978 and has never reported the presence of chemical weapons in the country. Resolution 1701authorized UNIFIL to assist in preventing illicit arms or related materials from entering into Lebanon. The UN mission, though acknowledging concerns about the illicit flows of conventional arms into Lebanon from neighboring Syria to Damascus’s allies in Lebanon, has found no conclusive evidence that WMD-related items were moving across the border.

However, Hezbollah has been quite successful in bypassing UN checkpoints along the Syrian border as well as the peacekeeping troops in south Lebanon designed to stop the firing of rockets into Israel.

Hezbollah has been able to resupply and deploy its arsenal and fighters throughout the south of the country with relative ease. Hezbollah probably obtains rockets and related missile technologies from Iran via Syria that could be used to launch warheads containing dangerous chemical agents.

Although Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2005 following a 29-year presence in the country, Syria retains considerable influence in Lebanon due to its ties with Hezbollah and other Lebanese leaders. The Syrian withdrawal followed the assassination of Hariri, for which Syrian agents and their local accomplices were blamed.

Syria and Iran have provided conventional weapons, military training, and financial assistance to Hezbollah. The thousands of members of Hezbollah’s armed wing rely primarily on small arms and guerilla tactics, but the movement has received several types of rockets from Iran. These range from short-range Katyusha rockets to longer-range rockets.

The mainstay of Hezbollah’s arsenal is the 122 mm artillery rocket commonly referred to as the ‘Katyusha’ and the Iranian-built Shahin-1 missile which has an operational range of 13 km. Hezbollah’s Katyushas (range 25 km) are thought to derive primarily from Soviet and Chinese stockpiles. Neither the Katyusha nor the Shahin-1 have guidance systems and are more effective when launched in concentrated numbers.

The 2006 rocket attacks on the northern Israeli port-city of Haifa indicate that Hezbollah may be in possession of Fajr-3 (45 km range) and Fajr-5 (75 km range) missiles manufactured in Iran. Some analysts believe that Hezbollah may have acquired Zelzal-2 rockets, which has a claimed range of 200 to 400 km –capable of striking as far south as Tel Aviv – and can be fitted with a 600 kg high-explosive warhead.

During its 2006 war with Lebanon, Hezbollah fired approximately 4,000 rockets into Israel. Hezbollah has continually sought to increase the range of its strike weapons by acquiring more advanced missile systems from Iran and Syria.  Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said the group has replenished its missile stocks since 2006 and now can strike virtually anywhere in Israel.

In October 2012, Hezbollah launched an Iranian-made unmanned drone into Israeli airspace.

This represents a potential new means of delivering chemical weapons. In a worst case a scenario, drones could be loaded with dangerous chemical agents in quantities larger than would be possible with conventional missiles and crash them into Israeli cities.

Hezbollah has never used, or conclusively been shown to have possessed, chemical weapons or other WMD. Nonetheless, Nasrallah vowed in 2004. “If there is a possibility to acquire stronger weapons, we should acquire them because the national interest requires it.”

Hezbollah’s conventional military inferiority with regard to Israel has historically resulted in its use of unconventional methods to target Israeli and Western interests.

Hezbollah could produce some relatively unsophisticated chemical weapons on its own, such as mustard gas in small homemade laboratories. Many of its members have educational backgrounds in academic subjects such as engineering, chemistry, and biology. Hezbollah is not believed to be producing any chemical weapons at this time, but would have the expertise to use them.

Thus far, the Assad regime has kept tight control over its chemical weapons arsenal.

Assad and his allies know that transferring chemical weapons to Hezbollah could finally precipitate NATO military intervention against Syria. But Syria’s beleaguered government may now be preparing to contemplate more desperate measures, and transferring chemical weapons to Hezbollah would raise the risks of an inadvertent escalation of the conflict unless the rebels agreed to some kind of political settlement.

Such a weapons transfer could also strengthen Hezbollah’s capacity to offer Syria extended deterrence. Analysts have long expected that, if Israel or the United States were to attack Iran, Tehran would instruct Hezbollah to respond by launching missiles against Israel. Hezbollah might also respond in the same way if Western countries ever invaded Syria.

Arming Hezbollah with chemical weapons might also provoke Israeli military action against Lebanon or Syria, which would change the dynamics of the current conflict and perhaps make it too politically difficult for the Persian Gulf monarchies to continue aiding the anti-Assad insurgents.

The possibility of a Hezbollah-Israel confrontation leading to a wider war is significant, especially if Hezbollah uses weapons of mass destruction from or via Syria.

The Assad government reportedly entered into a military alliance with Hezbollah, consisting of joint headquarters, which would become active in the event of war with Israel. In response, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman warned in April 2009 that “‘Assad should know that if he attacks, he will not only lose the war, neither he nor his family will remain in power.”

In April 2008, Israeli officials expressed concern that Syria had transferred, or would soon transfer, chemical weapons to Hezbollah. The Israel government authorized the distribution of biochemical masks, while Syria responded by calling up its reservists and made other military preparations in case of invasion.

In April 2011, U.S. officials expressed concern that Hezbollah might have acquired chemical weapons from Libya after Libyan rebels the ransacked chemical weapons depots in Benghazi and reportedly sold them to Hezbollah and Hamas. In the December 2012 Gaza War, Hamas fired a large number of short-range rockets as well as some longer-range missiles probably acquired from Iran and smuggled through Sinai.

Certain geopolitical, technical, and military barriers would weight against an explicit Syrian transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah.

Moving large quantities of chemical weapons or their precursors to Lebanon would entail a major logistical effort by trained personnel by the already resource-strained Syrian government. The risks of leakage or accidents harmful to Assad-friendly forces would be high.

Should Hezbollah’s military wing acquire chemical weapons, it could use them with its rockets, but chemical weapons would have limited adverse effects against well trained and protected troops such as the Israeli Defense Forces.

They could prove devastating to unprotected civilians, but using chemical weapons in such a manner would alienate much of the world, including the Lebanese people, from Hezbollah, undermining its strategic goal of legitimizing an enduring presence in Lebanese politics.

Another possible deterrent on a possible Hezbollah chemical attack against Israel is that it could kill large numbers of Israeli Palestinians and Israeli Muslims.

But there is always the threat that leaves something to chance — chemical weapons on the move or in the possession of a non-state actor can generate game changing dynamics that a desperate Assad regime might be willing to explore.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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