One of the more iconic and sobering elements of Israeli reality were the gas masks distributed on the street or at post offices to every citizen after Saddam Hussein fired SCUD missiles at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. They continued to be distributed until early 2014, when the Israeli government decided to end the practice in the wake of an international deal to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons stockpiles. Now, nearly three years later, the issue has resurfaced as a direct result of the Syrian civil war—in particular, the threat from both Hezbollah and the Islamic State.
In August 2013, the Assad regime deployed chemical weapons against the neighborhood of Ghouta near Damascus, asphyxiating to death over a thousand civilians, including women and children. U.S. President Barak Obama threatened a military response and issued an ultimatum to the Syrian government—his notorious “red line”—only to acquiesce to Russian mediation efforts. Under the terms of the brokered deal, Syria’s chemical weapons would be shipped out of the country and destroyed by international monitors. A triumph of diplomacy, some called it at the time.
But problems with the deal emerged almost immediately. Citing Israeli and Western intelligence officials, reports surfaced in April 2014 that the Assad regime was, contrary to the deal, hiding parts of its chemical weapons stockpile as a deterrent against rebel forces. This didn’t stop the U.S., in mid-2014, from proclaiming that Syria was free of chemical weapons. Tellingly, however, Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that there remained “important questions with regard to discrepancies and omissions.”
These discrepancies and omissions appear to have come home to roost. In early December, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told European ambassadors in Tel Aviv that Israel would “prevent the smuggling of advanced weapons, military equipment and weapons of mass destruction from Syria to Hezbollah.” Coming on the heels of mysterious air strikes inside Syria, not much was left to the imagination, although in accordance with longstanding policy the Israeli government refused to confirm that it was the responsible party. One day later, Lieberman doubled down on his headline-making statement, telling the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel “will not allow the smuggling of high-quality advanced weapons and chemical weapons from Syria to Lebanon for Hezbollah.”
The Netanyahu government has, since the start of the Syrian civil war, tried to keep the hellstorm to its northeast at arm’s length. But one exception, as Lieberman made clear, is any attempt by Hezbollah to alter the existing balance of power. “Hezbollah holding strategic weapons is a problem not just for Israel but the region and the entire Western world,” one senior Israeli military officer recently told me. “It can easily be a reason for a ‘dynamic of escalation’”—that is, war. If he were to give one piece of advice to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the officer added, it would be “keep an eye on Hezbollah if you want a stable Middle East, and if you want to achieve something in Syria.”
The officer was speaking at an annual intelligence briefing for foreign journalists in a conference room high above the Israel Defense Forces’ Tel Aviv headquarters. An overview of the major milestones of 2016—as the IDF saw it—flashed on flat-screen televisions. Interspersed between Brexit, Donald Trump, and Aleppo, one ostensibly less momentous event caught the eye: the use of chemical weapons by ISIS in Iraq.
While reports only surfaced this past year, by one estimate the group has deployed crude chemical weapons on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq 52 times since 2014—including, in at least one instance, against U.S. soldiers. ISIS indeed has a presence on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights bordering Israel, but not until recently has it attacked the Jewish state.
That changed in late November, when fighters from the ISIS franchise in the area (usually referred to as the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade) fired on an IDF border patrol. Despite the fact that no Israeli soldiers were injured and the terrorists were killed by return fire, and despite the fact that it wasn’t, according to the senior officer, a pre-planned attack, it did mark a watershed. The event goes some way toward explaining why the use of chemical weapons in Iraq by ISIS made it into the IDF’s annual summary a few weeks later.
Israel, for its part, is taking notice—and making it clear that it is taking notice. The country’s leading news website, Ynet, published an article in late December about an elite IDF engineering unit tasked, among other delicate missions, with defending Israel against the use of chemical weapons. Based on the large number of official training pictures—gas masks and all—embedded in the article, it was clear that the authorities granted Ynet special access.
“The assessment by the defense establishment is that terrorist elements are trying to get their hands on unconventional weapons, abandoned in the field by the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad on the northern border,” the article stated. This was the reason for the unit’s expansion and new training program. When Israel stopped distributing gas masks to its civilians three years ago, it was viewed as a small, rare positive development in the Syrian civil war. That decision may now join the gruesome conflict’s expanding list of losses.
Neri Zilber is a journalist and researcher on Middle East politics and culture, an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and a research associate of the Rubin Center at the IDC Herzliya. You can follow him on Twitter @NeriZilber.
[Photo: Israel Defense Forces]