Disarming Syria Puts Focus on Israel, Egypt Arsenals


The joint U.S. Russian push to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons is starting to have ripple effects, focusing attention on the suspected arsenal of Israel.

By forcing Syria to admit to its stockpiles of the weapons of mass destruction and take tentative steps toward their elimination, Washington and Moscow could coax Syria's neighbors into eventually following suit, said Western and Arab diplomats.

But a frequent complaint among Arab countries in the region—that Israel has an undeclared but presumed nuclear-weapons program—has already resurfaced.

Syria's government has hinted that it could raise Israel's suspected arsenal of nuclear and other weapons as an international issue and potentially a precondition for Damascus moving ahead on the destruction of what the U.S. estimates is at least 1,000 tons of chemical agents.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated that Syria's program was only necessary as a defense against Israel's vastly superior firepower.

"It's well known that Syria has a certain arsenal of chemical weapons and the Syrians always viewed that as an alternative [response] to Israel's nuclear weapons," he said Tuesday.

This position could place the Obama administration in a diplomatic corner. The U.S. has held to a decades-old policy of neither publicly acknowledging nor denying Israel's capabilities, which are believed to include nuclear warheads.

It also could undermine the White House's efforts to counter weapons proliferation and contain Iran's nuclear program. The U.S. has repeatedly stated that American efforts to reduce its own weapons stockpiles, and those of its allies, diminished the needs of other countries to seek atomic bombs.

"The main danger of WMD is the Israel nuclear arsenal," Syria's ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Ja'afari, told reporters on Thursday.

Mr. Ja'afari said Israel needed to place its suspected atomic weapons under international supervision and sign the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. He said Syria wasn't making such actions by Israel a prerequisite for Syria moving ahead and destroying its chemical weapons, but said the world must also focus on the Israeli arsenals.

"Israel has chemical weapons and nobody is speaking about it," he said.

Israeli officials in interviews this week wouldn't confirm or deny the Syrian accusations. Similarly, Israel doesn't acknowledge having nuclear weapons.

The officials said Israel has signed, though not ratified, the Convention on Chemical Weapons, but stressed the country couldn't take steps to ratify it, or reduce its military capabilities, at a time when security threats from Iran, Syria and Lebanon are mounting.

"Countries in the Middle East…have failed to follow suit and have indicated that their position would remain unchanged even if Israel ratifies the Convention," said Jonathan Peled, an Israeli government spokesman. "Some of these states don't recognize Israel's right to exist and blatantly call to annihilate it….These threats cannot be ignored by Israel, in the assessment of possible ratification of the convention."

U.S. officials traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry to Geneva this week cautioned that Syria shouldn't try to distract international attention from the Aug. 21 chemical-weapons attack Washington says was carried out by government forces.

"We won't accept attempts by the Syrian regime…to compare itself to Israel, a thriving democracy which doesn't brutally slaughter and gas its own people," said State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki.

The debate over Syria's weapons programs is also drawing attention to Egypt.

Egypt's government was accused of using chemical weapons when it intervened in Yemen's civil war in the 1960s, under former strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Cairo hasn't signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, which came into force in 1997. Israel and other regional governments believe Egypt maintains an arsenal equipped with mustard gas and some nerve agents.

A senior Egyptian official on Thursday didn't comment on the current state of Cairo's weapons programs. But he said all countries in the region, particularly Israel, needed to disarm if the international community hoped to see a region free of weapons of mass destruction.

The Egyptian official said it was hard to tell if there would be ripple effects from Syria. "It depends upon how the Arab governments decide to play it."

President Barack Obama has pursued an aggressive nonproliferation agenda in his first five years in office, working with Moscow to cut U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, and the White House supports convening of a U.N. conference on a nuclear free zone in the Mideast.

Nonproliferation experts said the Syrian case is going to make it more difficult for the U.S. to ignore the programs in countries such as Israel and Egypt

"If Syria gives up its chemical weapons, it will place the Israeli programs high up on the agenda," of the international community, said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington think tank.

Write to jay.s…@wsj.com 

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