This week, U.S. President Barack Obama issued a stark warning that the use or the movement of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is a “red line” and would have “enormous consequences.”
In the same vein, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron stressed that a threat to deploy Syria’s chemical weapons was “completely unacceptable” and would push Britain to revisit its strategy towards the conflict in Syria.
These warnings highlighted the West’s growing concern about the weapons of mass destruction in possession of the Syrian regime. Some are terrified that if President Bashar al-Assad’s power further crumbles, he will attempt to transfer the stockpile to his Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, the possible collapse of the Assad regime – Hezbollah’s key intermediary with its main supporter, Iran – is thought to be a large threat to the sustainability of the guerrilla group, and some believe it could seek the weapons stockpile to retain some measure of its own power and influence in the region.
But several experts say it’s extremely unlikely Assad’s WMDs will fall into the hands of Hezbollah.
“I do not think Assad will transfer weapons, especially the chemical ones, to Hezbollah. He will use the chemical weapons as a bargaining chip with the West,” said Omar Ashour, Director of Middle East Studies at the University of Exeter, and visiting fellow at the Brookings think tank in Doha.
It made little sense to give up one of his strongest negotiating pieces as he sought to keep his regime together, Ashour said. In fact, he added, the Syrian president could betray his relationship with Hezbollah to protect himself.
Given his long-standing relationship with the Lebanese movement, Assad likely has a treasure trove of information about Hezbollah that he could offer to Israel and the United States in exchange for personal security if he chooses to step down.
Ashour explained that “the alliance between Hezbollah and Syria is based more on shared interests than on shared ideology,” and for this reason the Assad’s regime could sell out the Lebanese group.
Furthermore, the Syrian government “knows that using the chemical weapons is a red line…and that transferring them to Hezbollah would be an act of suicide,” said Lebanese politician and retired general Wehbe Qaticha.
Qaticha added that the regime also “still has hope” and has not reached a state of total despair in which it might unleash the weapons.
Alon Bein-Meir, senior fellow at New York University’s School of Global Affairs who for the past two decades worked as a liaison in negotiations between Arab and Israeli officials, also called the prospect of transferring chemical weapons a “red line” and “makes no” sense.”
“My feeling is that transferring such weapons from the Syrian perspective makes no sense, as the main conflict in Syria is domestic and Israel has made it clear it will hold Syria responsible should these weapons be used from any source or country,” said Bein-Meir.
For its part, Hezbollah may not even want to have chemical weapons. The group, with thousands of rockets in its arsenal, is strong enough to withstand another war with Israel. But having chemical weapons in its possession would bring the unappetizing prospect of the much bigger U.S. military to entering such a conflict.
While some believe the group may not be able to sustain itself in absence of Syria’s support, Ashour said Hezbollah will sustain major damages in the aftermath of the Syrian crisis but “this loss will not represent its end, because the movement also has local depth in the south of Lebanon.”