Did Saddam transfer his WMD stockpile--specifically, his arsenal of chemical weapons--to Syria, shortly before the U.S. invaded in Iraq in 2003.
A former senior Israeli defense official is reiterating that claim. Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, who served as Chief of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) from 2002-2005. General Yaalon told The New York Sun that Saddam moved his chemical weapons to Syria about six weeks before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Yaalon made similar claims in 2004, but they received little attention in the American media. Likewise, there has been almost no coverage of a Middle East Quarterly article (Fall 2005 edition) which quotes Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as sayaing Iraqi WMD had been moved to Syria. Mr. Sharon made his comments in an appearance on Israel's Channel 2 in the Fall of 2002.
Yaalon's comments are similar to those of (Ret) Air Force Lt Gen James Clapper, who now runs the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), which exploits information collected by our spy satellites and other platforms. In October 2003, General Clapper revealed that satellite imagery and other information from the pre-war period indicated that WMD material and documentation was being moved from Iraq to Syria. The activity and timeline described by General Clapper was remarkably similar to Israeli reports.
However, the Syrian trail has grown cold over the past two years. While the Israelis have restated their claims in meetings with the U.S., the Bush Administration has downplayed the possibility that Iraqi WMD found a new home in Damascus. Intelligence failures surrounding the Iraq war are one reason for the reluctance; after George Tenent's "slam dunk" comments on the expectation of finding WMD in Iraq, few intelligence officials are willing to make similar predictions on a weapons transfer between Baghdad and Damascus. Additionally, a confirmation of Iraqi WMD in Syria would pressure the administration to do something about it. And with the U.S. preoccupied with Iraq and the Iranian nuclear issue, there is no appetite for potential military action against Syria.
Then, there's the lingering question of why the U.S. hasn't found anyone in Iraq with credible evidence of a WMD transfer. While Saddam would only entrust that operation to trusted military units, it would still require a significant amount of manpower and vehicles. So far, U.S. investigators haven't located personnel who participated in that type of operation, or found trucks with traces of WMD-related material. One answer might be that the transfer--if it actually occurred--was a one-way operation, with the weapons, trucks and personnel remaining in Syria, instead of returning to Iraq. The weapons and vehicles could be easily hidden at Syrian WMD facilities, while Iraqi personnel could blend it with other Baathists who fled to Damascus before and after the war.
The Israeli claim is significant for a couple of reasons. First, General Yaalons claims are based largely on Israeli information, and are not a mere regurgitation of U.S. data. Secondly, Israeli reporting on Syria tends to be detailed and accurate, given the potential threat posed by the Damascus regime to Israel. The previously cited Middle East Quarterly article (written by Lee Kass) lists a number of Syrian military installations which could house Iraqi WMD. Kass's authoritative article appears to be heavily based on Israeli information.
Obviously, the potential presence of Iraqi WMD in Syria cannot be discounted. It's part of the larger problem posed by Bashir Assad and his regime--an issue that must be confronted sooner or later. Reading the tea leaves at Foggy Bottom at the White House, it appears that the latter option is our preferred policy, at least for now.
Hat tip: Powerline.