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Syria’s Chemical Genie

LOS ANGELES – Since Syria’s civil war erupted, its large chemical-weapons arsenal has haunted the conflict zone and beyond. Now Israel says that chemical weapons have been used by the Syrian regime.

Escalating fears have driven US President Barack Obama to declare repeatedly that any Syrian use or transfer of chemical weapons would cross a “red line,” for which President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would be “held accountable.” But the practical implications of this warning remain vague.

As dangerous as Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile is, it pales in comparison with another risk that became evident in late February, when Syrian rebels overran a Scud-missile base in Al-Kibar, in the country’s remote northeastern desert. Beneath the installation lay the buried remnants of the North Korean-engineered nuclear reactor that Israel’s air force had destroyed on September 6, 2007.

Had Israel not learned of the secret plant, which was on the verge of launching operations to produce material for an atomic arsenal, the rebels effectively would have been in possession of a radiological weapon. The mere threat could have held the Syrian government hostage. Far more worrying, had Syrian engineers built a lab at the site, or in other rebel-held territory, to extract plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel, the insurgents might even have found themselves with the ingredients of an atomic bomb.