Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird flew to the Golan Heights Sunday to hear Israeli concerns about extremists in Syria as he announced $2-million in financing for efforts to secure Syrian chemical weapons.
The money, a credit line for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), will support a United Nations investigation into chemical weapons mandated by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“A big concern is the chemical weapons stockpiles falling into the wrong hands” amid the chaos a rebel fight to topple the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, Mr . Baird said in an interview. “We wouldn’t want to see an al-Qaeda affiliate getting a hold of this or Hezbollah get a hold of it.”
Mr. Baird, in Israel on a tour of the Middle East, flew in an Israeli army helicopter to the sliver of hilly land Israel seized from Syria in 1967’s Six Day War and has occupied since. He peered across to the Syrian side and received a briefing from Israeli military officers.
A UN-monitored separation zone, established after Syria tried and failed to recapture the Golan in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, has been relatively quiet, and Israeli military officers say they are now concerned that extremists and terrorists will be the new threat, rather than Syrian-government tanks.
As an example that no one has clear control of the area, they pointed inside Syria to the village of Jubbata al Khashab – once with a population of 2,000, but with only 400 remaining – which is now held by rebels but effectively encircled by Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad that have cut off access roads.
An Israeli colonel told Mr. Baird that the Syrian opposition is a hodgepodge of elements operating under the Free Syrian army umbrella and outside it, and Israel is increasingly concerned about foreign jihadists and extremist groups such as the al-Nusra Front, listed as a terrorist group by the United States, who have come to join the fight.
The greater concern is that they might eventually take control of areas in Syria near the Golan, build infrastructure, and seize an arsenal or chemical weapons from the Assad regime.
Mr. Baird, who visited camps for Syrian refugees in Jordan last year, said the prospect of the war destabilizing neighbouring countries is a major concern for Ottawa. The danger of chemical weapons is one fear as Syria’s bloody civil war continues and remains when it ends.
“We’re all deeply concerned about what’s next. Things have spiralled out of control,” he said. “We worry fundamentally about the violence. We worry about radicals being imported – they told us today, they listed off a dozen countries where they know radicals have come from,” he said.
“We worry about the sectarian violence continuing after Assad falls. What does that mean for the Shia minority? What does that mean for the Alawites, the Kurds, the Christians?”