Not Many Doubts — Syria’s Regime Used Chemical Weapons: What’s Israel’s View? Disappointed with Obama

by Yossi Melman (Tel Aviv) and Dan Raviv (Washington)

Israeli intelligence analysts are confident that it was the Syrian army which launched chemical weapons against several neighborhoods on the outskirts of Damascus this week. Unverified videos apparently showing many civilians dead or crippled, including children, suggested a death toll in the hundreds — and a Syrian rebel group put the toll at nearly 1,200 dead in the latest attack.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Wednesday that “it was not the first time they used chemical weapons.”

Ya’alon (known to Israelis by his nickname, Boogie) was referring to previous reports in the last year of similar attacks, though on a smaller scale. It is believed that rockets with Sarin nerve gas were used in the latest assault.

Israeli intelligence sources assume that the decision to use chemical weapons derives from two contradictory motives. The first one is President Bashar al-Assad’s confidence that neither the U.S. nor the West will respond with military force. The second reason is that Assad feels severe stress, as the civil war that began in early 2011 moves inexorably into the capital Damascus.

Victims of apparent chemical attack in Syria

Israeli intelligence sources noted that inside Syria, only the Assad regime has chemical weapons and the means to use them. The sources said that the chemical weapons are stored in secured military and industrial bases and are well guarded.

Fearing that some of these weapons might fall into rebels’ hands, the army decided to transfer them from unsecured areas (mainly in northeastern Syria) to safer storage in areas fully controlled by Assad’s forces.

“The way the Assad regime is treating and protecting chemical weapons is the ultimate evidence that it has a monopoly over them,” one well informed source commented. The sources added that chemical weapons are used by the military only if it receives a direct order from the President. “It is not a capricious decision of a lower field commander,” as one Israeli put it. “It must be approved by the president.”

They refuted claims by Russia that the weapons were allegedly used by rebel forces in order to provoke the West to condemn the Syrian regime and intervene in the war, which is blamed for over 100,000 deaths, mostly civilians.

Israeli intelligence sources assume that the Syrian army has used chemical weapons at least four times during the war.

Israeli media pundits and anonymous state officials expressed their displeasure at the soft response by the U.S. and other Western governments, in the face of the Syrian tragedy.  “The American President shows no leadership and has zigzagged dealing with the situation,” said one official.

Several pointed out that a whole year ago Barack Obama declared that any use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” for Washington.

One top Israeli official, who asked not to be named, told us: “The Syrian regime has, since then, crossed several red lights, and the American President pretends he has not noticed it.”

Describing the civil war as a life and death struggle between Alawites (President Assad’s Shi’ite sect) and Sunni Muslims, Israel’s defense minister commented that there was no end in sight to the conflict.

Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s Defense Minister

Ya’alon told Israeli news reporters: “I don’t see an end to this situation. Even Assad’s fall won’t lead to its end.” The defense minister noted the formations of ethnic and sectarian enclaves in Syria: Alawites controlling the coastal region with a corridor connecting to Damascus, Sunnis in the north, and Kurds dominating the northeast of the country (with links to Iraqi Kurds who are enjoying autonomy).

Ya’alon stated that “the Assad regime has lost control of Syria and is present in only 40 percent of the country”. He observed that the Syrian conflict is not only ethnic and religious. “It has become a regional and a global conflict, for a long period,” the defense minister said.

He emphasized that Israel has chosen not to intervene, but to stick to red lines which it has defined to protect its vital security interests.

The Israeli red-lines according to the defense minister are three:

1. not to permit the transfer of advanced weapons to “irresponsible” elements — a reference to Hezbollah in Lebanon and pro-al-Qaeda groups among the rebels in Syria.

2. not to allow the transfer of chemical weapons to those irresponsible groups.

3. to defend “Israel’s sovereignty.”  That includes guarding the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed after capturing it from Syria in 1967.

Ya’alon also mentioned that Lebanon — where the Iranian-backed Hezbollah is a powerful armed faction — is also linked with the Syrian crisis. In fact, the civil war has spilled into Lebanon. That is an additional, significant area of instability that Israel must watch carefully.

August 23, 2013

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