TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel’s intelligence minister said Tuesday that Syria cannot be allowed to obtain chemical weapons, after a report emerged that Israel targeted the country’s chemical weapons facilities.
In an interview with Israeli Army Radio, Elazar Stern would not directly comment on the report in the Washington Post that said that Israel struck Syria on two occasions – once this year and once last year – in a bid to block attempts to rebuild its chemical weapons stockpile. But Stern, a retired military general, hinted that Israel could not accept such weapons in the hands of its enemy to the north.
“We have a neighbor who has already proved that it doesn’t hesitate to use chemical weapons even against its own people,” he said. “(Syrian President Bashar) Assad must not have chemical weapons.”
Israeli officials have declined to comment on the Washington Post report.
Military affairs commentators in Israel, who often are briefed by top defense officials, said the timing of the report was not a coincidence and comes as negotiators are meeting with Iran in Vienna to try to revive a 2015 nuclear deal.
Iran has close ties with Syria and has sent troops to back the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country’s decade-long civil war.
“It was a signal to all of the actors, Iran and the United States, that Israel is serious about acting against the development of non-conventional weapons by its enemies,” wrote Yossi Yehoshua in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, the country’s largest paid daily.
Israel has long opposed the 2015 nuclear deal between global powers and Iran, which granted Iran relief from economic sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.
Instead, it has called for an accord with even tighter safeguards on Iran’s nuclear program and addresses other Iranian military behavior, such as its missile program and support for anti-Israel militant groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Israel also supports a “credible” military threat against Iran as leverage.
Israel believes Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon – a charge Iran denies.
One of the strikes cited by the Washington Post, on June 8, was reported by Syrian state media as an Israeli aerial attack near the Syrian capital Damascus and in the central province of Homs, that prompted a response from Syrian national air defenses. There was no mention in official media of what was targeted in the strikes, although loud explosions were heard in Damascus.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group that closely monitors the war in Syria, reported Israeli planes struck military targets in the countryside of Homs and Damascus. It said the targeted sites included a scientific research center in the vicinity of the village of Khirbet al-Tineh, northwest of Homs, in addition to an ammunition depot likely to belong to Hezbollah, south of Homs. The strikes killed 11 soldiers, including a colonel, it said.
Unconfirmed reports published by pro-Assad media at the time identified the colonel as a leading chemist at the Scientific Studies and Research Center, Gen. Ayham Sueleiman Ismail.
The center is a government agency described by the Syrians as a facility for the advancement of scientific research in the country but has been long described by Syria watchers as an outfit for the development of chemical, biological and other weapons.
Israel is believed to have struck facilities associated with the SSRC on numerous occasions in the past.
Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in September 2013, pressed by Russia after a deadly chemical weapons attack that the West blamed on Damascus. By August 2014, the Assad government declared that the destruction of its chemical weapons was completed, but its initial declaration of chemical stockpiles and production sites to the OPCW has remained in dispute. OPCW investigators have blamed three chemical attacks in 2017 on President Bashar Assad’s government.
Earlier this year, the U.N.’s disarmament chief, Izumi Nakamitsu, told the Security Council that Damascus’ declaration of its chemical stockpiles and chemical weapons production sites nearly eight years ago remains incomplete.