After Israel reported to hit Syria chemical site, minister says WMDs unacceptable

Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern refuses to directly comment on Washington Post story claiming Israel struck facilities after identifying Assad effort to restart program

Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern speaks during a conference for Young Leadership programs, at Haifa University, on April 11, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern speaks during a conference for Young Leadership programs, at Haifa University, on April 11, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern said Tuesday that Syria cannot be allowed to obtain chemical weapons, a day after a report claimed that Israel targeted chemical weapons facilities in the country.

Stern refused to directly comment on the report in The Washington Post that Israel struck Syria on two occasions — once this year and once last year — in a bid to block the country’s attempts to rebuild its chemical weapons stockpile. But he hinted that Israel could not accept such weapons in the hands of its enemy to the north.

“We have a neighbor that has already proved that it doesn’t hesitate to use chemical weapons even against its own people,” Stern said. “[Syrian President Bashar] Assad must not have chemical weapons.”

Keeping with the policy of ambiguity on such affairs, Israeli officials have declined to comment on the Washington Post report.

Current and former Western intelligence officials familiar with the matter told The Post that in this year’s strike, Israeli jets fired at three targets near the cities of Damascus and Homs, killing seven Syrian soldiers and an engineer who allegedly worked at a military lab.

The report said the 2020 strike targeted a villa outside Homs, which was previously the hub of Syria’s chemical weapons program. The villa was being used to make tricalcium phosphate, or TCP, Western intelligence officials told The Post. TCP has many nonmilitary uses, but it can also be converted into phosphorous trichloride, a precursor for sarin and other nerve agents.

Illustrative: Smoke billows following an alleged Israeli airstrike targeting south of Damascus, Syria, on July 20, 2020. (AFP)

The report said the attacks grabbed the attention of Western intelligence officials, as the targets were not Iran proxies, which has been the case in hundreds of IDF airstrikes in recent years.

It said Israel received intelligence in the months ahead of the 2020 raid that Assad was seeking to rebuild his chemical weapons program, which he had agreed to dismantle in 2014, following pressure from the Obama administration.

Analysts have described the program as a deterrent against Israel, but it was repurposed repeatedly for use against Syrian rebels, including in one particularly deadly attack in August 2013, where roughly 1,400 civilians were killed in the Damascus suburbs. The United Nations found that chemical weapons were used in the attack, though Syria denied this.

The attack sparked international outcry and threats of a military strike from then-United States president Barack Obama. Assad subsequently agreed to disassemble the chemical weapons program and ship its equipment out of the country.

However, Assad continued employing the deadly weapons in more than 200 attacks against rebels, even after threats by the Obama administration and air strikes ordered by former US president Donald Trump, The Post reported.

It is not clear whether Israel’s strikes were successful in disrupting Assad’s efforts. The strikes were preemptive in nature, eliminating Syria’s chemical production capabilities before the weapons are made, Western intelligence officials told The Post. A strike on operational chemical weapons would risk unleashing them into the surrounding areas.

The Post said that in both attacks, the US was made aware of the strikes and the intelligence that Israel said justified them after the fact.

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