Israeli attack on Syrian chemical weapons could spark wider confrontation, IDF chief warns

Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz says Israel will respond in measured manner to Burgas attack; country is now in ‘war between the wars’

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

IDF Chief of the General Staff Benny Gantz (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
IDF Chief of the General Staff Benny Gantz (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

An Israeli strike on Syrian chemical weapons could draw Israel into a confrontation far wider than it might anticipate, IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Tuesday.

Gantz said Syria’s chemical weapons have not yet moved into “undesirable hands, but that does not mean it will not happen.” He said the Assad regime might use such weaponry against its own citizens and might transfer it to Hezbollah.

Gantz covered an array of topics, from military relations with Egypt to the draft of ultra-Orthodox males and the recent attack in Burgas, Bulgaria that claimed the lives of five Israelis and one Bulgarian man.

The chief of the general staff referred to the current era as “the war between the wars” and noted that Israel’s security establishment had managed to disrupt 10 recent terror plots prior to the deadly attack in Burgas.

Agreeing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Gantz said that the attack was carried out by Hezbollah with the backing of Iran but did not offer any specifics.

He promised retribution for the attack. “We will find the right way to respond to the incident, and not merely in a single lane,” he said, referring to a wider campaign of action. “We will know how to respond in a measured manner, but in the end [a response] will come.”

Gantz said that Assad’s grip on power in Syria was nearing its end, with a sharp decline of sovereign control particularly evident in the eastern part of the country.

Syria’s chemical weapons, however, remain well protected, the IDF chief claimed.

“To the best of my judgment Assad has control over the stockpiles. They have increased their security around the chemical weapons and to our understanding they have not been moved into undesirable hands,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”

Gantz warned that missiles and mortars carrying chemical warheads could still be used against Syrian citizens, despite the regime’s recent assurances to the contrary, and said that “certain parts of those weapon stockpiles could be moved to Hezbollah.”

Both the prime minister and defense minister have said in recent days that such a move would prompt an Israeli strike. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman on Tuesday called it a “casus belli.”

The Syrian regime, Gantz said, was hit “in a significant and grave” way by the July 18 attack in the national security headquarters in Damascus, which killed the Syrian defense minister and other senior officials.

Gantz also reported that three mortars landed close to the Israeli border in Syria yesterday, indicating the proximity of the fighting.

The Gaza region has been “relatively quiet” of late, he said, but he assured the lawmakers that “the hour when we are forced to act there will come.”

Currently the vast majority of terror warnings stem from the Sinai Peninsula, where the nearly completed security barrier has already “seen signs of struggle from the other side.”

Gantz addressed the matter of the Tal Law replacement and the draft of ultra-Orthodox males. He said that “the challenges we face demand that we enlarge the sources from which we draft,” but added that the IDF was monitoring the situation and would “wait patiently for whatever decision is reached.”

In summing up the security situation, he said that the probability of a conventional war has diminished but added that the “events and the instability in the region could lead to an uncontrollable scenario that no one wants and no one is initiating.”

Former defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer predicted at the meeting that in the long term Israel “is heading toward a conflict with Syria and Egypt.”

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