Israeli jets bombed chemical weapon sites in Syria — report

Washington Post says strikes hit facilities near Damascus and Homs in March 2020 and June 2021, after Jerusalem identified efforts to restart illegal program

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

Israel carried out a pair of strikes against alleged Syrian chemical weapons sites in March 2020 and June 2021, after receiving intelligence that the regime of Bashar Assad was seeking to rebuild the illegal arsenal, according to a Monday report.

Current and former Western intelligence officials familiar with the matter told The Washington 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.

Keeping with its policy of ambiguity on such affairs, the Israel Defense Forces declined to comment on either strike.

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 Syrian President 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 UN 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-US president Barak 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 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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