Netanyahu orders ministers to keep mum on Syria

Prime Minister’s instructions follow Ze’ev Elkin’s Friday remarks suggesting military option against Assad

Adiv Sterman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

MK Ze'ev Elkin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Ze'ev Elkin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday instructed his ministers to stop giving interviews on the situation in Syria, and specifically on the Assad regime’s reported use of chemical weapons.

Netanyahu’s strict orders came in response to deputy foreign minister Ze’ev Elkin‘s remarks on Army Radio Friday, in which he was seen to be calling on the international community to take control of and eliminate Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal.

“There is a question here of when you set a red line, do you stand behind it?” Elkin said, referencing US President Barack Obama’s earlier  statement saying use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a line and lead to a shift in US policy.

“If the Iranians will see that the red lines laid by the international community are flexible, then will they continue to progress?” Elkin questioned rhetorically.

Elkin went on to explain that an international military option is possible, but suggested that the US was not prepared to take measures in order to contain the situation in the war-torn country.

“It is clear that if the United States wants to and the international community wants to, they could act militarily, among other things, to take control of the chemical weapons, and then all the fears … will not be relevant,” he concluded.

Elkin’s statements were widely quoted by international media outlets and presented as if Israel was pressuring Washington to use military force against Assad.

Earlier Saturday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said that reports of chemical weapons use by the Syrian army do not constitute sufficient grounds for military intervention.

“We must check the information immediately and in conformity with international criteria, and not use it to achieve other objectives. It must not be a pretext for an intervention in Syria,” Bogdanov said during a visit to Beirut.

On Thursday, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the US intelligence community now believes Syria has likely used chemical weapons on a “small scale” against its civilians.

Hagel added that the use of chemical weapons “violates every convention of warfare.”

The statement came on the heels of a public declaration Tuesday by the Israeli army’s top intelligence analyst that forces loyal to Assad had used sarin gas against rebel forces and civilians, information which may push the US closer to intervening in the two-year-old conflict.

The White House, however, said the news would not necessarily trigger a response.

On Friday, Obama insisted that any use of chemical weapons by Syria would lead to a change in his policy towards US military involvement in the two-year civil war — but said too little was known so far to order aggressive action now.

“For the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons on its people crosses a line that will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues,” the president said.

Thus far, the Obama administration has limited its assistance to the Syrian rebels to nonlethal aid, including military-style equipment such as body armor and night vision goggles. The US has also deployed about 200 troops to Jordan to assist that country’s military, and has participated in NATO’s placement of Patriot missile batteries in Turkey near the border to protect against an attack from Syria.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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