US preparing attack option in Syria, top minister implies

Moshe Ya’alon says Washington would interfere to keep chemical weapons from falling into ‘irresponsible hands,’ hails Israeli cooperation with Jordan

Aaron Kalman is a former writer and breaking news editor for the Times of Israel

Moshe Ya'alon (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Moshe Ya'alon (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

The US is gearing up for the option of military involvement in Syria if embattled President Bashar Assad uses chemical weapons against opposition fighters, a senior member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet implied on Thursday.

Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon noted, however, that at the current juncture there was no fear of the regime in Damascus deploying its sizable stockpile of nonconventional weapons against Israel.

While current US efforts were focused on the diplomatic track, if nonconventional weapons “falling into irresponsible hands” became a plausible scenario, Washington would take action to prevent it from occurring, Ya’alon told Israel Radio.

Asked whether he meant that the US was mulling “an actual insertion of military forces,” Ya’alon, a former IDF chief of General Staff, said vaguely: “I don’t know about an actual insertion of forces, but there’s a variety of options for preventing it from happening, and of course Israel and other countries in the area are closely monitoring the situation in Syria.”

President Barack Obama warned in August that the utilization of Syrian chemical weapons would be a “red line” for the United States. “We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” he said, cautioning that “there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front, or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.”

On Wednesday it was revealed that Netanyahu recently held clandestine talks in Jordan regarding possible methods for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons, including airstrikes or a ground assault, but that so far Amman is reluctant to put its weight behind such action.

Ya’alon wouldn’t directly comment on Netanyahu’s visit, but did say that “Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan are cooperating closely” on strategic matters. “The two [countries] have mutual interests, such as extremist Islamist terror, Syria, and the situation in Iran,” the minister said, adding that “even though there are differences of opinion, the interests are there.”

In early December, Jeffrey Goldberg reported in The Atlantic that Israel in the preceding two months had twice requested “permission” from Jordan to bomb Syria, but was denied the go-ahead. Mossad officials who traveled to Jordan to discuss the matter were told that Amman felt “the time was not right,” Goldberg reported.

According to that report, Israel wants Jordanian approval for a strike on Syria because some of the regime’s chemical weapons are stored near the border with Jordan, and both Jerusalem and Amman are concerned about the repercussions of interfering with the delicate situation on the ground.

Damascus would presumably assume “Jordanian complicity” in any military action by Israel, Goldberg quoted an intelligence official as saying, and Amman does not want to provoke its potentially reckless neighbor to the north.

On Sunday, Netanyahu said Israel was carefully monitoring Syria’s chemical weapons.

“We’re taking steps in order to prepare for the far-reaching changes that are commencing there,” Netanyahu said at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting, alluding to recent assessments that Assad’s days in power were numbered.

“There are dramatic developments in Syria on an almost daily basis,” he said. “We’re working in cooperation with the United States, and, together with the international community, we’re taking the necessary steps to prepare ourselves for the possibility of changes with a bearing on the sensitive weapons systems in Assad’s hands.”

The Times of London reported that the US, along with several key allies, is prepared to launch a military intervention in Syria should the Assad government resort to using its chemical weapons against the rebels.

A military source told the Times that US forces could be ready “rapidly, within days,” and implied that the necessary forces were already in the region.

Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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