As President Obama weighs the evidence on suspected Syrian use on Sarin nerve gas and what to do about it, the Israeli government is trying to keep a low profile, or at least low by Israeli standards.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed his government not to make this incident about Israel and not to speak publicly about the issue, but first deputy foreign minister Ze’ev Elkin warned that a weak American response to Syrian use of Sarin would encourage Iran to accelerate its nuclear program.
Netanyahu recognizes the importance of keeping the focus on Syria and not giving Damascus, its allies or its enemies an excuse to try to divert attention to Israel. That is also why Washington has asked Israel to delay any response to the drone apparently launched from Lebanon and shot down by an Israeli F-15 some five miles off the coast from Haifa. There will be time enough to act, but first deal with the WMD threat and its implications.
Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, said in New York this weekend that Israel would not press Washington to act on Syria, but he noted that for Israel the red line would be an attempt to transfer chemical weapons to Hizbullah. The IAF attacked a Syrian convoy in late January that was believed carrying anit-aircraft missiles and other weapons to Lebanon and also reportedly struck a chemical weapons facility near Damascus.
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon announced last week that Israel has evidence Syria had used poison gas, but he reportedly never mentioned that to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel who was visiting him. Hagel next went to Abu Dhabi, where he announced “with some degree of varying confidence” Syria had gassed its own citizens. It was best that the announcement be made outside to give the accusation added credibility in the Arab world.
Hagel later said he was surprised the Yaalon never mentioned it to him but the Israeli assessment was probably correct; the White House is looking for “credible and corroborated” facts before acting, he added.
A top Israeli military intelligence officer, Brigadier General Itai Brun, has said he has “more than proof” that Assad repeatedly used chemical weapons in the past month. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan expressed doubt that Assad has personally authorized the use of poison gas but it may have been ordered by others.
The regime tried to say the rebels had used the chemical weapon and it had been supplied by Turkey, but that was widely discounted.
Yuval Steinitz, the minister of strategic and intelligence affairs and international relations, said Israel has neither asked nor encouraged the U.S. to take military action in Syria. He also said it would be wrong to compare Syria and Iran. One is a local or regional problem, he explained, while the other is a global threat that seeks not only nuclear weapons but wants to introduce a “new era of Islamic hegemony.”
Sarin was used by Saddam Hussein along with mustard gas and Tabun when he ordered the gassing of the Kurds in the city of Halabja, killing more than 5,000 and severely injuring another 10,000 on a single day in March 1988. He was responsible for the deaths of 100,000 people during that decade by chemical weapons, according to some reports. Washington did nothing about it at the time because the Reagan administration backed Saddam in his war against Iran. Only afterwards when he invaded Kuwait and became an American enemy were any charges brought.