‘The arms will be pointed at Israel sooner or later’

Israeli soldiers walk on top of their Merkava tanks in the Golan Heights near the border with Syria this week

Israeli soldiers walk on top of their Merkava tanks in the Golan Heights near the border with Syria this week

When a window of opportunity presented itself last weekend to prevent Hizbollah and jihadist fighters in Syria from acquiring strategic and chemical weapons, Israel acted.

The destruction of a missile depot and chemical weapons sites came after intelligence reports indicated that rapid action was imperative.

Israel saw that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on his stockpile of chemical weapons was beginning to loosen. The calculation was that a strike now would be highly unlikely to lead to retaliation.

At the same time, the recent arrival from Iran of strategic missiles at Damascus airport meant that Hizbollah was potentially just days away from receiving Fateh-110 solid-fuel missiles that cannot easily be detected by Israel’s defences.

One of the major targets was the Jamraya research centre in Damascus, a chemical weapons hub and already the target of an Israeli strike in January.

Over the past two years of the Syrian civil war, Israeli intelligence has believed that chemical weapons were well-guarded and that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Western governments had workable plans to take control of them quickly if the regime fell.

This assessment changed in recent months. The lecture three weeks ago by Brigadier-General Ittai Brun, commander of IDF military intelligence’s research directorate, who claimed that Syria had already used sarin nerve gas against rebels, underlined this new assessment.

The chances of an internationally-backed operation to secure the stockpiles also started to look slim as Western leaders ruled out armed intervention and the more secular FSA began to lose control of the rebellion to al-Qaeda-linked jihadists.

Although all attempts to predict Assad’s demise have so far proved wrong, one thing is certain: Israel will do everything in its power to prevent the spread of chemical weapons.

Israel has emphasised the fact that last weekend’s strikes, and the previous one in January, were not directed against the Syrian regime.

For a start, despite no one being in any doubt as to who was behind the air strikes, Israel has taken no responsibility for them.

This is the same tactic used in 2007 when Israel bombed the Syrian nuclear reactor at Deir a-Zour. Then, Assad was allowed “an honourable out” with Israel not acknowledging that it had carried out the attack or even publicly accusing him of building the reactor. The tactic appears to have worked again.

Indeed the government was so certain there would be no retaliation that Mr Netanyahu stuck to his original schedule and left for a five-day visit to China on Sunday night.

In addition, Israeli sources spread the suggestion that its planes did not actually fly over Syrian territory but rather launched stand-off missiles from planes flying over Lebanon.

IDF exercises that had been scheduled months ago to take place this week near the northern border with Syria were scaled back to prevent reports of a mobilisation of ground forces. The only overt military precaution was the positioning of two Iron Dome missile-defence batteries near Haifa and Safed.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry claimed that Israel’s attacks were “coordinated with terrorists” — as it calls the rebels — but behind the scenes Israel is working against the rebels’ interests.

In high-level discussions with Western governments, including the meeting between David Cameron and Benjamin Netanyahu in London three weeks ago, senior Israeli representatives have been urging their counterparts not to arm the rebel groups.

“When they talk about supplying the Syrian opposition with arms,” said one high-ranking Israeli official, “we ask them: which Syrian opposition? There are so many of them and any arms reaching Syria will almost certainly be pointed later on against Israeli and Western targets.”

Last updated: 2:20pm, May 9 2013