Israel is engaged in a nationwide push to prepare itself for potential retaliation by Syrian forces in the wake of a Western attack.
On Wednesday, the Israeli Cabinet called up a limited number of reservists, mainly to bolster the missile defence systems in the north and to improve home-front readiness.
Meanwhile, the number of Israeli civilians requesting gas masks has quadrupled in recent days.
Despite a move by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday to reassure Israelis that there was “no need to change our routine”, there were reports of panic at the IDF distribution centres where gas masks are handed out.
According to one man who spoke to Israel Radio outside a distribution centre in Haifa: “It’s crazy what’s happening. There are women, babies, police. It’s a mess here. They’re sending people into a panic but there’s only one centre in the entire north of the country.” He added that “people came from Nahariya”, about an hour away.
While intelligence agencies do not believe that Syria will retaliate against Israel following any strikes, some in the Israeli media were sceptical of that confidence.
Citing the Israeli security establishment’s failure to foresee the Egyptian revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak, the Syrian civil war or the victory of Hassan Rouhani in the Iranian elections, David Horowitz wrote in the Times of Israel: “Confidence in the capacity of the Israeli security establishment to assess what is about to unfold around us… has hardly been bolstered by the hierarchy’s consistent incapacity… to predict the radical twists and turns of regional instability and how they might affect little Israel.”
Israeli military authorities reason that the attack on Syria is not expected to be very heavy and therefore will not immediately endanger Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Given this, the assessment is that Assad would not risk attacking Israel and invite upon himself a devastating retaliation.
Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Wednesday: “The Syrians have crossed a red line that the US set, using chemical weapons, and these are terrible matters. But this issue is not for us to deal with but the West and the US.
"We are prepared and ready and there is no panic or escalation. We don’t have an easy finger on the trigger but anyone who thinks we can be threatened will come up against all our might.”
Since both the American administration and the British government have now clearly stated that they are certain that the chemical attack which killed hundreds of Syrian civilians last Wednesday was carried out by the Assad regime, some form of retaliatory operation now seems inevitable, perhaps over the weekend.
The military preparations for such an attack have so far included the positioning of US and Royal Navy warships and submarines in the eastern Mediterranean.
This indicates that the attack will almost certainly be carried out using Tomahawk cruise missiles, but without a wider air-offensive. Given this, the damage to the regime, while significant, will probably not turn the tide of the civil war against Assad in the near future.
“Assad may well decide to bring the whole region down with him when he feels his story is over,” said an Israeli defence source, “but that doesn’t seem to be the case just yet. The West don’t want Assad but they’re not prepared for the day after his downfall and probably won’t hit him too hard now. Just hard enough to make a point about not using chemical weapons.”
Israel has made it clear to the Syrians and to their Russian supporters that any attempt to use chemical weapons against Israeli territory will be answered with a devastating attack aimed at ending Assad’s reign once and for all. For now they are assuming that threat will be sufficient.