The US promised, Israel delivered

Why was it Israel and not America that reportedly attacked secret Syrian chemical-weapons sites, despite the U.S. promise that it would not allow the Syrians to obtain chemical weapons?

The aftermath of alleged Israeli airstrikes near Damascus on Feb. 15, 2021. Source: Majd Fahd/Twitter.
The aftermath of alleged Israeli airstrikes near Damascus on Feb. 15, 2021. Source: Majd Fahd/Twitter.
Yoav Limor
Yoav Limor
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.

The two reported Israeli strikes on secret facilities where the Syrian regime planned to restart its chemical weapons manufacturing program had three goals. The first was to keep non-conventional weapons out of Syria’s hands, even if they were only at the initial stages of development. The second was to make it clear to Syrian President Bashar Assad that Israel would not allow Syria to go back to threatening it with weapons of mass destruction. And third, to send a message to other countries—primarily Iran—that Israel will take the same course of action against anyone who develops weapons that threaten its existence.

The strikes were revealed on Monday by The Washington Post. The first took place on March 5, 2020, and targeted a villa outside Homs, after Syria acquired a large amount of tricalcium phosphate (TCP), which can be used to produce nerve agents, according to the report. The second strike was on June 8 of this year and targeted a bunker in the city Nasiriyah, north of Damascus, and two additional sites near Homs. These strikes killed seven Syrians, including a brigadier general (a rank achieved posthumously) named Ayham Ismail, who was a high-ranking official at the CERS factory, which developed the country’s chemical weapons.

Syria used to have a huge chemical weapons arsenal, mostly lethal nerve agents. The Assad regime used chemical weapons against its opposition in dozens of cases but was forced to change course after more than 1,400 citizens were killed in an attack in Damascus in August 2013. After the United States threatened to attack Syria in response to that attack, Assad agreed to give up his chemical weapons arsenal, and the Americans and the Russians reached an agreement under which over 1,300 tons of chemical weapons were removed from Syria and destroyed.

Despite his promise not to, Assad continued to use other types of chemical weapons against his opponents, mostly chlorine gas. Israel warned that the fact that the world was allowing him to do so would eventually lead to Syria resuming the production of more sophisticated chemical weaponry, which is what happened. It appears that as opposed to the past, Israel made a decision not to wait until Syria acquired large stocks of chemical weapons, but to take them out in the early stages. But the fact that Syria kept up its efforts to develop these weapons, even after it was attacked the first time, shows that alongside the friendly face Assad tries to show the world, he continues to pursue methods of mass destruction.

The Washington Post report does not make it clear what the U.S. response was to the strikes—and more pertinently, why the United States was not the one to attack, given that it had explicitly promised that it would not allow Syria to obtain chemical weapons of any type. It might have to do with Israel beating it to the punch. It’s also possible that the Americans— both the Trump administration, which was in power at the time of the first strike, and the Biden administration, which was in power during the second—simply balked at exercising military force.

By avoiding an attack on these facilities, the Americans again missed an opportunity to send a message to the Middle East and the world as a whole. Israel, on the other hand, stood up for its principles (again), and even expanded the Begin Doctrine—which is to not allow any country in the region to obtain nuclear or chemical weapons capabilities. It looks like this is what was behind the report on Monday.

The information in the report was not attributed to Israeli officials, but the report’s manner and timing indicate that someone had an interest in the strikes being exposed now, as the nuclear negotiations with Iran are underway, to make sure that they echo beyond Syria, especially in Beirut and Tehran.

Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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