With the Assad regime looking closer than ever to collapse, Israel has stepped up the rhetoric against Syria, warning it could take military action if any of its advanced weapons end up in the hands of Hezbollah.
Following a deadly bombing in Damascus on July 18 which killed four top security officials in what Israeli officials described as a “severe blow” to the regime, Israel has been closely watching developments in Syria, readying itself for the possible collapse of the Assad regime.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that the fate of Syria’s weapons stockpiles was of greater concern to him than who or what would replace the Assad regime.
“I’m more concerned with what could happen to those stocks of chemical weapons and those deadly rockets and missiles when there is no government in Syria,” he said in an interview with Fox News on Sunday.
“Can you imagine Hezbollah — the people who are conducting, with Iran, all these terror attacks around the world — can you imagine that they would have chemical weapons? It’s like Al-Qaeda having chemical weapons,” he said.
“It is something that is not acceptable to us.”
Israel says Syria has the biggest chemical weapons stockpile in the world and the Jewish state has repeatedly warned about the dangers of such materials, and other advanced weaponry such as anti-aircraft systems and surface-to-surface missiles, falling into Hezbollah’s hands.
In recent days, both Netanyahu and his Defence Minister Ehud Barak have raised the possibility of military action to prevent such a scenario from becoming a reality.
“We are following these things and preparing. I’ve ordered the army to prepare in such a way that if situations arise that will force us to consider action, we will be able to consider it,” Barak told Israel’s Channel 2 television on Friday.
“This is something we will have to act to stop, if the need arises,” Netanyahu said in the interview with Fox.
“We’ll have to consider our action. But do I seek action? No. Do I preclude it? No.”
A long-time ally of the Assad regime, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah has firmly backed Damascus and its brutal efforts to crush the uprising which broke out in March 2011, which has so far left more than 19,000 people dead, mostly civilians.
Israel sees Hezbollah, with whom it fought a devastating but inconclusive war in Lebanon in 2006, as one of its principal foes.
But on Monday, a spokesman for Syria’s foreign ministry said Damascus would only use chemical or unconventional weapons in case of a foreign attack.
Beyond fears about the security of Damascus’s weapons stockpile, Israel is also concerned that a collapse of the Assad regime could bring about a dangerous security vacuum on the Syrian Golan Heights which could be exploited by radical groups like Al-Qaeda.
The fear is that the strategic plateau, half of which is occupied and annexed by Israel, could slide into a situation similar to that in Sinai, where a wave of lawlessness has left the Egyptian army struggling powerless to rein in militants.
News that some 500 Syrian soldiers and 50 vehicles had crossed into the demilitarised zone on the Golan Heights on Sunday prompted Israel to lodge a complaint with the United Nations, saying it was a “blunt violation” of a 1974 agreement signed between the two countries with “potentially far-reaching implications for the security and stability of the region.”
But Syria specialist Eyal Zisser said it was highly unlikely that Assad would willingly hand over his arsenal to Hezbollah, even if he was backed into a corner.
“It is still too early to bury the regime of Bashar al-Assad who still holds the major cities,” said Zisser, a professor at Tel Aviv University, dismissing the idea that the Syrian strongman would give Hezbollah free access to his weapons stockpile, even if his regime was on the verge of collapse.
The strong statements expressed by Netanyahu were a display of “considerable nervousness” which in his view was “not necessarily justified.”
Shlomo Brom, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) also accused Netanyahu of “reacting in an emotional and hysterical fashion” over the issue of Syria’s chemical weapons.
Such weapons, he said, “are difficult to handle.”
“Hezbollah would need aircraft to be able to deploy chemically-armed weapons, which they do not have,” he told AFP.
“Barak, who understands these things a bit better, is putting the emphasis on Syria’s stockpile of sophisticated conventional weapons,” he added.