What is suspected to be the deadliest chemical weapon attack in Syria in years is believed by Israeli officials to have been ordered by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Close to 100 civilians are believed to have been killed and hundreds more wounded in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria’s Idlib province on Tuesday in what Israel believes to have been a sarin gas attack.
The Syrian military has denied responsibility, blaming the rebels and stating that it would never use chemical weapons, but Israeli security officials believe that the attack was likely approved by senior officials in the Assad regime, if not by Assad himself.
Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, head of the Institute for National Security Studies think tank and former head of Military Intelligence, speaking to Army Radio, urged direct military action by Israel to deter the Assad regime from carrying out further chemical weapons attacks, calling the strike in Idlib a “crime against humanity.”
So will this attack prompt any military action? Israel’s security services have prepared a situational assessment of the attack, to see what risks Israel could face, but it is unlikely that Israeli citizens will be lining up to receive gas masks in the near future, as the army sees almost no chance of a chemical attack by Syria against Israel.
Aftermath of suspected chemical gas attack in Idlib , Syria on April 4, 2017 (REUTERS)
The Assad regime agreed to dismantle the country’s chemical weapons stockpiles in a 2013 deal brokered by the United States and Russia following the deadly regime attack on East Ghouta near the capital of Damascus where over 1,400 people were killed, including 426 children.
While the regime did comply with destroying many of the stockpiles as well as the infrastructure to produce them, removing over 1,290 metric tons of chemical weapons – including sarin, VX and sulfur mustard, a precursor to mustard gas – according to former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, Israel is under the impression that the regime cheated international inspectors and kept residual amounts of sarin.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Ya’alon said: “We cannot turn our heads aside to what happened, but we cannot intervene militarily. One of the smarter things that Israel has decided was not to intervene in the war, but there are other things that we can do to stop the butchering of the people of Syria.
“We must learn lessons from what happened yesterday. It’s clear that we can only rely on ourselves. We cannot rely on the international community or international bodies such as weapons inspectors.
Ya’alon added: “They [Assad] know how to lie and know how to conceal, and they did that with the international bodies of the weapons inspectors.”
Ya’alon also said he hopes that the US will play a more positive role in the region, a reference to the Obama administration that did nothing when Assad crossed the redline in the Ghoutta attack, stating it was a strategic loss by the Americans when they did that.
He added that the Assad regime most likely gained the confidence to carry out this type of attack after the Trump administration said that getting rid of Assad was no longer a priority for them last week.
Since the 2013 deal, Western intelligence agencies and Syrian opposition figures have accused the Syrian Army’s secretive Unit 450, a branch of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center that is at the center of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons program, of dispersing chemical weapons stockpiles around the country.
Israeli security officials also believe that the Assad regime has been rebuilding and reopening sarin manufacturing plants, albeit in a smaller amount than they had before in 2013.
In December, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, in a rare comment about an Israeli air strike in Syria, said that Israel struck the presumed base of Unit 450 north of Damascus, stopping the transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah.
The regime has been accused of having used chemical weapons (mostly mustard or chlorine gas) several times since the deal, but if Tuesday’s attack is confirmed to be sarin, it would be the first time in several years that sarin has been used and the deadliest chemical weapons attack since the Ghouta attack, which prompted then-US president Barack Obama to ask Congress to authorize military action against Syria in 2013.
The dozens of videos circulating on social media sites said to be from the town showed victims, including dozens of children, struggling to breath; many others are seen unresponsive.
Rescue workers who came to the scene were reported to have suffered from severe respiratory distress, and hospitals treating the wounded came under additional air strikes.
The attack was condemned by activists and world leaders around the globe, including by Israeli politicians and officials from all sides of the political spectrum, who called on the international community to act.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strongly condemned the attack and said that it “underscores the great imperative of the State of Israel to defend ourselves.”
Education Minister Naftali Bennett requested an emergency security cabinet session regarding the attack, saying that there is a “systematic genocide being carried out in Syria.”
While Israel has provided aid and medical care to thousands of wounded Syrians, it is unlikely that the Jewish state and it’s army, which remembers the six million Jews who lost their lives to Nazi gas chambers and death camps, will do much more than shed tears and call on the international community to stop the carnage, unless Syria directly threatens Israel and its citizens
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