The message behind ‘Israel airstrikes on Syrian chemical weapons’? - analysis

The Washington Post published a story revealing that Israeli carried out strikes on chemical weapons facilities in Syria.

Missile fire is seen from Damascus, Syria May 10, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/OMAR SANADIKI)
Missile fire is seen from Damascus, Syria May 10, 2018.

Israel carried out two rounds of airstrikes in Syria, targeting sites linked to chemical weapons development, according to a report from The Washington Post. The strikes in March 2020 and June 2021 struck several sites. This is big news, and the report calls it a “highly unusual airstrike deep inside Syrian territory.” It is likely that US support for Israeli operations in Syria, a support that has grown over the last half-decade, was key to these reported operations and that this is a message to the Assad regime not to procure dangerous weapons of mass destruction. In addition, this is a message to Iran and showcases Israel’s key abilities in the region to neutralize dangerous threats.  

Syria’s chemical weapons program was once the heart of tensions between Syria and the US and was a cause of much controversy over allegations that Syria had used chemical weapons against Syrian rebels. Now the Syrian regime is being rehabilitated in the region, with outreach coming from the Gulf, Egypt and elsewhere. Iran is a key regime ally, as is Russia.  

This means the message behind this report has a lot to do with timing and other issues that are not directly related to chemical weapons. Let’s see what details the report can tell us. First, “the June 8 strike was aimed at Syrian military facilities — all with links to the country’s former chemical weapons program.” According to this, the jets struck three military targets, killing seven Syrian soldiers. This is important because despite the fact that Israel has carried out thousands of strikes on Iranian targets in Syria, according to Israel’s former Chief of Staff, those strikes rarely kill Syrian regime soldiers. 

What about the March 2020 strikes? “Israeli officials ordered the [June] raid, and a similar one a year earlier, based on intelligence suggesting that Syria’s government was acquiring chemical precursors and other supplies needed to rebuild the chemical-weapons capability that it had ostensibly given up eight years ago, according to four current and former US and Western intelligence officials with access to sensitive intelligence at the time of the strikes.” 

The timeline goes back further. The report alleges that Israeli concerns began two years ago, in 2019, that the Syrian regime was attempting to “import a key chemical that can be used to make deadly sarin nerve agent.” The regime supposedly was procuring tricalcium phosphate (TCP), “western intelligence” told the reporters. It is “known to be used as a precursor for sarin and other nerve agents.” The TCP was being sent to Branch 450 of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center. “The SSRC oversaw production of Syria’s chemical weapons from the 1980s until at least 2014,” the report says. The first strike targeted a “villa” near Homs. 

 Smoke rises after airstrikes on a rebel-held part of the southern city of Deraa, Syria, June 15, 2017 (illustrative). (credit: REUTERS/ALAA AL-FAQIR) Smoke rises after airstrikes on a rebel-held part of the southern city of Deraa, Syria, June 15, 2017 (illustrative). (credit: REUTERS/ALAA AL-FAQIR)

Western officials quoted in the report apparently believed that the chemicals were going to rebuild the regime’s chemical weapons program, so more strikes took place. “The June 8 strike targeted a military storage bunker near Nasiriyah, a desert village north of Damascus, and two additional sites near Homs. Of those two, one was described as an auxiliary facility for the SSRC’s military laboratory in Masyaf, about 40 miles northwest of Homs.” 

The report says the strikes were designed to pre-empt Syria from restarting its chemical weapons production. But there are two key questions raised here. “Any effort to bomb an existing stockpile of nerve agents risks unleashing plumes of lethal gases that can spread to nearby towns and villages.” That means one can only strike them before they go into production. “Senior officials in both the Trump and Biden administrations became aware of the attacks and the underlying intelligence shortly after the strikes, current and former officials said.” 

This latter point is important. It is supposed to indicate that Israel didn’t coordinate with western intelligence or the US on the strikes. However, there is something here that presents a conundrum. If the Trump administration officials became aware of the March 2020 attack, then logically, the Biden administration would have known about this. Logically, the US, which was concerned about the regime’s rights abuses and chemical weapons, would have kept track of what was going on if they didn’t already know. We will return to this issue after reviewing what is known about Syrian chemical weapons development.  

Back in 2013, Reuters had reported that the US and allies were considering an attack on Syria’s regime to punish it for murdering civilians using chemical weapons. Among the weapons Syria was thought to have, were those including Sarin. “Sarin is a clear, colorless and tasteless liquid that has no odor in its pure form. It is made up of four common chemical compounds: dimethyl methyl phosphonate, phosphorus trichloride, sodium fluoride and alcohol.” Syrian chemical weapons were supposed to be destroyed according to the OPCW in 2014. This included phosphorous trichloride amounts. A study by the US Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies noted in 2017 that Syria had once had “260 metric tons of 13 different ‘category 2 industrial chemicals’ including chloroethylamine, phosphorus trichloride, phosphorus oxychloride, hexamine, hydrogen chloride, and hydrogen fluoride.” Syria also had one research and development site and 10 production sites, along with 12 storage sites. 

The report at The Washington Post also quotes former US envoy Ambassador James Jeffrey 

“This should certainly include the evidence presented by [then-Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and others . . . that Assad is trying to reconstitute his chemical weapons.” Jeffrey is important because back in January 2021 he told reporter Jared Szuba at Al-Monitor that  

“US-supported Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in the country further limited the [Syrian] regime’s military options.” He went on to note that “the US only began supporting that when I came on board. I went out there and we saw [then] Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and others, and they thought that they were not being supported enough by the US military, and not by intelligence. And there was a big battle within the US government, and we won the battle. The argument [against supporting Israel’s campaign] was, again, this obsession with the counterterrorism mission. People didn’t want to screw with it, either by worrying about Turkey or diverting resources to allow the Israelis to muck around in Syria, as maybe that will lead to some blowback to our forces. It hasn’t.” 

The January 2021 quotes note that the Trump administration pushed for closer coordination with Israel regarding Syria. Trump officials beyond Jeffrey worked towards this end, including Secretary of State and former CIA head Mike Pompeo and also National Security Advisor John Bolton. Bolton said the US would work to get Iran to leave Syria in 2018.

Let’s recall that back in December 2018 the Trump administration had impulsively decided to leave Syria. The administration would attempt to do the same thing in October 2019, leading to a Turkish invasion and Turkish-backed attacks on US partner forces in eastern Syria. Those incidents concerned Israel at the time. The Syrian regime was able to re-conquer areas in southern Syria near the Golan. A ceasefire brokered by Russia and the US broke down. The regime swept up to the Golan border in the summer of 2018. Meanwhile, pro-Iranian forces had also secured areas on the Iraq-Syria border at Albukamal. An airstrike targeted those militias at a Kataib Hezbollah headquarters in Albukamal in June 2018. Meanwhile, Iranian entrenchment expanded in Syria. Iran had flown a drone from T-4 into Israeli airspace in February 2018. By the fall of 2019, Hezbollah agents had brought drones to houses near the Golan. An August 24 airstrike hit the killer drone team, leading to more tensions. Israel’s former head of the Air Force Amir Eshel had already said in August 2017 that Israel had struck up to 150 Iranian arms convoys for Hezbollah in Syria. 

This, then, is the picture that emerges in the lead-up to the March 2020 airstrike. Turkey had clashed with the Syrian regime in February 2020. The March airstrike comes in that context. If the airstrike targeted nascent chemical weapons procurement by the regime why wasn’t that information released at the time? Of all the controversial aspects of airstrikes in Syria, it would appear targeting chemical weapons before they are assembled is an issue that would be a net positive for Israel or the US to remark upon. Instead quiet prevailed until December 2021.

Israel has struck at Syria’s weapons of mass destruction before. In 2007, Israel carried out an airstrike on a suspected nuclear reactor. In March 2018, when Israel publically said for the first time it had carried out the 2007 raid, The Guardian noted that “the move to go public with the strike, which has already been widely reported and cited to US officials, comes amid repeated warnings by [then] Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for the United States and others to take more robust action on Syria’s ally, Iran.” This means it may have been linked to wider messaging. Israel had told US officials about its decision to strike in Syria in April 2017, and reports indicated Israel hoped for US support. In 2015, The Washington Post also reported that Israel and US intelligence worked together to target Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh in Syria. This points to a long history of Israel and the US working on Syrian issues and threats from Syria. It would appear that any strikes on nascent programs designed to rekindle Syria’s chemical weapons programs would involve joint discussion as well.  

The message may be to alert the Assad regime to the fact that it should not continue down the road of chemical weapons procurement and to show how important Israel is in the region in terms of neutralizing these kinds of threats.