While the U.S. administration has officially adopted the position that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons and has declared publicly that it will provide the rebels with military aid, it appears that behind-the-scenes preparations are still being made for a much larger move.
Israel, Jordan, and the U.S. are jointly planning an attack aimed at destroying the unconventional weapons stockpiles in Syria, Time magazine reported over the weekend.
According to the report, which was based on interviews with senior Israeli military and intelligence officials, such an attack would follow several scenarios, one of which is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s removal from power, either if he is killed, flees the country or simply disappears. These scenarios, according to the Israeli sources, would prompt the allies to attack the estimated 18 depots and other sites where weapons of mass destruction are stored. Search-and-destroy operations would also reportedly be called into action if the weapons appeared to be on the cusp of falling into the hands of Islamist rebels.
The Israeli officials, however, stressed that it had not been decided whether Israeli or U.S. forces would act, or who would do what, according to the Time report. But the U.S. plans, said the Israeli officials, call for deploying ground forces in addition to the airstrikes, to assure that the chemical and biological components are neutralized.
The report of such a plan comes even though U.S. President Barack Obama has said on several occasions that he did not foresee a situation in which U.S. soldiers would be sent into Syria.
One senior Israeli intelligence official told Time that even though the U.S. waited before adopting the Israeli position that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons, cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem never ceased.
“We have our cards on the table with the Americans for a long time. They’ve had all this information,” the intelligence official said.
“Things are happening behind the scenes,” another Israeli official told Time. “Things are really happening.”
The Israeli officials pointed to the U.S. stationing of F-16 fighter jets and Patriot missile batteries in neighboring Jordan earlier this month, ostensibly for a joint military exercise (“Eager Lion”) set to take place next week, as “a clear, purposeful, presence of a strike force near the border of Syria.”
“I think it’s a message, a clear message,” the official told Time, adding that the move was also meant as a message to Iran. “It’s only a short leap to the Gulf,” the official said.
However, one of the Israeli officials emphasized that any military operation including Israel would be met with intense opposition by moderate Middle Eastern countries, like Jordan and Turkey.
“If this [attack operation] is to hold water, this cannot involve Israel,” the Israeli official told Time.
The Pentagon on Saturday confirmed that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel approved a Jordanian request to keep some of the F-16s and Patriot batteries in the kingdom at the conclusion of the joint Eager Lion exercise. According to the Pentagon, “The U.S. has a long history of partnership with Jordan and is committed to its security.”
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, meanwhile, speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Saturday, said that Israel was “placing three red lines on the Syrian regime: not to allow the delivery of sophisticated weapons to any terrorist factions or militia, whether Hezbollah or to any other faction; not to allow chemical agents to these kinds of factions; and to keep our sovereignty over the Golan Heights by not allowing any fire from the Golan Heights, intentionally [or] not intentionally, to our side… and when they violate or cross these red lines, as they did on the Golan Heights, we act to destroy the Syrian regime’s position that was responsible for this kind of fire.”
“When they cross these red lines, similar to what happened on the Golan, we respond with the purpose of destroying Syrian army positions responsible for the shooting,” said Ya’alon.
Ya’alon added that he was not impressed with Assad’s recent gains on the battlefield. “Bashar Assad’s victory at Qusair was not a turning point in the fighting and I don’t believe he has the momentum required to win,” said Ya’alon, diverging from the statement made last week by Israeli Intelligence, International Relations and Strategic Affairs Minister Dr. Yuval Steinitz, who said, “Not only is there a real possibility that Syrian President Bashar Assad will survive the civil war ravaging his country, but Assad could even prevail in his war against rebels trying to topple him.”
Despite the Syrian regime’s recent military achievements, “Only 40 percent of the territory is in Assad’s control; the rest is held by Sunnis and Kurds,” Ya’alon said.
Ya’alon went on to emphasize Israel’s intention to avoid, as much as possible, involvement in the Syrian conflict.
“Any Israeli intervention could influence the side we support, and not necessarily for the best,” he said.