IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz - Michal Fattal
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Photo by Michal Fattal
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AP
Hezbollah supporters wait for a speech by leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah on July 18, 2012. Photo by AP

An Israeli attack on chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria could deteriorate into a wider military conflict, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz warned Tuesday.

Addressing the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Gantz said that "if you want to work in a very focused manner [against chemical weapons], the possibility exists that we will find it difficult to pinpoint the exact place [where the weapons are located.] If you work in a more spread-out fashion, you could very quickly find yourself in a wider conflict than you planned. What remains after we act and into whose hands [the weapons] will fall must also be taken into consideration."

Although it can be expected that certain elements will cite Gantz's comments as proof of sharp disagreements between the military brass and political leadership, it is unlikely that this is the case. Gantz presented to the Knesset committee two operational scenarios for which the army is preparing. The first scenario is a widespread defensive attack on the sites where chemical weapons are stored throughout Syria, prior to any detection of an attempt to move them. The second is a focused attack on a convoy if an attempt to transfer the weapons to Hezbollah is detected.

It is not difficult to guess which option the IDF prefers. Gantz, who addressed the Knesset members in general terms, suggested that a massive attack could have widespread repercussions. In such a case, for example, Israel would have to silence Syria's air defenses, which could lead to an all-out war under certain circumstances. If, however, the attack would be focused on a specific convoy, Syria and Hezbollah could decide to hold back, as they did in other incidents, according to the international media.

There does not, at present, appear to be a meaningful disagreement between the prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister. The three have threatened to thwart any attempt to transfer weapons to Lebanon, and speak about this so persistently and frequently that it almost appears exaggerated. But, as opposed to an attack on specific convoys, a widespread preventative treatment of all of the Assad regime's strategic weapons sites will have to be coordinated with the international community, as neighboring countries such as Turkey and Jordan also have an interest.

Syrian opposition organizations' spokesmen maintained, even on Tuesday, that the Syrian army has recently moved its stockpiles of chemical weapons around the country. However Gantz said on Tuesday that his impression is that the Assad regime's supervision of its chemical weapons sites has improved recently. "To the best of my judgment, for now, Assad has control over his chemical weapons stockpiles, and he has upgraded the protection around them. These weapons have not yet been transferred into negative hands, but that doesn't mean it won't happen," the chief of staff said.

While Israel is publicly speaking about the dangers of chemical and biological weapons, the greatest fear apparently relates to other types of weapons, especially anti-aircraft missiles that could be transferred to Lebanon. The IDF continues to maintain an extraordinary level of preparedness and surveillance of developments in Syria, in case it will have to act to thwart a transfer of weapons.

Gantz estimated during the committee meeting that the Syrian regime is liable to use chemical weapons against its own citizens while suppressing confrontations in the country, or to transfer the ammunition to Hezbollah. The chief of staff added that "we are following events in Syria. Assad's grip on power is coming to an end."

The IDF estimates that last week's attack on Syria's top brass significantly harmed the regime. "The assassination was a harsh blow to Assad. These were the people closest to him, with whom he had an intimate and strategic relationship," said Gantz.