Intelligence officials in the West have concluded that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons in their war against rebels. The information relates to two incidents in the Damascus area on March 19. However, various intelligence agencies, first and foremost the Americans, have not concluded whether the material used was a toxic chemical or a material that paralyzes only and does not kill. A senior security official in Israel told Haaretz that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime is still cautious about resorting to chemical weapons although it is using every other means at its disposal “from fuel-air bombs to Scud missiles,” which have been fired at areas under rebel control. “From Assad’s point of view, this is a war of life and death,” the senior official said.
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Washington has reiterated that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would constitute an unequivocal red line, which if crossed is liable to spur American involvement in the crisis.
“We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in his address last month at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, two days after the use of chemical weapons was first reported. “The world is watching, and we will hold you accountable.”
On March 19 accusations were exchanged between the Assad regime and the rebels regarding the use of chemical weapons in two areas in Syria – near Halab and in the area of Damascus. At the end of March there were reports that western intelligence agencies believed that it was actually the rebels who had used chemical weapons, having succeeded, by an undetermined method, to fire chlorine gas at a Syrian army checkpoint at Khan al-Assal, a village near Halab. According to these reports, 26 people were killed in that attack and dozens were injured.
In the attack near Damascus, the rebels reported that an unknown number of people were suffering breathing problems as a result of the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday in The Hague that the United Nations is preparing to send a chemical weapons investigation team within 24 hours to check the allegations of chemical weapons strikes. According to Ban, an advance team is waiting in Cyprus while the UN negotiates with Assad’s regime over the delegation’s mandate. Ban said that all reports of the use of chemical weapons “should be examined without delay, without conditions and without exceptions.”
The Guardian reported this week that Israel is concerned about changes in Syria’s military deployment along the border in the Golan Heights and that the Syrian army had to move many units to the Damascus area to deal with the rebels there. This, the paper said, has allowed factions identified with Al-Qaida to move toward the border with Israel.
Security sources in Israel say that fighting rebels in the Golan has weakened the Syrian army but that the reduction in forces along the Israel-Syrian border is not a very recent development. Israel does not regard incidents of firing from Syrian positions at the Israeli side of the border as orders from above. Rather, the Syrian soldiers are apparently firing at rebels near the border and are hitting Israeli territory by mistake.
The IDF has had no direct friction with rebels along the border. In fact, several rebels injured along the border have been evacuated for medical treatment in Israel and last month a field hospital was set up near an IDF outpost on the border to treat the injured. However, Israel is trying to keep a low profile in order to avoid encouraging the arrival of waves of injured refugees.
There is concern that the weakening of the Syrian military will leave a power vacuum in the Syrian Golan that may be filled by extremist groups eager to launch future attacks against Israel.
Gaza cease-fire crumbling
Meanwhile, on the Gaza border, the ceasefire attained after Operation Pillar of Defense at the end of November is eroding. The rocket fire on the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council Sunday night was the third such incident in a week. It is no longer possible to talk about complete quiet on the Gaza border, as was the case until the end of February.
Unlike previous times, the security establishment is conveying the sense that it believes the Hamas leadership’s claims that it is trying to rein in the shooting and that the organization does not want another round of military conflict with Israel. Egypt, with which security coordination has grown closer recently, is also working to restrain the fire. Responsibility for all the recent incidents has been claimed by groups described as “rogue factions” − small organizations made up of former Hamas members, some of whom identify with Al-Qaida’s ideology.
Last week Hamas security forces arrested some of the members of the extremist groups to prevent additional rocket fire on Israel. Israel is still trying to discover why Hamas cannot enforce its authority as it did for the first three months after Operation Pillar of Defense. One possible explanation is that these small factions had granted Hamas a “period of grace” to show the public the benefits of the ceasefire. But Hamas is now having difficulty doing that. On the contrary, its achievements are slipping away (fishing space is being curtailed; border crossings are being closed). Thus, the small factions feel they have the legitimacy to operate.
Of course, Israel imposed the restrictions in response to previous incidents of rocket fire. So there is a chicken and egg dynamic at play. On the other hand, Israel doesn’t want to go too far. The Netanyahu government clearly wants to avoid a military operation in the Gaza Strip now. Last week the Israel Air Force struck two Hamas tunnels in the Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire. On Monday Israel made do with temporarily closing the crossings, without air strikes.