A rare Israeli airstrike deep into Syrian territory in June was targeting chemical weapons, the Washington Post reported on Monday, citing Western intelligence officials briefed on the matter.
The warplanes fired missiles at three military targets near the cities of Damascus and Homs, killing eight soldiers, on June 8.
The Washington Post reported that according to current and former intelligence and security officials, the strike was a bid to halt what Israel believes was an attempt by Syria to relaunch its chemical weapons program that it had surrendered eight years earlier.
Israel declined to comment on the attack and the reasons behind it, but analysts at the time observed that the military action went deeper into Syria than usual and did not target an Iranian presence in the country.
Instead, the strike was aimed at military facilities connected to Syria's chemical weapons program, abandoned in 2013. The report details that Israeli officials ordered two strikes, one in June and one around a year earlier, based on intelligence suggesting that Syria was obtaining supplies to rebuild the program.
Israel considers the prospect of a Syrian chemical weapons arsenal a great threat to its security and the stability of the region.
The first of the two strikes targeted a compound southeast of the city of Holms, on March 5, 2020, according to the report. Israeli intelligence carried out the strike after the Syrian military imported a chemical that can be used to make sarin gas, which Syrian President Bashar Assad reportedly used in a deadly strike which killed over 100 civilians in 2017.
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Following the March strike, Israeli intelligence agencies discovered activity at additional sites, prompting them to carry out an additional strike in June, the officials said in the report. Israel intended these strikes to destroy the country's chemical capabilities before weapons could be developed.
U.S. officials in both the Trump and Biden administrations were aware of the attacks and of Israeli intelligence, the officials told the Washington Post.
Though these strikes were unusual, Israel has staged hundreds of strikes on targets inside government-controlled Syria over the years but rarely acknowledges or discusses such operations. Israel has acknowledged, however, that it targets the bases of Iran-allied militias, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah group that has fighters deployed in Syria. It says it attacks arms shipments believed to be bound for the militias.
In June, the head of the international chemical weapons watchdog told the UN Security Council that its experts have investigated 77 allegations against Syria, and concluded that in 17 cases chemical weapons were likely or definitely used.
The director called it “a disturbing reality” that eight years after Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the production or use of such weapons, many questions remain about its initial declaration of its weapons, stockpiles and precursors and its ongoing program. He also said “the presence of a new chemical weapons agent [was] found in samples collected in large storage containers in September 2020.”