War In Syria

Why Israel Is Concerned About Chemical Weapons, But Will Stay Out of Syria

08.28.13 7:15 PM ET

The Israeli defense establishment is deeply concerned and appalled by the chemical massacre that occurred in next door in Syria, and views it as dangerous, destabilizing precedent, in which an Iranian ally deployed a weapon of mass destruction on a large scale.

The concern in Israel is that a failure by the international community to respond assertively to last week's chemical attacks on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus would essentially be interpreted by the Iran-led axis as a green light to continue to cross every boundary in its regional war, and that the flames of the ever-growing Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian conflict will be fanned to dangerous heights by the use of unconventional arms, placing regional security at a real risk.

According to this view, is impossible to disconnect the events unfolding in Syria from Iran's nuclear program, which is making progress, as well as the Iranian armament drive to supply Hezbollah (and other terrorist entities in the region) with tens of thousands of rockets, missiles, and other sophisticated weapons.

The Syrian army is working closely with military experts from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, while thousands of Hezbollah fighters are in Syria, helping to keep Sunni rebels at bay.

Similarly, the rise of radical Sunni jihadi organizations in Syria, and their spread out from the conflict's epicenter in the battlegrounds of Syria to neighboring areas, such as Lebanon, can only serve to destabilize the situation further.

The potential of Al-Qaeda-affiliated elements getting hold of chemical weapons as a ricochet of the Syrian conflict continues to form a top national security concern in the Israeli defense community.  

At the same time, senior military officials have repeatedly expressed their desire for Israel to remain outside of the war and to step aside to allow the international community, under the leadership of Washington, to offer a response.

This stance would only change in the event of a Syrian attack on Israel, as retribution for a US strike on the Assad regime.

Syrian and Iranian officials have intensified their threats in recent days to attack Israel as retribution for an American strike, and alluded to ballistic missile strikes on Israeli cities after Washington moves forward with punitive military action. The rhetoric has included threats to set a fire that will "engulf the region," with Israel mentioned specifically as a "first victim" of reprisals to U.S. action.

The IDF's evaluation is that such threats are largely empty. This assessment is based on the fact that Israel's devastating firepower, if introduced into the Syrian arena, would pose an existential threat to the embattled Allawite regime, and that the last thing Assad would want now is to bring forward his demise by attacking Israel.

Despite this evaluation, and due to the increasingly erratic conduct of the Syrian regime, as well as the litany of threats being issued by officials in Damascus and Tehran, the IDF has begun taking precautionary steps for the event that Israeli deterrence fails to dissuade the regime from targeting Israel.

These measures have included the deployment of air defenses around the country, with a focus on northern and central Israel. Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries have been deployed in the northern regions of Safed, Amakim, and Haifa.

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The greater Tel Aviv area, home to three million Israelis and the country's economic hub, is being protected by Patriot and Arrow 2 anti-ballistic missile systems.

Additionally, the Israeli cabinet has approved the call up of a few hundred reserves. Some are headed to the air force to man the air defense batteries, some to Military Intelligence to increase Israeli surveillance of Syria, and some to the Home Front Command, which is tasked with containing any attack on civilian targets.

Sections of the Israeli public have in recent days begun exhibiting high concern over developments in Syria, and lines to gas mask distribution centers have become long. The Home Front Command's hotlines have been flooded with tens of thousands of worried callers, causing the phone lines to crash.

The IDF's view is that such public anxiety is unwelcome and unwarranted. It is attempting to calm the public down by telling it that the chances of a regional escalation erupting due to the US strike remain decidedly low.

Millions of Israelis will be hoping in the coming days that the army's assessment is correct.