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Analysis: Israel wants the world to act following Syria’s chemical attack

In light of the recent chemical attack in Idlib, James J. Marlow examines Israel’s options and most likely courses of action. According to Marlow, Israeli politicians can really only continue to condemn the atrocities in Syria as an Israeli military operation is not a realistic option. However, he notes that Israeli aircraft will most likely continue to target convoys of advanced weapons in Syria that are intended for terrorist groups.
A young victim of the chemical attack Photo Credit: Twitter/Channel 2 News

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior level security figures have demanded that the international community take immediate action on Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons.

In September 2013, under the Barack Obama administration, Syria officially relinquished its chemical arsenal and signed the Chemical Weapons Convention later that year to avert military action after it was accused of an attack outside Damascus that killed hundreds.

The UN at the time debated chemical attacks on civilians in Syria when President Bashar al-Assad lied to the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), saying he never possessed these weapons.

But although the organization and UN teams arrived in Syria to destroy some of the chemical factories, they admitted there were large amounts of land they could not gain entry to because of the civil war. The OPCW promised to deal with the problem but never returned to remove these weapons of mass destruction. Israel was unable to locate all of the chemical plants and therefore waited for international action which never came.

This week’s chemical attack by the Syrian Air Force against Syrian civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib province has killed around 100 people. According to Majd Khalaf, a volunteer with the Syrian White Helmets, over 50 of the dead were women and children, with hundreds of others severely injured. Khalaf was one of many eye witnesses confirming the attack came from airstrikes targeting civilian homes. 

Upon arriving at the site of the attack, Khalaf said that “several members of the Syrian Civil Defence teams suffered from severe respiratory disorders” and added that some team members were in critical condition. But the Syrian Civil Defence teams in Khan Sheikhoun in along with first aid assistance provided medical help and were seen washing down bodies with water and removing contaminated clothes.

Medic Hazem Shehwan told AFP that he saw victims with “pinpoint pupils, convulsions, foaming at the mouth and rapid pulses.” The medics worked frantically in the hours after the attack to treat a steady stream of patients, administering oxygen and hosing down victims to wash off chemical residue. Even as they worked, air strikes hit a medical facility treating victims, an AFP correspondent said, bringing rubble down on top of medics and patients.

This is just the type of attack that could be devastating for Israel and Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett reacted by calling for an emergency security cabinet meeting to “discuss all the options.”

The United States, Britain and France have all blamed Assad for the attack but the dictator denied the accusation, insisting the army does not possess chemical weapons. A Syrian military source said last week that allegations that government forces were using chemical weapons were “devoid of truth.”

But Russia defended its ally Damascus on Wednesday in the face of an international outcry, saying a Syrian air strike hit a “terrorist warehouse” containing “toxic substances.” The claim by the Kremlin came as UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson blamed Assad for deliberately carrying out the bombing calling the regime “barbaric.”

One thing is probably clear and that is Israel military intervention is off the table at this stage unless of course Israeli civilians are targeted or Israeli territory is breached. But Israel has no interest in getting sucked into a Syrian quicksand across the border with no apparent solution for a settlement to its 6-year civilian war.

Idlib Photo Credit: Reuters/Channel 2 News

Of course, Israeli warplanes will continue to hit advanced weaponry transfers to terrorist groups in Syria as they have done for the last few years. But Israeli politicians declaring their disgust at chemical weapons being used and calling for the atrocities to stop is about the only thing they can do and they should continue to be more vocal. Perhaps this will exert more pressure on the US and Russia to remove Assad’s remaining chemical weapons stocks.

This is not the first reported use of chemical weapons this year. Despite Assad agreeing to give up his chemical weapons in 2013, his regime has been accused of at least eight gas attacks in the first quarter of 2017 alone. But most of the reported chemical attacks in Syria since 2013 were said to have been carried out with mustard or chlorine gas. This week’s attack was reportedly conducted with sarin gas, an organophosphate, which interrupts the communication between nerves, preventing regular body functions like breathing.

Ron Prosor, who is the former Israel Ambassador to the UN, told Israel radio, “It is obvious Israel cannot be seen publicly at the front of this fight but Israel is very creative and can do stuff under the radar.” Although he declined to say what that meant, Prosor insisted: “Because words are not enough, we have to go out to help people, women, children and civilians from these types of chemical attacks.”    

The Jewish state has already provided medical care for some 4,000 Syrians and could expand those efforts or maybe begin to take in some refugees.

But a civil war in its seventh year has torn Syria apart with more than half a million dead and most of the population displaced. The international community has mostly watched from the sidelines with little appetite for an expanded military engagement and sadly things are unlikely to change.

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