JERUSALEM – With strong evidence that Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have used chemical weapons against civilians, Israeli and Western military commanders are contemplating a series of air strikes and commando operations against a select group of targets inside Syria.
Speculation about coordinated attacks came as the Israeli newspaper Maariv, citing Syrian rebels, reported that the Israel Air Force bombed a Syrian chemical weapons site near Damascus on Saturday.
According to Maariv, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel group posted a video of smoke rising from the chemical weapons site it claims Israeli jets struck. FSA said the jets flew over Assad’s home before the strike, and a Syrian air defense battery went on to fire at the jets.
As of Tuesday afternoon, neither Israeli nor Syrian officials had confirmed the reported strike. But the IDF launched a surprise call-up of an entire division of 2,000 reserve soldiers for a weeklong exercise in the north – the first such maneuver in many years. “This is a special drill, the first of its kind, which simulates a broad-based call-up” to test the system’s capability and preparedness, a senior IDF source said.
The drill is a dry run, and the mission of reserve officers is to come up with new combat procedures and update plans within 48 hours and prove their flexibility to respond to sudden changes in enemy threats.
The exercise coincides with reports that President Obama already has given the go-ahead to U.S. armed forces to prepare for a military strike on Syrian forces once there is binding proof the regime has used chemical weapons.
“We know chemical weapons are being used in Syria,” the president said at a press conference Tuesday, but added there still was no evidence as to which side is using them. Earlier this week the Sunday Times of London reported that Britain’s defense staff chief, General Sir David Richards, advised Prime Minister David Cameron to prepare the country for a possible war with pro-Assad forces and their Iranian allies. The goal would be to combat the use of chemical weapons against civilians and rebel soldiers.
In addition, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Cameron during his recent visit to London that Israel was also prepared to use military force against Syrian forces should they attempt to transfer chemical weapons and advanced missiles to Revolutionary Guard forces and their Lebanese Hizbullah proxies. Both are fighting to preserve the Assad regime.
According to Israeli military correspondents, the UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), or drone, which was intercepted by the Israel Air Force just a few miles off the coast of Haifa and near an Israeli ocean liner last Thursday, was an attempt by Revolutionary Guard forces to test Israel’s aerial and sea responses against UAVs and missiles that could be launched against at least two gas installations off Haifa’s coast.
Over the past month the Tamar gas field, operated by the American-Israeli oil and gas consortium Noble Energy/Delek, began delivering natural gas to Israeli companies. The larger Leviathan field, expected to be operative within two years, is being developed for the export market, with both European and Asian nations already negotiating possible deals with the consortium.
The threat to Israel’s seafaring commercial interest has prompted the Israeli Navy to request a larger budget to purchase several swift missile patrol boats. The boats are intended to properly defend the platforms against Hizbullah and the Revolutionary Guards’ UAVs and missiles.
Several Israeli newspapers have also reported that Syria has made several attempts to transfer Chinese- and Russian-made land-to-sea missiles that could destroy the platforms and Israeli naval vessels used to protect them. It is believed the IAF strike a few months ago against a Syrian arms convoy on its way to Lebanon contained such advanced missiles.
While Obama has hesitated in openly calling for military action against Syria, the White House has come under increasing criticism from senior Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill. On ABC’s “This Week” last Sunday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) said, “The president has laid down the line, and it can’t be a dotted line. It can’t be anything other than a red line. And more than just Syria, Iran is paying attention to this. North Korea is paying attention to this.”
Several leading Iranian officials told Arab TV networks that the U.S., Israel and NATO were conspiring to overthrow the Syrian regime ahead of Iran’s hotly contested presidential elections in June. While no official response was forthcoming from any major Israeli or Western leader to Iran’s accusation, there was growing sentiment in American and British media outlets that a strong response by the Western allies against pro-Assad combatants would effectively put Iran’s religious and political leaders on notice that the West would act to prevent the spread of chemical and nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, Israel has reportedly stepped up reconnaissance flights over Lebanon (near the Syrian border) in an effort to track pro-Assad Hizbullah units and radical anti-Assad al Qaeda groups. It is believed that they are seeking to overrun Assad’s chemical weapons bases across Syria.
– Additional reporting by Tzvi Ben-GedalyahuSteve K. Walz
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