U.S. and Israeli intelligence at odds over Syria’s control of its WMD

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WASHINGTON — The United States has issued a harsh warning to Israel
not to intervene in either Lebanon or Syria.

Officials said the administration of President Barack Obama sent several
messages to the Israeli leadership that called for military restraint. The
messages were sent amid Israeli warnings that it would stop the
transfer of weapons of mass destruction from Syria to Hizbullah in
neighboring Lebanon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement at his office in Jerusalem on July 19. /Reuters/Ammar Awad

“Such statements are highly damaging in this critical period, and we
asked the Israelis not to take any unilateral action,” an official said.

On July 23, Syria said it could fire chemical weapons should the country be invaded. But the Foreign Ministry said Syria would not use its massive WMD stockpile against Sunni rebels. Hours later, the rebel Free Syrian Army said WMD had been transferred to Damascus International Airport.

“Any chemical or bacterial weapons will never be used during the crisis in Syria, regardless of developments,” Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said. “These weapons are stored and secured by Syrian military forces and under its direct supervision, and will never be used unless Syria faces external aggression.”

Officials acknowledged differences between the Israeli and U.S.
intelligence communities regarding the situation in Syria. They said
Jerusalem regarded the Assad regime as losing control over most of the
country, including bases that contain WMD. In contrast, Washington assessed
that Assad was maintaining his missile and WMD arsenal.

“We believe Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile remains under Syrian
government control,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said. “Given the
escalation of violence in Syria and the regime’s increasing attacks on their
people, we remain very concerned about these weapons.”

Officials said the administration has warned that Israeli military
intervention in either Lebanon or Syria would play into Assad’s hands. They
said Iran would immediately order a massive counter-attack by its proxy
Hizbullah as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, which could
then suspend the Sunni revolt in Syria.

“With Assad out of the way, it will be much easier to track WMD, whether
in Syria or Lebanon,” the official said.

As a result, senior U.S. officials have been traveling to Israel to
discuss how to confront Assad’s WMD arsenal. Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton and National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon arrived in Israel in
mid-July, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was expected to meet the
Israelis over the next few days.

“We had a full discussion of all of the issues with regard to Syria,
including our shared concern about the chemical weapons stockpiles in
Syria,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

Officials said the administration has sought to reassure Israel that
Assad would fall within weeks and that Sunni rebels would act responsibly.
They said Washington was working with such NATO allies as Britain and France
to stop Iranian weapons and fuel ships to Syria while pressuring Russia to
suspend arms deliveries.

On July 23, the U.S. daily Wall Street Journal reported that the
administration was urging Egypt to block Iranian fuel tankers or weapons
ships from entering the Suez Canal. One Iranian ship that has sought to
enter the canal was identified as Amin, owned by a subsidiary of the
state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines.

Officials acknowledged that Israel wasn’t the only neighbor concerned
over Assad’s WMD arsenal. They said the U.S. intelligence community has been
briefing its counterparts in Jordan and Turkey over the state of Syria’s
chemical weapons arsenal. Syria operates a chemical weapons facility near
the Turkish border.

For its part, Israel has pledged not to allow CW to be transferred from
Syria to Hizbullah in Lebanon. But Israeli leaders have been vague over what
kind of response could be expected.

“We certainly don’t want to be exposed to chemical weapons falling into
the hands of Hizbullah or some other terror groups,” Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu told the U.S. television network Fox News on July 22. “It’s a
great threat. We will have to consider our action. Do I seek action? No. Do
I preclude it? No.”

Israeli defense analyst Alex Fishman, regarded as close to the
intelligence community, reported a gap between Israeli and U.S. assessments
regarding Syria. Fishman said Israel regarded the fall of Assad as far more
serious than Washington.

“As far as the Americans are concerned, the day after Assad is liable to
bring with it unpleasantness and strategic difficulties,” Fishman said. :As
far as Israel is concerned, the day after Assad is a critical matter.”

Fishman, in an analysis in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot on July 23,
said the Israeli assessment was that Assad’s fall would encircle Israel with
radical Muslims. He cited the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip, the Muslim
Brotherhood government in Egypt, Hizbullah in Lebanon and the prospect of a
Brotherhood takeover in Syria.

“That is the nightmare liable to materialize,” Fishman said.

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