JERUSALEM — Top Israeli officials said Tuesday that Syria’s chemical weapons remain under the control of the government of President Bashar al-Assad, a shift in emphasis from recent warnings.
The remarks — made separately by a top Defense Ministry official and the Israeli army chief — appeared intended to calm jitters set off in the past week when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggested that Israel would take action, if deemed necessary, to prevent Syrian chemical weapons from falling into the hands of the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah.
Israeli concerns about a possible outflow of Syrian weapons to militants were raised publicly last week by Barak during a visit to an army post in the Israeli-held Golan Heights, near the border with Syria. He said Israel would be watching closely to see whether, if Assad falls, Hezbollah would try to move advanced weapons systems, missiles or chemical weapons to Lebanon.
For now, that is not happening, according to the statements made Tuesday.
“The Syrian regime is fighting for its very existence, but it is important to emphasize that this chemical weapons system is under the complete control of the regime,” Amos Gilad, director of political-military affairs at the Defense Ministry, told Israel Radio.
As for Hezbollah, “the information picture we have indicates that it does not have chemical weapons originating in Syria,” Gilad said.
A similar assessment was offered by the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, in remarks leaked to Israeli news outlets from a meeting of the parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee.
Gantz was quoted as saying that the Syrian government had moved to secure its stock of chemical weapons and that a military strike to stop a possible transfer of such weapons to militants could embroil Israel in “a broader campaign than planned.”
On Monday, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said that Syria’s chemical weapons were secure and under the “direct supervision” of the army. He said the weapons would never be used against Syrian citizens, but only in case of “external aggression,” a reference to an attack by Western nations.
Israeli officials have focused on Syria’s chemical weapons as their chief security concern in the event of Assad’s ouster.
In an interview this week on “Fox News Sunday,” Netanyahu said that Hezbollah’s possession of chemical weapons would be “unacceptable” and that “this is something we’ll have to act to stop if the need arises. And that need might arise if there’s a regime collapse, not a regime change.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, meeting with European Union officials in Brussels, said Tuesday that a transfer of such weapons “is a red line for us, and from our point of view it’s a clear casus belli,” or cause for war.