The Central Intelligence Agency expects Israel will attack and destroy a secret nerve-gas weapons plant in Syria within the next year.

Sources inside the CIA with access to the latest intelligence from Israel and Syria say the attack is "extremely likely." Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin is obsessed with the plant and is pushing the operation. The plant will probably be blown up by bombers -- or by Israeli agents on the ground.

The Syrians located the plant in the desert north of Damascus, believing it would be too far into their territory for the Israelis to risk an air strike like their successful 1981 attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad (which we also forecast).

But the Syrians did not take into account that they are dealing with the children of Jews who were murdered by gas. "Never again" is more than just a cliche.

Intelligence officials have known for some time that the Syrians have chemical weapons. But the new and alarming secret is that they have made a special warhead to carry the gases atop Russian-made Scud B and SS21 missiles.

Syria has 36 SS21s, whose 75-mile range allows them to hit some civilian and military targets in Israel from bases in Syria. The Scud Bs have a range of 170 miles. In the elbow-to-elbow Middle East, that puts most of Israel within Syrian sights.

We have seen a highly sensitive, secret CIA report on chemical-weapons proliferation that says that the Syrians have "the most advanced chemical warfare capability in the Arab world."

The chemicals, delivery systems and training came from the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, according to the CIA. In recent years, the Soviets have cut off some of that support, forcing the Syrians to produce their own chemical agents.

The buildup of Arab chemical weaponry has not escaped the notice of the Israelis, who may be building up a stockpile of their own. The CIA says it cannot be sure, but there are several clues that the Israelis have access to nerve agents and mustard agents, and the weaponry to deliver those chemicals.

"The existence of chemical test grids {in Israel} has been known since the early 1970s, and possible tests were detected in January 1976," according to the secret CIA report. "In late 1982, a probable {chemical weapons} nerve agent production facility and a storage facility were identified at the Dimona Sensitive Storage Area in the Negev Desert."

The Israelis' move to develop chemical weaponry was a defensive one. It came after they discovered large quantities of Soviet chemical-weapons-related equipment among captured Egyptian materiel in the 1967 and 1973 wars with the Arab world.

Our CIA sources say Rabin has been considering putting chemicals into warheads now that he knows the Syrians have the power to do the same. Military analysts widely believe it was fear that kept the Arabs from using their chemical weapons in the 1967 and 1973 wars -- fear that the Israelis could retaliate with their own chemical weapons.

But fear may not be enough of a deterrent to satisfy Rabin. He is fixated on the Syrian plant, our sources say, and is unlikely to settle for anything less than an all-out attack on it, even if it means sending his planes through Syrian air defense systems all along the route.