As has reported repeatedly during the Syrian Civil War, the Israeli Air Force has conducted hundreds of airstrikes in Syria, mainly targeting Iranian troops, as well as their proxy militias, weapons depots, warehouses, and missile construction sites. 

But a recent report by the Washington Post (WP) uncovered that Israeli airstrikes in 2020 and earlier in 2021 have targeted Syrian chemical weapons facilities. This is after Israeli intelligence uncovered evidence that embattled President Bashar al-Assad had been restarting his illegal chemical weapons capabilities after Syria had assured the world it had been destroyed. 

Assad assured then-President Obama that Syria would destroy his chemical weapons capability and stockpiles while shipping the manufacturing facilities out of the country. But those assurances were empty as Assad carried out about 200 chemical weapons attacks on his own people who were rebelling against his regime. 

One attack alone left 1,400 dead in a Damascus suburb. Assad’s forces have used deadly Sarin nerve gas and chlorine barrel bombs. The United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded that Syrian government forces used the nerve agent sarin and chlorine barrel bombs in attacks between 2015 and 2018 that investigators said killed or injured thousands of their own civilian population, something the Syrian regime has repeatedly denied. 

The remnant of a chemical weapon in Syria that government troops loyal to the Assad regime dropped on Syrian civilians living in a rebel-held area. Photo by Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

After a chemical attack in 2017, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the regime of Bashar al-Assad is responsible for “atrocities” that rise to the “level of war crimes,… crimes against humanity.” He said that the United States agrees with the OPCW’s findings.

“The United States shares the OPCW’s conclusions and assesses that the Syrian regime retains sufficient chemicals — specifically sarin and chlorine — and expertise from its traditional chemical weapons (CW) program to use sarin, to produce and deploy chlorine munitions, and to develop new CW,” Pompeo said.

But the Israeli’s motivation for attacking the facilities was pragmatic. They know that the purpose of Syria’s chemical weapons program isn’t the rebels located inside Syria, but ultimately the people of Israel. It is not much of a stretch for Israel to reason that if Assad would use such weapons against his own people he would not hesitate to use them against Israeli civilians as well.

In the report by the WP, the Israelis struck a large villa outside of Homs in March 2020, which was the center of Syria’s chemical weapons program. According to the WP report, Israeli intelligence uncovered evidence that  the Syrians were trying to “import a key chemical that can be used to make deadly sarin nerve agent.”

The facility outside Homs was being used to make tricalcium phosphate (TCP) for Syria’s top military laboratory, known as the Scientific Studies and Research Center, which oversees the production of the regime’s chemical weapons, according to intelligence officials. TCP can easily be converted into phosphorus trichloride, a precursor for sarin and other nerve agents.

File photo of an Israeli airstrike in Damascus, Syria. Photo by Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

In the attack earlier in June this year, Israeli aircraft conducted airstrikes at three targets near the towns of Nasiriyah and Masyaf, killing seven Syrian soldiers and an engineer who allegedly worked at a military lab.

The airstrikes caught the attention of Western intelligence officials as the Israelis normally target the Iranian presence or their proxy militias in Syria. They were unaware of the Syrians resuming their chemical weapons production. 

Syria is lacking in the technical expertise possessed by the United States in producing chemical weapons of sufficient purity to remain stable in long-term storage.  It has what is known as a Binary System where they produce batches of chemical weapons that quickly degrade in potency in storage and have to be replaced with some frequency to maintain a stockpile.  This was also the system Iraq used.

Israeli intelligence officials have voiced concerns about chemical weapons falling into the hands of Islamic jihadist groups.  

Of course, the underlying message is to Iran, which has sought to create an entrenched military presence in Syria, and along the Israeli border. Israel is prepared and has the intelligence to identify and neutralize any dangerous threats on its borders. It is a message they’ve sent hundreds of times already. Still, when dealing with weapons of mass destruction, which chemical weapons are, and the continued Iranian research to produce a nuclear weapon, it shows that they are also ready to react. 

As it has been their policy on the majority of airstrikes in Syria, the Israelis have not commented on the June airstrikes or the one in 2020.