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Report: Israel Struck Syrian Targets to Stop Assad From Rebuilding Chemical Weapons Program

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avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

A column of smoke arising from a reported Israeli strike on a military target near Damascus, Syria, May 10, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Omar Sanadiki.

Israel is deeply concerned that the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is attempting to reconstitute its chemical weapons capabilities, and has undertaken two major air strikes since 2020 in order to prevent the regime from doing so, the Washington Post reported Monday.

Citing four unnamed Western intelligence sources, the outlet said the first attack took place on March 5, 2020 on a “villa and compound” in the city of Homs, north of Damascus, which had been a center of the regime’s previous chemical weapons program.

The strike was prompted by intelligence that Syria had acquired a large amount of tricalcium phosphate (TCP), which can be converted into phosphorous trichloride, a component of the deadly nerve gas sarin and similar chemical weapons.

The TCP, said the Post’s sources, was controlled by a Syrian military unit called Branch 450, a division of the regime’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) that ran Syria’s chemical weapons program for decades. In 2014, Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal was supposedly dismantled per an agreement with the US and Russia after Assad employed poison gas against rebel groups, but the SSRC appears to have resumed its activities.

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The intelligence sources stated that Israel developed further intelligence after the strike, prompting it to launch another operation on June 8, 2021. This attack targeted a desert village called Nasiriyah, also north of Damascus, as well as sites near Homs. One of the Homs sites was said to be an “auxiliary facility” controlled by an SSRC laboratory.

Israel reportedly saw the strikes as preemptive, intended to prevent the materials at the sites from being weaponized. Once weaponized, the caches become difficult to destroy due to the strong likelihood of substantial collateral damage.

The US was unaware of plans for the strikes, but was informed immediately afterwards and given access to the intelligence that prompted the operations.

Intelligence officials in the US already believed it likely that Assad was reconstituting his chemical weapons program, and State Department officials had made the accusation public in 2019.

The IDF has been involved in a years-long air campaign against the entrenchment of Iranian and Iran-allied assets in Syria, with Tehran having spread tentacles throughout the country via its support for Assad’s embattled regime. But the two strikes described Monday were different in that they directly targeted Syrian military targets, something Israel has usually refrained from doing.

Israeli officials made no comment on the strikes. The Assad regime has a policy of denial that it has any chemical weapons capability.

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