Saturday, January 20, 2018

Israelis fear breach of Syria's chemical arsenal

JERUSALEM — Israelis rushed to get government-issue gas masks Wednesday, the latest sign of mounting fears that Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles could be used against them as the crisis there deepens.

Until a few days ago, the possibility of getting dragged into Syria's civil war was not a major issue in Israel, where leaders have had a laser-like focus on the potential threat posed by Iran's suspected nuclear program. That changed when Syrian President Bashar Assad's grip on his country turned more doubtful last week, after startling military gains by rebels and a bomb attack that killed four top officials.

Syria threatened Monday to unleash chemical and biological weapons if the country faces a foreign attack; Syria is thought to have nerve agents as well as mustard gas.

Israeli officials are more worried about the possibility that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic militants from Lebanon's Hezbollah or other groups should the regime fall.

"For us, that's a casus belli, or red line," Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Wednesday. He told Israel Radio that the government would act immediately to prevent that from happening as tensions rise along Israel's northern border.

The fighting also has hit too close for comfort with the thud of exploding mortar shells on Syrian territory near the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967.

Some Israeli officials fear that a power vacuum in Damascus could turn the Golan into a haven for militant groups, much as Egypt's lawless Sinai Peninsula has attracted a variety of anti-Israel radicals since the fall of longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.

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