“The State of Israel is ready for any scenario,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in a brief statement after meeting with security officials in Jerusalem. “We are not part of the civil war in Syria, but if we identify any attempt whatsoever to harm us, we will respond and we will respond in strength.”
On Monday, a senior official in President Bashar Assad’s Ba’ath Party, Khalaf Muftah, said in a radio interview that Israel “will come under fire” if the U.S. and its allies launch military strikes against Syria in response to last Wednesday’s deadly chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus.
“We have strategic weapons and we’re capable of responding,” he said, adding that those weapons are “normally” aimed at Israel.
Israeli daily Israel Hayom quoted Muftah as saying further, “It’s possible to say unambiguously that a process of war against Syria could lead to an all-out world war. The responsibility for that will rest on the U.S. and the Zionist entity’s shoulders.”
In Tehran, Iran’s parliamentary director-general for international affairs, Hossein Sheikholeslam said he doubted a strike would take place, but if it did “the first victim … would be the Zionist regime.”
Syria was able to launch a “major offensive” against Israel and “flatten the place that is tied to the U.S.’s national security,” state-funded Press TV quoted Sheikholeslam as saying.
Meanwhile the Beirut Daily Star quoted a “senior source close to” the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist group Hezbollah as saying that in the event of major Western strike against Syria “Hezbollah will fight on various fronts,” and predicting an immediate “inferno of a war with Israel.”
The paper also quoted a pro-Hezbollah cleric, Afif Nabulsi, as saying that “any [U.S.] strike against Syria will be met by harsh responses against U.S. interests in the region and against Israel directly.” Nabulsi has close ties to the Iranian and Syrian regimes.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour suggested the threat came from the Israeli side, saying in a radio interview that Lebanon would hit back if Israel “exploits a strike against Syria to attack Hezbollah.”
Mansour is a member of the Amal Movement, a Shi’ite party allied to Hezbollah.
NBC News Tuesday cited senior U.S. officials as saying missile strikes in response to the chemical attack could begin as soon as Thursday, although State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that President Obama had not yet made a decision.
“I would underscore that, I would bold it and underline it and highlight it for all of you today: He has not made a decision yet,” she told a briefing at the State Department.
Harf also stressed that any action taken would be in response to the chemical weapons use, and not be designed to topple Assad. “We are not contemplating any action aimed at regime change.”
Syria and its Shi’ite allies Hezbollah and Iran – including its “moderate” new president, Hasan Rouhani – have long charged that “the Zionists” are in cahoots with rebels trying to overthrow Assad – even though many of those rebels are radical Sunni jihadists who loathe Israel.
As the U.S. and European allies mull a response to the chemical attack, which they say was carried out by the regime, the anti-Israel rhetoric has picked up.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem told a press conference in Damascus on Tuesday that any military strike by the U.S. and its allies would be firstly in the interests of Israel, and secondly in the service of the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate among the anti-Assad rebels.
Muallem said Syria had capabilities that would "surprise" the world, and warned that any military action against it would serve the interests of Israel and al-Qaida
Muallem warned that Syria had capabilities that would “surprise” the world.
He said the Syrian government has doubted from the outset the U.S. intentions with regard to convening an international conference on ending the conflict.
“We told our Russian friends, we trust you but we do not trust the U.S.A. because it does not want a political solution and the reason is clear which is that Israel does not want this solution, but rather it wants the continuation of violence and terrorism.”
Muallem also used the opportunity to deny again that the regime was behind the chemical attack, stating that “no country in the world would use chemical weapons against its own people.”
Decades of enmity
Israel and Syria have effectively been at war since Israel attained statehood 65 years ago, fighting full-blown wars in 1948, 1967 – when Israel captured the Golan Heights – and 1973 as well as a proxy conflict in Lebanon during the civil war there and in the years since.
The Assad regime, both under Bashar and his father Hafez, sponsored Palestinian and Hezbollah terrorism against Israel.
Israel did not initially intervene in the Syrian civil war that erupted in March 2011, but after a mortar shell fired from Syria landed near an Israeli army post on the Golan Heights last November Israel fired warning shots in reply, reportedly the first time that had happened since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
This year Israel launched limited airstrikes on targets inside Syria on several occasions, reportedly aimed at Hezbollah-bound weapons shipments. Although Assad threatened to retaliate each time, he did not do so.
Israel has faced the threat of missiles from Hezbollah for many years, and during a war in the summer of 2006 the Lebanese group fired thousands of rockets deep into Israeli territory.
Still, a missile attack from Syria would be the first time Israel is attacked by a sovereign state in that manner since the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein fired 39 Scud missiles at Israeli population centers even though Israel was not a party to the conflict. Saddam had threatened to use chemical weapons against Israel, but in the event the warheads were conventional.
At the behest of Washington, Israel on that occasion did not retaliate. The George H.W. Bush administration had painstakingly built a coalition of Arab and European states in response to Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait and was concerned that any Israeli action would fracture it.
Ironically, the country the U.S. was arguably most concerned about keeping in the anti-Saddam coalition in 1991, was Syria.