Raises spectre of weapons falling into wrong hands

Syria remains on edge as the rumblings of a possible Israeli involvement in the crisis grow louder and dangers of alleged stockpiles of Syrian chemical weapons falling into wrong hands begin to grab headlines.

Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak said over the weekend that he had “ordered the Israeli military to prepare for a situation where we would have to weigh the possibility of carrying out an attack” against Syrian weapons arsenals. On Sunday he asserted that Israel would not allow chemical weapons to fall into the hands of groups such as the Lebanese Hizbollah. “Israel will not be able to accept the transfer of smart weapons” to the Iranian-backed radical Shia movement, he told reporters at an army base near Tel Aviv.

The focus on Syrian chemical weapons — evoking memories of the war drumbeat, around false accusations about mass destruction weapons that preceded the 2003 attack on Iraq — appears to have sharpened after Russia and China on Thursday successfully blocked attempts by the West in the Security Council to impose economic sanctions against Syria. U.S. representative at the United Nations Susan Rice said after the U.N. vote that the U.S. will “intensify our work with countries outside the UNSC — particularly the 100+ countries supporting the Friends of Syria process”.

The subject of Syrian chemical weapons also featured prominently at a White House press briefing on Saturday. “We believe Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile remains under Syrian government control,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said. “Given the escalation of violence in Syria and the regime’s increasing attacks on their people, we remain very concerned about these weapons.”

U.S. move

Soon after the U.N. vote, which has bearings of becoming a watershed in international diplomacy surrounding Syria, a fresh round of meetings between Israeli and U.S. top security officials have commenced. The New York Times, quoting American officials, is reporting that the Obama administration “has for now abandoned efforts for a diplomatic settlement to the conflict in Syria, and instead it is increasing aid to the rebels and redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries to forcibly bring down the government of President Bashar Al Assad”. The daily said that U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta was heading for Israel, and the White House was holding high-level daily meetings to discuss contingency plans “including safeguarding Syria’s vast chemical weapons arsenal”.

The fresh urgency being imparted to the Syrian crisis follows Wednesday’s assassinations, which wiped out the top layer of the country’s security establishment. In response to the killings, the Syrian government has launched an all-out offensive against the armed opposition groups in Damascus. On Sunday, Governor of Damascus Bashr al-Sabban said after touring the area that complete normality would be restored in five days in the Midan neighbourhood, which had become one of the flashpoints in the ongoing conflict. Syrian television is also reporting success during clashes with “armed terrorist groups in Qebtan al-Jabal, to the north of Aleppo”.

As the fighting in Syria escalates, it has prominently exposed foreign infiltration of Islamist extremist groups in the anti-regime ranks.

AFP is reporting the presence of a large concentration of foreign fighters at one of the border crossings between Syria and Turkey that was taken over by the Syrian opposition on Friday. Some among the group of around 150 foreign fighters said “they belonged to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb while others claimed allegiance to the Shura Taliban”. The fighters said they belonged to several countries including Algeria, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Chechnya.

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