Syrian chemical weapons are still under the control of President Bashar al-Assad, contrary to reports saying Damascus could lose such arms in the chaos of civil war, Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry Diplomatic-Security Bureau, said Sunday.
"As far as my assessment goes, the weapons are still secure and have not been moved, but we need to monitor this at every moment," Gilad said. "Israel needs to monitor it, and it has been doing so."
As Syria's southern neighbor, Israel feels at risk from the deepening conflict and has said it would intervene to stop jihadi rebels or Lebanese Hezbollah terrorists from seizing Assad's chemical weapons.
Echoing Gilad's remarks that the regime is still in control of the weapons, Vice Prime Minister and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon told Israel Radio on Sunday, "On these matters, we have to be prepared to protect ourselves, by ourselves. ... At this time, we see no sign that this weaponry is being pointed at us."
Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren made similar remarks Sunday in an interview with Fox News, but stressed that any signs of chemical weapons being passed to terrorist groups like Hezbollah would be a "game-changer" and would constitute a "red line" for Israel.
Oren said, "Were those weapons to pass into the wrong hands — Hezbollah's hands for example — that would be a game-changer for us.
"We have a very clear red line about those chemical weapons passing into the wrong hands. Can you imagine if Hezbollah and its 70,000 rockets would get its hands on chemical weapons? That could kill thousands of people," the Israeli ambassador added.
Oren could not confirm reports saying that Syria was moving components for the lethal sarin nerve gas.
Earlier Sunday, the British Sunday Times reported that Israeli special forces were operating in Syria to track the regime’s stocks of chemical and biological weapons. The operation is part of a "secret war" to monitor Syria’s nonconventional armaments and sabotage their development, the British publication stated.
“For years we’ve known the exact location of Syria’s chemical and biological munitions,” an Israeli source told the Sunday Times, referring to the country’s spy satellites and drones. “But in the past week we’ve got signs that munitions have been moved to new locations.”
Some Israeli officials have voiced concern that Assad could attack the Jewish state with chemical weapons in a last stand to rally support from the Arab world.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week that Washington was worried an "increasingly desperate" Assad could use chemical weapons against rebels or lose control of them.
Israel and NATO countries say Syria has stocks of various chemical warfare agents at four sites.
Syria has been cagey about whether it has such weapons but insists that, if it had, it would keep them secure and use them only to fend off foreign foes. Though technically at war, Israel and Syria have not fought a major battle in almost 40 years.
Rebels who have been fighting to topple Assad have recently overrun some Syrian military bases. Radical Islamist groups, including foreign jihadi fighters, are involved in the revolt
And while the world has warned the Syrian regime not to use chemical weapons, Arab media broadcast on Sunday rebel videos uploaded to the Internet showing what appear to be civilians killed or wounded by the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian army.
The foreign ministry in Damascus countered the videos by saying, "Terrorist gangs are those who are slaughtering civilians through the use of chemical weapons."
Meanwhile, as the civil war in Syria continues, the fighting spilled over once again into neighboring Lebanon on Sunday. Gun battles in the northern city of Tripoli between supporters and opponents of Assad's regime left four dead.
Nine Syrian judges and prosecutors also defected to the opposition. It was the latest setback for the regime, which appears increasingly embattled with rebels making gains in northern Syria and near Damascus, the capital.
The defecting judges posted a joint statement online urging others to join them and break ranks with Assad's regime. There have been several high-level defections over the past year, including Assad's former prime minister.
In Geneva, U.N. Special Representative for Syria and the Arab League Lakhdar Brahimi met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns to discuss the crisis in Syria. They said in a joint statement that the situation in Syria was "bad and getting worse," adding that a political process to end the conflict was "still necessary and still possible."
Russia and the United States have argued bitterly over how to address the conflict, which began with peaceful protests against Assad in March 2011 and escalated into a civil war that has killed an estimated 40,000 people. Activists said another 45 were killed on Sunday.