The U.S. is gearing up for a possible military intervention in Syria in the event that chemical weapons are used on Syrian citizens or alternately fall into the wrong hands, Strategic Affairs Minister and Vice Prime Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon told Israel Radio on Thursday.
Ya’alon voiced conviction that it was unlikely Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's sizable chemical weapons stockpiles would be used against Israel at this time, but said, “The very discussion of the issue, and the U.S.'s need to draw red lines, points to how dangerous Assad really is."
"The U.S. and others have drawn two red lines recently,” Ya'alon said.
“One [was] back in September, for the event that these weapons fall into hostile, irresponsible hands, perhaps Hezbollah, or other groups, possibly al-Qaida. The other red line was drawn approximately four weeks ago on the understanding that Assad was considering and preparing and planning to use chemical weapons on his own people. That is why all the neighboring countries in the region are concerned, including Israel.
“The U.S. is certainly spearheading the battle here, both diplomatically and in preparation for the possibility of intervention. I don't know about deploying forces, but certainly there are different options to prevent this. Therefore, all the interested parties, including Israel, are closely monitoring the situation."
Earlier, in an interview with Army Radio on Tuesday, Ya’alon dismissed reports that Syrian government forces had fired chemical agents at rebels fighting to topple Assad's government.
"As things stand now, we do not have any confirmation or proof that [chemical weapons] have already been used, but we are definitely following events with concern," he said.
Meanwhile, Israeli media reports confirmed Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly met with Jordan's King Abdullah in Amman to discuss the risk of Syria's chemical weapons falling into the hands of Islamist militants.
Two television stations and several Israeli news sites quoted unnamed Israeli officials as confirming the original report of the summit in the London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi.
According to the Arabic report, Netanyahu proposed a coordinated Israeli-Jordanian lightning airstrike to destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. The report said the Jordanians declined the option out of concern that it would cause chemical fallout around the target sites, and because such an attack could cause thousands of civilian casualties.
Al-Quds Al-Arabi also reported that Israel had proposed a second option, a comprehensive joint military incursion into Syria. The operation would include at least 8,000 soldiers entering Syria from different directions to secure and neutralize the chemical weapons sites, safeguarding them until a decision could be made about how to best dispose of the stocks.
The Jordanians did not support the Israeli proposals, according to the report, but neither did they completely reject them.
Netanyahu's spokesmen have declined to comment on the reports, but a senior Israeli official did say that Israel was "very coordinated" with the U.S. and the West on Syria's chemical weapons, and that Jordan was part of this coordination.
As one of Syria's southern neighbors, Israel has been concerned about the risk of President Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons falling into the hands of Islamist militants or Lebanese Hezbollah fighters amid the tumult of the ongoing Syrian uprising. Syria is believed to possess a formidable chemical arsenal.
Israel has warned that it could intervene if it felt there was a real risk of such a scenario unfolding.
Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994 and meetings between their leaders are not unusual and are often announced by both sides.
According to the Al-Quds Al-Arabi report, Israeli-Jordanian relations have been tense on the surface, mainly due to the stalled diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip in November. Despite this, Netanyahu and King Abdullah have found a common language on Syria, in part due to the joint groundwork by the two countries' intelligence services ahead of the meeting.
Israel's Channel 2 said the latest talks included a "very long discussion" about "cooperation with Jordan with regard to the fate of Syria's chemical weapons." It did not elaborate.
The head of Syria's military police, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Jassem al-Shallal, who defected to join the uprising against Assad, told the pan-Arab Al-Arabiya television station on Tuesday that Assad's forces had indeed used chemical weapons in Homs.
Shallal said the Syrian president, in a desperate move to preserve his power, had also ordered his forces to increase the use of the chemical weapons.
"I defected to join the rebels after I saw with my own eyes how the Assad regime jails innocent civilians and slaughters them, and imprisons soldiers suspected of trying to defect," said Shallal.
Meanwhile, it appears that Assad has also been busy preparing his escape route. According to reports published in Turkey on Tuesday, the Syrian president is considering leaving his country and is seeking political asylum in Venezuela.
According to the Turkish publication Aksam, Venezuelan Foreign Ministry officials told Turkish diplomats that the Assad regime had sent a letter to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez requesting political asylum. It was unclear whether Chavez had agreed to the request. Another asylum option for Assad is Cuba, according to the report.