Israel closely watching what weapons are being sent to Syria’s rebels

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 22, 2013 

— Israel is closely monitoring the kinds of weapons that are being sent to Syrian rebel groups, and it’s consulted with U.S. officials about which weapons they consider too sophisticated to be passed to the groups that are battling to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to Israeli officials with knowledge of the situation.

"Israel isn’t going to interfere and stop weapons shipments to the rebels at this point, but it wants to make sure it knows what they have," said an Israeli military official who agreed to discuss the matter with McClatchy only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss it publicly.

Another military official who also asked not to be identified, for the same reason, acknowledged that Israel is concerned that the pressure to assist the rebels will result in weapons going to al Qaida-linked militants that have proved to be the anti-Assad forces’ best fighters.

"On the one hand, there is a great deal of pressure on the Western world to bolster arms to moderate, what we call friendly, rebel groups so that they are on a level playing field with the groups that might be getting support from Islamist movements," this official told McClatchy. "On the other hand, once you send a weapon somewhere, you can’t control where it goes. The fear is that the same gun used to shoot a Syrian soldier will one day be used to shoot an Israeli soldier."

It’s long been known that Israel was monitoring the Assad regime’s internal movements of chemical and other sophisticated weapons out of concern that they might fall into the hands of al Qaida-linked rebels such as the Nusra Front or be passed to avowed enemies such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has sent fighters to Syria to fight on Assad’s behalf. On Jan. 30, Israeli destroyed a convoy in Syria that sources said Israel feared was carrying anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah.

Until now, however, Israeli officials have been silent on their concerns about what weapons other nations might pass to the rebels. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s stressed that Israel won’t allow advanced weapons systems to move from Syria to militant groups in Lebanon, has stopped short of commenting on the flow of weapons into Syria.

The White House raised the possibility that weapons passed to the rebels might pose a threat to Israel two weeks ago in comments explaining why President Barack Obama had vetoed a plan, put forward sometime last year, to send military equipment to the rebels. The plan had the backing of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then-CIA director David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Panetta told a Senate committee Feb. 7.

Asked why the president had rejected a plan that his war Cabinet backed, White House spokesman Jay Carney offered the threat to Israel as one of the reasons.

“We don’t want any weapons to fall into the wrong hands and potentially further endanger the Syrian people, our ally Israel or the United States," Carney said. He later repeated the comment about danger to Israel, reinforcing that the concern had played a role in Obama’s decision.

Israel has been largely silent on its concerns about developments in Syria, and the second military officer said that was unlikely to change, especially about its concerns that weapons shipments to the rebels might be turned on Israel one day. He said officials worried that any public expression of concern would upset Israel’s efforts to improve relations with Turkey, one of the most vocal supporters of the anti-Assad forces. Many weapons shipments bound for the rebels are thought to cross into Syria from Turkey. Saudi Arabia and Qatar reportedly are the primary financiers of those shipments.

Israelis are divided about whether a rebel victory would be a good thing. On one hand, many hope that a new Syrian leadership would seek peace with Israel. On the other, many others fear that a rebel-imposed government made up of Islamist fundamentalists would be far more hostile to Israeli interests than the Assad regime is. Still others fear that Syria might fracture into fiefdoms of rival groups and become a haven for anti-Israel terrorists.

Netanyahu already has ordered work sped up on a high-tech fence that would run the length of Israel’s border with Syria. His aides have said he doesn’t want to take the chance that the border would remain vulnerable to attacks.

Israeli ambivalence toward events in Syria was on display earlier this week with the announcement that officials were weighing whether to open a field hospital on the country’s northern border that would treat wounded rebels. The announcement came after seven wounded Syrian rebels were hospitalized in northern Israel after they approached Israeli soldiers in the no-man’s land between the countries.

Doctors in Israel’s Ziv Hospital said six of the men had light to moderate gunshot wounds and that one was in critical condition, with heavy wounds to his torso. The decision to treat the men in Israel was made by the Israeli military, which increasingly witnesses the fighting between pro- and anti-Assad forces.

"We can see it from here and we can hear it from several miles away," said an Israeli intelligence officer who’s based along Israel’s border with Syria. "Sometimes the fighting is literally within eyesight, and we can see the rebels take up positions in the no-man’s land between our border and Syria."

The nearness of the fighting makes remaining aloof increasingly difficult, the intelligence officer said. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to reporters.

"It is a very delicate balance between providing maybe gentle assistance such as medical aid and being seen as a party that is interfering. Israel can’t, by any means, be seen to have a favorite in the events unfolding in Syria," the officer said. "The only role Israel can have is of maintaining its red lines and being sure those aren’t crossed."

Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @sheeraf

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