by News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
U.S. does not support such a pre-emptive attack as it would risk giving Assad an opportunity to rally support against Israel • Syria crisis will be a major part of U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's visit to Israel this week • Defense official Amos Gilad says Israel believes Syria is still in control of its chemical weapons, while Barak stresses Israel will not tolerate Hezbollah transferring the arsenals into Lebanon.The White House is now holding daily high-level meetings to discuss a broad range of contingency plans — including safeguarding Syria’s vast chemical weapons arsenal and sending explicit warnings to both warring sides to avert mass atrocities, according to the New York Times.
There was heavy fighting in Damascus and the surrounding areas on Sunday morning, with Syrian army helicopter gunships bombing three districts of the capital. Reuters reported that rebel forces had pulled back from the district of Mezze after coming under heavy aerial and ground bombardment by presidential forces. Some 300 people were reportedly killed in Damascus on the weekend, and a total of 400 across Syria.
U.S. administration officials have been in talks with officials in Turkey and Israel over how to manage a Syrian government collapse, according to the Times report, and the issue will be at the top of the agenda for Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta's visit to Israel this week.
Officials told the New York Times that the administration has had regular talks with the Israelis about how Israel might move to destroy Syrian weapons facilities, though the U.S. does not support such a pre-emptive attack as it would risk giving Assad an opportunity to rally support against Israel.
Israel believes that Syria is currently still in control of its chemical weapons arsenals.
Defense official Amos Gilad told Army Radio on Sunday that while Israel is afraid Syria's large chemical stocks could be seized by Lebanese terrorists, Al-Qaida-affiliated radicals or other unspecified "irresponsible elements" operating in Syria, "right now, they [the Syrians] are protecting these arsenals as best as they can."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the top of Sunday's Cabinet meeting that Israel is closely monitoring the situation in Syria and are ready for any possible scenario.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak reiterated on Sunday morning that Israel is closely watching whether Hezbollah will move advanced weapons system out of Syria and into Lebanon and that "Israel would not tolerate this." Barak said in television interviews on Friday evening that he has "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.
Barak also said that he believes the fall of Assad is closer than ever because the attack on the Syrian defense establishment headquarters last week "dealt a massive blow to the Assad family. This blow will accelerate his exit." On what may replace Assad, Barak said "no one can predict what will happen the day after Assad [goes]. The direction isn't a positive one. There won't suddenly rise up a western European democracy."
Life on Israel's border with Syria continued undisturbed over the weekend, and the Israel Defense Forces say that they are not conducting any operations beyond their normal operational movements in the Golan Heights.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was sending his peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous and top military adviser General Babacar Gaye to Syria to assess the situation.
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