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April 23, 2013

U.S., Israel spar over whether Syrian government has used chemical weapons

Israel’s top military intelligence analyst said Tuesday that the Syrian regime used lethal chemical weapons last month against opposition forces and criticized the international community for failing to act on evidence that “red lines” had been crossed in Syria.

Israel’s top military intelligence analyst said Tuesday that the Syrian regime used lethal chemical weapons last month against opposition forces and criticized the international community for failing to act on evidence that “red lines” had been crossed in Syria.

But Secretary of State John Kerry quickly distanced the United States from the assertion, saying that he had spoken Tuesday morning to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and that “he was not in a position to confirm” the public Israeli allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria.

“The information I have at this point does not confirm it to me in a way that I would be comfortable commenting on it as a fact,” said Kerry, who was in Brussels for a NATO conference. “But obviously, whatever allegations are made have to be thoroughly investigated, and it is appropriate to chase this one down and find out what’s going on, no question about it.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who left Israel for Amman, Jordan, on Tuesday, made no public comment on the allegation, but his spokesman, George Little, indicated that the United States was not yet convinced.

“The United States continues to assess reports of chemical weapons use in Syria,” he said. “The use of such weapons would be entirely unacceptable.”

Determining whether the Syrian government has used chemical weapons in its two-year war against rebel forces could be critical to whether the United States becomes engaged militarily in the battle there. President Barack Obama has called such use a “red line” that would force the United States to act, though precisely what U.S. action would follow has not been spelled out.

Rebel forces, hoping such action would include lethal military aid for their movement, have since August accused the government of President Bashar Assad of using chemical weapons at least half a dozen times in Damascus and Aleppo, but those incidents have not been confirmed.

In March, both sides accused one another of using the weapons in Aleppo, and the Assad government called for an international investigation. A United Nations team is waiting in Cyprus to conduct the investigation, but so far the Assad government has not granted it permission to enter Syria.

Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, chief of research for Israeli military intelligence, told a security conference in Tel Aviv that there was strong evidence that a lethal chemical weapon, likely the nerve gas sarin, had been used in incidents near Damascus and Aleppo on March 19. He said that photographs of victims with foam coming out of their mouths and contracted pupils were signs of sarin use.

An Israeli intelligence officer who reports to Brun added later that additional satellite images and witness testimony had been used to “conclusively determine” that a nerve agent had been used in the attacks. The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, said that Israel was investigating “nearly half a dozen possible incidents” but that its most conclusive findings were over attacks in the Damascus suburbs of Jobar, Adra and Ataibeh.

“To the best of our understanding, there was use of lethal chemical weapons. Which chemical weapons? Probably sarin,” Brun told the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think tank with close ties to the government. “There’s a huge arsenal of chemical weapons in Syria. Our assessment is that the regime has used and is using chemical weapons.”

Last week, the British and French governments sent a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, saying that they believed there was credible evidence that Syria had used chemical weapons since December in or near the cities of Homs, Aleppo and Damascus.

But despite those assessments, skeptics abound. Rami Abdurrahman, who runs the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks casualties on both sides of the conflict, said that there was still no evidence confirming chemical weapons use. He noted that in the March attack in Aleppo, his group had recorded 26 dead, including Syrian government soldiers.

Other analysts note that rebel claims of chemical weapons have stemmed from the government’s use of incendiary cluster bombs, some of which contain phosphorous and create flames that are difficult to extinguish and smoke that can be particularly harmful when inhaled.

A Syrian doctor in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma said he treated victims of what some people said was a chemical attack March 24 in the nearby suburb of Adra – one of the locations Brun cited for a March 19 attack. The symptoms he described – contracted pupils and runny eyes – are consistent with sarin exposure, but he said witnesses offered conflicting reports about the chemical itself, with some of the people he treated claiming it had a foul odor, while others claimed it had no odor. Sarin is odorless.

Israeli officials said that they had passed along their intelligence findings to the United States, Great Britain and “other allies” more then two weeks ago.

“Everyone who is watching Syria closely knows what has happened there,” said an Israeli intelligence officer based along the country’s northern border with Syria who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

“We have also made sure to share our findings in real time so that in future no one can tell us, ‘We didn’t know, we didn’t see,’ and use that excuse.”

Brun was harsh in his criticism of the international community, which he accused of failing to act.

“The response of the world on this issue reflects the same trend of limited influence and a predisposition not to intervene,” he told the conference. “The developments are certainly worrying ones: First, the fact that chemical weapons have been used without any . . . (international) response is a very worrying development and could certainly signal that such a thing is legitimate.”

Israeli officials said there was concern that the U.S. was sending “mixed messages” and that its failure to take action in Syria would also mean it would be hesitant to take action against Iran.

“What does it say if the U.S. allows its red lines to be crossed in Syria? We think it sends a message that the U.S. is weak and won’t act on other red lines it sets,” said the Israeli intelligence officer in the country’s north.

“Syria is testing the U.S. by using chemical weapons in little amounts, in limited areas. When the U.S. doesn’t act, it sends a message that they won’t really act on their red lines,” the officer said. “Now who else has received American red lines? Iran. Israeli logic is that Iran is watching Syria closely to see how much appetite for intervention the U.S. really has.”

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