JERUSALEM — For the past month, in increasing tones even if not on-the-record, Israeli military intelligence officers have claimed there is evidence that Bashar al-Assad is using chemical weapons, specifically Sarin, a nerve gas, against rebel forces.
Today, Israel completely changed its approach, with the public assertion made by Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, the head of research for Israel's military intelligence, that the Assad regime — in its desperate days — is resorting to the use of chemical weapons.
"There's a huge arsenal of chemical weapons in Syria," he said at a national security conference in Tel Aviv. "Our assessment is that the [Assad] regime has used and is using chemical weapons."
In addition to the revelation, the fact that Brun criticized international inaction in Syria is notable; Israeli military officers in active service are prohibited from speaking publicly about any matter that is not strictly operational. Only imminent fears about the possible loss of control of chemical weapons stores, or of a cataclysm like the massacre of Iraqi Kurds in Halabja, could explain such a break with military protocol.
Brun not only broke the wall of silence, he also gave by far the most detailed explanation yet of the extent of Syria's chemical arsenal, saying there are more than 1,000 tons of chemical weapons stores in Syria and describing the "continuous" use of them over the past month.
Brun's statement, deliberately made and thought out, and coming only a week after the revelation that the British and French governments had sent the United Nations a secret missive alleging more or less the same, may end the current period of Western hesitation about greater involvement in Syria.
It certainly puts US President Barack Obama, who has been reluctant to commit the United States to any action on the ground in Syria, in a very tight bind. Just a month ago, in Jerusalem, when the first reports about the possible use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces emerged, he said that any evidence would be "a game-changer." He is likely to now face significant pressure to act.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, however, said Tuesday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not confirm the comments made by Brun, which may create some room for delay on any American decision to intervene.
"I talked to Prime Minister Netanyahu this morning. I think it is fair for me to say that he was not in a position to confirm that in the conversation that I had," Kerry told a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels. "I don't know yet what the facts are."
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US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, on a visit to Israel this week, repeated Obama's earlier statement that any use of chemical weapons would be a "game changer," and that both the United States and Israel had prepared "options for all contingencies."
Speculation that Syria has been using chemical weapons has been mounting in recent months.
Last month rebels reported an outbreak of symptoms, including breathing difficulties and bluish skin, following a rocket attack in Idlib province. They accused government forces, while Damascus said rebels themselves were responsible.
The United Nations is now awaiting the government's permission to investigate the incident. Last week, France and the UK wrote to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with similar claims that they had credible evidence of chemical weapon use near Aleppo, Homs and possibly Damascus.
Brun criticized other countries' refusal thus far to act on the allegations, calling it "a very worrying development, because it might signal that this is legitimate."
Israel's concern is that Assad's chemical weapons could end up in the hands of terrorist groups in Syria or elsewhere that might use them against Israel, Brun said.
Syria is believed to have one of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical weapons.
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