SYRIAN government forces have used chemical weapons – probably nerve gas – in their fight against rebels trying to force out president Bashar al-Assad, the Israeli military’s top intelligence analyst has said.
Brigadier-General Itai Brun made the comments at a Tel Aviv security conference just a day after US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said on a visit to Israel that US intelligence agencies were still assessing whether such weapons had been employed.
“To the best of our understanding, there was use of lethal chemical weapons. Which chemical weapons? Probably sarin [gas],” Brig-Gen Brun said in the most definitive Israeli statement on the issue to date.
His comments seemed likely to deepen international concern over the situation in Syria. US president Barack Obama has called the use of chemical weapons a “red line” for the United States that would trigger action.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday Nato needed to consider how practically prepared it was to “respond to protect its members from a Syrian threat, including any potential chemical weapons threat”.
Brig-Gen Brun told the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University that forces loyal to Mr Assad were behind the attacks on “armed [rebels] on a number of occasions in the past few months, including the most reported incident on 19 March”.
The Syrian government and rebels last month accused each other of launching a chemical attack near the city of Aleppo.
Using a Powerpoint presentation showing what appeared to be a wounded or dead child, Brig-Gen Brun said that foam coming out of victims’ mouths and contracted pupils and “other signs” indicated deadly gas had been used.
“The fact that chemical weapons were used without an appropriate response is a very disturbing development because it could signal that such a thing is legitimate,” he said.
“I think we need to be very worried that chemical weapons will reach elements that are less responsible.”
He gave no other details about how Israel – which has been closely monitoring events in Syria, a northern neighbour – formed its assessment.
Israeli officials are especially concerned that Mr Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons and other advanced arms could reach the hands of his ally, the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon, or Islamic extremist groups trying to wrest him from power.
The concern in Israel is that if Mr Assad is overthrown, any of these groups could turn his sophisticated arsenal against Israel. Hezbollah battled Israel to a month-long stalemate in 2006.
Israeli leaders have cautioned they will not allow that to happen. In an attack it has not formally confirmed, Israeli planes bombed an arms convoy in Syria in February, destroying anti-aircraft weapons destined for Hezbollah.
Brig-Gen Brun also said that Russia has continued to arm the Syrian military with weapons including advanced SA-17 air defence missiles.
Ralf Trapp, an independent consultant on chemical and biological weapons arms control based in Geneva, said the symptoms described by Israeli intelligence were “consistent with sarin gas”, but photographic evidence alone was not conclusive.
“There is a limit to what you can extract from photograph evidence alone,” he said.
“What you really need is to get information from on the ground, to gather physical evidence and to talk to witnesses, as well as medical staff who treated victims.”
Asked about Brig-Gen Brun’s remarks, Pentagon spokesman George Little said: “The United States continues to assess reports of chemical weapons use in Syria. The use of such weapons would be entirely unacceptable.”
Discussions between Syria and the United Nations on a UN investigation of possible use of chemical weapons have been at an impasse due to the Syrian government’s refusal to let the inspectors visit anywhere but the city of Aleppo.
UN diplomats said Britain and France had provided UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office with what they believed to be strong evidence that chemical weapons also had been used in the city of Homs.