Israel says Syria used chemical weapons

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TEL AVIV, Israel -- Israel's senior military intelligence analyst said Tuesday that there was evidence that the Syrian government had repeatedly used chemical weapons in the last month, and he criticized the international community for failing to respond, intensifying pressure on the Obama administration to intervene.

"The regime has increasingly used chemical weapons," said Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, research commander in the Israeli Defense Forces' intelligence directorate, echoing a recent finding by Britain and France. "The very fact that they have used chemical weapons without any appropriate reaction," he said, "is a very worrying development, because it might signal that this is legitimate."

Gen. Brun's statements are the most definitive by an Israeli official to date regarding evidence of chemical weapons attacks March 19 near Aleppo and Damascus.

Another military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the evidence had been presented to the Obama administration -- which has declared the use of chemicals a "red line" that could prompt U.S. action in Syria -- but that Washington has not fully accepted the analysis.

None of the assertions -- by Israel, Britain or France -- have been made with physical proof of chemical weapons use. Experts say the most definitive way to prove the use of chemical weapons is to promptly gain access to the site to collect soil samples and examine suspected victims.

The Syrian government, which has accused insurgents of using chemical arms and has requested that a United Nations forensics team investigate, has so far refused to let that team enter because of a dispute over the inquiry's scope.

In Brussels, at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, Secretary of State John Kerry urged that the alliance be ready to respond if Syria used chemical weapons. "We should also carefully and collectively consider how NATO is prepared to respond to protect its members from a Syrian threat, including any potential chemical weapons threat," Reuters quoted him as saying. He did not specify in his publicly released remarks what planning he wanted from members of the NATO alliance.

Mr. Kerry also said he had talked by phone Tuesday morning with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and that Mr. Netanyahu had told him that he could not confirm the assertions of chemical weapons use. "He was not in a position to confirm that in the conversation that I had," Mr. Kerry said. "I don't know yet what the facts are," he added. "I don't think anybody knows what they are."

A Netanyahu spokesman refused to comment on the phone call or the apparent disconnect between the prime minister and his military leaders.

In briefings Tuesday, the Israelis said they believed that the attacks March 19 involved the use of sarin gas, the same agent used in a 1995 attack in the Tokyo subway that killed 13 people.

The Syrian attacks killed "a couple of dozens," the military official said, in what Israel judged as "a test" by Syria's President Bashar Assad of the international community's response. He said the government had deployed chemicals a handful of times since, but that details of those attacks were sketchier.

"Their fear of using it is much lower than before using it," the official said. "If somebody would take any reaction, maybe it would deter them from using it again." Regarding possible further attacks, he added, "Now, I'm more worried than I was before."

Israel, which is in a technical state of war with Syria, has been deeply reluctant to act on its own in Syria, for fear that it could bolster Mr. Assad by uniting anti-Israel sentiment. But the public statements regarding the attacks, days after the British and French governments wrote to the U.N. secretary-general saying they, too, had evidence of chemical use, complicates the situation for officials in Washington.

President Barack Obama said during his Israel visit last month that proof of chemical weapons use would be a "game changer."

But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Monday that intelligence regarding the attacks remained inconclusive, and his press secretary, George Little, said Tuesday that the Pentagon was continuing to assess reports on the matter. "The use of such weapons would be entirely unacceptable," Mr. Little said in Amman, Jordan, where Mr. Hagel landed Tuesday. "We reiterate in the strongest possible terms the obligations of the Syrian regime to safeguard its chemical weapons stockpiles, and not to use or transfer such weapons to terrorist groups like Hezbollah."

Speaking about Syria at a conference of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, Gen. Brun said "it is quite clear that they used harmful chemical weapons," citing "different signs" including photos of victims "foaming at the mouth." He went beyond the March 19 attack to speak of "continuous" use of such weapons, and described a "huge arsenal" of more than 1,000 tons stockpiled in Syria.

Speaking at the same security conference, Daniel B. Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, said the United States was still "seeking the fullest and most accurate assessments" from U.S. intelligence agencies.

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