TEL AVIV, Israel — A senior Israeli military intelligence official said on Tuesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons last month in his battle against insurgent groups. It was the first time that Israel has accused the embattled Syrian leader of using his stockpile of nonconventional weapons.
The assessment could raise pressure on the U.S. and other Western countries to intervene in the Syrian conflict. Britain and France recently announced that they had evidence that Assad's government had used chemical weapons. Although the U.S. says it has not been able to verify these claims, President Barack Obama has warned that the introduction of chemical weapons by Assad would be a "game changer."
Israel, which borders southwestern Syria, has been warily watching the Syrian civil war since the fighting erupted there in March 2011. Although Assad is a bitter enemy, Israel has been careful not to take sides, partly because the Assad family has kept the border with Israel quiet for the past 40 years and partly because of fears of what would happen if he is toppled.
Israeli officials are especially concerned that Assad's stockpile of chemical weapons and other advanced arms could reach the hands of Assad's ally, the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon, or Islamic extremist groups trying to oust him. The concern is that if Assad is overthrown, any of these groups could turn his sophisticated arsenal against Israel. Hezbollah battled Israel to a monthlong stalemate in 2006.
In his assessment, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, the head of research and analysis in Israeli military intelligence, told a security conference in Tel Aviv that Assad has used chemical weapons multiple times. Among the incidents were attacks documented by the French and British near Damascus last month.
"To the best of our professional understanding, the regime used lethal chemical weapons against the militants in a series of incidents over the past months, including the relatively famous incident of March 19," Brun said. "Shrunken pupils, foaming at the mouth and other signs indicate, in our view, that lethal chemical weapons were used."
He said sarin, a lethal nerve agent, was probably used. He also said the Syrian regime was using less lethal chemical weapons, and that Russia has continued to arm the Syrian military with weapons such as advanced SA-17 air defense missiles.
Brun appeared to lament the lack of response by the international community, saying the silence could encourage rogue groups that do not play by traditional rules of war.
"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."
Brun did not elaborate or provide any of the additional evidence he had gathered.
He delivered his assessment as U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was wrapping up a visit to Israel.
Reacting to Brun's comments, Pentagon spokesman George Little said the U.S. "continues to assess reports of chemical weapons use in Syria."
"The use of such weapons would be entirely unacceptable," he added." ''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."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday repeated that Israel has the right "to defend itself" against any threat. He spoke at a meeting Hagel.
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