TEL AVIV/BRUSSELS – Senior Israeli military officials asserted Tuesday that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have used chemical weapons against the country’s civilians, saying their evidence — including photographs of victims foaming at the mouth — made them “nearly 100 percent” certain.
It was the most direct and public claim by Israel to date that Syria has resorted to chemical weapons, which would be a troubling escalation of a brutal civil war that has stretched on for more than two years.
Coming less than a week after France and Britain made similar assertions to the United Nations, the remarks add to mounting international pressure on the United States — which has repeatedly said it will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons — to intervene in the Syrian conflict.
“To the best of our professional understanding, the regime used lethal chemical weapons against gunmen in a series of incidents in recent months, including the relatively more famous events of the 19th of March,” said Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, chief of the research division of Israeli army intelligence.
However, he gave no indication that he had other evidence, such as soil samples, typically used to verify chemical weapons use.
A second senior military official, speaking on condition that he not be named, said there were five cases — including incidents March 19 in Aleppo and Damascus — in which chemical weapons appear to have been used. This official said “dozens” were killed in the attacks when a “sarin-type” chemical was dispersed.
U.S. President Barack Obama has warned the Assad government that the use of chemical weapons would represent “a red line” that could led to American military intervention in the long-running Syrian conflict.
Israeli military officials said they believe Assad used the chemical weapons as a kind of “test case” to gauge the reaction of the international community. They said the chemicals were dispersed in a limited way, and were not intended to kill hundreds of people.
“It wasn’t operational, it was a test,” said one military official.
In Brussels, where he was attending his first NATO foreign ministers meeting, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appeared caught off guard by the allegation.
He said that following the report, he had phoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “I think it is fair to say (Netanyahu) was not in a position to confirm that in the conversation,” Kerry said. “I do not know yet what the facts are.”
The Israeli military made its assessments public while U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was in Jerusalem to meet with Netanyahu. Hagel later toured an Israeli Army training site in Tel Aviv with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, but none of the leaders commented publicly about Syria.
After the Israeli statement that chemical weapons had been used, Hagel spokesman George Little told reporters that the Obama administration “continues to assess reports of chemical weapons use in Syria. The use of such weapons would be entirely unacceptable.”
The Israelis said they have shared their findings with their U.S. counterparts. However, Little did not address whether Israeli military officials had specifically done so with Hagel during his three-day visit.
In letters last week to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, France and Britain said there is credible evidence that Syria has used chemical weapons on more than one occasion since December. According to senior diplomats and officials briefed on the accounts, the evidence included soil samples and witness interviews that point toward nerve agents used in and around the cities of Aleppo, Homs and Damascus.
Asked why the United States might be hesitant to confirm chemical attacks, a senior Israeli military commander said, “I think when you draw a red line, you are very hesitant to cross it.”
Israeli analysts collected photographs — many from open sources, such as opposition and media websites — that showed victims of what they concluded were chemical attacks.
“The constricted pupils, the foaming at the mouth, the additional signs indicate in our view that lethal chemical weapons were used,” said Brun, speaking in Tel Aviv. “What lethal chemical weapon? Apparently sarin — in addition to the regime’s use of neutralizing chemical weapons that are not lethal.”
The Israeli military leaders said they were especially concerned about chemical weapons in an unraveling Syria because they could be transferred to militant groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon for use against Israel. The Israeli government has said it would take action to prevent “rogue elements” in Syria from obtaining chemical weapons, referring to Hezbollah or militant groups allied with al-Qaida.
Unlike the Obama administration, however, the Israelis have not pledged to act if Assad’s military uses chemical weapons against Syrian civilians or rebels.
Yaalon, the defense minister, had dodged a question Monday at a news conference with Hagel about whether Israel believed chemical weapons had been used in Syria. But he said that Israel’s “red line” — the possession of chemical arms by terrorist groups — had not been crossed.
“We are ready to operate if any rogue element is going to put his hands (on chemical weapons), or any chemical agents are going to be delivered toward rogue elements in the region,” Yaalon said. “It hasn’t been tested yet.”
Brun criticized what he called a lack of international response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. “The very use of chemical weapons without an appropriate response is a very troubling development, because it can, of course, signal that such a thing is legitimate,” Brun said.
A top Israeli officer said the Assad regime has been actively consolidating its chemical weapons stockpile, for fear it could fall into rebel hands. The government appears to have moved the material from 35 or 40 sites scattered around the country to 15 or 20 apparently more secure locations.