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Syria ‘increasingly’ used chemical weapons on own people: Israel

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Israel's top military intelligence analyst claimed Tuesday that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad repeatedly have used chemical weapons during the past 12 months of that country's 2-year-old civil war.

Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, who heads the intelligence research wing of the Israeli Defense Forces, cited photos of victims "foaming at the mouth" after one alleged attack and said it "is quite clear" that Syrian forces have "used harmful chemical weapons."

It was not clear whether he was basing his claim on something more substantial than open source data and media reports. The Israeli claim follows similar assertions reportedly made recently by authorities in Britain and France.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Tuesday that the allegation must be "thoroughly investigated" before it could be accepted as true, as analysts said the mounting consensus among U.S. allies about chemical weapons is likely to complicate the Obama administration's foreign policy on Syria.

The White House has avoided getting drawn into the conflict and has resisted calls by some Republicans to arm Syrian opposition groups out of concern that U.S. weapons could end up in the hands of Islamist extremists.

In addition, President Obama has said the use of chemical weapons would represent the crossing of a "red line," although he has not specified what action the U.S. might take in response to such a development.

"The Israeli claim puts some pressure, but no more pressure, on the administration than has already been building steadily in the U.S. and overseas to peel away some of the ambiguity surrounding a potential response by the U.S., if in fact chemical weapons were used," said Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow specializing in the Middle East and North Africa at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington.

The administration could respond in a variety of ways.

"One is that the pressure is such that the administration overcompensates with some kind of military response targeting Assad's forces or key infrastructure in Syria," Mr. Nerguizian said. "Doing that would have a tactical effect and might play well in U.S. domestic politics, but would do nothing to impact the Syrian civil war."

Alternatively, he said, the administration might seize the moment to "restate its position, but in much starker and clearer terms to the Syrians with regard to what it actually means if, and when, the Assad regime or its opponents cross a specified threshold on the use of chemical weapons."

The White House might also "do nothing and hope" the current international fervor over chemical weapons "blows over," Mr. Nerguizian said. "Whether or not this does blow over will depend on the burden of truth by countries who've now alleged that chemical weapons have already been used."

Gen. Brun told an audience at a Tel Aviv security conference that sarin gas most likely had been used in attacks carried out by Syrian government forces, apparently making the claim based on circumstantial evidence.

Whether the British and French claims were based on something more substantial is not clear. According to news reports, authorities from the two nations wrote letters to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asserting that witness interviews and soil samples appear to prove that nerve agents have been used in and around the cities of Homs and Aleppo, and potentially in Syria's capital, Damascus.

News of the letters was first reported Thursday by Foreign Policy's website, citing unnamed senior diplomats and officials.

Pressed for a reaction Tuesday, Mr. Kerry told reporters that he did not "know yet what the facts are."

"I don't think anybody knows what they are," he said during a break in meetings at NATO headquarters in Brussels. "I'm sure you've heard the old saying, 'Don't always believe what you read in the newspapers.'"

Regarding the Israeli claim, Mr. Kerry said he spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday morning and that "I think it's fair for me to say that he was not in a position to confirm" the remarks made by Gen. Brun.

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters the administration is supports an ongoing "United Nations unified investigation" into whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria.

U.S. authorities are also "engaging in other methods of monitoring the possible use or transmission" of such weapons, he said, but added that he could not "get into great detail on those intelligence related matters."

"We coordinate closely with our partners, including the French, British and the Israelis," Mr. Carney saidU

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