Israeli General: 'Syria Used Chemical Weapons'

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. A senior Israeli military official today claimed that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons, and not just one, according to the official, but several times in recent months. If that is true it could mean that Bashar al-Assad's government has crossed a red line drawn by the Obama administration. The World's Matthew Bell has been following the story from Jerusalem. Matthew, tell us what Israeli general Itai Brun said today.

Matthew Bell: Marco, this is a top military intelligence official speaking publicly at a national security conference today in Tel Aviv. And he said, just as you characterized, that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons several times in recent months. He said it was probably sarin gas. He said this was the assessment of the Israeli military. He didn't give any specific data or any evidence of this, but he also went on to say that allowing the government of Bashar al-Assad to use such deadly weapons without some kind of response is a mistake. He said this would send a message that this could be legitimate. Now, that could be seen as a reference, as you mentioned, to the red line drawn by President Obama. The White House has said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a game changer and it would force Washington to rethink its options.

Werman: Given the current consequences of citing this red line that Syria has used chemical weapons, without evidence, that's highly provocative.

Bell: This is a military official though who might just be giving some cold analytical assessment that's been drawn up by military intelligence officials without the sort of diplomatic niceties. The question is was it cleared by the Israeli government and is this a message that the Israeli government is trying to send to a) Syria, to the government of Assad, and perhaps b) to the west and to Washington as well.

Werman: So what does Israel want Washington to do? They want Washington to get more deeply involved in Syria?

Bell: Israeli officials are pretty careful when it comes to giving advice publicly to Washington in such a complicated situation like in Syria, but Israeli officials are clear about their own red lines and the general today was as well. They say that they will not hesitate to act militarily if they see chemical or anti aircraft weapons being transferred to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon or to terrorist groups inside Syria. One Israeli expert on Syria I talked with today said that look, Russia and Iran have no qualms about supporting Syria's military. Meanwhile the US has been very slow to get involved. He said from his perspective, Washington does not appear to have figured out what it's Syria policy is and that the Israelis would love to hear the Obama administration be more clear about that—what its goals are and what it wants to do in Syria.

Werman: So if chemical weapons used in Syria is a red line for Washington, what have you heard from Washington today about General Brun's comments?

Bell: I think they're gonna be playing this very carefully. The Obama administration says that it takes this issue very seriously. The United Nations has people on the ground in Syria that are conducting tests and trying to figure out what happened specifically with an incident that happened in Aleppo Province in late March. I talked to a defense analyst in Washington today. He said the comments today from the Israeli military are significant, but they don't add up to a smoking gun just yet, and that the White House is gonna be very, very careful as it proceeds to figure out what happened, if chemical weapons were used, by whom and what was the purpose in using them.

Werman: Matthew Bell, The World's Middle East correspondent speaking with us from Jerusalem, as always, thanks, Matthew.

Bell: You're welcome, Marco.