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Why Is U.S. So Reluctant to Back Israel’s Claims of Syria Chemical Weapons Use?

Israeli intelligence official's remark confirming that Syrian President Bashar Assad has used chemical weapons brings to surface dispute among nations closely following events in Syria.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The declaration by the head of the Research Division at Military Intelligence, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has used lethal chemical weapons, apparently sarin gas, against the rebels, reverberated heavily on Tuesday in the foreign press.

For Brun, an intelligence officer with considerable skill in making public appearances, this was no slip of the tongue. The remark, made at the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, brought to the surface a substantive diplomatic and intelligence dispute among those nations closely following events in Syria.

The debate centers primarily on incidents on March 19 near Aleppo and Damascus, although there apparently were other instances in which Syria used chemical weapons. As reported in Haaretz two weeks ago, the U.S. administration now admits, after lengthy deliberations, that chemical weapons had been used. But the administration is hesitating over whether to declare that the weapons had been lethal, like sarin, or “just” weapons that paralyze and have a short-term effect. Israeli intelligence, like its French and British counterparts, believes that deadly weapons were used, which is what Brun said publicly on Tuesday. Sarin is an extremely toxic substance that disrupts the nervous system.

In the near term, the dispute relates to the mandate of a UN delegation waiting in Cyprus for permission to travel to Syria and collect testimonies and evidence regarding the incidents. But naturally there is a much more significant issue: U.S. President Barack Obama had previously defined, albeit cautiously, the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime as a red line that would require a broad international response against the Assad government.

It seems that, once again, the Americans are reluctant to make an unequivocal determination out of fear that this would force them into taking action in the field, which they are not eager to do. This is the background on which Brun’s remarks must be understood, along with those of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz on the same issue on Monday.

Ya’alon, at a joint press conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, stated in no uncertain terms that Israel would act to prevent the transfer of chemical weapons to irresponsible hands ‏(that is, either the deliberate transfer of such weapons from Assad to Hezbollah, or unplanned trickling of chemical weapons stores from the Syrian regime to its enemies, particularly radical Sunni jihadists‏).

Gantz, meanwhile, in his address to the INSS conference, highlighted the need for international cooperation between Israel and its friends. That sounded like a declaration on strategy, but perhaps it also needs to be interpreted in the context of American caution with regard to Syria.

After Brun’s address, INSS chairman and former MI head Amos Yadlin, Brun’s former commander, asked him a question about the significance of his remarks on the chemical weapons. Brun responded that the evidence of their use is a “worrisome development” that had gotten an “inappropriate” global response. He added that the primary Israeli concern is not that the Syrian regime would aim its chemical weapons at Israel, but would transfer them to other groups that would not necessarily make the same cost-benefit analyses that Assad would make.

Yadlin in his own address focused on the Iranian nuclear question and presented a more hawkish view than the speakers from the establishment − Ya’alon, Gantz and Brun. Brun chose to highlight the gap between Iran’s nuclear enrichment ability and the actual pace of its enrichment, which stems, he said, from the international pressure on Tehran and apparently also from the red line drawn by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his speech to the United Nations in September.

Yadlin, however, focused on the negative. He said Iran had already crossed the red line set by Israel and by summer would reach a point at which it be only a month or two between deciding to build a nuclear bomb and actually building one.

Yadlin issued veiled criticism of Netanyahu, saying that the red line drawn by Israel had actually enabled the Iranians to build a broad nuclear infrastructure without technically crossing the line ‏(and thus without being forced to pay any price for crossing it‏). The former MI chief’s conclusion was pessimistic: Without a diplomatic solution to the crisis − and Ya’alon said that every effort must be made to exploit the diplomatic route first − the two sides are on a collision course.

A man, with a chemical mask on his head, searches for survivors from the rubble of a damaged area, what activists said was a result of an airstrike by the Syrian Regime, Aleppo April 7, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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