Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of intelligence and strategic affairs, said on March 20 that it is "apparently clear" that chemical weapons were used in Syria, on the tenth anniversary of the onset of the Iraq war. President Barack Obama is visiting Israel, and it is expected that the attack will be a main topic of conversation today with his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Steinitz’s statement counters assessments proferred by the United States that there is no evidence of the use of chemical weapons on a village in northern Syria. The Assad regime has blamed rebels battling the decades-old dictatorship for unleashing the missiles that allegedly contained a toxic gas. Rebels claim that it was the Syrian government that resorted to chemical weapons. So far, the U.S. says there is no evidence of the use of chemical weapons.
Speaking on Israel’s Army Radio, Steinitz did not say how he concluded that chemical weapons were used in this instance. Steinitz would not say whether it was government forces or rebels who used the weapons, saying that it was not important.
Additionally, a senior military official told AP News that he believes that chemical weapons were used, but would not elaborate. He remains anonymous.
Israel has expressed concern that Syria’s chemical weapons could come into the hands of terrorist organizations such as Syrian President Bashr al-Assad’s allies in Lebanon, Hezbollah, or with al-Qaida operatives fighting in concert with local rebels.
Besides Iran’s nuclear weaponization program, Steinitz said that Syria’s chemical weapons stash is the second greatest concern to Israel. "It is apparently clear that chemical weapons were used," Steinitz said. "The fact they apparently used chemical weapons against civilians needs to worry us and shows the urgency of taking care of the issue," he said.
The conflict pitting Syria’s government against insurgents has now gone on for two years and has claimed approximately 70,000 lives. An escalation of the conflict implied by the use of chemical weapons causes concern to governments in the region, as well as major powers. On March 19, President Obama said that the deployment or transfer of such weapons would be a “red line,” implying U.S. military intervention. Since the beginning of the civil war, Syrian rebels have called for the U.S. and allies to impose a no-fly zone over Syria so as to prevent airborne attacks by the Syrian government.
Obama began a 48-hour visit to Israel that will be heavy on symbolism. "Shalom", said the Chief Executive as he was greeted on the tarmac by Prime Minister Netanyahu. “We stand together because peace must come to the Holy Land,” Obama said. “Even as we are cleareyed about the difficulty, we will never lose sight of the vision of an Israel at peace with its neighbors.” Obama seeks to connect with Israelis and overcome misgivings because of his frequent disagreements with Netanyahu over policy towards Iran and Jewish settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan River. This is Obama's first visit to Israel as president.
Syria’s SANA news agency said "a missile containing a chemical substance" was fired at the village of Khan al-Assal in Aleppo province by "terrorists.” Syrians Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad said 31 people were killed. The government-operated agency said that more than 100 others were wounded, some of them critically, and it published pictures showing casualties that included children in what appears to be a hospital ward. None showed signs of physical injuries. The rebels quickly denied using chemical weapons and accused regime forces of doing so.
The Aleppo Media Center, affiliated with the rebels, said there were cases of "suffocation and poison" among civilians in Khan al-Assal after a missile was fired at the area. It said in a statement the cases were "most likely" caused by "poisonous gases" used by the government forces.
While Israel says it does not want to enter into the conflict, there have emerged indications that the Israeli air force made a strike on a Hezbollah convoy in January that was ferrying anti-aircraft missiles to Lebanon.
In an interview on the Steve Malzberg Show, former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton commented on President Obama’s visit to Israel and the reports of the chemical weapons attack. “[But] I’d be very surprised if they do anything about it. It’s possible, but our real objective at this point … the major American interest is in making sure these chemical weapons do not get out of Syria into the hands of terrorists for use worldwide.” He added that there is little that the U.S. can do now inside Syria “without a major military presence that would be inadvisable.” According to Bolton, “We’ve had the wrong policy underway for two years and you can’t correct that overnight, so our real redline has got to be those weapons do not exit Syria.’’