Yuval Steinitz, the newly appointed minister of intelligence and strategic affairs, said Wednesday that it is “apparently clear” that chemical weapons were recently used in Syria, and that the alleged attack will be a main topic of conversation with visiting President Barack Obama.
The statement by Steinitz, who just stepped aside as Finance Minister, conflicts with U.S. assessments that there is no evidence behind accusations traded the day before between Syrian rebels and the Bashar Assad regime of a chemical weapons attack in a village in the north of the country.
Steinitz, who was speaking to Army Radio, did not say how he came to the conclusion that the weapons were used. He would not comment on whether it was Assad forces or the rebels who used them, saying it was not important.
A senior defense official told the Associated Press that he concurred chemical weapons had been used, basing that on intelligence reports. He would not elaborate, and spoke anonymously because he is not allowed to speak to the media.
Steinitz said that after Iran’s nuclear program, the fate of Syria’s chemical weapons is the second-most urgent issue that will be discussed with Obama during his 48-hour visit that begins Wednesday afternoon.
“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.
Syrian rebels and Assad’s government blamed each other Tuesday for a chemical attack on a northern village. There have been many reports and rumors of such weapons being used throughout the war but no attack has yet been confirmed. The U.S. said there was no evidence chemical weapons were used.
President Obama has declared the use, deployment or transfer of the weapons would be a “red line” for possible military intervention by the U.S. in the Syrian conflict.
The Syrian state-run SANA news agency said “a missile containing a chemical substance” was fired at the village of Khan al-Assal in Aleppo province by “terrorists” — the term it uses for rebels. Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad said 31 people were killed.