U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said his Israeli counterpart, Moshe Ya’alon, didn’t share information about alleged chemical weapons use by Syria when the officials met April 22 in Tel Aviv.
Israeli Brigadier General Itai Brun, chief of research and analysis for the army’s military intelligence division, told a Tel Aviv conference that photographic and other forms of evidence indicate Syria’s regime used chemical weapons last month near Damascus and Aleppo. U.S. officials challenged that assessment.
“When I was in Israel, they did not give me that assessment,” Hagel told reporters today in Cairo after meeting with Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi and other officials. “I guess it wasn’t complete, so I haven’t seen the specifics.”
U.S. intelligence agencies are assessing information about Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons, Hagel said.
“This is a serious business and you want to be as sure as you can be on these kinds of things,” Hagel said. “Suspicions are one thing, evidence is another.”
President Barack Obama, when he visited Israel last month, said proof of Syrian government use of chemical weapons would change U.S. calculations in dealing with this conflict, without specifying what actions he would take.
The U.S. is developing a comprehensive assessment of whether Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime is using chemical weapons by collecting its own information in addition to intelligence from one or more partners, said a U.S. defense official who asked not to be named discussing intelligence matters.
The Obama administration hasn’t set a deadline for completing its assessment, Hagel said.
“You don’t take intelligence and say, ‘Here’s the time frame, we’re going to get it done in 24 hours,’” he said.
Analyzing intelligence “is a matter of many pieces coming together,” said Hagel, who has served on the Senate intelligence committee as well as on the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. “You look at all those pieces and facts. Sometimes it’s easy, most times it’s not easy.”
In Egypt, Hagel and Defense Minister Abdelfatah Al-Seesi discussed ways the U.S. could help improve the country’s military capabilities, including better border security and counterterrorism, according to a second U.S. defense official who asked not to be named describing official discussions.
Last week, a radical Islamic group claimed responsibility for two rockets that struck the southern Israeli city of Eilat. Israel said the rockets were launched from Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. Egypt denied the rockets were fired from its territory.
The U.S. provides about $1.3 billion in annual military assistance to Egypt through the Foreign Military Financing program, most of which goes toward improving Egypt’s fleet of F-16 jets and tanks. Hagel and al-Seesi talked about the possibility of Egypt using some of those funds to meet new threats, the defense official said.
In Saudi Arabia yesterday, Hagel met with Saudi Arabian Defense Minister Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, who’s also the crown prince. The officials discussed details of new weapons the U.S. plans to sell the kingdom, the defense official said.
A centerpiece of Hagel’s first trip to the Middle East since taking office is to reach agreements to sell $10 billion of U.S. weaponry to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
For the transaction to proceed Saudi Arabia has to send a formal letter of request seeking the weapons, the defense official said.
Hagel is scheduled to meet tomorrow in Abu Dhabi with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and other officials.