This past Tuesday, I attended the INSS (Institute of National Security Studies) conference on Israel’s strategic challenges; at 9 AM, Brigadier General Itai Brun was scheduled to speak. Brun is the head of the research and analysis division for the Israeli military intelligence (Aman); in other words, Brun knows nearly everything about what is going on in the Arab world. More importantly, Brun would almost certainly know if Syria had used chemical weapons on its own population. With that said, whenever people involved with Israeli intelligence speak in public, they censor themselves from disclosing anything that is not public knowledge, unless they have been instructed specifically to do so.
Brun spoke for one hour regarding what is happening militarily in the Middle East. Everything he said consisted of publicly available information and nothing was very shocking… that is until I read the news later that day. In one of the slides in Brun’s PowerPoint, he showed a picture of a news broadcast displaying a Syrian victim with foam coming out of their mouth. Pointing at the picture, Brun said that Israel thought that Syria likely had used chemical weapons.
The thing is – Brun likely does know if Syria did in fact use chemical weapons, however his statement was not a reflection of this. His statement was based on publicly available images found on the internet that were saying, and what many others have already reported on – that it seems that chemical weapons were probably used. It was quite obvious to those watching the speech that Brun was not authoritatively declaring on behalf of Israel that Syria had used chemical weapons. I spoke to individuals who are connected with the Israeli intelligence apparatus and familiar with Brun. They confirmed that he would have censored himself, and what he said was likely either a mistake or was misinterpreted or misunderstood.
In the proceeding hours, I saw reports on twitter sharing Brun’s statements. This was followed by Israeli news outlets spreading the story as well. While this was going on, I was sitting beside New York Times columnist David Sanger and Jerusalem bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren. The pair were quickly writing, compiling quotes, speaking to journalists abroad and before I knew it, they had completed a two page article titled “Israel Says It Has Proof That Syria Has Used Chemical Weapons” published merely hours after Brun’s speech ended.
As the news began to proliferate, it eventually got to Secretary of State John Kerry, prompting him to call up Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ask about the allegation. Netanyahu, likely having no idea about Brun’s comment could not confirm anything to Kerry.
The reason why all of this matters is because the President of the United States publicly declared a red line – if Syria uses chemical weapons, America will respond. But America does not want to respond right now. Furthermore, Israel does not want to put public pressure on America to react. Israel and the United States both likely knew with near certainty whether or not Syria had used chemical weapons but were hesitant to act. With this information being circulated in the public domain, the situation is begins to change.
Two days later, American Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel confirmed that the United States now believes that Syria did in fact use chemical weapons against their own population. This may prompt some sort of American reaction, a reaction that could change the course of the situation in Syria and possibly the Middle East as a whole. How this all happened? Because someone misinterpreted what someone said in a speech. This is the anatomy of global politics.