WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel returned home Friday from a weeklong, five-country tour of the Middle East that was marked by the startling revelation that Syria has used chemical weapons.
The Obama administration has identified the use of such weapons as one of the “red lines” that could trigger a response from the United States.
It was in the middle of Hagel's stop in Israel when that country's top military intelligence analyst disclosed during a speech that Syria had employed chemical weapons. The timing was somewhat awkward as the sudden public disclosure initially caught Hagel off guard.
Hagel later announced to reporters traveling with him that an assessment by U.S. intelligence indeed indicated that Syria has used chemical weapons and talked about the seriousness of that development.
“It violates every convention of warfare,” Hagel said.
Derek Chollet, assistant defense secretary for international security affairs and a Lincoln Southeast High School graduate, accompanied Hagel on the trip. He spoke to The World-Herald from the plane Friday afternoon as they were flying back over the Atlantic Ocean.
Chollet said there is always a wild card on these kinds of trips, so Hagel was prepared for the unexpected.
He added that Syria was a topic Hagel discussed with officials all along the trip, which included stops in Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
“It's a complex array of challenges that we face in the Middle East and many of these are connected,” Chollet said.
Among the highlights of Hagel's week in the Middle East was a $10 billion arms package that he is pushing forward, a move aimed at improving Israel's military advantage over its neighbors and strengthening the defenses of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The deal, which includes advanced radar, aircraft and missiles, had been in the works for a long time, but Hagel brought it across the finish line, Chollet said.
“He felt it was important, particularly on this first trip, to have that opportunity to have some concrete things to talk about,” said Chollet.
Overall, it was a high-profile excursion to a volatile region by the former GOP senator from Nebraska.
Tensions in the Middle East have been high with the civil war raging in Syria and continued questions about the potential for a nuclear-armed Iran.
Throw in Hagel's contentious confirmation process and critics questioning his commitment to the security of Israel, and it's clear why Hagel made this trip a top priority.
This was only his second overseas trip since he was sworn in about two months ago. His first was a relatively quick stop in Afghanistan.
Pentagon officials were ready to declare the trip a success, saying Hagel had bolstered relationships with allies in the region.
While in Israel, Hagel met with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and various other officials.
In particular, he spent a lot of time with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a retired military officer also new to his post.
The pair had one-on-one meetings, a dinner, a helicopter tour of the Golan Heights and a visit with a specialized Israeli military unit.
“He and the secretary were very much like two soldiers,” Chollet said of Yaalon. “They spoke the language. They got along very well.”
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