BRUSSELS (AP) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged NATO on Tuesday to prepare for the possible use of chemical weapons by Syria on the same day a senior Israeli military intelligence official said Syrian President Bashar Assad had used such weapons last month in his battle against insurgents.
It was the first time Israel had accused the embattled Syrian leader of using his stockpile of nonconventional weapons.
The assessment, based on visual evidence, could raise pressure on the U.S. and other Western countries to intervene in Syria. Britain and France recently announced they had evidence Assad's government had used chemical weapons.
President Barack Obama has warned the use of chemical weapons by Assad would be a "game changer" and has hinted it could draw intervention.
But White House spokesman Jay Carney said while the administration is continuing to monitor and investigate whether the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons, it has "not come to the conclusion that there has been that use."
"But it is something that is of great concern to us, to our partners, and obviously unacceptable as the president made clear," Carney said.
Despite the deteriorating situation, NATO officials say there is virtually no chance the alliance will intervene in the civil war. More than 70,000 people have died in the conflict, according to the United Nations. The violence also has forced more than 1 million Syrians to seek safety abroad, and more are leaving by the day, burdening neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
On Tuesday, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, the head of research and analysis in Israeli military intelligence, told a security conference in Tel Aviv that Assad had used chemical weapons multiple times. Among the incidents were attacks documented by the French and British near Damascus last month.
He cited images of people hurt, but gave no indication he had other evidence, such as soil samples, typically used to verify chemical weapons use.
"To the best of our professional understanding, the regime used lethal chemical weapons against the militants in a series of incidents over the past months, including the relatively famous incident of March 19," Brun said. "Shrunken pupils, foaming at the mouth and other signs indicate, in our view, that lethal chemical weapons were used."
He said sarin, a lethal nerve agent, was probably used. He also said the Syrian regime was using less lethal chemical weapons. And he appeared to lament the lack of response by the international community.
"The fact that chemical weapons were used without an appropriate response is a very disturbing development because it could signal that such a thing is legitimate," he said.
Israel, which borders Syria, has been warily watching the Syrian civil war since fighting erupted there in March 2011. Although Assad is a bitter enemy, Israel has been careful not to take sides, partly because the Assad family has kept the border with Israel quiet for 40 years and partly because of fears of what might happen if he were toppled.
Israeli officials are concerned Assad's stockpile of chemical weapons and other advanced arms could reach the hands of his ally, the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon, or Islamic extremist groups trying to oust him from Syria.
Kerry, attending his first meeting of NATO's governing body, the North Atlantic Council, as America's top diplomat, said contingency plans should be put in place to guard against the threat of a chemical strike. Turkey, a member of the military alliance, borders Syria and would be most at risk from such an attack. NATO has already deployed Patriot missile batteries in Turkey.
"Planning regarding Syria, such as what (NATO) has already done, is an appropriate undertaking for the alliance," Kerry told NATO foreign ministers. "We should also carefully and collectively consider how NATO is prepared to respond to protect its members from a Syrian threat, including any potential chemical weapons threat."
Speaking at a news conference after the meeting, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance is "extremely concerned about the use of ballistic missiles in Syria and the possible use of chemical weapons." However, he also noted NATO has not been asked to intervene.
"There is no call for NATO to play a role, but if these challenges remain unaddressed they could directly affect our own security," he told reporters. "So we will continue to remain extremely vigilant."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in Brussels to talk with his counterparts from NATO countries, said Russia would want any investigation of whether chemical weapons have been used to be conducted by experts and concern only the specific report being investigated.