ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — The United States now believes the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against its people, according to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and a White House letter to Congress.
The White House informed Congress about the chemical weapons use in letters to Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., on Thursday.
“The intelligence community has been assessing information for some time on this issue,” Hagel said “The decision to make this conclusion was reached in the last 24 hours.”
The defense secretary, speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi, also said the U.S. government believes “any use of chemical weapons in Syria very likely originated” with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
President Obama has said the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that could trigger U.S. reaction.
But the assessment of likely chemical weapon use in Syria will not automatically trigger action, including military intervention, said a senior Defense department official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue.
The official referred to bad intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that led to the U.S. invasion of that country. In that case, the intelligence proved wrong.
In the letter to Congress, White House legislative affairs director Michael Rodriguez wrote, “Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.”
Hagel said any use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces would violate standards of warfare.
However, although the White House now believes sarin was used in Syria, Rodriguez wrote that “our standard of evidence must build on these intelligence assessments as we seek to establish credible and corroborated facts. For example, the chain of custody is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.”
Thursday’s announcements represent the first U.S. indication of confidence in claims that Syria used chemical weapons. On Tuesday, Hagel said he doubted Syria had used the weapons after an Israeli intelligence officer had said so during a security conference in Israel.
Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, the head of research and analysis in Israeli military intelligence, said Tuesday that Syria had used chemical weapons multiple times. “Shrunken pupils, foaming at the mouth and other signs indicate, in our view, that lethal chemical weapons were used,” he said.
Brun also said the Syrian regime was using less lethal chemical weapons, and that Russia has continued to arm the Syrian military with weapons such as advanced SA-17 air defense missiles.
The White House statement puts the United States closer to the positions of Great Britain, France and Israel about Syria’s use of chemical weapons. British and French officials told U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon last month they had evidence of such use, including soil samples and interviews with witnesses and members of the Syrian opposition.
The two countries asked the United Nations chief to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in two locations near Damascus on March 19, as well as in the city of Homs on Dec. 23. Ban has appointed a team of chemical weapons experts to investigate the allegations, but the Syrian government has largely blocked the team from doing its work. Syria, meanwhile, has accused rebels of using chemical weapon.
Rodriguez wrote that the United States is “currently pressing for a comprehensive United Nations investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place.”
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