U.S. suspects Syria used chemical weapons, wants proof

A member of the Free Syrian Army holds his weapon as he sits on a sofa in the middle of a street in Deir al-Zor, in this April 2, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/Files
A member of the Free Syrian Army holds his weapon as he sits on a sofa in the middle of a street in Deir al-Zor, in this April 2, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/Files

The White House said on Thursday that the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad has probably used chemical weapons on a small scale in the country’s civil war, but insisted that President Barack Obama needed definitive proof before he would take action.

The disclosure created a quandary for Obama, who has set the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” that Assad must not cross, and triggered calls from some hawkish Washington lawmakers for a U.S. military response, which the president has resisted.

In a shift from a White House assessment just days earlier, U.S. officials said the intelligence community believed with “varying degrees of confidence” that the chemical nerve agent sarin was used by Assad’s forces against rebel fighters. However, it noted that “the chain of custody is not clear.”

While Obama has declared that the deployment of chemical weapons would be a game-changer and has threatened unspecified consequences if it happened, his administration will move carefully – mindful of the lessons of the start of the Iraq war more than a decade ago.

Then, President George W. Bush’s administration used inaccurate U.S. intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq in pursuit of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that turned out not to exist.

On top of that, polls show most Americans, weary and disillusioned by the wars just ended in Iraq and now winding down in Afghanistan, have little appetite for another U.S. military engagement in the Muslim world.

“Given the stakes involved and what we have learned from our own recent experiences, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient – only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making,” Miguel Rodriguez, White House director of the office of legislative affairs, said in a letter to lawmakers.

One senior U.S. defense official told reporters: “We have seen very bad movies before,” where intelligence was perceived to have driven policy decisions that later, in the cold light of day, were proven wrong.

The term “varying degrees of confidence” used to describe the assessment of possible chemical weapons use in Syria usually suggests debate within the U.S. intelligence community about the conclusion, the defense official noted.

The White House said the evaluation that Syria probably used chemical weapons was based in part on physiological samples, but a U.S. official declined to say what kind of evidence it had, like soil samples or blood or hair from victims.

The scale of the use of sarin appeared limited, with one U.S. intelligence official noting that nobody was “seeing any mass casualties” from the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria.

The United States has resisted being dragged militarily into Syria’s conflict and is providing only non-lethal aid to rebels trying to overthrow Assad. Washington is worried that weapons supplied to the rebels could end up the hands of al Qaeda-linked fighters.

However, acknowledgement of the U.S. intelligence assessment appeared to move the United States closer to some sort of action in Syria, military or otherwise.

A White House official told reporters “all options are on the table in terms of our response” and said the United States, which has been criticized for not doing enough to halt the bloodshed, would consult with its allies.

The official said the U.S. military was preparing for a range of “different contingencies” but declined to give specifics. Options available to Obama could include everything from air strikes to commando raids to setting up a Libya-style “no-fly” zone, either unilaterally or in cooperation with allies.

SURPRISE ANNOUNCEMENT

Still, Washington appeared intent on deflecting pressure for swift action by stressing the need for a comprehensive United Nations investigation on the ground in Syria – something Assad has blocked from going forward.

Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, in an interview with Reuters, dismissed Western and Israeli claims that government forces had used chemical weapons and said it was a “big lie” that Syria was preventing the U.N. probe.

Assad has clung to power despite repeated U.S. calls for him to step down. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the revolt against his family’s decades-long autocratic rule. A military stalemate has set in but Assad has still been able to rely on support from Russia and Iran.

“The reality is that as a country we can’t declare red lines and then do nothing when they are crossed. Eventually we have to do something,” said Ariel Ratner, a former Middle East adviser in the State Department and now a fellow at the Truman National Security Project.

The Obama administration’s sudden disclosure caught many off guard. It came just two days after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other U.S. officials appeared to play down an Israeli assessment that there had been repeated use of chemical weapons in Syria.

France and Britain have also concluded that evidence suggests chemical arms have been used in Syria’s conflict.

“The intelligence community has been assessing information for some time on this issue and the decision to reach this conclusion was made within the past 24 hours,” Hagel said.

The White House said it wanted to provide a “prompt response” to an April 24 query from lawmakers about whether Syria had used chemical weapons. The legislators’ letter to Obama cited the assessments by Israel, France and Britain.

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, one of the leading advocates of deeper U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict, said the intelligence assessment demanded a response.

“The president of the United States said that if Bashar Assad used chemical weapons, it would be a game changer, that it would cross a red line,” he said. “I think it’s pretty obvious that red line has been crossed.”

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, voiced concern that the public acknowledgement of the U.S. intelligence assessment could embolden Assad and may prompt him to calculate “he has nothing more to lose.”

“Syria has the ability to kill tens of thousands with its chemical weapons. The world must come together to prevent this by unified action,” she said.

In Brussels, the NATO alliance was “concerned by reports of the possible use of chemical weapons,” an official said.

“As NATO has said in the past, any use of these weapons would be completely unacceptable and a clear breach of international law, and if any side uses these weapons we would expect a reaction from the international community,” the official said.

Patriot missile interceptors that NATO has sent to Turkey, a member of the alliance which borders Syria, would “help ensure the protection of Turkey against any missile attack, whether the missiles carry chemical weapons or not,” the official added.

 


News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
News

Boston Strong: One year on from Boston Marathon…

  For more than a century the Boston Marathon has been an even centred around sportsmanship, endurance and athleticism, but there's no denying the face…

Local

Hillary Clinton headed to Boston for women's leadership…

Former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set to visit Massachusetts Wednesday amid continuing speculation about making another bid for the presidency in 2016.

Local

Boston Marathon: Marathoners ready to run, honor victims

Scores of runners will cross the Boston Marathon starting line in Hopkinton Monday and embark on a 26.2-mile journey to Boston in honor of the victims.

Local

MIT student, Rhodes scholar, dies

Eliana Hechter, a student at MIT and Harvard, died, her family said. The announcement was posted on MIT's website.

Television

‘Mad Men’ recap: Season 7, Episode 2, ‘A…

Peggy and Lou are horrible, Bert's racist, Don is honest(ish) and Roger and Pete are frustrated. "A Day's Work" not quite worthy of "This Will Be Our Year."

Television

'Game of Thrones' recap: Season 4, Episode 3,…

The problem with the devil you know is that ignoring them doesn’t mean they simply lie in wait. It allows them time to do things…

Television

Discovery cancels 'Everest Jump Live' special in wake…

The Discovery Channel has indicated it will not be moving forward with "Everest Jump Live," a planned special about mountain climber Joby Ogwyn's effort to…

The Word

'X-Men' director Bryan Singer drama continues

  News broke late last week that "X-Men" and "The Usual Suspects" director Bryan Singer is being sued by a man who said Singer molested…

MLB

MLB video highlights: Red Sox walk off with…

Red Sox pick up first walk off win of 2014

MLB

Red Sox and Orioles meet Monday morning at…

Red Sox and Orioles meet Monday morning at 11 a.m.

NHL

NHL video highlights: Bruins smack down Red Wings…

NHL video highlights: Bruins smack down Red Wings in Game 2

MLB

MLB video highlights: Red Sox defeat Orioles, 4-2

Brock Holt the difference in the Red Sox' win

Travel

Packing: The one thing you need in your…

A new survey that looks at the travel habits of 50,000 people around the world has revealed that Western and Asian globetrotters have different priorities…

Home

Is your chair making it hard to talk?

Ever wished there was an office chair that could make impromptu meetings and discussions more private? The Cristiana Wing Chair is an asymmetrical armchair which…

Travel

Live large at these luxury hotels

From Thai boxing lessons and macabre Dracula tours to the Australian Outback, the Four Seasons hotel chain launched a series of new travel packages this…

Parenting

4 things that every summer camp should have

Alan Saltz, director of the 92nd street Y program lists things that every summer camp should have.