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Britain and France suggest possible chemical weapons use by Syria

April 18, 2013|By Ken Dilanian and Paul Richter
  • In this image from video broadcast on Syrian state television Wednesday, President Bashar Assad speaks during an interview.
In this image from video broadcast on Syrian state television Wednesday,…

WASHINGTON -- The British and French governments have asked the United Nations to investigate what they believe is credible evidence that the Syrian regime has used small amounts of chemical weapons in recent months, officials said.

The evidence, including soil samples and witness testimony,  is not definitive. But the concerns are such that “we are pressing the United Nations to investigate further and raising our concerns with international partners,” said a British diplomat who declined to be named in speaking about a sensitive matter.

President Obama has said any use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime would be a “game changer,” though he hasn’t said how the United States would respond. Other U.S. officials have called it a “red line.”

The Pentagon’s move to send about 200 troops to Jordan, disclosed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday, gives the U.S. a potential military option in the event it decides one is warranted. The small force can pave the way for a rapid buildup of a much larger contingent.

A U.S. official who refused to be named in speaking about intelligence said there's no consensus within the U.S. intelligence community, “but there are growing concerns that chemical weapons may have been used ... in a limited way.”

Asked about the matter Thursday by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said he could not discuss it in public.

“The increasingly beleaguered regime, having found that its escalation of violence through conventional means is not working, appears quite willing to use chemical weapons against its own people,” Clapper said.

“We receive many claims of chemical warfare use in Syria each day, and we take them all seriously and we do all we can to investigate them. We can't provide additional details on these efforts in this setting to protect the fragile critical intelligence we need to assess the situation, but we certainly -- we can talk about this in closed session.” 

Luxembourg, South Korea and Japan also have asked the United Nations to investigate, diplomats said.

Some diplomats believe Syria is testing the U.S. and its partners by using the weapons in small amounts to see what sort of response ensues.

About 70,000 people are believed to have died in the two-year conflict between forces loyal to Assad and opposition fighters.

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