ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- U.S. intelligence has determined that embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad deployed chemical weapons to subdue the rebellion in his country, Obama administration officials said Thursday, a disclosure that could move the United States closer to intervening in that country’s 2-year-old civil war.
The White House informed members of Congress in a letter that intelligence agencies believe Assad’s regime used sarin, a nerve agent, “on a small scale in Syria.”
It marked the first time the United States has accused Assad of using chemical weapons, which President Obama has termed a “red line” that would trigger unspecified U.S. action.
The White House is deeply reluctant to become embroiled in the Syrian conflict, but after Britain, France and Israel in recent weeks accused Assad of using chemical weapons, it raised pressure on the United States to finalize its own assessment.
For days, Obama administration officials said that intelligence agencies hadn’t reached a conclusion, but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, traveling Thursday in the United Arab Emirates, said the positive determination was made “within the past 24 hours.”
The White House said the assessment was based partly on physiological samples, a possible reference to soil and tissue evidence that Israel and others also cited. It didn’t specify when and where the alleged sarin use took place, but Israel’s top military intelligence analyst said this week that a sarin-based nerve agent was used in attacks March 19 near Aleppo and Damascus, Syria’s two largest cities.
The U.S. intelligence community has “varying degrees of confidence” in the findings, the letter said, signaling that there are disagreements within the government not only about the quality of the evidence but also about how to respond. Hagel said intelligence officials were continuing to gather evidence and that the administration was pushing for a United Nations investigation.
“This is serious business. We need all the facts,” Hagel said.
Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is believed to be one of the world’s largest, and Obama administration officials have said repeatedly that use of the chemical agents -- or transferring them to terrorist groups -- would cross a “red line.” For months, the Pentagon has been drawing up options in case the administration decided to intervene to secure the stockpiles, and last week Hagel announced that 200 Army troops would be deployed to neighboring Jordan to assist in the planning.
But as the Obama administration accelerates the U.S. exit from Afghanistan and manages budget cuts at the Pentagon, many U.S. officials question the wisdom of a military approach to Syria. Top brass, including Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, openly oppose a military response, which one Pentagon study said could require as many as 70,000 troops.
The United States and allies also have reservations about the rebels battling Assad, a patchwork of groups that lack a unified command and include Al Nusra Front, a faction that claims loyalty to Al Qaeda.
The administration has resisted furnishing the rebels with military aid, deciding instead on a package last weekend of $123 million in nonlethal assistance that pro-opposition activists criticize as insufficient to turn the tide against Assad.
Pentagon officials said other nonmilitary options remained on the table.
“Intelligence assessments don’t automatically trigger policy decisions,” said a senior Defense official who wasn’t authorized to be quoted by name. Invoking the Iraq war, the official added, “We have seen very bad movies before when intelligence is perceived to have driven policy decisions that in the cold light of day have proven wrong.”
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