For the first time, the United States has said that Syria has probably used chemical weapons against rebel forces, but emphasized that spy agencies were still not 100 percent sure of the assessment.
Although President Obama has called the use of chemical weapons a “red line” and a “game changer” in the Syrian conflict, officials say that doesn’t mean an American invasion or even any action at this point in time. Skittish after America’s invasion of Iraq, the White House has said that "intelligence assessments alone" aren't a sufficient basis for war, and that Obama will first require an investigation by the U.N.
The use of chemical weapons have been confirmed in part by physiological samples, including soil and human tissue samples that have been collected inside Syria in recent weeks.
Although most assessments contend that the Assad regime has been the perpetrator of the chemical attacks, there is also speculation that the samples were planted by the rebels who seek to draw the West into the conflict.
The samples were first analyzed by British intelligence officials. Israeli officials have specifically said that a March 19 attack in Syria most likely involved the use of sarin based on symptoms observed in the victims (shrunken pupils, foaming at the mouth and other symptoms consistent with the use of sarin).
In addition, opposition forces have often offered conflicting accounts of the use of these weapons which they say government forces used on populations in Homs and Damascus.
Miguel E Rodriguez, assistant to the president and director of the Office of Legislative Affairs, revealed the claims that chemical weapons were used in Syria in a letter to Senators John McCain and Carl Levin. "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. We do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime," the letter said.
The letter prompted various responses by U.S. senators. "The problem is that the president has consistently said that's a ‘red line,’ so the question is, will the president act in a way that I have advocated for a long time?" said Senator McCain."
Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic senator and chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said, "It is clear that 'red lines’ have been crossed and action must be taken to prevent larger-scale use." Senator Feinstein warned that if the US failed to act, "Assad may calculate he has nothing more to lose, and the likelihood he will further escalate this conflict therefore increases."
A senior White House official said that should use of the weapons be confirmed, "all options are on the table." A US defense official stressed that military intervention was not imminent and signaled spy agencies had differing opinions.
"Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, "We need all the facts and we need all the information.”
An Israeli general in military intelligence alleged that Syria had used chemical agents more than once during the protracted civil war, after Britain and France had voiced similar concerns to the United Nations.
The British Foreign Office insisted today that tests done at the defense research laboratory in Porton Down had found "limited but persuasive" evidence of sarin use, which it described as a war crime. "The material from inside Syria tested positive," a spokesman said.
Syria has asked for a UN investigation but has refused to let a UN team waiting in the region into the country. Assad's government only wants its claims that opposition rebels used chemical arms to be investigated. UN chief Ban Ki-moon has said the team must look into all claims.
The CIA believes Syria has had a chemical weapons program for years. There is grave concern in the UK and US that its stockpile of chemical weapons, approximately 1,000 tons, stored in 50 towns, could fall into the hands of al-Qaeda and be turned on Western targets.
British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke out against the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, agreeing with Barack Obama's assessment that the issue was a 'red line' but playing down talk that it could lead to British troops on the ground in the country.
Both the rebel forces and Assad's regime have accused each other of using chemical weapons. There have been reports from inside Syria of containers, possibly containing Sarin, being dropped from the air.
It is also believed that Syria has attempted to develop more toxic nerve agents.
Syria's President al-Assad warned that the West will pay a price “in the heart” of Europe and the US for their alleged backing of Islamic fundamentalists in his country's civil war.
The Obama administration has opposed directly arming Syrian opposition fighters, in part out of fear that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.