U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks with reporters after reading a statement on chemical weapon use in Syria during a press conference on April 25 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Jim Watson / Getty Images)
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. These announcements are the first U.S. indication of confidence in claims of Syria’s chemical weapons use.
“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 repeated Thursday that any use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces “violates every convention of warfare,” since they represent “uncontrollable, deadly weapons.”
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.”
The assessment of weapons use relies in part on “physiological evidence,” the senior defense official said, declining to be more specific.
Hagel said the intelligence is still being analyzed to determine when and under what circumstances the weapons were used.
“Those are all questions that the intelligence community is assessing,” Hagel said. “The intelligence (reports) that I’ve seen over the last few weeks do get into some of the when and general areas. But I don’t have that in front of me and obviously this is classified.”
After a national security briefing in Washington, McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the chemical weapons stocks must be secured and aid should be provided to the Syrian Opposition Council to drive out the Assad regime.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that a red line has been crossed,” McCain said. “Now I hope the administration will consider what we have been recommending now for over two years of this bloodletting and massacre, and that is to provide a safe area for the opposition to operate, to establish a no-fly zone and provide weapons to the people in the resistance who we trust.”
Earlier this week, 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 weapons.
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.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., urged the United Nations Security Council to take “strong and meaningful action” against Syria.
“I am very concerned that with this public acknowledgement, President Assad may calculate he has nothing more to lose and the likelihood he will further escalate this conflict therefore increases,” Feinstein said in a statement. “It is also important that the world understands the use of weapons of mass destruction, such as sarin, will not be countenanced, and clearly Assad must go.”
Contributing: Catalina Camia and Susan Davis in Washington