US confirms Syria used chemical weapons crossing Obama’s ‘red line’

Intelligence will put pressure on deeply divided administration


US and European intelligence analysts now believe that President Bashar Assad’s troops have used chemical weapons against rebel forces in the civil war in Syria, an assessment that will put added pressure on a deeply divided Obama administration to develop a response to a provocation that the president himself has declared a “red line”.

According to an internal memorandum circulating inside the government yesterday, the “intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year”.

President Barack Obama said in April that the United States had physiological evidence that the nerve gas sarin had been used in Syria, but lacked proof of who used it and under what circumstances. He now believes that the proof is definitive, according to US officials.

But a flurry of high-level meetings in Washington this week underscored the splits within the Obama administration about what actions to take to quell the fighting, which has claimed more than 90,000 people. The meetings were hastily arranged after Assad’s troops — joined by fighters from the militant group Hizbullah — claimed the strategic city of Qusayr and raised fears in Washington that large parts of the rebellion could be on the verge of collapse.

Senior state department officials have been pushing for an aggressive military response, including airstrikes to hit the primary landing strips in Syria that the government uses to launch the chemical weapons attacks, ferry troops around the country, and receive shipments of material from Iran. But White House officials remain wary, and one US official said that a meeting on Wednesday of the president’s senior advisers yielded no firm decisions about how to proceed.

It is unclear precisely how the Obama administration made its final determination about the chemical weapons use in Syria. According to the internal memorandum, intelligence agencies have “high confidence” in their assessment, and estimate that between 100 and 150 people have died to date from chemical weapons attacks. The memorandum goes on to say that the conclusion is based on a variety of intelligence.

“Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information,” the memorandum said.

The Obama administration’s cautious approach about Syria has already frayed relations with important US allies in the Middle East that have privately described the White House strategy as feckless. Saudi Arabia and Jordan recently cut the US out of a new rebel training programme, a decision that US officials said came from the belief in Riyadh and Amman that the US has only a tepid commitment to supporting rebel groups.

Moreover, the United Arab Emirates declined to host a meeting of allied defence officials to discuss Syria, concerned that in the absence of strong US leadership the conference might degenerate into bickering and finger pointing among various Gulf nations with different views on the best ways to support the rebellion.

Adding to those voices was former President Bill Clinton, who earlier this week endorsed a more robust US intervention in Syria to help the rebels, aligning himself with hawks like Senatpr John McCain, who fault Mr Obama for his reluctance to get entangled in the bloody civil war there.

Speaking on Tuesday at a private session in New York with Senator McCain, Mr Clinton said: “Sometimes it’s best to get caught trying, as long as you don’t overcommit.”

“Some people say, ‘Okay, see what a big mess this is? Stay out!’” Mr Clinton said. “I think that’s a big mistake. I agree with you about this,” he added, gesturing to Senator McCain, who has called for supplying the rebels with weapons and conducting airstrikes.

The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, drew back from Mr Clinton’s comments, saying: “The president makes a decision about the implementation of national security options based on our national security interests, not on what might satisfy critics at any given moment about a policy.”

The conclusion by US intelligence agencies strengthens their assessment earlier this year and poses an important test for the White House.

Mr Obama had repeatedly said the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces would a cross a red line, but he has not indicated what action he would take in response.

The conclusion of the latest intelligence review is much stronger than previously and is based on evidence that includes reporting on planning by the government for the use of chemical weapons, accounts of specific attacks and descriptions of physiological symptoms.

The draft statement notes there is no reason to think the resistance has access to chemical weapons.

“We believe that the Assad regime maintains control of these weapons, and has taken steps to secure these weapons from theft or attack,” it states. “We have no reliable, corroborated reported to indication that the opposition has acquired or used chemical weapons.” – (New York Times)