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U.S. Officials Confirm: Chemical Weapons Used In Syria

The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that the Syrian army used chemical weapons against opposition forces, according to statements made today by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel:

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel first revealed the intelligence assessment, which was detailed in a letter to select members of Congress, while speaking to reporters on a visit to Abu Dhabi. The administration then released those letters, which said U.S. intelligence determined with varying degrees of confidence that “the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.” …

The White House, however, stressed that this was not enough to confirm how the nerve gas was released — though acknowledged it is “very likely” to have originated with the regime of Bashar Assad — and pressed the United Nations for a “comprehensive” investigation. The letter from the White House director of the Office of Legislative Affairs to leading members of the Senate Armed Services Committee said the assessment was based in part on “physiological samples.”

The declaration comes weeks after American intelligence officials reportedly concluded that at least some kind of chemical weapons had been used by forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime. While the Syrian government and the rebels seeking its overthrow have long traded tit-for-tat accusations that each is using unconventional weapons, Hagel’s announcement marked the first time that U.S. figures have officially leveled such accusations at either side.

At stake is the so-called “red line” set by President Obama, under which the U.S. would take harsh action in the aftermath of chemical weapons use. The president has been explicit on the point. In his recent Jerusalem speech he linked the dangers of Syrian WMD use to the activities of the Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah, which has been fighting on Assad’s behalf:

The world cannot tolerate an organization that murders innocent civilians, stockpiles rockets to shoot at cities, and supports the massacre of men, women and children in Syria. The fact that Hezbollah’s ally – the Assad regime – has stockpiles of chemical weapons only heightens the urgency. We will continue to cooperate closely to guard against that danger. And I have made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders: we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people or the transfer of these weapons to terrorists. The world is watching, and we will hold you accountable.

The U.S. assessment echoes evaluations by Israeli officials. On Tuesday Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, the head of the Israeli Defense Forces Military Intelligence research section, disclosed Israeli estimations that the Syrian army has used sarin gas, along with other “neutralizing and nonlethal chemical weapons.”

Earlier this month U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for an investigation into allegations that Syria had used chemical weapons. A team of U.N investigators dispatched to evaluate the claims was denied access to relevant sites.

[Photo: Secretary of Defense / Flickr]