April 25, 2013 5:39 pm

US suspects Syria used chemical weapons

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Smoke rises after shelling on al-Turkman mountains in the Latakia province, western Syria©AFP

Smoke rises after shelling on al-Turkman mountains in Latakia province, western Syria

The White House said for the first time on Thursday that the Syrian regime has likely used chemical weapons in its battle to contain a two-year-old rebellion, a step that could become the starting point for much broader US involvement.

In a letter sent to Congress, the White House said that evidence taken from sites in Syria and from potential victims indicated that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against the opposition, including sarin, an extremely powerful nerve agent.

The disclosure from the White House contained a number of caveats, including that the assessment about the use of chemical weapons was made “with varying degrees of confidence” and that they had been deployed on a “small scale”.

However, the simple admission that chemical weapons have likely been used will put huge pressure on President Barack Obama to intervene more forcefully in the Syrian conflict.

Mr Obama has made it clear on a number of occasions that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” and a “game changer” for the US. “That would change my calculus, that would change my equation,” he said in August.

At the same time, the president has been reluctant to authorise more direct US involvement in the conflict and blocked a proposal last year from his senior advisers to arm the Syrian opposition.

The administration said that it would push for a thorough investigation of the incidents in order to establish “credible and corroborated facts” about chemical weapons use.

“Given the stakes involved, and what we have learnt from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient – only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making,” Miguel Rodriguez, director of the White House office of legislative affairs, said in a letter to Senators John McCain and Carl Levin.

The White House said it was working with opposition groups and other governments to establish the facts. It is also pushing for a comprehensive UN investigation into the incidents, although the Syrian authorities have blocked access to the sites of alleged chemical weapons use in Aleppo and Homs.

According to a senior western diplomat, the evidence of the use of sarin is based on two separate samples taken from victims of the attacks. One sample has been analysed by the US authorities, while the second has been examined by Britain’s Defence Science Technology Laboratory.

According to this diplomat, both the US and UK samples were taken from victims at separate locations and on separate dates in the conflict.

A senior British official said: “When you put everything together, both in terms of the hard evidence we have and the circumstantial evidence, then it is increasingly likely that sarin was used by the Assad regime.”

However the official added: “What the evidence does not tell us is things like the scale of use, the precise location and whether the sarin was weaponised. We do not yet have that hard information which allows us to make a categorical statement that would be unchallengeable in the court of international public opinion.”

The US accusation follows similar ones from British, French and Israeli officials.

Until Thursday, the Obama administration had been attempting to play down the growing body of reports about chemical weapons use, which defence secretary Chuck Hagel described earlier in the week as “only suspicions”.

Speaking on Thursday, Mr Hagel said that the US intelligence community had reached its new conclusion over the past 24 hours. “This is serious business – we need all the facts,” he said, on a visit to Abu Dhabi.

This week, Brigadier General Itai Brun, the Israeli army’s top intelligence analyst, said Syrian forces were “increasingly” resorting to the use of chemical weapons.

Some analysts have speculated that Mr Assad’s forces might have been using chemical weapons in small amounts to test the response of the US and other governments.

There have already been some signs in recent weeks that the US was stepping up its involvement in the conflict. Last week, it sent more troops to Jordan, including a small unit that would have the capacity to organise operations in the event of a much bigger intervention to try and control chemical weapons sites.

However, at the same time, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said that he no longer supported arming the opposition because the US could not prevent weapons from ending up in the hands of Islamist radicals fighting the regime.

Jeffrey Feltman, UN undersecretary for political affairs, said on Wednesday that investigators were ready to deploy to Syria within 24 hours if they were given access to sites in Homs and Aleppo. In the meantime, the UN is believed to be analysing soil samples from the site that were provided by opposition groups as well as examining individuals at refugee camps who might have been exposed to chemical agents.

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