U.S. intelligence agencies believe Syria’s government has likely used chemical weapons on a small scale, the White House said on Thursday, but added that President Barack Obama needed “credible and corroborated” facts before acting on that assessment.
The surprise disclosure triggered immediate calls for U.S. action by members of Congress who advocate deeper American involvement in Syria’s bitter civil war.
The White House said the U.S. intelligence community assessed with varying degrees of confidence that the chemical agent sarin was used by forces allied with President Bashar al-Assad. But it noted that “the chain of custody is not clear.”
While Obama has declared that Syrian use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer, his administration made clear it would move carefully, mindful of the lessons of the start of the Iraq War 10 years ago.
Then the George W. Bush administration used faulty intelligence to justify invading Iraq in pursuit of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that turned out not to exist.
“Given the stakes involved and what we have learned from our own recent experiences, 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, White House director of the Office of Legislative Affairs, said in a letter to lawmakers.
The White House said the evaluation that Syria probably used chemical weapons was based in part on physiological samples, but a White House official declined to say what kind of evidence it had, such as soil samples or victims’ hair.
The scale of the sarin use appeared limited, with one U.S. intelligence official noting that nobody was “seeing any mass casualties” from any Syrian chemical weapons use.
The U.S. has so far resisted being dragged militarily into Syria’s conflict, providing only non-lethal aid to rebels trying to overthrow Assad, given concerns that weapons end up in the hands of al Qaida-linked opposition fighters.
But acknowledgement of the U.S. intelligence assessment appeared to move the United States closer to some sort of action, military or otherwise. A White House official told reporters “all options are on the table in terms of our response” and said the U.S. would consult with allies.