The Cable

White House says chemical weapons used in Syria

The White House acknowledged for the first time Thursday that chemical weapons were likely used in Syria and lawmakers quickly responded to say President Barack Obama's red line has been crossed.

At a briefing for all senators Thursday morning led by Secretary of State John Kerry and including representation from the office of the director of national intelligence and the FBI, lawmakers were given a letter from Obama stating that his administration now believed that the regime of President Bashar al Assad has used chemical weapons. The new assessment brings the United States in line with the assessments of Britain, France, the Israel Defense Forces, and the prime minister of Qatar, who addressed the issue Wednesday evening in Washington.

"Our intelligence community does asses with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent Sarin," Miguel Rodriguez, the director of the White House office of legislative affairs, wrote in the letter.

That conclusion was based in part on "physiological samples," the White House said. British intelligence agents were reported to have secured soil samples from an alleged instance of chemical weapons use in Aleppo and Damascus in March. Syrian activists also claim that the regime used chemical weapons last December in Homs, but two State Department investigations failed to confirm that allegation.

The White House said the chain of custody for the evidence was not clear so the U.S. intelligence community cannot confirm where or how the chemical weapons were used.

"Thus far, we believe that the Assad regime maintains custody of these weapons, and has demonstrated a willingness to escalate its horrific use of violence against the Syrian people," the letter stated.

The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross the "red line" President Barack Obama first established in an Aug. 20 statement. "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation," Obama said.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel echoed the letter's conclusions when speaking to reporters Thursday in Abu Dahbi. "It violates every convention of warfare," he said.  Hagel said the administration was still assessing whether the information means that Assad has violated Obama's red line. Only yesterday, Hagel was striking a more skeptical tone. "Suspicions are one thing, evidence is another," he said Wednesday when asked about the issue.

Also yesterday, a senior official told The New York Times that the administration lacked conclusive evidence that chemical weapons had been used in Syria and therefore was not prepared to take steps toward intervention.

"It is precisely because this is a red line that we have to establish with airtight certainty that this happened," the official told the Times. "The bar on the United States is higher than on anyone else, both because of our capabilities and because of our history in Iraq."

The president's letter was a response to a letter sent Wednesday to Obama by a bipartisan group of senators asking for the administration's view on whether chemical weapons had been used. The letter was signed by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Carl Levin (D-MI), Bob Corker (R-TN), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Bob Casey (D-PA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH).  

"Senior officials from your Administration have testified publicly to Congress that they are still reviewing the facts and have not yet determined whether chemical weapons have been used by the Assad regime in Syria," the senators wrote. "Has the Assad regime - or Syrian elements associated with, or supported by, the Assad regime - used chemical weapons in Syria since the current conflict began in March 2011? We believe this question can be answered straightforwardly without compromising any critical intelligence sources and methods, just as our French, British, and Israeli allies have done."

Emerging from Thursday morning's briefing, which was classified, McCain waved the president's letter, which was unclassified, and called for more aggressive military steps by the U.S. inside Syria.

"I think it's pretty obvious that this red line has been crossed," McCain said. "Everything that the non-interventionalists said would happen in Syria if we intervened has happened."

McCain called for a no fly zone to protect Syrian civilians and for the U.S. to provide arms to members of the Syrian armed opposition. He also said the military has to prepare to go into Syrian to protect the regime's chemical weapons from falling into the wrong hands.

"We have to have operational capability to secure these chemical weapons stocks," McCain said.

Graham warned of the chaos that is spreading in the region and the potential for that instability to increase if and when Assad falls. He called for the administration to develop a strategy "to contain the fighting so the Kingdom of Jordan does not fall." Jordan's King Abullah II is on Capitol Hill Thursday to meet with lawmakers.

Corker, the Republican head of the foreign relations committee who has not called for military intervention, struck a more somber tone following the briefing.

"There's probably a little bit of additional verification that needs to occur, but there are indications that a red line has been crossed," he said. "I think there are a lot more serious and sober discussions ahead."


Qatari prime minister: Bashar used chemical weapons

Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani on Wednesday accused the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons on its own people, joining Britain, France, and Israel in determining that Bashar al-Assad's forces had used deadly poison gas in violation of international norms.

Al Thani, answering questions at an event in his honor sponsored by the Brookings Institution, spoke frankly about Qatar's assertive foreign policy in the Middle East, which has thrust the tiny Gulf monarchy into the center of the region's conflicts and controversies.

The Qatari prime minister, who also serves as foreign minister, is in Washington with a delegation headed by Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who has ruled Qatar since deposing his father in a 1995 coup.

"Chemicals? He used chemicals, and there is evidence," Al Thani said, referring to Assad. He described the Syrian ruler's strategy as an attempt to "test your reactions" and incrementally cross U.S. President Barack Obama's "red lines." Al Thani did not say whether Qatar had made its own independent assessment of the use of chemical weapons, or whether it was relying on other countries' reports.

The United States has not made a determination on the Syrian regime's alleged chemical-weapons use, but a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to the president Wednesday pressing him to make "a public determination on this important national and international security issue."

Al Thani, whose meeting with Obama Tuesday apparently went over time, urged the president to be more aggressive, though he declined to cite any specific measures. "The United States has to do more," he said. As for Qatar, "We did not want to take the lead. We wanted to take a back seat. But we find ourselves in the front seat."

Al Thani also denied persistent charges that Qatar is finding jihadi groups in Syria such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has pledged its fealty to al Qaeda and been listed by the United States as a terrorist organization. "We did not give any aid financially or any other way to these people," he said, insisting that Qatar was working with the United States and other allies through "operation rooms" in Jordan and Turkey. He said accusations to the contrary were started by "families" in the region -- perhaps an allusion to one of Qatar's neighbors.

Al Thani described a meeting he had with Assad at the beginning of the uprising, before the Syrian leader gave his first speech on the crisis. He said he told Assad: "There is a way to rule before Bouazizi and a way to rule in our region after Bouazizi," referring to the fruit seller whose self-immolation sparked the Syrian uprising. "So things have to change."

Assad made certain promises, he said, but never followed through on his commitments. Instead, Al Thani said, he appeared before the Syrian parliament "and he was joking ... there was blood in the street, people being killed."

"He has only one way," Al Thani said. "Kill and kill and kill until you win."