Despite a new U.S. intelligence community assessment that the Syrian regime likely used chemical weapons on its own people, the White House is still waiting for more evidence before deciding whether Bashar al-Assad has crossed President Barack Obama's "red line."
The White House scrambled Thursday to set up a conference call with reporters following Thursday morning's news that the U.S. intelligence community has concluded with varying levels of confidence that there has been small-scale use of sarin, a deadly nerve gas, inside Syria, most likely by the Syrian regime. Secretary of State John Kerry told lawmakers Thursday that the assessment referenced two instances of chemical weapons use in Syria.
A senior White House official said on the conference call that the intelligence community's assessment was not enough to determine that President Obama's red line regarding U.S. intervention in Syria has been crossed.
"We are continuing to do further work to establish a definitive judgment as to whether or not the red line has been crossed and to inform our decision-making about what to do next," the official said. "If we reach a definitive determination that this red line has been crossed, based on credible, corroborated information, what we will be doing is consulting closely with our friends and allies and the international community more broadly, as well as the Syrian opposition, to determine what the best course of action is."
The official indirectly referenced the flawed intelligence assessments about Saddam Hussein's programs of weapons of mass destruction in the lead up to the Iraq war as justification for caution.
"I'd say that given our own history with intelligence assessments, including intelligence assessments related to weapons of mass destruction, it's very important that we are able to establish this with certainty and that we are able to present information that is airtight in a public and credible fashion to underpin all of our decision-making. That is, I think, the threshold that is demanded given how serious this issue is," the official said. "But again, I think nobody should have any mistake about what our red line is... It is absolutely the case that the president's red line is the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups."
The Obama administration is keeping all options on the table, but the official declined to say what options might be considered if and when it is confirmed that the president's red line has been crossed. The official also declined to identify the locations or dates of the two alleged uses of chemical weapons in Syria, but acknowledged that a March incident in Aleppo had spurred the United States to press for a fuller investigation.
"We will constantly have prepared contingency planning for different scenarios within Syria," the official said. "What the Assad regime needs to know is that we are watching this incredibly closely."
The White House's conclusion that not enough evidence exists to confirm that the Syrian regime has crossed Obama's red line was contradicted Thursday by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
"It is clear that ‘red lines' have been crossed and action must be taken to prevent larger scale use," she said in a statement. "Syria has the ability to kill tens of thousands with its chemical weapons. The world must come together to prevent this by unified action which results in the secure containment of Syria's significant stockpile of chemical weapons."
The original announcement about the new intelligence community assessment on Syrian chemical weapons came in statements Thursday from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and in a letter from the White House to several senators delivered Thursday morning during an otherwise classified briefing.
"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.