The Cable

White House: We don’t know if Syria red line has been crossed

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.

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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."