(UPDATES) Syrian Chemical Weapons: Enough of a ‘Red Line’ for Obama? What Next?

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UPDATE II:

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel comments on “The Red Line” during today’s Media Availability with Secretary Hagel in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Q: Mr. Secretary, does this cross the red line?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, first, I would answer your question this way. We need all the facts. We need all the information. What I’ve just given you is what our intelligence community has said they know. As I’ve also said, they’re still assessing and they’re still looking at what happened, who was responsible, and the other specifics that we’ll need.

As to a red line, my role as secretary of defense is to give the president options on a policy issue. That’s a policy issue. And we’ll be prepared to do that at such time as the president requires options.

Q: Did you say varying degrees of confidence? Is that the phrase you used? What does that mean?

SEC. HAGEL: I did. Well, it means that we still have some uncertainties about what was used, what kind of chemical was used, where it was used, who used it.

Q: But not if?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, as I’ve said in the statement, in talking to our intelligence people the last couple of hours, they have a reasonable amount of confidence that some amount of chemical weapons was used.

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UPDATE I:
At bottom, a press release by American Forces Press Service’s Cheryl Pellerin on Secretary Hagel’s comments on Syria’s Chemical Weapons.

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Original Post:

While various groups and governments, including three of our allies — Britain, Israel and France — have claimed that Syria has used chemical weapons in its civil war, the United States has consistently said that the evidence presented is “inconclusive.”

According to the LA Times:

Last week, France and Britain last week asked the United Nations to investigate what they called credible — but not definitive — evidence that the regime has used small amounts of chemical weapons in recent months. On Tuesday Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, Israel’s top military intelligence analyst, said that Syria used chemical weapons, probably a sarin-based nerve agent, in attacks on militants last month near Aleppo and Damascus. He said the assessment was based on pictures of victims foaming at the mouth and with constricted pupils.

Today, according to USA TODAY, the White House informed Congress about the chemical weapons use in letters to Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz.:

“Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin,” Michael Rodriguez, the White House director of Legislative Affairs, wrote.

But, USA TODAY continues, “although the White House now believes sarin was used in Syria, Rodriguez wrote that ‘our standard of evidence must build on these intelligence assessments as we seek to establish credible and corroborated facts. For example, the chain of custody is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.’”

The Obama administration has been extremely cautious and circumspect on this issue reflecting Obama’s reported reluctance for any direct involvement in the conflict.

The Christian Science Monitor:

For some, the president is simply being prudent, especially if the evidence presented so far is “inconclusive,” as a number of senior administration officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, have said. Obama, they add, wants to avoid a rush to judgment that turns out to be mistaken – and which could appear to the world like a repeat of the 2003 US decision to invade Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist.

The Monitor quotes White House spokesman Jay Carney as recently as Tuesday saying that the US is being “extremely deliberate” in investigating and evaluating the reports of chemical weapons use. On Wednesday in Cairo, Secretary Hagel suggested the US would not be rushed to judgment by allies, saying, “Suspicions are one thing. Evidence is another.” He then added, “I think we have to be very careful here before we make any conclusions,” according to The Monitor.

Back in August, Obama said “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.”

Now that those standards appear to have been violated, now that there is evidence that chemical agents have been used, will it be a solid enough “red line” for Obama to “change [his] calculus”?

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U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel briefs the press in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, April 25, 2013. Photo: DOD

Hagel: Intel Community Says Syria Has Used Chemical Weapons

The U.S. intelligence community assesses with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons — specifically the nerve-agent sarin — on a small scale in that violence-torn nation, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said here tonight.

On the last evening of his five-nation inaugural trip to the Middle East as defense secretary, Hagel told reporters traveling with him that the White House delivered a letter on the topic this morning to several members of Congress.

“The intelligence community has been assessing information for some time on this issue, and the decision to reach this conclusion was made within the past 24 hours,” the secretary said. “I have been in close contact with senior officials in Washington since then to discuss this serious matter.”

Hagel said the United States can’t confirm the weapons’ origin, but “we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the [Bashar] Assad regime.”

The White House letter, signed by Miguel Rodriguez, director of the Office of Legislative Affairs, on President Barack Obama’s behalf, responded to an April 24 inquiry by unidentified members of Congress. They asked, “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?”

In response, the letter said, “our intelligence committee does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specially the chemical agent sarin. This assessment is based in part on physiological samples.”

According to the letter, though, the chain of custody is not clear, so it’s not clear how the exposure occurred or under what conditions.
“We need to know the full story and get it right,” Hagel told reporters.

“Thus far,” according to the letter, “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 Obama administration will remain in close consultation with you and the Congress on these matters, the letter continued. “In the interim, the administration is prepared for all contingencies so that we can respond appropriately to any confirmed use of chemical weapons, consistent with our national interests.”

“As the letter states,” Hagel said, “the president has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of such weapons to terrorist groups would be unacceptable.”

The United States has an obligation to fully investigate, including with key partners and allies and through the United Nations, evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria, the secretary added.

Over the past week, Hagel has traveled to Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and the military and government leaders of each country have expressed concern about the deteriorating situation in Syria, he observed.

“This subject, Syria, and in particular chemical weapons, is just part of a larger challenge in the Middle East,” Hagel said.

“It is so vitally important for our United States interests, as well as for our allies, that we work … to stabilize and secure these [Middle East] countries,” the secretary concluded, “because if this region of the world essentially gets itself into a situation where it’s ungovernable and out of control, then this will be an astoundingly huge problem for all of the world.”

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Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist