U.S. intelligence has concluded “with some degree of varying confidence,” that the Syrian government has used sarin gas as a weapon in its 2-year-old civil war, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday.
Hagel, speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi, said the White House has informed two senators by letter that, within the past day, “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.”
“It violates every convention of warfare,” Hagel said.
No information was made public on what quantity of chemical weapons might have been used, or when or what casualties might have resulted.
President Barack Obama has said the use of chemical weapons would be a “game-changer” in the U.S. position on intervening in the Syrian civil war, and the letter to Congress reiterates that the use or transfer of chemical weapons in Syria is a “red line for the United States.” However, the letter also hints that a broad U.S. response is not imminent.
White House legislative director Miguel Rodriguez, who signed the letter, wrote that “because the president takes this issue so seriously, we have an obligation to fully investigate any and all evidence of chemical weapons use within Syria.”
The letters, obtained by CBS News, went to Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich.
The assessment, Rodriguez says, is based in part on “physiological samples.”
He also said the U.S. believes that the use of chemical weapons “originated with the Assad regime.” That is consistent with the Obama administration’s assertion that the Syrian rebels do not have access to the country’s stockpiles.
In Washington, McCain quoted from the letter the White House sent to several senators who had pressed the administration about Syria’s possible use of chemical weapons.
“We just received a letter from the president in response to our question about whether Assad had used chemical weapons,” McCain told reporters following a closed briefing with Secretary of State John Kerry on Syria and North Korea.
Last month, Syria expert Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, told CBSNews.com that the government has been “experimenting with various compounds and mixtures to see how they could use these (chemical agents) in a localized fashion.”
Shaikh said his sources, who travel to and from Damascus and maintain contact with both current and former regime officials, are certain that Assad’s regime has tried out less lethal, less widely dispersed compounds for months.