25 Apr 2013

Evidence of Syria chemical weapons use, say US and UK

In separate announcements, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the British Foreign Office state there is evidence that Damascus has used chemical weapons.

Warning: the report above contains distressing images

Britain says it has “limited but persuasive information” that Syria may have used chemical weapons – including sarin gas. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office called it “extremely concerning” – stressing that the use of such weapons would be a war crime.

The FCO has urged President Assad to co-operate with international bodies to prove he did not sanction use of chemical weapons.

US intelligence officials say they have “varying degrees of confidence” that sarin gas was used on a small scale. The White House stressed that President Obama needed “credible and corroborated facts” before taking any action.

That response appeared to be an effort to bide time, given President Barack Obama’s repeated public assertions that Syria’s use of chemical weapons, or the transfer of its stockpiles to a terrorist group, would cross a “red line.”

Not conclusive proof

On 19 March pictures emerged from east of Damascus, apparently showing victims of a chemical weapons attack (see homepage image).

But the evidence cited by the White House today does not constitute conclusive proof. Secretary Hagel said his country’s assessment in regard to chemical weapons had only been made in the past 24 hours.

We believe any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have been originated with the Assad regime. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel

“The US intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a smalls scale in Syria – specifically, the chemical agent sarin,” he said.

“We cannot confirm the origin of these weapons, but we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have been originated with the Assad regime.”

Crossing the red line

Last November Syrian rebels said they had found chemical weapons with instructions on how to use them. If President Assad’s forces have used the deadly nerve agent sarin, that constitutes a war crime.

It is now an open question whether the “red line” justifying an American response has been crossed.

Republican Senator John McCain noted that President Obama had said if Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, it would be a game-changer.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that red line has been crossed,” he told reporters.

However, President Obama is being more cautious. He appears to be searching for corroboration and consulting with allies before any direct US involvement in Syria – because Syria is a war he does not want.

If America’s “red line” has been crossed, Washington must decide how to respond.