Chuck Hagel says Syria likely used chemical weapons: Now what?

Obama drew a line in the sand and Syria crossed it
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks with reporters after reading a statement on chemical weapon use in Syria during a press conference in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on Thursday, April 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Jim Watson, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks with reporters after reading a statement on chemical weapon use in Syria during a press conference in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on Thursday, April 25, 2013. (Jim Watson/AP, Pool)

The U.S. Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, today told journalists traveling with him in the Middle East, that U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed “with varying degrees of confidence” that Syria has used small amounts of chemical weapons. Hagel said the weapons may have included the nerve gas sarin. A UN investigation in underway.

On March 20th at a joint press conference on with Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Obama said his administration was trying to establish whether reports were of chemical weapons use were true. Obama said:

Once we establish the facts I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a gamechanger.  And I won’t make an announcement today about next steps because I think we have to gather the facts. But I do think that when you start seeing weapons that can cause potential devastation and mass casualties and you let that genie out of the bottle, then you are looking potentially at even more horrific scenes than we’ve already seen in Syria.  And the international community has to act on that additional information.

Earlier, in a March 4 speech to the AIPAC policy conference, Obama said:

Because we recognize the great danger Assad’s chemical and biological arsenals pose to Israel and the United States, to the whole world, we’ve set a clear red line against the use of the transfer of the those weapons. 

Does it matter that the weapons were used in “small amounts,” as Hagel said? What does “the international community has to act” translate into?

Recently, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee joined Republicans such as John McCain in calling for a direct intervention in Syria — including establishing a no-fly zone and direct arming of rebel fights.

On Tuesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney gave a vague answer about how the administration would respond to chemical weapons use by Syria:

Well, I’m not going to speculate about consequences.  What I will say is that the President made clear that the use of or transmission of chemical weapons, including the transmission of chemical weapons to non-state actors, would be unacceptable in the President’s view, unacceptable to the United States.

The New York Times reports today that the Pentagon is considering its options:

Administration officials said that the Pentagon had prepared a menu of military options for Mr. Obama if he concluded that there was incontrovertible evidence that chemical weapons had been used. Those options, one official said, could include missile strikes on Syrian aircraft from American ships in the Mediterranean or commando raids.


UPDATE: On a conference call this afternoon with reporters, a senior White House official speaking on background, emphasized that the Obama administration is not taking the “intelligence assessments” at face value – but will continue to investigate to corroborate the facts. The official said the evidence is based on a “broad mosaic of information” which includes “physiological samples,” but added that the “chain of custody is not clear” for the samples, and administration “cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.”

Alluding to the mistaken assessments about weapons of mass destruction in pre-invasion Iraq, the official said “intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient” and that more investigation was needed because “only corroborated facts can guide our decision-making.”

“Given our own history with intelligence assessments, including assessment of weapons of mass destruction, it’s very important that we are able to establish this with certainty, and that we are able to present evidence that is air-tight in a public and credible fashion to underpin all our decision-making. That is the threshold that is demanded given how serious this issue is. But nobody should have any mistake about what our red line is. When we firmly establish that there has been chemical weapons use within Syria, that is not acceptable the United States, nor is transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist organizations.”

Hagel’s comments reflected the contents of a letter sent to U.S. senators who asked whether the Assad regime had used chemical weapons.

The official said that while a UN investigation is underway, the administration is “seeking to make it more comprehensive.” If chemical weapons were used, the administration believes they were used by Assad: “We are very skeptical that the reports of use of chemicals weapons could be attributed to anyone other than Assad regime given our belief that they maintain custody of those weapons. If it is established in a credible way, we do believe Assad is ultimately accountable,” the official said.