CAPITOL HILL— The Obama administration says chemical weapons likely have been used in Syria, prompting calls from U.S. lawmakers for an expansion of American aid to Syrian rebels battling government forces.
In an unclassified letter sent to senators, the White House says U.S. intelligence believes “with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.”
Speaking in the United Arab Emirates, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel read portions of the letter. “We cannot confirm the origin of these weapons, but we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime,” he said.
Hagel said any use of such weapons must be thoroughly investigated.
“This is serious business. We need all the facts,” he said.
The White House said the assessment is preliminary and is not enough to change the U.S. "decision-making" on the issue because "credible and corroborated" facts are needed to guide U.S. policy.
President Barack Obama has said Syria's use of chemical weapons would be a "game-changer" in the U.S. position on intervening in the two-year-old Syrian civil war.
At the Capitol, Republican Senator John McCain - one of the recipients of the White House letter - was quick to respond.
“The president of the United States said that if Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, it would be a game-changer, that it would cross a red line. I think it is pretty obvious that red line has been crossed,” he said.
For more than a year, McCain has urged U.S. military assistance to Syrian rebels short of deploying American troops on the ground. He repeated the call Thursday, labeling current aid as a ‘non-lethal half-measure.”
“Now I hope the administration will consider what we have been recommending for over two years of the bloodletting and massacre," said the senator. "And that is to provide a safe area for the opposition to operate, to establish a no-fly zone, and provide weapons to the people and the resistance who we trust.”
The White House says the United States is pressing for a thorough United Nations investigation to establish what has taken place in Syria.
But some Democratic lawmakers are signaling their openness to a more muscular U.S. response to carnage in Syria, including the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Robert Menendez.
“We have to change the tipping point [in Syria]. And that obviously means you have to help the opposition in some way, in which Assad changes his calculation,” he said.
Asked whether he believes chemical weapons have been used in Syria, Menendez said, “We will have to wait and see.”