US intelligence has concluded "with some degree of varying confidence," that the Syrian government has used sarin gas as a weapon in its two-year-old civil war, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday.
Following Hagel's comments, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Capitol Hill that there were two instances of chemical weapons use.
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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.
Britain's Foreign Office also said on Thursday it had information showing chemical weapon use in Syria, and called on Syrian President Bashar Assad to cooperate with international bodies to prove he had not sanctioned their use.
"We have limited but persuasive information from various sources showing chemical weapon use in Syria, including sarin. This is extremely concerning. Use of chemical weapons is a war crime," a Foreign Office spokesman said in a statement.
Photo posted by rebels allegedly indicating chemical weapons use
President Barack Obama has said the use of chemical weapons would be a "game-changer" in the US 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 US 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 went to Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich.
The assessment, Rodriguez says, is based in part on "physiological samples."
Man treated at Aleppo hospital last month following reports of chemical weapons use (Photo: EPA)
He also said the US 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.
A senior defense official cautioned that the White House letter was not an "automatic trigger" for policy decisions on the use of military force. The official alluded to past instances of policy decisions that were based on what turned out to be flawed intelligence, such as the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq after concluding that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.
The official commented only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
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 Kerry on Syria and North Korea.
AP, Reuters contributed to the report
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