Crossing a 'red line'? US says Syria used poison

U.S. intelligence says Syria used chemical weapons

By Julie Pace And Bradley Klapper

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, April 25 2013 7:25 p.m. MDT

A senior defense official said the White House letters were 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.

Lawmakers from both parties sounded less than patient.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, a member of the Democratic leadership, was asked what should be done about Assad crossing the "red line." He said, "That's up to the commander in chief, but something has to be done."

And Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said, "I think it's pretty obvious that that red line has been crossed. Now I hope the administration will consider what we have been recommending now for over two years of this bloodletting and massacre and that is to provide a safe area for the opposition to operate, to establish a no-fly zone and provide weapons to people in the resistance who we trust."

Other lawmakers questioned whether a cautious U.S. response to the newly disclosed intelligence would only strengthen Assad's resolve to keep a grip on power.

"If Assad sees any equivocation on the red line, it will embolden his regime," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

The White House disclosure put the U.S. in line with Britain, France, Israel and Qatar, key allies who have cited evidence of chemical weapons use. The four countries have also been pressing for a more robust response to the conflict.

U.S. commanders have laid out a range of possible options for military involvement in Syria, including establishing a "no-fly zone" or secured area within Syria where citizens could be protected, launching airstrikes by drones and fighter jets or even sending in tens of thousands of ground forces to secure the chemical weapons caches. But the military has made it clear that any action would likely be either with NATO backing or with a coalition of nations similar to what was done in Libya in 2011.

Following the U.S. disclosure, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said, "There would doubtlessly be a very strong reaction from the international community if there were evidence that chemical weapons had been used."

Ahmad Ramadan, a member of the Syrian National Coalition opposition group's executive body, called the U.S. assertion an "important step," and he said that America had a "moral duty" to follow it with action.

The White House said the current intelligence assessments of sarin use are based in part on "physiological samples." U.S. officials said that could include human tissue, blood or other body materials, in addition to soil samples.

Sarin is an odorless nerve agent that can be used as a gas or a liquid, poisoning people when they breathe it, absorb it through their skin or eyes, or take it in through food or water. In large doses, sarin can cause convulsions, paralysis and death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people usually recover from small doses, which may cause confusion, drooling, excessive sweating, nausea and vomiting.

The Aum Shinrikyo cult used sarin in attacks in the Tokyo subway system in 1995 that killed 12 people and sickened thousands.

The White House said it was still seeking to confirm the "chain of command" that led to the chemical weapons use. But officials said they were confident attacks were initiated by the Assad government, not rebels, given that they see no evidence of Assad losing control of the stockpiles.

The U.S. said the completion of a stalled U.N. investigation would be critical in confirming the use. But it's unclear whether U.N. inspectors will ever be able to conduct a full investigation in areas where there is the most evidence of chemical weapons use.

The Syrian government has so far refused to allow the U.N. experts to go anywhere but Khan al-Assal, where Assad's government maintains the rebels used the deadly agents.

Officials said the U.S. was consulting with allies and looking for other ways to confirm the intelligence assessments.

AP National Security Writers Robert Burns in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates and Lara Jakes in Washington, as well as AP Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier, and AP writers Lolita C. Baldor and Lauran Neergaard in Washington and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

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