WASHINGTON - The White House declared Thursday that U.S. intelligence indicates Syrian President Bashar Assad has twice used deadly chemical weapons in his country's fierce civil war, a provocative action that would cross President Barack Obama's "red line" for a significant military response. But the administration said the revelation won't immediately change its stance on intervening.
The information, which has been known to the administration and some members of Congress for weeks, isn't solid enough to warrant quick U.S. involvement in the 2-year-old conflict, the White House said. Officials said the assessments were made with "varying degrees of confidence" given the difficulty of information gathering in Syria, though there appeared to be little question within the intelligence community.
As recently as Tuesday, when an Israeli general added to the growing chorus that Assad had used chemical weapons, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration was continuing to monitor and investigate but had "not come to the conclusion that there has been that use."
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.
The Syrian civil war has persisted, with an estimated 70,000 dead. Obama has so far resisted pressure, both from Congress and from within his own administration, to arm the Syrian rebels or get involved militarily. He has, however, declared the use of chemical weapons a "game changer" that would have "enormous consequences."
The White House disclosed the new intelligence Thursday in letters to two senators, but had Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announce it to reporters traveling with him in the United Arab Emirates. The letters were sent in response to questions from senators of both parties who are pressing for more U.S. involvement, and it marked the first time the administration has publicly disclosed evidence of chemical weapons use.