- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 25, 2013

The White House said Thursday that military forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad probably used chemical weapons on a “small scale,” reigniting the debate over what role the U.S. should play in trying to topple the regime.

In a carefully worded letter to senators, the White House said the details are still sketchy, and an administration official briefing reporters said it was not clear whether Syria had crossed the “red line” President Obama drew, threatening consequences for using chemical weapons.

“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,” Miguel E. Rodriguez, director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, said in the letter.

SEE ALSO: Feinstein urges strong U.N. action in response to Syria’s chemical weapons use

The revelation confirms claims made recently by authorities in Israel, Britain and France.

Mr. Rodriguez said the assessment that chemical weapons may have been used was “based in part on physiological samples.”

But the administration is wary of potentially faulty findings, and the senior administration official who briefed reporters — speaking on the condition of anonymity — cautiously referenced faulty intelligence assessments on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that the Bush administration used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

SEE ALSO: U.N. to test Syrian soil samples for sarin

Still, the development set the stage for Washington to significantly deepen its involvement in the civil war that has gripped Syria for two years, where more than 70,000 people are believed to have been killed since March 2011.

The White House has avoided getting drawn into the conflict. Mr. Obama has resisted calls by his own Cabinet members and some lawmakers to directly arm Syrian opposition groups. The president’s reasoning, which also has some supporters in Washington, has centered on the notion that the risk of U.S. weapons ending up in the hands of Islamist elements in the Syrian opposition is simply too high.

Some lawmakers, particularly Republicans, have argued that the administration’s policy has enabled Mr. Assad to remain in power far longer than necessary. House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said Thursday that Mr. Obama now must take a firmer stance.

“It’s past time for the president to have a robust conversation with the Congress and the American people about how best to bring Assad’s tyranny to an end,” Mr. Boehner said.

The speaker’s remarks were echoed by Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who said she thinks the “red line” that Mr. Obama drew on chemical weapons use has been crossed. She said the U.S. and the international community must respond forcefully.

“Action must be taken to prevent larger-scale use” of such weapons, Mrs. Feinstein said in a statement. “The world must come together to prevent this by unified action that results in the secure containment of Syria’s significant stockpile of chemical weapons.”

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has long advocated deeper U.S. involvement in the conflict and called for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Syria, agreed, although he voiced doubts that the Obama administration is prepared to act quickly.

“The president clearly stated that it was a red line and that it couldn’t be crossed without the United States taking vigorous action,” Mr. McCain told Fox News on Thursday.

Others urged a cautious approach.

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