Syria chemical weapons: Pentagon weighs evidence, plans response
Pentagon officials say they are still trying to confirm reports that Syria has used chemical weapons against civilians, but that they are preparing a military option for any outcome.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
The Pentagon is tracking intelligence coming out of Syria that President Bashar Assad's regime has used outlawed chemical weapons against its own people, and it is preparing a US military response, Americaâ€™s top military officer said Friday.
Defense officials caution, however, that they are still trying to determine the reliability of reports of chemical weapons used against Syria's civilians.
â€śWe know that they have them,â€ť says a senior US military official of chemical weapons, speaking on condition of anonymity. â€śWe donâ€™t know for a fact whether theyâ€™ve used them.â€ť
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, echoing a White House statement Thursday, warned that the United States believes â€świth varying degrees of confidenceâ€ť that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against its people. On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry briefed House members on Syria's alleged use of the poisonous gas in its ongoing civil war.
President Obama has called the use of chemical weapons a â€śred lineâ€ť for the United States, meaning an action that could trigger a US military response.
â€śWeâ€™ll be ready to present them when weâ€™re asked,â€ť adds the senior US military official.
Mr. Hagel said Thursday that â€śany use of chemical weapons in Syria very likely originatedâ€ť with the Assad regime, adding that the use of the â€śuncontrollable, deadly weaponsâ€ť in turn â€śviolates every convention of warfare.â€ť
Some Washington lawmakers, in turn, called for an armed US response. â€śI think itâ€™s pretty obvious that a red line has been crossed,â€ť Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said Thursday.Â â€śNow I hope the administration will consider what we have been recommending now for over two years of this bloodletting and massacre â€“ 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 in the resistance who we trust.â€ť
Others urged caution. â€śBased on the intelligence that we have, it appears that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against the Syrian people,â€ť said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.Â Even so, he added, â€śI am not convinced that military action is appropriate at this time. There is no evidence military action will achieve anything, except cost American lives and treasure.â€ť
US military officials note that arming rebels in Syria remains a risky proposition, because the allegiances of those doing the fighting are unclear.
â€śIf we are going to give them something more sophisticated, is it going to get into the wrong hands?â€ť asks a senior Pentagon official.
To that end, military officials are seeking â€śclarity of who weâ€™re dealing with and also clarity of outcome,â€ť General Dempsey said Friday.
To that latter point, Pentagon officials caution that itâ€™s not clear that providing arms to the rebel forces will shift the tide of the war.
â€śThe main thing is, will it make a difference?â€ť says the Pentagon official. â€śThis country is awash in weapons.â€ť
Night vision goggles, body armor, and communications gear to help rebel factions coordinate with one another might be even more effective tools, they say.
For now, US military officials say they continue to plan â€“ and await political directive.
â€śNothing Iâ€™ve learned over the last 24 hours changed what Iâ€™ve been doing,â€ť Dempsey said Friday.
That said, â€śWith the outcome identified,â€ť he adds, â€śI can produce a military option to achieve it.â€ť