The United States has joined Britain, France and Israel in claiming it is likely that Syria
The United States has joined Britain, France and Israel in claiming it is likely that Syria has used chemical weapons against rebel forces.
The White House has previously warned that the use of chemical arms by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces could trigger possible military action.
However US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has emphasised that U-S spy agencies are not 100 per cent sure of their assessment and can’t give firm details yet.
The comments come amid growing pressure from Republican politicians in the U-S for the Obama administration to provide weapons to rebel forces in Syria.
Michael Kenny has the details.
Mr Hagel says the US intelligence community assesses with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria.
Varying degrees of confidence is a phrase used by intelligence organisations to indicate disagreement among different agencies.
Mr Hagel believes the specific chemical agent used might be sarin, a man made nerve agent used in two attacks in Japan in the 1990s.
But the US Defence Secretary concedes more information is needed from intelligence agencies to confirm all the details.
“We need all the facts. We need all the information. What I’ve just given you is what our intelligence community has said they know. As I’ve also said, they’re still assessing and they’re still looking at what happened, who was responsible and the other specifics that we will need.”
The governments of Britain and France have also indicated they suspect the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but have not yet documented their information.
And the Israeli military released a report earlier this week, alleging that Syria has used chemical weapons more than once since the civil war began in March 2011.
For its part, the Syrian government has consistently denied using such weapons.
The United Nations estimates around 70,000 people have died since the conflict began.
And the growing loss of life has led to calls from some US Republicans for the Obama administration to provide weapons to the Syrian rebel forces trying to oust President Assad.
Republican Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain believes it is time for President Obama to adopt a tougher stance on Syria.
“Now I hope the administration will consider what we have been recommending now for over two years of this blood-letting 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”.
But one expert on Middle Eastern politics believes providing weaponry to rebel forces in Syria may end up causing more problems for the United States in the longer term.
Associate Professor Matthew Gray from the Australian National University in Canberra says the rebels are not a cohesive group with a clear, united agenda.
“These are a whole bunch of different people. Everyone is there from defectors from the army to Islamic extremists in the opposition ranks. This is, I think the problem that Obama and his cabinet recognise, that it’s very, very risky to go and support the opposition too aggressively if you simply don’t know who is going to win any subsequent conflict over power in a post-Assad setting.”
Dr Gray also believes President Barack Obama is conscious of the mistakes made by his predecessor George W Bush in leading the country into a war in Iraq, based upon what turned out to be flawed intelligence on its weapons of mass destruction.
He says this explains the reluctance so far on the part of the Obama administration to display its full confidence in the intelligence assessments on chemical weapons in Syria.
Dr Gray also says the US would be more likely to seek an international mandate before it launched any military strike on Syria.
“I think they’re unlikely to launch large scale military operations without the backing of the UN which I don’t think they’re going to get for the time being. So it may be simply more aggressive support for the rebels if the regime was seen to have used chemical weapons. It may well be support to help those rebels destroy chemical weapons stocks or for the US Government to perhaps undertake some limited military operation in the air that destroys chemical weapons stocks.”