ABU DHABI // The Syrian regime has probably used chemical weapons, the US defence secretary Chuck Hagel said in Abu Dhabi last night.
Mr Hagel, who arrived on Wednesday night to conclude his six-day trip to the region, said US intelligence agencies had concluded the regime of the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad had probably used chemical weapons on “a small scale”.
“It violates every convention of warfare,” he said.
Mr Hagel said the White House told members of Congress by letter that in the past day, “our intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence, the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically, the chemical agent sarin”.
“We cannot confirm the origin of these weapons but we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime,” Mr Hagel said.
“As the letter states, the president has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of such weapons to terrorist groups would be unacceptable.
“The US has an obligation to fully investigate – including with all key partners and allies, and through the UN – evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria. As I’ve said, this is serious business – we need all the facts.”
Britain’s foreign office yesterday said it also had information showing use of chemical weapons in Syria.
“We have limited but persuasive information from various sources showing chemical weapon use in Syria, including sarin,” a spokesman said.
US president Barack Obama has said the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer on intervening in the two-year Syrian war.
But the letter to Congress hints that a broad US response is not imminent.
It concludes by saying the US and the international community have “a number of … responses available and no option is off the table”.
David Reeths, director of IHS Jane’s Consulting, said that after the US assessment “demands for the Obama administration to respond in a more active way will increase tremendously.
“Their response options will be complicated by the fact that any significant response must include preventing further use, and transfer or loss of Syrian chemical or even biological weapons.
“Weapons of mass destruction elimination operations … are extremely complex and would almost certainly require a significant in-country presence for an extended period of time.”
There was no information given on what amount of chemical weapons may have been used, or when, or what casualties may have resulted.
White House legislative director Miguel Rodriguez, who signed the letter to Congress, said the assessment was based in part on “physiological samples”.
“We believe the Assad regime maintains custody of these weapons and has demonstrated a willingness to escalate its horrific use of violence against the Syrian people.”
Mr Hagel’s trip to the region was aimed at bolstering military ties, including through a US$10 billion (Dh36.73bn) weapons deal with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
He was expected to discuss the sale of 25 F-16 fighter jets and stand-off weapons – missile systems with improved range and better accuracy than previous acquisitions.
The sale is meant to send a “clear message to Iran” about America’s commitment to security in the Arabian Gulf, said Shashank Joshi, a research fellow specialising on the Middle East at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
The proposed weapons package would also give Emirati and Saudi pilots the chance to train with the American military.
Mr Hagel arrived in Abu Dhabi from Egypt, where he met the president, Mohammed Morsi, and defence minister Gen Abdel Fattah Al Sissi.Since the Arab Spring in 2011, Syria has been embroiled in a civil war, rebel groups have been fighting to remove President Bashar Al Assad and his government from power.
In January the UN estimated that more than 60,000 people have died in Syria’s uprising and civil war. To escape the violence, over 1.2 million Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries of Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey, according to the UNHCR.
*With additional reporting by AP and Gulf Correspondent, Elizabeth Dickinson