WASHINGTON – The British and French governments have asked the United Nations to investigate what they believe is credible evidence that the Syrian regime has used small amounts of chemical weapons in recent months, officials said Thursday.
The evidence, including soil samples and witness testimony, is not definitive. But the concerns are such that “we are pressing the United Nations to investigate further and raising our concerns with international partners,” said a British diplomat who requested anonymity in addressing a sensitive matter.
President Barack Obama has said any use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime would be a “game changer,” although he hasn’t said how the United States would respond. Other U.S. officials have called it a “red line.”
The Pentagon’s move to send about 200 troops to neighboring Jordan, disclosed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday, gives the U.S. a military option if it decides one is warranted. The small force can pave the way for a rapid buildup of a much larger contingent.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity in discussing intelligence matters, said there was no consensus within the U.S. intelligence community about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria. “But there are growing concerns that chemical weapons may have been used … in a limited way,” the official said.
Asked about the matter Thursday by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said he could not discuss it in public.
Luxembourg, South Korea and Japan also have asked the United Nations to investigate, diplomats said.
Some diplomats believe Syria is testing the U.S. and its partners by using the weapons in small amounts to see what sort of response ensues.
An estimated 70,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict.
The Times of London reported Saturday that soil samples smuggled out of Syria in a British operation showed trace evidence of an unspecified chemical agent.