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Obama: We cannot allow ‘systematic’ use of chemical weapons in Syria

U.S. President Barack Obama again warned the Syrian regime not to use chemical weapons Friday but said that more investigation is needed to determine whether or not his previously announced "red line" for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad had been crossed. "Yesterday some of you saw that I asked my people to brief Congress about the ...

U.S. President Barack Obama again warned the Syrian regime not to use chemical weapons Friday but said that more investigation is needed to determine whether or not his previously announced "red line" for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad had been crossed.

"Yesterday some of you saw that I asked my people to brief Congress about the fact that we now have some evidence that chemical weapons have been used on the populations in Syria," Obama said, standing beside Jordan’s King Abdullah II.  "Now, these are preliminary assessments. They’re based on our intelligence gathering. We have varying degrees of confidence about the actual use, but there are a range of questions around how, when, where these weapons may have been used."

Obama said that if the use of chemical weapons is proven, "it is going to be a game changer," and added that the world cannot stand by and permit the "systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations."

On Thursday, White House officials said they were not sure if Obama’s red line for Syria, the use or transfer or chemical weapons to terrorists, had been crossed because a new assessment by the U.S. intelligence community that determined with "various levels of confidence" that chemical weapons had been used was insufficient to make that conclusion. The U.S. government is still investigating, Obama said.

"In the meantime, I’ve been very clear publicly but also privately that for the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons on its people crosses a line that will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues," Obama said. "And I think that in many ways a line’s been crossed when we see tens of thousands of innocent people being killed by a regime."

The newly revealed intelligence assessment was delivered to Congress Thursday in response to a bipartisan letter asking for the administration’s view on whether reports of chemical weapons use inside Syria were true.

But The Cable has learned from multiple sources that the samples used to make that assessment, collected from the suburbs of Aleppo after a March incident, were delivered to the U.S. government more than three weeks ago. They consisted of blood samples, hair samples, and other items, such as soil from the area surrounding the attacks.

Another reported alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria occurred in the Damascus suburbs in March, and Syrian activists also claim that the regime used chemical weapons last December in Homs, but two State Department investigations failed to confirm that allegation.

On Thursday, the Syrian Support Group (SSG), a U.S.-based organization with close ties to the Free Syrian Army, reported two more alleged chemical weapons attacks in the town of Daraya, as first reported by the Daily Beast. The SSG reported that 105 people were injured and scores of animals died as well.

The Cable spoke Friday with an anesthetic technician who treated victims on the scene in Daraya and gave his name only as Majd.

"Due to Daraya’s brave resistance against the regime, and due to the regime’s inability to storm the city over the past five months because of the outstanding bravery displayed by FSA fighters, the regime resorted to an extremely serious escalation by shelling the city of Daraya using several rockets and bombs loaded with toxic gases which affect the nervous system," he said.  "As a result, dozens of people, mostly civilians, displayed symptoms confirming toxic gas inhalation."

Symptoms included: difficulty in breathing, constriction of pupils (miosis), suffocation, nausea, and skin irritation, Majd said. These symptoms are usually associated with chemical gases such as fluorine compounds and sarin gas. Victims were treated with atropine injections, oxygen, and pain relievers, according to the SSG. The Cable was not able to confirm these claims, but a State Department offical said that the U.S. government is aware of the new reports and is "working to determine their veracity through a range of sources."

"The Local Council of Daraya City holds the regime responsible for the use of these gases and the outcomes of such use," Majd said. "We also demand that international organizations step in to investigate the regime’s use of weapons of mass destruction, and provide us with necessary safety equipment."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin