Hagel: Syria Probably Used Chemical Weapons (Update: White House Says Not So Fast)

On Tuesday Israel said that it had proof that Syrian forces have used chemical weapons against the rebellion. Now, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has publicly agreed.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the intelligence community believes the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against its people.

The intelligence community, Hagel said, has determined with "varying degrees of confidence" that Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces have used the nerve agent sarin against civilians and forces fighting to remove Assad from power.

Any use of chemical weapons, Hagel said, would violate standards of warfare.

Just two days ago, Hagel disagreed with the Israeli assessment. Now, he says they're right. This is a significant shift. In August 2012 President Obama called any Syrian use of chemical weapons a "red line" that would demand a US response. But any direct US response could have dire consequences, as Syria's chief ally is Russia. Russia has reportedly been providing the Syrian regime with military aid, as has Iran.

Update: The White House is walking Hagel's comments back a bit.

The U.S. intelligence community assesses with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on a small scale, the White House said on Thursday, adding however that such assessments were not enough and that "credible and corroborated" facts were needed.

"Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experiences, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient - only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making," Miguel Rodriguez, White House director of the office of legislative affairs, said in a letter to lawmakers.

Obama's "red line" comment made little sense at the time he made it. His own record proved that it was an empty threat. As a senator he had opposed the war in Iraq against Saddam Hussein, who had definitely used chemical weapons against his own people. There is no American appetite for war in Syria now on either side. There is no force with which Americans would comfortably side, with the tyrant Assad on one side and al Qaeda on the other. Now the Obama White House is caught between its rhetoric and the facts, whatever they are.