U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating accounts from European allies that Syria may have used chemical weapons in its war against opposition forces, a senior U.S. official said Thursday.
There were indications a "deeply suspicious" agent may have been used in recent battles in Syria but spy services were still evaluating the information and had not reached a definitive conclusion, the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Chemical weapons may have been used in a limited, "localized" way and not on a large scale, the official said.
Diplomats had told reporters earlier this month that Western countries had "hard evidence" that chemical weapons had been used sporadically in Syria.
Britain and France have presented information to the United Nations on allegations that Syrian regime forces fired chemical arms in the city of Homs in December and at Ataybah near Damascus last month.
The UK Ministry of Defense has said that chemical weapons were used in the Syrian conflict based on forensic evidence that was collected after scientists analyzed soil smuggled out of the country in a secret British operation.
The sample was extracted from a neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus in March by MI6 agents operating within Syria, the British Times reported last week. The soil was then smuggled out of Syria and handed over to UK Ministry of Defense’s chemical and biological research department.
The Washington Post and Foreign Policy reported that London and Paris have informed UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that soil samples, witness interviews and other information showed nerve agents were used in and around Aleppo, Homs and possibly Damascus.
The U.S. official told AFP the accounts from France and Britain were being taken seriously.
Other officials and analysts, however, said intelligence agencies faced a difficult challenge trying to confirm the reports given the chaotic, violent conditions in Syria and a dearth of American spies in the field.
"The intelligence community has not verified the use of chemical weapons in Syria," said a second U.S. official, who also asked not be named.
President Barack Obama has warned Damascus that the use of chemical weapons would constitute a "red line," implying but not explicitly threatening possible U.S. military action.
If the allegations are confirmed, Obama -- who has sought to avoid any U.S. military role in the civil war -- would face increased pressure to intervene.
Reports on Wednesday indicated that U.S. officials are debating whether it’s time to consider military intervention in Syria as the country’s chemical weapons arsenal becomes increasingly vulnerable.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both testified before Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday, cautioning that any military intervention in Syria should come only as a “last resort.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in an interview with the BBC that Israel was very concerned over the possibility that Syrian weapons would end up in the hands of terrorists, and that Israel had a right to prevent this from happening.
“The main arms of concern to us are the arms that are already in Syria - these are anti-aircraft weapons, these are chemical weapons and other very, very dangerous weapons that could be game changers,” Netanyahu said in the interview Wednesday night.
“They will change the conditions, the balance of power in the Middle East. They could present a terrorist threat on a worldwide scale. It is definitely our interest to defend ourselves, but we also think it is in the interest of other countries,” Netanyahu said.
Asked if Israel would act more “aggressively” against Syria to prevent the dissemination of its chemical and advanced weapons to Hizbullah and other terror groups, Netanyahu said, “We are not aggressive. We don't seek military confrontation, but we are prepared to defend ourselves if the need arises and I think people know that what I say is both measured and serious.”