House Intelligence Committee Says Chemical Weapons "Red Line" Has Been Crossed in Syria

In an interview with Bob Schieffer on CBS Face the Nation, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Mike Rodgers (R-Mich.) said about Syria, "Over the last two years, there is mounting evidence that it is probable that the Assad regime has used at least a small quantity of chemical weapons during the course of this conflict." 

When Schieffer pointed out that President Obama said using or even moving chemical weapons would cross a "red line" prompting military action, Rodgers responded, "It is abundantly clear that that red line has been crossed." He also pointed to the use of "approximately 100 Scud missiles" by the Assad regime on its civilians as a prompt to action. Rodgers' comment pointed to an increasing probability of the U.S. intervening in Syria, but the situation may be changed by the resignation of the rebel leader and other key figures.

It is unclear what specific incidents Rodgers was referring to, given the long time frame in his answer, but this week, both the government and the main rebel group Syrian National Coalition accused the other side used chemical weapons in an attack in Khan al-Assal that killed 26 people. The Syrian government said it asked the UN for an investigation, but the UN said it had received no such request. Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, said, "So far we have no evidence to substantiate the reports that chemical weapons were used." But Retired Army Major General Paul Valley, citing personal meetings in the region with the Free Syrian Army and a Canadian medical team, said that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons on its people.

After Schieffer pressed him for specific recommendations, Rodgers said, "we create a safe zone in the north"' but not with a "big, boots on the ground, conflict." He said, "to regain our ability to have a diplomatic solution [...] doesn't mean the 101st Airborne division and ships, it means small groups with special capabilities re-engaging the opposition, so we can vet them, train them, equip them so they can be an effective fighting force." Rodgers pointed to the "mass chaos" and the likelihood of Al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah grabbing "sophisticated, complicated" weapons if Assad is deposed as another reason for the U.S. to step in.

The comments come at a time of increasing turbulence in the civil war. A bomb blast in a Damascus mosque killed 49 people, including one of Assad's most important supporters, Mohamed Saeed al-Bouti, a Sunni cleric. Assad is a member of the minority Alawite sect, part of the Shia branch of Islam, but Syria is mostly Sunni, so the cleric's support gave his regime a degree of legitimacy. However, some prominent Alawites have recently called for Assad to resign.

Further, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the western-backed Syrian National Coalition, resigned today after meeting the European Union yesterday, "which resulted in achieving nothing." He said he resigned to "work with a freedom that cannot possibly be had in an official institution." He cited the world's unwillingness to intervene against slaughter by "an unprecedentedly vicious regime" as the driving force for his resignation.

Additionally, the Free Syrian Army refused to recognize a coalition-appointed Prime Minister, Ghassan Hitto, as a legitimate authority. Hitto was elected by a clear majority of Coalition officials, but several important voters, including the official spokesman spokesman, walked out and boycotted the vote. Later, many of the boycotters resigned their membership in the Coalition.

The Arab League had just recently invited the Coalition, rather than the government, to its talks. It is unclear whether the turmoil amongst the rebels will increase or decrease the willingness of the United States and its allies to intervene.