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The conclusion raises a test for the Obama administration.

New York Times

WASHINGTON - The White House said Thursday that it believes the Syrian government has used chemical weapons in its civil war, an assessment that could test President Barack Obama's repeated warnings that such an attack could precipitate U.S. intervention in Syria.

In a letter to congressional leaders, the White House said the nation's intelligence agencies assessed "with varying degrees of confidence" that the government of President Bashar Assad had used the chemical agent sarin on a small scale. But it said more conclusive evidence was needed before Obama would take action, referring obliquely to both the Bush administration's use of faulty intelligence in the march to war in Iraq and the ramifications of any decision to enter another conflict in the Middle East.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who was traveling in the Middle East, was the first U.S. official to describe the findings. He did not say how the administration would respond but noted, "My job is to give the president options. ... We'll be prepared to do that."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the agencies actually expressed more certainty about the use of these weapons than the White House indicated in its letter. She said Thursday that they have voiced medium to high confidence in their assessment, which official said was based on the testing of soil samples and blood drawn from people who have been wounded.

U.S. officials said the attacks, which occurred last month in a village near Aleppo and in the outskirts of Damascus, had not been definitively connected to Assad. The White House said the "chain of custody" of the weapons was not clear, raising questions about whether the attacks were deliberate.

"Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient," the White House said in the letter, which was signed by its legislative director, Miguel E. Rodriquez. "Only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making."

That meticulously legal language did not disguise a thorny political and foreign policy problem for Obama: He has long resisted the calls to arm the Syrian rebels and has expressed deep doubts about the wisdom of intervening in an Arab nation so riven with sectarian strife, although he has also issued pointed warnings to Syria.

In a statement last summer, Obama did not offer a technical definition of his "red line" for taking action but said it was when "we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized." In Jerusalem last month, he said proof that Syria had used such weapons would be a "game changer" for U.S. involvement.

White House officials gave no indication of what Obama might do, except to say that any U.S. action would be taken in concert with its allies.

While lawmakers from both parties swiftly declared that the president's red line had been breached, they differed on what he should do about it.

"The political reality is that he put himself in that position that if the 'red line' is crossed - he made it very clear - it would change his behavior," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The intelligence, he said, "is a compelling argument for the president to take the measures that a lot of us have been arguing for all along."

The timing of the White House's disclosure came the same day that the British government said it had "limited but persuasive" evidence of the use of chemical weapons, and two days after an Israeli military intelligence official asserted that Syria had repeatedly used chemical weapons.

In a letter to the U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, several weeks ago calling for a U.N. investigation, Britain laid out evidence of the attacks in Aleppo and near Damascus as well as an earlier one in Homs.

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by the New York Times, reported that dozens of victims were treated at hospitals for shortness of breath, convulsions, and dilation of the pupils, a common symptom of exposure to chemical warfare agents. Doctors reported feeling eye irritation and fatigue after exposure to the patients.

Citing its links to contacts in the Syrian opposition, Britain said there were reports of 15 deaths in the suburban Damascus attack and up to 10 deaths in Aleppo.

"Fortunately the deaths have not been high," Feinstein said, "but there have been deaths."

Possible options for involvement in Syria

U.S. commanders have laid out a range of possible options for military involvement in Syria, but they have made it clear that any action would likely be either with NATO backing or with a coalition of nations similar to the NATO-led overthrow of Libyan dictator Col. Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

During a recent Senate Armed Services hearing, Adm. Jim Stavridis, the top U.S. commander in Europe and NATO's supreme allied commander, said there is a "great deal of discussion" among allies about the various options, including the no-fly zone and providing additional lethal support to the rebels.

Military options: Could include establishing a no-fly zone or a secured area within Syria, launching airstrikes by drones and fighter jets and sending in tens of thousands of ground forces to secure the regime's chemical weapons caches.

No-fly zone: Setting up a no-fly zone over Syria would present a greater challenge than it did in Libya because Syria has a more sophisticated and robust air defense system. Crippling it would require jamming the radars and taking out the missile sites, or possibly even using some type of cyberattack to interfere with the system.

According to a report by the Institute for the Study of War, Syria's largely Soviet-era air defense system includes as many as 300 mobile surface to air missile systems and defense systems, and more than 600 static missile launchers and sites.

'Safe zone': Some senators have also pressed for the United States to set up a narrow, so-called safe zone inside Syria, along its border with Turkey, where citizens could go and be safe. To do so would also require neutralizing Syria's air defenses. The United States could use a variety of methods to target key military command locations or attack air defense systems, including bombers, fighter jets from both ships and military bases in the region, missile launches from warships in the Mediterranean Sea and hunter-killer drones, such as those based at Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily.

There are currently no U.S. Navy aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean, but fighter jets launched off a carrier in the Red Sea could reach Syria using refueling aircraft if needed.

Steps the U.S. has taken: Only minimal military steps, including the deployment of about 200 troops to Jordan to assist that country's military. The United States also participated in NATO's placement of Patriot missile batteries in Turkey to protect against an attack from Syria. A new Army headquarters unit is being deployed to replace the 200 troops in Jordan, giving the United States a stronger command and control unit, if the decision is made to send any additional forces.

Associated Press