France, Israel and the U.K. believe that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons on its own people during its two-year-old civil war, but the U.S. needs more proof than intelligence from its closest allies, officials say.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, said during his Middle East tour Wednesday that the U.S. is still assessing the situation in Syria to determine if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has crossed the "red line" that President Barack Obama has frequently referenced.
This follows reports on Tuesday from an Israeli official that forces loyal to Assad had gassed Syrians with lethal sarin. Hagel said he has not yet discussed this report further with anyone, including U.S. intelligence agencies.
"I have not talked to anybody about the Israeli assessment or report," he told reporters in Egypt on Wednesday. "What I rely on is specific U.S. intelligence agency assessments. Any recommendations I would make to the president would have to come from those assessments."
"We're looking at all the possibilities, assessing all the situations. Until we have confidence in those facts, I have nothing else to say about it," he added.
Hagel said he discussed the potential use of chemical weapons in Syria during a meeting with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. However, his Israeli counterpart did not provide Hagel with the assessment on the use of chemical weapons. He surmised Wednesday the report may not have been finished.
Hagel served on the Senate Intelligence Committee during his time in Congress representing Nebraska. He warned against acting upon intelligence reports before analysts have the time to put the information into context, and dismissed claims that inaction is hurting U.S. credibility abroad.
"Suspicions are one thing, evidence is another," he said. "I think we have to be very careful here before we draw any conclusions based on real intelligence."
"You want to be as sure as you can on these kinds of things," Hagel said.
Reports circulated March 19 that the Assad regime conducted chemical weapons attacks in Damascus and rebel-controlled Aleppo.
In its most recent claims, Israel says it has photographic evidence of Syrian victims showing the symptoms of a chemical attack.
The White House on Wednesday questioned these claims.
"We have not come to the conclusion that there has been that use," spokesman Jay Carney said, reports Bloomberg News. "It is precisely because of the seriousness of the use of chemical weapons – and the seriousness with which the president made clear that that use would be unacceptable – that it is incumbent upon us and our partners to investigate thoroughly and validate or verify allegations of chemical weapons use."