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'Don’t know for certain’: Washington confused on Syrian chemical weapons

Due to the foggy intelligence emanating out of Syria, it is unclear whether president Assad authorized the use of chemical weapons if the rebels had used them, US vice president Joe Biden said stepping back from the unanimous rhetoric of the recent days.

His comments, delivered in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, were a step back from a recent report speculating that Obama administration officials were preparing to arm Syrian rebel forces. It has been widely reported that top US government officials believe Assad responsible for the choking clouds. 

We don’t have a chain of ownership,” Biden said. “We don’t know for certain whether they were used by some of the opposition, including the radicals who have aligned themselves with Al-Qaeda. It’s probable, but we don’t know for certain, that they were used by the regime.” 

The vice president admitted that the country’s recent - and disastrous – wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made White House officials nervous about entering into open combat in Syria, despite vocal criticism from Congressional leaders that the American military should get involved. 

With all the credibility we’ve gained in the world, we don’t want to blow it like the last administration did in Iraq, saying ‘weapons of mass destruction,’” he continued. “We know that there have been traces found of what are probably chemical weapons. What we don’t know yet – and we’re drilling down on it as hard as we can – is whether they were accidentally released in an exchange of gunfire or artillery fire, or blown up or something.” 

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was less circumspect, admitting the administration is fully committed to helping opposition forces, which are made up of fractured rebels groups from throughout Syria including current Al-Qaeda leadership, topple the Assad regime. 

Using the full range of tools, the United states will continue to work toward achieving our goal of ending the violence and helping the Syrian people transition to a post-Assad authority,” Hagel said during an annual Washington conference on Middle East unrest.

 In this image made available by the Syrian News Agency (SANA) on March 19, 2013, medics and other masked people attend to a man at a hospital in Khan al-Assal in the northern Aleppo province, as Syria's government accused rebel forces of using chemical weapons for the first time. (AFP/SANA)

As you all know, the conflict in Syria is intensifying and becoming more sectarian,” he said, as quoted by the Free Beacon. “The possibilities of state fragmentation are increasing, as are the risks of extremism and proliferation.”

When pressed on if the US was considering supplying the Syrian opposition with military arms recently he replied with a simple, if ominous, “Yes.”

Russia and the US have announced that they “both seek to convene an international conference with Syrian government and opposition to determine how to implement a political transition in Syria,” Biden added.

Russia has warned other nations against escalating the tensions inside Syria. There are signs that international public opinion is being prepared for the possibility of foreign military intervention in the Syrian crisis, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated.

“Moscow is concerned by the signs of preparing the public opinion in the world to the possibility of intervention using force into the lingering internal conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic,” said a Monday statement by ministry spokesperson Aleksandr Lukashevich. “From our side we persistently call to stop the politicizing of this exceptionally serious issue and the inflating of the anti-Syrian atmosphere.”

Damascus said it is ready to allow a UN team to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad told AFP on Thursday. More than 30 people died in the Khan al-Assal incident, and reports of a strong chlorine-like smell at the site quickly spread in the media.

Russia has repeatedly urged not to delay the investigation, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently warning nations not to “become captive to rumors” until definite findings emerge.

The Syrian conflict has shown no signs of relenting, despite efforts by the international community. According to UN estimates, over 70,000 Syrians have been killed since the unrest began over two years ago.