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Congressman: Intercepted Talks Prove Syria Used Chemical Weapons

Obama administration officials briefed members of Congress on Thursday on the intelligence they say proves it was Syrian President Bashar Assad who used chemical weapons against his own people.

Frank Thorp, of NBC News, and Reuters report that after the conference call, Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, said the administration told them intercepted communications from high level officials proved it was the regime, not the rebels who used chemical weapons.

"They weren't specific in terms of 'Person A named so-and-so did this and said that.'" Thorp quotes Engel as saying.

This is not exactly new. Foreign Policy Magazine reported as much on Tuesday, saying "an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people."

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement after the briefing. He said that while he doesn't support "boots on the ground," he would support "surgical, proportional military strikes given the strong evidence of the Assad regime's continued use of chemical warfare."

Corker added:

"Whatever limited action is taken should not further commit the U.S. in Syria beyond the current strategy to strengthen the vetted, moderate opposition. While the administration has engaged in congressional consultation, they should continue to be forthcoming with information and would be far better off if they seek authorization based upon our national interests, which would provide the kind of public debate and legitimacy that can only come from Congress."

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons requires a U.S. response.

"Tonight's briefing reaffirmed for me that a decisive and consequential U.S. response is justified and warranted to protect Syrians, as well as to send a global message that chemical weapons attacks in violation of international law will not stand," Menendez said in a statement.

Still, as NBC News reports, many other lawmakers called for Obama to seek congressional approval before he ordered any strikes. NBC adds:

"Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who supports intervention, said the administration would be 'far better off if they seek authorization' from Congress.

"And Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, urged Obama to provide lethal aid to verified rebel groups in Syria 'while we seek international support for limited, targeted strikes' — an implicit concession that the support isn't there yet."

As we reported earlier, the Obama administration suffered a blow on Thursday when the British Parliament closed the door on participating in a military intervention.

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Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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