The Obama administration had strong reason to believe that nerve gas had been used in the Syrian civil war well before last month's sarin attack in a Damascus suburb that reportedly killed 1,400 people, according to officials familiar with the intelligence.
The administration had gathered information that chemical weapons had been used in Syria on multiple occasions, but took no action because there were internal debates about which side was responsible and there was little public outcry, according to The Washington Times.
Information about the earlier attacks prompted administration officials in June to order the CIA to covertly deliver small arms to select groups of rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad, the newspaper reported.
Sources told the Times that the Assad regime probably used chemical weapons earlier "on a small scale to gauge the international community's reaction, and since that reaction was limited, they felt they would be more comfortable in carrying out a larger-scale attack."
An alternative analysis, these sources said, "is that the Aug. 21 attack was actually meant to be smaller" but government forces "used way more than they thought they were using."
Last month's attack was followed almost immediately by horrific videos, photos, and witness accounts across social media, which helped influence President Barack Obama's decision to ask Congress to authorize airstrikes.
In August 2012 the president had declared that the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" for the United States. However, that red line may have been crossed in March of this year, when rebels fighters accused the Assad regime of launching a deadly chemical attack near the northern city of Aleppo in what would have been the first reported use of such weapons in the two-year conflict, Reuters reported.
But Paulo Pinheiro, the head of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said this week that international investigators were probing 14 incidents in which chemical weapons may have been used since the March 2011 start of Syria's civil war.
While the U.N. had no mandate to ascribe blame, Pinheiro's disclosure dovetailed with a British intelligence assessment made public Aug. 29, pinning 14 incidents of chemical use on the Assad government.
According to the Times, observers say that the Obama administration clearly was aware of reports of earlier use of nerve gas, including once in April of this year in Jobar, near Damascus.
On June 13, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes acknowledged that U.S. intelligence agencies assessed "that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year."
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