U.S. says has no reason to believe Syria used chemical weapons

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has no reason to believe Syria has used chemical weapons during its 22-month conflict with rebels seeking to end the Assad family’s rule, the U.S. State Department said on Wednesday.

Asked if the United States had any reason to believe that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government had used chemical weapons against his own people, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters: “No.”

Foreign Policy magazine reported on its website on Tuesday that a previously secret U.S. diplomatic cable from the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, had concluded that Assad’s government had likely used chemical weapons.

The report said the cable was sent to the State Department last week and outlined the results of the consulate’s investigation into reports from inside Syria that chemical weapons had been used in the city of Homs on December 23.

“At the time, we looked into the allegations that were made, and the information that we had received, and we found no credible evidence to corroborate or to confirm that chemical weapons were used,” the State Department spokeswoman said.

“When this particular message came in from Consulate Istanbul, we took it seriously, as we do with all such anecdotal reporting, and concluded at the time that we couldn’t corroborate it,” she said. “We haven’t been able to corroborate it since, either.”

Nuland’s comments were more definitive than those issued by White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor on Tuesday night after the Foreign Policy report was published.

In his statement, Vietor said: “The reporting we have seen from media sources regarding alleged chemical weapons incidents in Syria has not been consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons program.”

On August 20, President Barack Obama warned Assad that the use or deployment of chemical or biological weapons in his country’s conflict would be a “red line” for the United States as it views Damascus’s suppression of the uprising.

Noting at the time that he had not ordered U.S. military engagement in Syria, Obama told reporters the issue of chemical and biological weapons was of high concern to the both the United States and its close ally, Israel, which borders Syria.

“A red line for us is (if) we see a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around, or being utilized. That would change my calculus,” he said.

According to the United Nations, more than 60,000 people have died in the 22-month long conflict between Assad forces and the opposition battling to end decades of his family’s rule.

Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Vicki Allen