Has a "red line" been crossed in Syria? And if so, what happens next?
The top defense official in the United States -- whose president has called the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces a "game changer," as to how his and other governments address the crisis -- said Thursday that Washington is rethinking changing its policy of opposing providing weapons to the rebels.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's admission -- after weeks of the United States resisting arming the opposition, for fear the weapons could end up in the wrong hands -- comes days after a White House aide sent a letter to two U.S. senators saying the intelligence community assessed "with varying degrees of confidence" that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government had used the chemical agent sarin on a "small scale."
A top Syrian official said Thursday that a line had been crossed, too -- but not by his government.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said in an exclusive interview with CNN that his government had not, and "would never use" chemical munitions -- "if we had them."
Yet he did say such weapons have been used in the bloody, years-long civil war -- by hard-line Islamist rebel groups. And while al-Zoubi insisted his government would never use them, he said their use by others does change things.
"President (Barack) Obama says chemical weapons are a red line," al-Zoubi said. "Then he is in direct accordance with President Assad, who also thinks that chemical weapons are a red line."
The Syrian government-run media has been hitting home its stance that "terrorists" are handling chemical weapons and then blaming the use of them on the government.
For example, a Syrian Arab News Agency reporter, citing an official source, said Thursday that "terrorists" threw "unknown powder" in Idlib residents' faces to accuse the army of using chemical weapons.
"In the places where there is the opposition," al-Zoubi told CNN, "it is using chemical weapons that evaporate, and you smell it, they are filming it, and they are using it as alleged proof that the Syrian government is doing it."
The civil war engulfing Syria has left around 70,000 people dead, spurred massive displacement and caused widespread destruction.
The presence of chemical weapons and fear of their use in the war-torn country has raised profound alarm in world capitals, including Washington. That's because, Obama said recently, of the weaponry's "potential of killing massive numbers of people."
Syria denies that it has used, or even possesses, chemical weapons, but the West has long concluded that the country does have them. Obama previously called the use of chemical weapons a "red line" and a "game-changer" for how the United States approaches the war.
The United States hasn't intervened militarily, even though it has played a major role in drumming up opposition to al-Assad's rule.
The stakes rose last week with the White House aide's letter, and its reference to intelligence suggesting Syrian forces had used chemical weapons.
But after the letter, Washington stopped short of altering its approach to Syria. The White House aide noted that "only credible and corroborated facts" will determine U.S. "decision-making."
In his comments to reporters Thursday, the U.S. defense secretary said President Barack Obama administration's decision to reconsider whether to arm opposition fighters fits into its philosophy of "constantly evaluating" the situation "based on all contingencies."
And just because the United States is thinking about arming the rebels doesn't mean missiles and more are on the way, Hagel said.
"You look at, and rethink all options. That doesn't mean you do or you will," he said. "These are options that must be considered with partners, with the international community, what is possible, what can help accomplish these objectives."
Speaking a short time later from Mexico City, Obama said, "What Secretary Hagel said today is what I've been saying now for months, which is we are continually evaluating the situation on the ground working with our international partners to find the best way to move a political transition that has Assad leaving, stabilizes the country, ends the killing and allows the Syrian people to determine their own destiny."