Hagel, NATO ministers talk Syria chemical weapons

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U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel answers questions from journalists during a press conference after a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, June 5, 2013. NATO defense ministers are expected to agree Wednesday on the cornerstones of the alliance's operations in Afghanistan after its combat mission ends in 2014, during a second day of talks in Brussels. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

BRUSSELS (AP) — New reports that the French confirmed the use of sarin gas in Syria triggered discussions here on the sidelines of the meeting of NATO defense ministers, but the alliance is still refusing to make any contingency plans for operations in the embattled country.

Unwilling to get drawn collectively in to a protracted civil war, NATO nations instead are making individual decisions on how best to aid the rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad's regime.

But while France's announcement about the proof of chemical weapons use has not been a major focus of the discussions, it has been raised in during meetings between the ministers, according to a U.S. official.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with the French and British and Canadian ministers Tuesday evening and the issue came up during that session, according to a U.S. official. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the meeting so requested anonymity, said that the ministers agreed to continue to monitor the situation, but did not decide on any specific actions.

Hagel said during a news conference Wednesday that he has not seen the evidence other than a reference the French minister made about it during their meeting. He said the French did not request any specific actions by the U.S. in regard to Syria.

Hagel also said that NATO's role continues to be to help protect alliance members such as Turkey, "but beyond that we didn't get into any additional war plans regarding Syria."

NATO officials have said that while they are concerned about the deteriorating situation in Syria, there is virtually no chance the alliance will become involved.

"We have been told not to plan at this point," U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the top NATO commander, told reporters at the start of the two-day meeting. He added that NATO has already acted to defend Turkey by placing three Patriot missile batteries.

"In making sure we are well positioned to execute the defense of an ally we have done that, but beyond that we will not plan," Breedlove said, until he gets a formal directive from NATO's governing both, the North Atlantic Council.

At a NATO meeting of foreign ministers in April, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged NATO to put contingency plans in place to guard against the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Other nations, however, are reluctant to wade into the conflict. In Turkey, anti-government protests have erupted in a town hit by car bombs near the Syrian border, and Turks have accused their leaders of putting the country's security at risk by backing the Syrian rebels.

On Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said tests carried out by a French laboratory confirmed that sarin gas has been used multiple times and at least once by Syrian government forces and their accomplices. Earlier Tuesday, a U.N. panel said there were "reasonable grounds" to believe limited quantities of toxic chemicals were used as weapons in at least four attacks in Syria's civil war, but that more evidence was needed to determine the precise chemical agents involved and who used them.

Hagel told reporters traveling with him before the Brussels meeting that the U.S. will continue to work with allies, and that "we remain committed to even putting more resources in the non-lethal assistance for opposition forces."

The Obama administration has tried, but so far failed, to convince Russia to end its support for the Assad government.

A diplomatic delegation to Moscow last month presented intelligence suggesting that Assad's government used chemical weapons on its own people, officials said Tuesday. But the officials said the intelligence failed to convince Russian officials and prompted no change in the Kremlin's support for Assad — a disappointment for the U.S., considering the promises of closer cooperation after several recent meetings and conversations between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

The U.S. officials were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter so they requested anonymity.