For the first time since Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad began an open war against protesters and rebels in the Middle Eastern nation, the United States has openly acknowledged that Assad is using nerve gas to kill his citizens.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had only hours earlier dismissed chemical-weapons charges against Syria as mere "suspicions," but he went all-in on Thursday morning, according to the AP:

Hagel, speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi, said the White House has informed two senators by letter that, within the past day, "our intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically, the chemical agent sarin."

"It violates every convention of warfare," Hagel said.

Indeed, use of sarin violates the international Chemical Weapons Convention, though Syria is one of six nations that have never signed on to the treaty... along with such luminaries as Angola, South Sudan, and North Korea.

Used heavily in the Iran-Iraq war and by the Japanese terror cult Aum Shinrikyo, sarin gas attacks the nervous system and overstimulates the muscles, causing paralysis and asphyxiation. As the CDC puts it, "Severely exposed people are not likely to survive."

Could this be jingoistic claptrap? After all, the US has cooked intel before on the presence of weapons of mass destruction on a Middle Eastern despot's turf; just yesterday, before the opening of his self-shrine, former President George W. Bush defended his decision to invade Iraq and kill hundreds of thousands of its citizens, along with 4,488 American service members, in search of phantom chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.

The difference here is that unlike its cowboy predecessors, the Obama administration has done everything it can to avoid US involvement in the Syrian civil war, even though Assad's slaughter of his countrymen is as urgent and hoary as anything Saddam Hussein had done between the Iraq wars. The UN estimated in February that Assad's forces have killed as many as 70,000 Syrians in the two years since the civil war began there.

Nevertheless, it's not clear exactly what western powers can do to stop the bloodshed, short of another costly, human-rights-eroding Mideast ground war. Asked by the administration to come up with plans for intervention in Syria, one senior DOD official told the Wall Street Journal last month: "Nobody could figure out what to do."

[Image via AP]