WASHINGTON — There is “very little doubt” that a chemical weapon was used by Syria against civilians in an incident that killed at least 100 people last week, but the president has not yet decided how to respond, a senior administration official said Sunday.
The official said the U.S. intelligence community based its assessment, which was given to the White House, on “the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured” and witness accounts.
The official said the White House believes the Syrian government had denied a U.N. investigative team immediate access to the site of a reported Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs, in order to give the evidence of the attack time to degrade.
The official said the regime’s continuing shelling of the site also further corrupts any available evidence of the attack.
On Sunday morning, Syrian State TV announced Bashar Assad’s government would allow U.N. inspectors to visit the site — a statement later confirmed by the U.N. The mission “is preparing to conduct on-site fact-finding activities”’ on Monday, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Sunday in a statement.
But the Obama administration official said a belated decision to grant access to the U.N. team would be considered “too late to be credible.”
The official insisted on anonymity because of lack of authorization to speak publicly about the developments.
The reported Syrian assent came several days after Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, one of the highest-level contacts between the two governments since the conflict began more than two years ago.
Kerry had warned the Syrian government that it needed to give the inspectors immediate and unimpeded access to the site “rather than continuing to attack the affected area to block access and destroy evidence,” according to a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak on the record.
Last Wednesday’s purported chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta has prompted U.S. naval forces to move closer to Syria. President Barack Obama met with his national security team Saturday to assess the intelligence and consider a U.S. military response, almost a year after warning the Bashar Assad government that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” for the U.S.
The White House had concluded previously that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons in limited incidents, but last week’s attack is suspected of being the deadliest single incident of a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people since March 2011.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Thursday that a chemical attack “appears to be what happened.”
Republican Sen. Bob Corker called Sunday for the U.S. to respond in a “surgical and proportional way, something that gets their attention.” The Tennessee lawmaker said such a response should not involve U.S. troops on the ground, however.
“I think we have to respond...in conjunction with our NATO allies...much as we have done in Libya,” Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., added. He suggested using cruise missile strikes to destroy Syrian airport runways. “We cannot sit still. We’ve got to move and we’ve got to move quickly,” he said.
Engel and Corker spoke on “Fox News Sunday.”
The White House has approved limited lethal aid to Syrian rebels but has limited weapons to mostly small arms and training. Obama described the factors limiting greater U.S. involvement in a CNN interview.
“If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it — do we have the coalition to make it work?” Obama said in the interview broadcast Friday. “Those are considerations that we have to take into account.”
Hagel offered no hints Sunday about likely U.S. response to Syria’s purported use of chemical weapons, telling reporters traveling with him in Malaysia that the Obama administration was still assessing intelligence information about the deadly attack.
“When we have more information, that answer will become clear,” he said when a reporter asked whether it was a matter of when, not if, the U.S. will take military action against Syria.
Asked about U.S. military options on Syria, Hagel spoke in broad terms about the factors Obama is weighing.
“There are risks and consequences for any option that would be used or not used — for action or inaction,” he told reporters. “You have to come to the central point of what would be the objective if you are to pursue an action or not pursue an action. So all those assessments are being made.”
If the U.S. wants to send a message to Assad, defense officials have previously indicated the most likely military action would be a Tomahawk missile strike, launched from a ship in the Mediterranean.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a letter to a congressman last week that the administration opposes even limited action in Syria because it believes rebels fighting the Assad government wouldn’t support American interests if they seized power. He said while the U.S. military could take out Assad’s air force and shift the balance of the war toward the armed opposition, but that it’s unclear where the strategy would go from there.
Dempsey is now in Amman, Jordan, set to meet with Arab and Western peers later Sunday to discuss ways to bolster the security of Syria’s neighbors against possible attacks, chemical or other, by Assad’s regime, a Jordanian security official said.
The meeting, closed to the press and held at an unspecified location, gathers chiefs of staff from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, the official said on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to brief reporters.
Associated Press White House correspondent Julie Pace and Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Washington; National Security Writer Robert Burns in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; writer Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, and writer Albert Aji contributed from Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.
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Black columns of smoke rise from heavy shelling in the Jobar neighborhood, east of Damascus, Syria, Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013. Syria reached an agreement with the United Nations on Sunday to allow a U.N. team of experts to visit the site of alleged chemical weapons attacks last week outside Damascus, state media said. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)×