WASHINGTON — Moving a step closer to possible U.S. military action in Syria, a senior Obama administration official said Sunday that there was “very little doubt” that President Bashar Assad’s military forces had used chemical weapons against civilians last week and that a Syrian promise to allow U.N. inspectors access to the site was “too late to be credible”.
The official, in a written statement, said that “based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, witness accounts and other facts gathered by open sources, the U.S. intelligence community, and international partners, there is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident.”
The statement, released Sunday morning on the condition that the official not be named, reflected a tougher tone after President Barack Obama’s meeting at the White House on Saturday with his national security team, during which advisers discussed options for military action.
While administration officials emphasized that Obama had not decided to take action, they said he was determined not to be drawn into a protracted debate over gaining access for the U.N. investigators, because of doubts that they could now produce credible findings.
Officials say that a list of possible targets for a military strike has been circulating in the White House since late last week. The list, which the Pentagon originally prepared months ago for Obama, includes both chemical-weapons sites and broader military and government targets, depending on the type of action the president orders. If strikes are carried out, the targets would probably be hit by cruise missiles fired from Navy ships.
The president, who warned a year ago that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces would be a “red line”, has faced criticism from congressional Republicans and others for failing to respond more forcefully to evidence of earlier, smaller-scale chemical attacks. Obama, who inherited two costly wars — in Iraq and Afghanistan — has been extremely reluctant to commit U.S. military forces, even in the form of missile strikes, to another tangled conflict in the Middle East.
But on Sunday, the White House seemed to take a harder line, dismissing the Syrian promise of possible access by U.N. inspectors.
Obama spoke Sunday with the French president, Francois Hollande, and the White House said they had expressed “grave concern” about the reported Syrian chemical attack and “discussed possible responses by the international community”. Obama spoke Saturday to the British prime minister, David Cameron.
Those discussions, officials said, were meant to gauge whether Britain and France are on the same page as the United States, given that they could be part of a coalition carrying out strikes against Syria.