Administration now says 'very little doubt' Assad used chemical weapons on Syrian civilians
A top Obama administration official says there is "very little doubt" the Syrian government last week used a chemical weapon on civilians, killing at least 100 people.
The official said Sunday that U.S. intelligence officials made the assessment based on "the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured and witness accounts."
The official said the White House also thinks Syrian President Bashar Assad and his forces are denying United Nations investigators immediate access to the site of the reported chemical weapons attack Wednesday in the Damascus suburbs to give the evidence time to degrade.
The Syrian government reportedly said Sunday it will allow U.N. inspectors to visit the site. However, U.S. officials think any evidence of an attack has already been too degraded.
The administration statement follows a meeting Saturday between President Obama and his National Security Council that concluded with the White House saying the administration was still “gathering facts.”
The official spoke Sunday on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.
The reports of thousands killed or stricken by chemical weapons last week is the latest allegation about such tactics in the Middle East country’s roughly 2-year-long civil war.
Obama said last year that the use of chemical weapons by Assad would “cross a red line.” But the White House has been reluctant to take direct military actions, instead supplying rebel forces with non-lethal aid, weighing military options and trying to garner international support.
In addition to the president holding the meeting Saturday, he spoke with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
The leaders talked about shared security challenges, including the continued violence in Syria, and expressed their “grave concern” about the reported use of chemical weapons. And they will continue to consult closely about “possible responses by the international community,” the White House also said.
The White House meeting was attended by at least 15 members of the president’s security council, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, but it was unclear who was in the Oval Office.
Hagel suggested Friday that the Pentagon might move Naval forces closer to Syria in preparation for a possible decision by Obama to order military strikes.
However, U.S. defense officials told The Associated Press that the Navy has already sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea, but without immediate orders for any missile launch into Syria.
Syrian state media accused rebels of using chemical arms against government troops in clashes Saturday near Damascus, while Doctors Without Borders said it has tallied 355 deaths from the purported chemical weapons attack on Wednesday.
The international aid group said three hospitals it supports in the eastern Damascus region reported receiving roughly 3,600 patients with "neurotoxic symptoms" over less than three hours on Wednesday morning when the attack in the eastern Ghouta area took place. Of those, 355 died.
U.S. confirmation took more than four months after rebels similarly reported chemical attacks in February, though in this instance a U.N. chemical weapons team is already on the ground in Syria. Assad's government, then as now, has denied the claims as baseless.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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