Syria agreed Sunday to a U.N. investigation into last week’s purported chemical-weapons attack outside Damascus — a deal a senior White House official dismissed as “too late to be credible,” saying the United States has “very little doubt” President Bashar Assad’s forces used such weapons.
The hardening of the U.S. position came as calls for military action grow. In a sign the U.S. may be a step closer to an armed response, naval forces have already been dispatched toward Syria’s coastal waters, although President Barack Obama has cautioned against a hasty decision.
With France, Britain, Israel and some U.S. congressmen urging swift military action against Assad’s regime if the use of chemical agents is confirmed, the U.N. team’s conclusions could have a dramatic impact on the trajectory of the country’s civil war.
The agreement struck in Damascus calls for U.N. experts already in the country to begin an investigation today into the suspected chemical attack on rebel-held areas in the capital’s eastern suburbs.
Anti-government activists and Doctors Without Borders say that more than 300 people were killed in an artillery barrage by regime forces Wednesday that included the use of toxic gas. The government calls the allegations “absolutely baseless.”
The suburbs hit in the suspected chemical strike, collectively known as eastern Ghouta, are under the control of rebel fighters, and regime artillery and warplanes have pounded the area for days.
The U.N. inspectors will have to traverse through both government-held and opposition-controlled turf to conduct their probe. Rebels have said they will help facilitate the visit.
Under Sunday’s agreement with the U.N., the Syrian government “affirmed that it will provide the necessary cooperation, including the observance of the cessation of hostilities at the locations related to the incident,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
In Washington, a senior administration official said the U.S. has “very little doubt” that regime forces used chemical weapons in Wednesday’s attack, an assessment that was “based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured” as well as witness accounts and facts gathered by the U.S intelligence community.
The official, who insisted on anonymity because of lack of authorization to speak publicly about the developments, was dismissive of the Syrian government’s agreement to grant access to the U.N. team, saying it was “too late to be credible.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel offered no hints Sunday about likely U.S. responses, telling reporters traveling with him in Malaysia that the Obama administration was still assessing intelligence about Wednesday’s attack.