The day after a deadly assault in Syria that bore many of the hallmarks of a chemical-weapons attack, a sharply divided Obama administration began weighing potential military responses Thursday to President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Senior officials from the Pentagon, the State Department and the intelligence agencies met for 3½ hours at the White House on Thursday to consider options, which officials say could range from a cruise-missile strike to a more sustained air campaign against Syria.
The meeting broke up without any decision, according to senior officials, amid signs of a deepening division between those who advocate sending Assad a harsh message and those who argue that military action now would be reckless and ill-timed.
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Similar debates played out across the Atlantic. France backed the use of force to counter such an attack, and Turkey and Israel expressed outrage. But diplomats in several countries conceded there was no stomach among the Western allies, including the United States, for long-term involvement in a messy, sectarian civil war.
Although the Obama administration said it would wait for the findings of a United Nations investigation of the attack, U.S. officials spoke in tougher terms about what might happen if President Obama were to determine that chemical weapons were used.
“If these reports are true, it would be an outrageous and flagrant use of chemical weapons by the regime,” said Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman. “The president, of course, has a range of options that we’ve talked about before that he can certainly consider.”
The United States first confirmed the Syrian government had used chemical weapons this year, and Obama administration officials responded by signaling they would supply the rebels with weapons. But no weapons have arrived.
Among U.S. officials, there was a growing belief that chemical weapons had been used in the latest attack, early Wednesday east of Damascus, and little doubt that anyone but Assad’s forces would have used them.
Syrian anti-government activists reported death tolls ranging from 136 to 1,300 from the attack. The government has denied it used chemical weapons, calling the allegations “absolutely baseless.”
Israel said its intelligence strongly suggested a chemical-weapons attack, while the Syrian opposition pointed to evidence, including the use of four rockets and the locations from which they were fired, which members of the opposition said proved the attack could have been carried out only by government forces.
An opposition official described an assault that began about 2 a.m. Wednesday, when the rockets, which they said were equipped with chemical weapons, were launched. Two were fired from a bridge on the highway from Damascus to Homs; the others were launched from a Sironex factory in the Qabun neighborhood of the Syrian capital. The Assad government has denied involvement, and Russians have accused the rebels of staging the attack.
The rebels said the government’s presumed goal was to soften up the opposition before a major conventional attack with tanks, armored personnel carriers and attack planes.
On Thursday, fighting persisted in the area, raising doubts about the ability of the United Nations to send investigators to collect samples from the wounded and dead.
Among the options discussed at the White House, officials said, was a cruise-missile strike, which would probably involve Tomahawks launched from a ship in the Mediterranean Sea, where the United States has two destroyers deployed.
The Pentagon also has combat aircraft — fighters and bombers — deployed in the Middle East and in Europe that could be used in an air campaign against Syria. The warplanes could be sent aloft with munitions to be launched from far outside Syrian territory, which is protected by a respectable air-defense system.
The targets could include missile or artillery batteries that launch chemical munitions or nerve gas, as well as communications and support facilities.
As leaders digested the images from Syria of victims gasping for breath or trembling, there was a flurry of phone calls among diplomats expressing horror at the situation in Syria and frustration at the lack of an obvious response.
“They are all bad choices,” said a European diplomat who asked not to be named.
Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Ahmad al-Jarba, president of the Syrian opposition. Kerry expressed his condolences and the Obama administration’s “commitment to looking into what has happened on the ground,” Psaki said.
Kerry also spoke to Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister of France, who raised the prospect of military action. He called Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu; several Arab foreign ministers; the European Union’s senior foreign-policy official, Catherine Ashton; and the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon.
In the U.S., however, officials said the administration remained divided about how to proceed. “There’s a split between those who feel we need to act now and those who feel that now is a very bad time to act,” said one senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official did not give details about who pushed for a hawkish response to the attack and who urged caution, but he said some at the White House meeting raised worries that it would take time to build international support for a military response, and that any strikes against Assad’s government might worsen a refugee crisis that has placed great strain on Syria’s neighbors, particularly Jordan.
Neither the United States nor European countries yet have a “smoking gun” to prove that Assad’s troops used chemical weapons in the attack, the official said. But he said intelligence agencies had amassed circumstantial evidence that some kind of chemical had been used, not the least of which was the hundreds of deaths.
“The sheer number of bodies is one pretty good indicator,” he said.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.