WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, along with key ally Britain, on Friday strongly suggested that a chemical attack was the reason for scores of civilian deaths in Syria this week but continued to push for a U.N. investigation before committing to any punishment for President Bashar Assad’s government.
Whether the death toll is more than 1,000, as Syrian opposition figures claim, or in the low hundreds, as visible in photographs and videos from the scene in an eastern suburb of Damascus, officials sounded increasingly confident that some type of chemical agent was used.
But a U.N. inspection team in Syria hasn’t been granted access to examine the site, leaving the United States and its partners caught between global outrage over the images and the need for conclusive evidence before vowing a response. If confirmed, it would be the most flagrant violation yet of President Obama’s “red line,” which already was breached with small-scale chemical attacks before this week’s mass-casualty assault, according to the administration.
Obama defended his wait-and-see approach to Syria, though he suggested the window for U.S. action was narrowing. In an interview on CNN, he called the latest potential chemical-weapons attack “clearly a big event of grave concern” and said U.S. officials are pushing for action from the U.N. — and for the Syrian government to allow investigators access to the site.
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Senior U.S. officials are in close touch with counterparts in allied European and Arab nations to discuss options for a response, presumably some form of military intervention. The administration has garnered scorn from Syrian opposition figures and rebels for waiting out the conflict, now in its third year. More than 100,000 have been killed, and it is now a bloody fight between rebel forces with al-Qaida backing and a government that’s supported by Iran, Russia and the Lebanese extremists of Hezbollah.
Obama warned in the CNN interview that the notion that the United States could solve a “sectarian, complex” conflict like Syria is “overstated.” But he added that “when you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale, that starts getting to some core national interests.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Friday the attack “is not something that a humane or civilized world can ignore.” But he echoed Obama in saying that the international priority was getting the U.N. team into the area to investigate. If Assad doesn’t grant access within days, Hague said, the evidence would deteriorate and then “we will need to be ready to go back to the Security Council to get a stronger mandate.”
Even Russia, which continues to support Assad politically and with weapons, is urging Syria to allow the inspectors access, according to statements from Moscow. The Syrian government has denied the chemical-weapons allegations, but it hasn’t made public statements about whether it would allow the U.N. inspectors at the site.