U.N. chemical weapons experts planned to go Monday to the suburban Damascus neighborhood where the relief group Doctors Without Borders estimates that 355 people were killed and more than 3,600 were injured by a suspected nerve agent last week. If confirmed, it would be the worst chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein gassed more than 3,000 people in an Iraqi Kurdish village 25 years ago.
There is “very little doubt” that an attack occurred, a U.S. official said, citing intelligence assessments and other findings that would be a first step to any military action or an expansion of U.S. military and humanitarian assistance.
The senior administration official blamed the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and suggested that it has tried to foil inspection by holding off the weapons experts for days while it shelled the affected area.
“At this juncture, the belated decision by the regime to grant access to the U.N. team is too late to be credible, including because the evidence available has been
significantly corrupted,” the official said.
Discussions about the appropriate U.S. response continue, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to outline the initial findings.
Amid a buildup of U.S. military assets in the region, Obama on Saturday was given a review of options for responses, which could include cruise missiles launched from American warships.
No decisions were announced after an emergency White House meeting that included Vice President Biden and top defense, intelligence and diplomatic officials.
Obama “discussed possible responses” with French President François Hollande on Sunday, the White House said. France’s foreign minister said last week that the suspected gas attack should be met “with force.”
Adding urgency to the international deliberations, Jabhat al-Nusra, an opposition group in Syria that the United States deems a terrorist organization, said Sunday that the attack gives a green light for rebels to respond in kind.
“It is permissible for us to punish in the same way,” Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani said in a statement Sunday titled “Eye for an Eye.”
“It is a debt that will not be lifted until we make them taste what they made our sons taste,” said Jolani, a Syrian who fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq. “With every chemical rocket that fell upon our people in Syria, the price will be paid by one of their villages.”
He urged attacks on villages of the minority Alawites, members of the Shiite sect to which Assad belongs, threatening to deepen the sectarian nature of the conflict, which is in its third year.