A shift in tone on Syria from the White House

The New York Times reports: Moving a step closer to possible American military action in Syria, a senior Obama administration official said on Sunday that there was “very little doubt” that President Bashar al-Assad’s military forces had used chemical weapons against civilians last week and that a Syrian promise to allow United Nations inspectors access to the site was “too late to be credible.”

The official, in a carefully worded written statement, said that “based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, witness accounts and other facts gathered by open sources, the U.S. intelligence community, and international partners, there is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident.”

The statement, released on Sunday morning on the condition that the official not be named, reflected a marked shift in tone after President Obama’s meeting at the White House on Saturday with his national security team, during which advisers discussed options for military action.

The president, who warned a year ago that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces would be a “red line,” has faced criticism from Congressional Republicans and others for failing to respond more forcefully to evidence of earlier, smaller-scale chemical attacks. Mr. Obama, who inherited two costly wars — in Iraq and Afghanistan — has been extremely reluctant to commit American military forces, even in the form of missile strikes, to another tangled conflict in the Middle East.

But on Sunday, the White House seemed to take a harder line, dismissing the Syrian promise of possible access by United Nations inspectors. That raised at least the possibility that a strike on Syrian targets would come soon, perhaps using cruise missiles fired from ships off shore.

Early Sunday, the White House said Syrian officials had refused to let the inspectors see the site of the attack. But Syrian television subsequently reported that there was an agreement to allow access beginning on Monday. The administration official who released the statement said the offer, even if sincere, might be meaningless because of the time that had already passed since the attack.

“The evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime’s persistent shelling and other intentional actions over the last five days,” the official said.

The official, however, did not suggest that Mr. Obama had decided to take action. “We are continuing to assess the facts so the president can make an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons,” the official said.

But by labeling as “indiscriminate” the attack on Wednesday in a Damascus suburb, which reportedly killed hundreds of civilians, the official suggested that the United States viewed the latest assault as different from the smaller suspected chemical attacks that had not provoked American military action. [Continue reading…]

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