Hassan Ammar / The Associated Press

Smoke rises from shelling Sunday in the Jobar neighborhood, east of Damascus, Syria. The U.S. is weighing possible military intervention.

Syria agrees to let U.N. inspect site of apparent chemical attack

Published: Monday, Aug. 26, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A

WASHINGTON – U.S. officials Sunday called Syria's decision to allow a United Nations team to investigate the site of a purported chemical attack "too late to be credible," signaling that the Obama administration was leaning toward a military intervention in the 2-year-old civil war.

Britain, meanwhile, issued a statement that left no doubt that it believed the Syrian government was responsible for the alleged chemical attack Aug. 21 in which 300 people reportedly died.

"We are clear in the British government that it was the Assad regime that carried out this large-scale chemical attack last Wednesday that has led to the agonizing deaths of so many hundreds of people, including, tragically, so many children," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement. "The eyewitness accounts, the fact this area was under bombardment by the regime forces at the time that the chemical attack took place. It all points in that direction to the responsibility of the regime."

But any strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime would occur over the misgivings of a majority of Americans, according to a new poll, and with only limited support from Congress.

The fallout from such action includes likely retaliation from Iran, Russia and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah – Assad's three chief foreign patrons – and could draw the United States deeply into a new Middle East conflict after years of entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, many foreign policy analysts argue that after more than two years and a death toll exceeding 100,000, President Barack Obama has a moral imperative to step in now because of the escalation from the regime's apparent use of chemical weapons in defiance of his warning that such warfare was a "red line." Statements from the administration over the weekend suggest that Obama's extreme reluctance to wade into the crisis was easing, though there were no details yet on a course of action as U.S. officials continued consultations with European and Arab allies.

Obama appeared to be shoring up international support for action, speaking with his second ally in two days, French President Francois Hollande. The White House said the two discussed "possible responses by the international community" and agreed to stay in touch.

At a news conference Sunday in Malaysia, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reiterated that he'd prepared "options for all contingencies" at Obama's request.

"We are prepared to exercise whatever option if he decides to employ one of those options," Hagel said.

Pressed on whether there will be a U.S. military response at some point, Hagel responded: "When we have more information, then that answer will become clear."

U.S. officials repeatedly have said that Syria should allow U.N. inspectors into Ghouta, the eastern suburb of Damascus where hundreds were killed last week in a suspected chemical attack, if it didn't have anything to hide.

The Syrian government, via the state news agency SANA, said that it would allow the foreign inspectors into Ghouta after reaching an agreement with the U.N. that takes effect "immediately." The report said that Syria was ready "to cooperate with the U.N. investigators to expose the false allegations of the terrorist groups accusing the Syrian forces of using chemical weapons."

The U.N. team is preparing to begin on-site inspections today.

Even with the green light from the Syrians, the U.N. team could face security problems if they attempt to visit Ghouta, where there has been heavy fighting in recent days as the regime pounds the area in an offensive against rebel forces.

A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, dismissed Syria's "belated decision," saying that the regime obfuscated for so long that now "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."

"There is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime in this incident," the official said, citing the high number of casualties, victims' symptoms, eyewitness accounts and the intelligence assessments of the United States and its allies.

Syria's agreement seems aimed at buying time because of stronger signals from the United States and its allies that they will respond militarily, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, a research institute in Qatar.

"We've gotten this far because there is a feeling that there is a sense of resolve from the United States that I believe has come only in the last couple of days," Sheikh said.

At the same time, it remains unclear whether the U.N. team actually will be allowed to go to Ghouta because there was no agreement on a date and time for the visit, he said.

The number of dead at Ghouta is still undetermined. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, generally considered the most authoritative chronicler of casualties in the war-torn country, said it had confirmed that at least 322 people had died in the attacks, including at least 90 rebel fighters, 86 women and 54 children. Director Rami Abdul-Rahman said he was still reviewing hundreds of names and expected the final tally to be much higher.

The images of dead and dying Syrians from the Ghouta attack sparked global outrage but don't appear to have changed the American public's opposition to a U.S. military intervention, according to the findings released Sunday from a Reuters/Ipsos poll that was conducted Aug. 19-23.

About 60 percent of Americans said that Obama shouldn't intervene in Syria's civil war, while 9 percent favored action, according to the survey. More Americans would support U.S. intervention if the use of chemical weapons were to be confirmed – with 25 percent in favor, 46 percent opposed – but that's a decline since Aug. 13, when a Reuters/Ipsos poll asked the same question and got responses of 30.2 percent in support of intervention to 41.6 percent opposed.

In Congress, an influential Democrat and a prominent Republican sparred over how quickly the United States should respond and whether Obama should be able to order military action without congressional authorization.

Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he believes the Syrian government launched the chemical attacks.

"I think it's very evident that the regime has acted in this way," Corker said on "Fox News Sunday." "I think there are indications this is real," he said. "This was not contrived. And obviously the world is a better place when the United States takes leadership. This is time for us to do this. I hope we will do it soon."

Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on "Fox News Sunday" that the United States may not be able to wait until Congress reconvenes, and that the president should be able to act without first obtaining its permission.

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