WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration, along with key ally Britain, 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 Assads regime.
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.
So far, however, a U.N. inspection team thats now inside Syria hasnt been granted access to examine the site in Ghouta, leaving the United States and its partners caught between global outrage over the disturbing images and the need for conclusive evidence before vowing a response. If confirmed, it would be the most flagrant violation yet of President Barack Obamas red line, which already was breached with small-scale chemical attacks before this weeks mass-casualty assault, according to the administration.
Obama defended his wait-and-see approach to Syria, though he suggested that 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 that U.S. officials are pushing for action from the U.N. and for the Syrian government to allow investigators access to the site.
A U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly, told McClatchy late Friday that a fourth Navy destroyer equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles was moved closer to Syria on Thursday.
But the official said any reports of preparations for a possible missile attack were way overstated, and he said the three warships already in place in the eastern Mediterranean Sea had more than enough firepower to launch an attack were one to be made.
Senior U.S. officials are in close touch with their 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 regime thats supported by Iran, Russia and the Lebanese militants of Hezbollah.
Obama warned in the CNN interview that the notion that the U.S. 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.
Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research center, said that if the chemical weapons story holds up to scrutiny, Obama will be under intense pressure to respond with some form of direct military action, short of sending in forces. But he said that so far the administration has resisted such calls to strike, and theres no guarantee that would change even with a solid finding of chemical weapons use.
Based on what theyve done so far, I cant say they will (take military action), White said. Proposals have gone to the White House and died there, fast.