In Syria, Abu Ahmed, a pharmacist who has been volunteering as a medic for the rebels for two years, said he arrived on the scene at 5 a.m., two hours after the attack, and that he and others treating the injured became sick.
“The people helping did get sick with symptoms like headache, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea,” he said Saturday via Skype. “I had headache only, and diarrhea.”
He said the medical staff of 72, includes five doctors who had gloves and masks and suffered fewer problems.
He said the staff treated about 600 people and about 150 of them died, the majority of them children who had been sleeping in basements for protection from the shelling.
“‘There has been very bad fighting the last two days,” he said.
The administration has expressed caution about intervening in what Obama has called a “sectarian, complex” conflict, but the use of chemical weapons would be the second transgression since Obama a year ago warned Damascus that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” for the U.S., and critics say the administration risks American credibility if it does not respond more aggressively.
Obama, however, expressed caution in a CNN interview that aired Friday, warning against “very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”
And although Obama underscored that the use of chemical weapons “starts getting to some core national interests,” he made it clear he’s concerned about taking military action without a U.N. Security Council resolution.
With Assad’s ally, Russia, likely to use its veto to block such a resolution, one option would be for Obama to follow the precedent set by former President Bill Clinton with the 1999 U.S.-led air campaign to halt Serbia’s bloody onslaught against Kosovo’s independence-seeking Albanian majority.
Denied Russian support for a U.N. resolution, Clinton used the backing of NATO and the justification of stopping the slaughter and ethnic cleansing of Albanian civilians to launch the air campaign.
In the case of Syria, Obama could look to build international support for U.S. military strikes against Syria from the Arab League, which suspended Damascus from its membership in 2011, and from NATO.
Defense Secretary Hagel did not rule out the possibility of unilateral U.S. action, but said the U.S. is “working in close consultation with our international partners on this.”
The White House says Obama has all but ruled out U.S. military on the ground in Syria. Hagel noted that the U.S. has a battery of F-16 fighter jets in Jordan, and Patriot surface-to-air missiles in Turkey. A fourth Tomahawk cruise missile naval destroyer has been moved closer to Syria to supplement three warships already deployed in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned of the risks of U.S. military intervention in Syria, telling Congress in July that “should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”
Hagel, warning of the possibility of a follow-up chemical weapons attack in Syria, said a decision on a response by the United States and its international partners “should be made swiftly.”
In Tehran, the AP reported that Iran's Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Abbas Arakji, warned that an American military intervention in Syria will "complicate matters."
“Sending warships will not solve the problems but will worsen the situation,” Arakji said in comments carried by Iran's Arabic-language TV Al-Alam. He added that any such U.S. move does not have international backing and that Iran “rejects military solutions.”
Prothero, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Beirut. Clark reported from Washington. McClatchy reporters Jonathan Landay and James Rosen also contributed to this report.