Rebel spokesmen said the U.N. convoy was assailed by paramilitary regime loyalists intent on intimidating inspectors.
“They were fired on in the no-man’s land just as they passed the last regime checkpoint outside Moadamiyeh,” said Abu Musab, a local activist sympathetic to the rebels. “The (rebel) leadership had ordered a ceasefire today to allow them access.”
The Syrian government immediately blamed the incident – in which no one was hurt – on “armed terrorist groups” that broke the ceasefire as Syrian government guides were attempting to help the inspectors gain access to the sites.
Obama has long been reluctant to intervene in Syria, considered to have the largest chemical weapons stockpile in the Middle East, despite describing the use of such weaponry as a “red line” that would draw American involvement.
Direct U.S. military action against 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 possible retaliation from Iran, Russia and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah – Assad’s three chief foreign patrons – and U.S. entanglement in a new Middle East conflict after years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, many foreign policy analysts argue that Obama has a moral imperative to step in now, though he faces the tricky task of devising a meaningful punishment for Assad without pulling the U.S. deeper into a long-term war that is already spilling into neighboring countries.
Asked about Americans being held in Syria even as the administrations weighs military action, White House spokesman Jay Carney said it is “obviously aware” of Americans held by the Assad regime but declined to comment on how the issue would play into its deliberations. This month marked a year since American journalist Austin Tice, who wrote for McClatchy, was detained while covering the civil war in Syria.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel indicated Monday that the United States would be unlikely to take unilateral military action in Syria.
“If there is any action taken, it will be concert with the international community and within the framework of a legal justification,” Hagel told reporters in Indonesia.
But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that Western nations could intervene even without U.N. backing.
“Otherwise it might be impossible to respond to such outrages, such crimes, and I don’t think that’s an acceptable situation,” he said in a BBC interview. “We cannot, in the 21st century, allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity, that people can be killed in this way, and there are no consequences for it.”
Obama, meanwhile, faced increasing pressure in Washington to declare his intentions.
Republicans Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called on the White House to take decisive action to end the war and Assad’s rule.
But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who spoke to White House officials Monday afternoon, believes that before any action is taken there must be “meaningful consultation with members of Congress,” said his spokesman, Brendan Buck.
Carney declined to say whether Obama would act without congressional or U.N. authorization, but he said the president is likely to make the case for whatever he decides.
“He has not made that decision and when he does,” Carney said, “I’m sure you will hear from him.”
Hannah Allam, Lesley Clark and James Rosen of the Washington Bureau contributed.