The United States believes the apparent chemical weapons attack that killed over 1,000 people in the western suburbs of Damascus on Wednesday was “clearly” carried out by the Assad regime.
“There are strong indications there was a chemical weapons attack—clearly by the government,” a senior Obama administration official told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. “But we do need to do our due diligence and get all the facts and determine what steps need to be taken.”
On Wednesday, Syrian anti-Assad activists accused the government of carrying out a toxic gas attack in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, killing at least 1,000 people including children. The claims coincided with a visit by a UN chemical weapons team to three previous sites of alleged attacks. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government rejected the accusations.
The comments by the US official, who was not named by the Journal, appear to mark an escalation from the initial response by US officials.
“The United States is deeply concerned by reports that hundreds of Syrian civilians have been killed in an attack by Syrian government forces, including by the use of chemical weapons,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said shortly after the accusations were made on Wednesday. “We are working urgently to gather additional information,” Earnest said, adding that Washington has asked for UN investigators to be granted access to the area of the fighting. He made no mention of possible consequences if chemical weapons use is confirmed.
Syrian and Russian officials both denied the attack was launched by the Assad government, insisting that rebels were responsible for the deaths and the report.
“These claims are categorically false and completely baseless and are part of the filthy media war waged by some countries against Syria,” a spokesman for Syria’s armed forces said, according to the Journal.
According to Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich, “all of this really looks like an attempt, at any cost, to create a reason to produce demands for the UN Security Council to side with the regime’s opponents and undermine the chances of convening the Geneva conference,” a reference to a planned peace conference between the sides in Geneva.
For the United States, the death toll and painful images again put a spotlight on US President Barack Obama’s pledge almost exactly a year ago to respond forcefully to any chemical weapons use by the Assad government. Since then, the administration has said it has confirmed that Syrian forces have committed such attacks, and the US has ordered a lethal aid package of small arms to be sent to some rebel groups, though it’s unclear if any weapons have been delivered.
Yet up to now, Obama has refused all options of direct US military intervention in a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a letter this week to a congressman that the administration is opposed to even limited action in Syria because it believes rebels fighting the Assad government wouldn’t support American interests if they seized power.
Dempsey said the US military is clearly capable of taking out Assad’s air force and shifting the balance of the war toward the armed opposition. But such an approach would plunge the US into the war without offering any strategy for ending what has become a sectarian fight, he said.
Dempsey, in his letter, said, “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides,” In the Aug. 19 letter to Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat, he said, “It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.”
Despite Dempsey’s assessment of the forces fighting Assad, Obama recognized the Syrian opposition coalition as “the legitimate representative” of the Syrian people more than eight months ago. And Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly backed the moderate vision promoted by Salim Idris, the rebel military chief.
But the more than 50 distinct rebel groups fighting to end the Assad family’s four-decade dynasty range wildly in political beliefs and not all are interested in Western support.
Obama has stated that he doesn’t want to be drawn into another Mideast conflict after a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and polling suggests he has the public’s support on that.