WASHINGTON — There is “very little doubt” that a chemical weapon was used by Syria against civilians in an incident that killed at least 100 people last week, but the president has not yet decided how to respond, a senior administration official said Sunday.
The official said the U.S. intelligence community based its assessment, which was given to the White House, on “the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured” and witness accounts.
The official said the White House believes the Syrian government had denied a U.N. investigative team immediate access to the site of a reported Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs, in order to give the evidence of the attack time to degrade.
The official said the regime’s continuing shelling of the site also further corrupts any available evidence of the attack.
On Sunday morning, Syrian State TV announced Bashar Assad’s government would allow U.N. inspectors to visit the site — a statement later confirmed by the U.N. The mission “is preparing to conduct on-site fact-finding activities” on Monday, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Sunday in a statement.
But the Obama administration official said a belated decision to grant access to the U.N. team would be considered “too late to be credible.”
The official insisted on anonymity because of lack of authorization to speak publicly about the developments.
The reported Syrian assent came several days after Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, one of the highest-level contacts between the governments since the conflict began more than two years ago.
Kerry had warned the Syrian government that it needed to give the inspectors immediate and unimpeded access to the site “rather than continuing to attack the affected area to block access and destroy evidence,” according to a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak on the record.