WASHINGTON/BEIRUT: U.S. and allied intelligence agencies have made a preliminary assessment that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons in Wednesday’s attack near Damascus and that the act likely had high-level approval, according to American and European security sources.
The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, cautioned that the assessment was preliminary and that they were still seeking conclusive proof – which could take days, weeks or longer to gather.
Separately, President Barack Obama Friday called the alleged attack, which rebels say killed between 500 and 1,000 civilians, a “big event of grave concern.” However, he brushed over an interviewer’s reminder that he once called chemical weapons a “red line” that could trigger U.S. action.
A White House spokesman reiterated Obama’s position that he did not expect to have “boots on the ground” in Syria. But Obama’s caution contrasted with calls for action from NATO allies, including France, Britain and Turkey, where leaders saw little doubt President Bashar Assad’s forces had staged the predawn missile strikes.
Noting budget constraints, problems of international law and a continuing U.S. casualty toll in Afghanistan, Obama told CNN: “The United States continues to be the one country that people expect can do more than just simply protect their borders. But that does not mean that we have to get involved with everything immediately,” he said, reflecting long-standing wariness over his predecessor’s unpopular ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A senior member of Syria’s opposition coalition said Friday that regime opponents had smuggled samples from victims of the attack out of Syria for testing by experts.
“We took them and sent them outside Syria,” Syrian National Coalition Secretary-General Badr Jamous told Reuters in Istanbul. He declined to say where the samples had been sent.
Assad is under increasing international pressure to allow U.N. inspectors access to the rebel-held site of Wednesday’s reported mass poisoning, which if true would be the world’s deadliest chemical attack in decades.
The opposition coalition said it would ensure the safety of U.N. chemical weapons inspectors in areas of Syria it controls.
“We will ensure the safety of the U.N. team ... It is critical that those inspectors get there within 48 hours,” coalition spokesman Khaled Saleh told a news conference.
Saleh’s comments were an apparent rebuttal of earlier suggestions by Moscow that the opposition was preventing an investigation into the allegations.
“Much needed signals from the opposition, including its readiness to guarantee the safety and effective work of U.N. experts on territory controlled by militants, unfortunately are not forthcoming,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“It is directly preventing an objective investigation into the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the Syrian government to respond “promptly and positively” to his call for U.N. experts to visit the site.
Deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane would arrive in Damascus Saturday to press for a speedy investigation. She helped negotiate the agreement with Assad’s government for the 20-member U.N. team now in Syria to investigate three previous alleged chemical weapons attacks.
Del Buey said Ban believed Syria should agree to an investigation into the attack since it had “publicly expressed its own concerns regarding these events.”