WASHINGTON—The Obama administration said Sunday it believed Syria used chemical weapons in an offensive last week around Damascus and rebuffed the Assad regime’s offer to provide U.N. inspectors access to the affected areas, saying the move came too late to be credible. The comments by a senior administration official signaled that the White House wasn’t backing away from a showdown despite apparent efforts by Damascus to ease tensions by allowing United Nations inspectors to visit the areas allegedly hit with chemical weapons. “If the Syrian government had nothing to hide and wanted to prove to the world that it had not used chemical weapons in this incident, it would have ceased its attacks on the area and granted immediate access to the U.N. five days ago,” a senior Obama administration official said.
“At this juncture, the belated decision by the regime to grant access to the U.N. team is too late to be credible, including because the evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime’s persistent shelling and other intentional actions over the last five days,” the official added. The official said that—based on the reported number of victims, the reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured and other information—”there is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident.” The official said President Barack Obama is still assessing how to respond to “this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons.”
The Pentagon has prepared military options for the White House that include cruise missile strikes on regime targets, officials said. U.S. intelligence agencies are still investigating last week’s incident, and could present a final assessment to Mr. Obama within days. Earlier the U.N. said its inspection team was preparing to start its fact-finding mission on Monday after Syria said it would allow U.N. inspectors currently in Damascus immediate access to areas around the capital where the opposition accused the regime of using chemical weapons against fighters and civilians five days ago.
A presenter on Syrian state television, reading a statement attributed to an unnamed official at the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said agreement was reached following a meeting between Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and Angela Kane, the U.N. disarmament chief, who arrived in Damascus on Saturday. The Syrian statement said the timing of the visit would be coordinated between the U.N. team led by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom and the Syrian government. “The foreign minister affirmed Syria’s desire to cooperate with the team of inspectors to unmask the falsehood of the allegations by terrorist groups that Syrian forces used chemical weapons in the eastern Ghouta,” it added, referring to the eastern suburbs of Damascus and using the government’s term for the rebels battling the regime. Hundreds of people died in last Wednesday’s attack, and human-rights groups say victims bear the hallmarks of sarin nerve gas.