Initial US, allied intelligence assessment: Syrian forces used chemical weapons

Initial US, allied intelligence assessment: Syrian forces used chemical weapons

Initial US, allied intelligence assessment: Syrian forces used chemical weapons

A handout image released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network shows a Syrian couple mourning in front of bodies wrapped in shrouds ahead of funerals following what Syrian rebels claim to be a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21. AFP photo

U.S. and allied intelligence agencies' have made a preliminary assessment that chemical weapons were used by Syrian forces in an attack near Damascus this week, likely with high-level approval from the government of President Bashar al-Assad, according to American and European security sources.

The early intelligence finding could increase pressure for action by U.S. President Barack Obama, who has made clear that he plans to tread cautiously even as his aides air their differences in a debate over possible military responses to the Syrian government.

The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, cautioned that the assessment was preliminary and, at this stage, they were still seeking conclusive proof, which could take days, weeks or even longer to gather.

In his first public comments since the attack on Aug. 21 in the Damascus suburbs, Obama called the incident "very troublesome" and a "big event of grave concern" but made clear he was in no rush to get war-weary Americans entangled in another Middle East conflict.

Obama's wary response, which underscored a deep reluctance by Washington to intervene in Syria's 2-1/2-year-old civil war, came as senior U.S. officials weighed choices ranging from increased international sanctions to the use of force, including possible air strikes on al-Assad's forces, administration sources said. 

A high-level meeting of members of Obama's National Security Council, the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence agencies was held at the White House late on Aug. 22 but made no decisions on what to recommend, officials said, and further discussions were planned.

One U.S. official acknowledged that the participants aired "differing viewpoints" but pushed back against the notion that the administration - whose Syria policymaking has been marked by internal dissent in the past - was deeply sharply divided on a possible U.S. response.

"It's not like people were screaming at each other," the official said.

'Local commander may have decided on his own'

While the preliminary U.S. assessment was that al-Assad loyalists carried out Wednesday's chemical attack with high level authorization, one U.S. source closely monitoring events in the region said it was also possible that a local commander decided on his own to use gas in advance of a ground assault.

The commander may have been under pressure from top echelons to clear rebels from the area and protect his own troops against rebel counter-attacks, the source said.

"What we've seen indicates that this is clearly a big event, of grave concern," Obama said in an interview on CNN's "New Day" program that aired on Friday, as anti-Assad rebels braved the front lines around Damascus to smuggle tissue samples to U.N. inspectors from victims of the apparent mass poisoning. 

But when pressed about his comment a year ago that chemical weapons use in Syria would cross a "red line," Obama - who was on a two-day bus tour of the Northeast - expressed caution.

At the White House meeting on aug. 22, which lasted more than three hours, Obama's aides had a "robust discussion" of the diplomatic and military options available to the president, U.S. officials said.

Among the military options are targeted cruise missile strikes on Syrian military units believed responsible for chemical attacks or on Assad's air force and ballistic missile sites. Seen as more risky would be a sustained air campaign against Assad's forces, such as the one used in Libya in 2011.

A White House spokesman reiterated Obama's position that he did not intend to put "boots on the ground," and an administration official said the White House meeting also steered clear of the idea of enforcing a "no-fly" zone there, the official said.