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U.S. teeters toward role in Syria war

| Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013, 6:51 p.m.

WASHINGTON — U.S. officials on Sunday called Syria's decision to allow a United Nations team to investigate the site of a purported chemical attack “too late to be credible,” signaling that the Obama administration was leaning toward a military intervention in the two-year-old civil war.

But any strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime would occur over the misgivings of a majority of Americans, according to a new poll, and with only limited support from Congress. The fallout from such action includes likely retaliation from Iran, Russia and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah — Assad's three chief foreign patrons — and could draw the United States deeply into a new Middle East conflict after years of entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many foreign policy analysts, however, argue that after more than two years and a death toll exceeding 100,000, President Obama has a moral imperative to step in now because of the escalation from the regime's apparent use of chemical weapons in defiance of his warning that such warfare was a “red line.”

Statements from the administration during the weekend suggest that Obama's extreme reluctance to wade into the crisis was easing, though there are no details on a course of action as officials continued consultations with European and Arab allies.

Obama appeared to be shoring up international support for action, speaking with his second ally in two days, French President Francois Hollande. The White House said the two discussed “possible responses by the international community” and agreed to stay in touch.

At a news conference in Malaysia, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reiterated that he'd prepared “options for all contingencies” at Obama's request.

“We are prepared to exercise whatever option if he decides to employ one of those options,” Hagel said.

Pressed on whether there will be a military response at some point, Hagel responded: “When we have more information, then that answer will become clear.”

U.S. officials repeatedly have said that Syria should allow U.N. inspectors into Ghouta, the eastern suburb of Damascus where hundreds were killed last week in a suspected chemical attack, if it didn't have anything to hide.

The Syrian government, via the state news agency SANA, said that it would allow the foreign inspectors into Ghouta after reaching an agreement with the U.N. that takes effect “immediately.”

A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, dismissed Syria's “belated decision,” saying that the regime obfuscated for so long that now “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.”

“There is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime in this incident,” the official said, citing the high number of casualties, victims' symptoms, eyewitness accounts and the intelligence assessments of the United States and its allies.

Syria's agreement seems to be aimed at buying time because of stronger signals from the United States and its allies to respond militarily, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, a research institute in Qatar.

At the same time, it remains unclear whether the U.N. team will be allowed to go to Ghouta because there was no agreement on a date and time for the visit, he said.

Chemical weapons policy expert Jean Pascal Zanders warned that any legitimate investigation would not be quick and should be entirely private until finished.

He noted that beyond getting experts on the ground, investigators would have to collect samples from soil, ammunition fragments and even from victims. After collection, the samples would have to be transported and studied in certified laboratories in three different nations.

In considering the nature of the Syrian attacks, he wrote on his website, The Trench, which is dedicated to chemical weapons studies, the investigation could be slow.

“The exact nature of the agent or agents is impossible to determine from the pictures or film footage,” Zanders wrote.

If confirmed, the Aug. 22 attack in Ghouta would be the biggest chemical weapons incident so far. The administration previously had assessed that the regime had used such arms only on a much smaller scale, and did not respond forcefully.

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