UN to inspect site of alleged Syrian chemical weapons attack, US say it's too late
A United Nations team will today inspect the site of a suspected Syria chemical weapons attack, but a United States official said the development was "too late to be credible" and Washington was all but certain the government had gassed its own people.
The US remarks appeared to signal that a military response is more likely.
A senior senator says he believes US president Barack Obama will ask for authorisation to use force when Congress returns from recess next month.
The comments follow forceful remarks from other Western powers, including Britain and France, which also believe president Bashar al-Assad's government is behind a massive poison gas attack that killed many hundreds of people last week.
Foreign powers have been searching for a response since the killings in a Damascus suburb, which if confirmed would be the world's worst chemical weapons attack in 25 years.
Syrian opposition groups have put the death toll at more than 1,300 civilians.
The UN said Damascus had agreed to a ceasefire and allow a UN team of experts inspect the site from today.
The scale of last Wednesday's attack has led to calls for a strong response from the US, a year after Mr Obama declared the use of chemical weapons to be a "red line" that would draw serious consequences.
A senior US official said Washington was still weighing how to respond, but there was very little doubt that the Syrian government had used a chemical weapon against civilians.
"Based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, witness accounts and other facts gathered by open sources, the US intelligence community, and international partners, there is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident," the US official said.
"At this juncture, any belated decision by the regime to grant access to the UN team would be considered 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."
Senator Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said he had spoken to the Obama administration about its plans and believed the president would seek authorisation for intervention after Congress convenes on September 9.
"I think we will respond in a surgical way," he told Fox News on Sunday.
"I hope the president, as soon as we get back to Washington, will ask for authorisation from Congress to do something in a very surgical and proportional way."
Democrat Eliot Engel, who also sits on the committee, is calling for surgical airstrikes.
"I certainly would do cruise missile strikes," he said.
"I think you can do that without boots on the ground, without having Americans in harm's way.
"You can destroy the runways, Assad's runways. You could destroy his munitions and you could destroy his fuel.
"There are lots and lots of things we could do. We could even destroy the Syrian air force if we wanted to."
Syria warns intervention would 'create a ball of fire'
Syria's information minister said any US military action would "create a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East".
He said Damascus had evidence chemical weapons were used by rebels fighting to topple Assad, not by his government.
That argument is given credence by Mr Assad's ally Moscow, but dismissed by Western countries which say they believe the rebels have no access to poison gas or the big weapons needed to deliver it.
Western leaders have been phoning each other in recent days and issuing declarations promising some kind of response.
"We cannot in the 21st century allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity," British foreign secretary William Hague said.
"We believe it's very important that there is a strong response and that dictators ... know that the use of chemical weapons is to cross a line and that the world will respond when that line is crossed."
French president Francois Hollande's office said: "France is determined that this act does not go unpunished."
'Syria is ready to cooperate', foreign minister says
President Bashar al-Assad's government announced on state television yesterday that it would allow UN inspectors already in the country to visit the area, saying it has nothing to hide.
"An agreement was concluded today (Sunday) in Damascus between the Syrian government and the United Nations during the visit of the UN high representative for disarmament, Angela Kane, to allow the UN team lead by professor Aake Sellstroem to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in Damascus province," a ministry statement said.
It said the agreement "is effective immediately."
Ms Kane, who has had a 20-member team of inspectors on the ground in Syria since August 18, struck the deal with Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem, state television reported.
"Syria is ready to cooperate with the inspection team to prove that the allegations by terrorist groups (rebels) of the use of chemical weapons by Syrian troops in the Eastern Ghouta region are lies," Mr Moallem was quoted as telling Ms Kane.
Doctors Without Borders has said 355 people died last week of "neurotoxic" symptoms, after the opposition claimed regime forces unleashed chemicals east and south-west of Damascus last Wednesday.
The regime has denied the charges and in turn accused the rebels of using chemical arms.
The UN team arrived in the Syrian capital last week to begin a hard-won mission which UN officials originally said would last two weeks and cover three sites.
The mission had been repeatedly delayed amid differences with Mr Assad's regime over the scope of the probe into the alleged use of chemical arms in the 29-month civil war.
Under its original mandate, the team was expected to investigate Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo, where the government says rebels used chemical weapons on March 19, killing at least 26 people, including 16 Syrian soldiers.
The opposition says government forces carried out the attack.
Damascus had called for a UN probe in March, but insisted it focus solely on Khan al-Assal.
Governor of Hama province killed in car bombing
Meanwhile, the governor of a central Syrian province has been killed in a car bombing that state media is blaming on rebel fighters.
Hama is where some of the biggest protests against Mr Assad were held in the early months of the uprising before violence and killing drowned out the protesters' voices.
Doctor Abdel Razzaq Naem was appointed governor of the city in July 2011 when his predecessor was sacked for failing to quell the demonstrations despite using force.
Rebels have assassinated a number of senior political, military and even religious figures.
The government has weathered these losses, but the rebels will be heartened at having once again struck near the top of the surviving Syrian establishment.