WHITE HOUSE — The Obama administration is asking the United Nations to investigate allegations that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians. Officials also are seeking a Security Council debate on the issue.
Shortly before an emergency meeting Wednesday of the U.N. Security Council, White House officials said they were “deeply concerned” about a report that the weapons were used.
Opposition activists say the government of President Bashar al-Assad used toxic gas in an attack that killed at least 100 people. The Syrian government denies the charge.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States could not confirm the report. For that reason, he said it is even more important the Assad government allow U.N. inspectors now in the country to have access to where the attack is said to have taken place.
“There is an investigation team that is on the ground in Syria right now, and we are hopeful that the Assad regime will follow through on what they have claimed previously, that they are interested in a credible investigation that gets to the bottom of reports that chemical weapons have been used. So, again, it is time for the Assad regime to live up to their rhetoric in this regard,” he said.
Earnest rejected a reporter’s assertion that international pressure is having no effect on the Assad government, but he acknowledged that it has not stopped the violence.
“We have seen evidence and indications that the Assad regime is feeling that pressure, but you are right that it has not resulted in the outcome that we would like to see, which is Assad being completely removed from power,” he said.
Steven Heydemann, senior adviser for Middle East initiatives at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said that if the attack took place as reported, the Syrian government is not worried about international condemnation.
“What this use of these weapons tells us is that the Assad regime really is not terribly concerned about either the presence of this U.N. team or about a negative world reaction to its use of this kind of weapons," he said. "It is determined to use them, even though it knows that it will generate enormous criticism internationally.”
The White House has not announced any new initiatives in the aftermath of the reported chemical attack in Syria. Heydemann said he does not expect any immediate change in Obama administration policy.
“And so it seems as if the White House is not prepared to view this event as a game-changer, in terms of its approach to Syria, at least for the moment,” said Heydemann.
President Barack Obama announced earlier this year that he intends to ship weapons to Syrian opposition groups. Concerns in Congress about the possibility of those arms ending up with groups that are hostile to the U.S. have led to delays in approval of the shipments.