Middle East/North Africa

Assad regime accuses Syrian rebels of chemical attacks

Government officials loyal to embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad are accusing rebels in the country of launching chemical weapon attacks against the regime’s forces.

{mosads}Government troops were reportedly hit with chemical weapons as they tried to push out rebel fighters from positions around the capital city of Damascus, The Associated Press reports.

State media outlets broadcast images of plastic jugs, gas masks and explosives captured from rebel-controlled areas after the government offensive as proof of the attacks.

Those news outlets, however, did not show images of the attacks themselves or of Assad troops suffering the aftereffects of a chemical strike, according to the AP.

The regime’s counterclaim of chemical attacks by rebel fighters comes amid recent claims by anti-government forces of chemical weapon use by Assad’s forces.

A team of inspectors has been dispatched by the United Nations to investigate the rebels’ claims. On Friday, rebel leaders guaranteed safe passage for the U.N. team into Syria.

Khaled Saleh, spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said it is “critical” the U.N. inspection team reach the alleged attack site outside Damascus within 48 hours to gather as much evidence as possible on the attack.

President Obama has said Assad’s forces would be crossing a “red line” if it used chemical weapons, which would trigger a U.S. military response.

Until recently, the Obama administration has sought a strategy of economic and diplomatic sanctions to end the three-year civil war in Syria.

But reports of the chemical weapons strike near Damascus have forced the White House to change its calculations.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters on Friday that President Obama has asked commanders to prepare military options for Syria.

The administration’s national security team met with the president on Saturday at the White House to discuss those options.

“Once we ascertain the facts, the president will make an informed decision about how to respond,” a White House official said of Saturday’s meeting.

“We have a range of options available,” the official said. “We are going to act very deliberately so that we’re making decisions consistent with our national interest as well as our assessment of what can advance our objectives in Syria.”

That said, any U.S. military intervention in Syria “would not be militarily decisive” in ending the civil war, but only draw American forces deeper into a conflict that is increasingly leaving Washington with no good options, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said Monday.

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