U.S. intelligence officials are looking into fresh chemical-strike reports emerging from civil-war-torn Syria, among them an August incident said to have taken place northeast of Damascus, insiders told Foreign Policy magazine for a Monday report.
Allegations of chemical-weapons use have fallen significantly in quantity since early June, around the time that government forces seized Qusair in a key military win for President Bashar Assad's regime. U.S. officials see the recent drop-off in attacks, once the government had obtained the upper hand in the conflict, as a sign that it likely was responsible for unleashing chemicals earlier, when Assad's military was seen to be losing battles.
President Obama last year said any use of Syria's large chemical arsenal would breach a "red line" and could force a strong U.S. response.
One U.S. intelligence official said, though, that "as long as they keep body count at a certain level, we won't do anything."
The insiders added that they reportedly are monitoring ongoing transfers near Khan Abu Shamat and other major chemical-weapons storehouses overseen by Assad's forces.
Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday said international investigators had launched an on-the-ground assessment of three incidents of alleged chemical arms use in Syria. The effort would continue for at least two weeks and could "be extended by mutual consent," he said in a statement to reporters.
"The mission must have full access to the sites of the alleged incidents," the U.N. chief stated. "This includes access to the reported sites to undertake the necessary analyses and to collect samples. It also includes interviews and examination of witnesses, victims, attending medical personnel as well as the conduct of postmortem examinations."
He noted, though, that wartime conditions would "undoubtedly affect the mission's activities."
"If confirmed, the use of chemical weapons by any side under any circumstances must be held accountable and would constitute an international crime," he added.
The prime minister of neighboring Jordan on Monday said his government is boosting chemical-warfare readiness near its border with Syria, in part by ramping up its armed-forces presence in the area.
"It is our duty to protect our citizens, border villages and particularly the Zaatari refugee camp" against any Syrian chemical arms, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour said in comments reported by Deutsche Presse-Agentur.