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US officials weigh potential responses to attack in Syria

Activists wore gas masks as they looked for dead bodies and collected samples to check for chemical weapon use.

REUTERS

Activists wore gas masks as they looked for dead bodies and collected samples to check for chemical weapon use.

WASHINGTON — The day after a deadly assault in Syria that bore many of the hallmarks of a chemical weapons attack, a sharply divided Obama administration began weighing potential military responses Thursday to President Bashar Assad’s forces.

Senior officials from the Pentagon, the State Department and the intelligence agencies met for three and a half hours at the White House on Thursday to deliberate over options, which officials say could range from a cruise missile strike to a more sustained air campaign against Syria.

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The meeting broke up without any decision, according to senior officials, amid signs of a deepening division between those who advocate sending Assad a harsh message and those who argue that military action now would be reckless and ill timed.

Although the Obama administration said it would wait for the findings of a U.N. investigation of the attack, U.S. officials spoke in strikingly tougher terms about what might happen if President Barack Obama were to determine that chemical weapons were used.

“If these reports are true, it would be an outrageous and flagrant use of chemical weapons by the regime,” said Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman. “The president, of course, has a range of options that we’ve talked about before that he can certainly consider.”

The United States first confirmed that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons early this year, and Obama administration officials responded by signaling they would supply the rebels with weapons. But to date, none have arrived.

Among the options discussed at the White House, officials said, was a cruise missile strike, where the United States has two destroyers deployed.

The Pentagon also has combat aircraft deployed in the Middle East and in Europe that could be used in an air campaign against Syria.

Senior military officials, in particular Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have cited the risks and costs of large-scale military intervention, as has been urged by some members of Congress.

Yet the greater political risk now might be to Obama’s credibility, analysts said, given that he laid down a red line last summer to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons again.

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