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 to President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Senior officials from the Pentagon, the State Department, and the intelligence agencies met for 3½ 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.
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.
Similar debates played out across the Atlantic. France backed the use of force, and Turkey and Israel expressed outrage. But diplomats in several countries conceded there was no stomach among the Western allies, including the United States, for long-term involvement in a messy sectarian civil war.
Although the Obama administration said it would wait for the findings of a United Nations investigation, US officials spoke in strikingly tougher terms about what might happen if President 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, that has not happened.
Among US officials, there was a growing belief that chemical weapons had been used in the attack Wednesday near Damascus and little doubt that anyone but Assad’s forces would have used them.
But given how difficult it was the previous time to prove the use of chemical weapons, administration officials offered no timetable for how long it might take this time, raising questions about how promptly the United States could act.
Israel said its intelligence strongly suggested a chemical weapons attack, while the Syrian opposition pointed to evidence, including the use of four rockets and the locations from which they were fired, that it said proved that the attack could have been carried out only by the government.
An opposition official described an assault that began shortly after 2 a.m., when the rockets, which the official said were equipped with chemical weapons, were launched. Two were fired from a bridge on the highway from Damascus to Homs; the others were launched from a Sironex factory in the Qabun neighborhood of the Syrian capital. The Assad government has denied involvement, and Russians have accused the rebels of staging the attack.
As leaders digested the harrowing images from Syria of victims gasping for breath or trembling, there was a flurry of phone calls among diplomats expressing horror at the calamitous situation and frustration at the lack of an obvious response.
“They are all bad choices,” said a European diplomat who asked not to be named because of the delicacy of the situation.