WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials on Sunday called Syria's decision to allow a United Nations team to investigate the site of a purported chemical attack "too late to be credible," signaling that the Obama administration was leaning toward a military intervention in the 2-year-old civil war.
Britain, meanwhile, issued a statement that left no doubt that it believed the Syrian government was responsible for the alleged chemical attack Wednesday in which 300 people reportedly died.
"We are clear in the British government that it was the Assad regime that carried out this large- scale chemical attack last Wednesday that has led to the agonizing deaths of so many hundreds of people, including, tragically, so many children," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement. "The eyewitness accounts, the fact this area was under bombardment by the regime forces at the time that the chemical attack took place. It all points in that direction to the responsibility of the regime."
But any strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime would occur over the misgivings of a majority of Americans, according to a new poll, and with only limited support from Congress. The fallout from such action includes likely retaliation from Iran, Russia and the Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah -- Mr. Assad's three chief foreign patrons -- and could draw the United States deeply into a new Middle East conflict after years of entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, many foreign policy analysts argue that after more than two years and a death toll exceeding 100,000, President Barack Obama has a moral imperative to step in now because of the escalation from the regime's apparent use of chemical weapons in defiance of his warning that such warfare was a "red line."
Statements from the administration over the weekend suggest that Mr. Obama's extreme reluctance to wade into the crisis was easing, though there were no details yet on a course of action as U.S. officials continued consultations with European and Arab allies.
Mr. Obama appeared to be shoring up international support for action, speaking with his second ally in two days, French President Francois Hollande. The White House said the two discussed "possible responses by the international community" and agreed to stay in touch.
At a news conference Sunday in Malaysia, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reiterated that he had prepared "options for all contingencies" at Mr. Obama's request.
Pressed on whether there will be a U.S. military response at some point, Mr. Hagel responded: "When we have more information, then that answer will become clear."
U.S. officials repeatedly have said that Syria should allow U.N. inspectors into Ghouta, the eastern suburb of Damascus where hundreds were killed last week in a suspected chemical attack, if it didn't have anything to hide.
The Syrian government, via the state news agency SANA, said that it would allow the foreign inspectors into Ghouta after reaching an agreement with the U.N. that takes effect "immediately." The report said that Syria was ready "to cooperate with the U.N. investigators to expose the false allegations of the terrorist groups accusing the Syrian forces of using chemical weapons."
The U.N. team is preparing to begin on-site inspections today.
Even with the green light from the Syrians, the U.N. team could face security problems if they attempt to visit Ghouta, where there has been heavy fighting in recent days as the regime pounds the countryside in an offensive against rebel forces.
A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, dismissed Syria's "belated decision," saying that the regime obfuscated for so long that now "the evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime's persistent shelling and other intentional actions over the last five days."
"There is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime in this incident," the official said, citing the high number of casualties, victims' symptoms, eyewitness accounts and the intelligence assessments of the U.S. and its allies.
The number of dead at Ghouta is still undetermined. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an authoritative chronicler of casualties in the war-torn country, said it confirmed that at least 322 people had died in the attacks, including at least 90 rebel fighters, 86 women and 54 children. Director Rami Abdul-Rahman said he expected the final tally to be much higher.
The images of dead and dying Syrians from the Ghouta attack sparked global outrage, but don't appear to have changed the American public's opposition to a U.S. military intervention, according to the findings released Sunday from a Reuters/Ipsos poll that was conducted Aug. 19-23.
About 60 percent of Americans said Mr. Obama shouldn't intervene in Syria's civil war, while just 9 percent favored action, according to the survey. More Americans would support U.S. intervention if the use of chemical weapons were to be confirmed -- with 25 percent in favor, 46 percent opposed -- but that's a decline since Aug. 13, when a previous Reuters/Ipsos poll asked the same question and got responses of 30.2 percent in support of intervention to 41.6 opposed.
In Congress, an influential Democrat and a prominent Republican sparred over how quickly the United States should respond and whether Mr. Obama should be able to order military action without congressional authorization.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he believes the Syrian government launched the chemical attacks.
"I think it's very evident that the regime has acted in this way," Mr. Corker said on "Fox News Sunday."
Mr. Corker said Mr. Obama should wait until Congress returns to Washington in two weeks from its summer break, and then seek authorization for several possible military responses.
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the United States may not be able to wait until Congress reconvenes, and that the president should be able to act without first obtaining its permission. Mr. Engel also appeared on the Fox program.