U.S. intel has timeline of Syrian attack

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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration believes that U.S. intelligence has established how Syrian government forces stored, assembled and launched the chemical weapons allegedly used in last week's attack outside Damascus, according to U.S. officials.

The administration is planning to release evidence, possibly as soon as Thursday, that it will say proves that Syrian President Bashar Assad bears responsibility for what U.S. officials have called an "undeniable" chemical attack that killed hundreds on the outskirts of the Syrian capital.

The report, being compiled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is one of the final steps that the administration is taking before President Barack Obama makes a decision on a U.S. military strike against Syria, which now appears all but inevitable.

"We are prepared," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC on Tuesday. "We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take. We are ready to go." The assets include four cruise missile-armed destroyers in the Mediterranean.

The timing of such a military response is being dictated by the need not only to assemble incontrovertible evidence against Assad -- an important prerequisite given the recent memories of a war based on false claims of weapons of mass destruction -- but also to allow consultation with Congress and international partners.

Britain, France and Turkey have indicated willingness to contribute to military action. The administration is weighing the importance of direct international participation in an effort that U.S. forces are prepared to undertake themselves.

The safety of United Nations experts who are in Syria investigating the chemical weapons allegations is also an issue, said a senior administration official, who spoke about internal deliberations on condition of anonymity.

The U.N. experts, who on Monday conducted the first of what was to be four days of on-site inspections, postponed their Tuesday visit because of security concerns. Reports of the attack last Wednesday in the Ghouta area outside Damascus derailed their original plans to visit three other sites in western Syria where chemical strikes allegedly occurred earlier, and the permission granted by the government for a two-week stay expires Sunday.

"We are concerned about the possibility that the Syrian government would seek to delay access and negotiate so as to seek to keep this [inspection] process going and avert the consequences," the administration official said. Ongoing government shelling of Ghouta and surrounding areas, the official said, "is creating more time and space for them to seek to cover things up and delay."

One question that is unlikely to be addressed in the intelligence report is why Mr. Assad would launch such a massive chemical strike in the face of a near-certain international response. It is a question that Russia, Mr. Assad's principal international backer, has raised repeatedly in suggesting that Syrian rebels arranged the attack to implicate the government.

In a telephone call Tuesday with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his government "did not have evidence of whether a chemical weapons attack had taken place, or who was responsible."

The Obama administration has rejected the possibility of rebel culpability, asserting that only the government has possession of the weapons and the rockets to deliver them. But others have speculated that the lack of an international response to the earlier, much smaller alleged chemical attacks may have emboldened Mr. Assad; that Syrian government forces last week may have mistakenly mixed the chemicals to a higher concentration than intended; or that areas with a high density of civilians may have been mistakenly targeted.

As it continued to consult with other countries, the Obama administration earned key support from the Arab League. In an emergency meeting in Cairo, the influential organization blamed Mr. Assad for last week's alleged attack and called for the perpetrators to be brought to international justice.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said Tuesday that charges of chemical weapons use by the government are "categorically baseless," according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, and that Syria was committed to facilitating the U.N. inspection.

"We all hear the drums of war around us," Mr. Moualem said. "If they want to attack Syria, I think that using the lie of chemical weapons is fake and not accurate, and I challenge them to show evidence."

To avenge what they called the "massacre" in the Damascus suburbs, al-Qaida-linked Islamist extremists among the rebels said Tuesday that they would strike Mr. Assad's security branches and infrastructure, according to a statement signed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Ahar al-Sham rebel group and seven other factions.

The White House began contacting leading lawmakers for briefings that congressional officials said were to inform, rather than to seek permission. With Congress out of session, reaction to the crisis has been relatively muted, though a small group of House members planned to deliver a letter today to Mr. Obama saying Congress would reconvene, if necessary, to consider a strike beforehand.

Polls taken before last week's alleged chemical attack consistently showed Americans opposed to U.S. intervention in Syria. Complicating the political task for Mr. Obama is that any military action calls into question his long-standing opposition to a new Middle East war and could anger some liberal supporters.

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