WASHINGTON—The United States, Britain and France opted to strike Syria for its apparent use of chemical weapons without waiting for a report from United Nations inspectors because they were convinced that the Assad government had used chlorine and sarin nerve gas against a rebel-held Damascus suburb, American officials said last Saturday.
The allies also acted because of concerns that Russian and Syrian forces may already have tried to clean up important evidence in Douma, where more than 40 people died in last weekend’s attack, the officials said.
The three countries launched their missiles even as the fact-finding team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was in the Syrian capital and had been expected to head on Saturday to Douma.
Russia and Syria have denied that chemical weapons were used at all and said their own investigators had been to the area and found no trace of them. Those assertions have been denounced as lies by Western officials.
The West’s assessments of what happened on April 7 in Douma rely mainly on open-source information. That includes witness testimony, as well as video and photos shot by aid workers, victims of the attacks and unspecified additional intelligence about barrel bombs and chlorine canisters found in the aftermath.
Barrel bombs are large containers packed with fuel, explosives and scraps of metal, and British Prime Minister Theresa May said reports indicated the Syrian government had used one to deliver the chemicals.
The White House said doctors and aid organizations on the ground in Douma reported “the strong smell of chlorine and described symptoms consistent with exposure to sarin.”
A senior administration official told reporters last Saturday that, while there was more publicly available evidence pointing to the use of chlorine, the US has “significant information that also points to sarin use.” The official did not elaborate on what that information entailed. Chlorine use has been a recurring footnote in the course of Syria’s civil war, but rarely has it generated the same outrage as reports of sarin use.
Chlorine has legitimate industrial and other civilian uses, so it is not banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention. The treaty does, however, prohibit the use of chlorine as a weapon. One senior US official familiar with the decision to act last Friday said the US, British and French intelligence services were unanimous in their assessments of the attack and were “eager” to move when they did because of concerns about contamination of the site.