In what could be read as an ominous development, an unidentified White House official said Sunday morning that there was “little doubt” that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons against civilians last week, which The New York Times reports could move the U.S. a step closer to military involvement.

President Obama had earlier said that use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces would be a “red line” in the relentless civil war there that would draw international involvement. That proof came and went as Obama stepped back from a military response citing the complicated politics, which includes Russia’s continuing support for Assad.

After initially refusing access to the attack site last week, the Assad government agreed over weekend to let United Nations inspectors visit the site of Wednesday’s attack in a Damascus suburb that reportedly killed hundreds of people. But experts dismissed the usefulness of the offer given the amount of time that has elapsed and the continued shelling of the area.

The Times reported significant pushback by Syria and its allies:

The Syrian government has denied that it used chemical weapons, and on Saturday it said its soldiers had found chemical supplies in areas seized from rebel forces. Russia, an ally of the Syrian government’s, accused the rebels of using the weapons, but few analysts believe they have the supplies or ability to do so.

In response to Washington’s comments, Moscow cautioned against being too quick to assign blame. “We strongly urge those who, in trying to impose their opinion on U.N. experts ahead of the results of an investigation, announce the possibility of military action against Syria, to exercise discretion and not make tragic mistakes,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters.

Syria warned that any American military action would “create a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East,” according The Associated Press. And Iranian state news media quoted the Tehran government as saying that any intervention by Washington would have severe consequences.

Meanwhile, NBC’s Richard Engel reported on “Meet the Press” on Sunday morning that Syrian rebels have received “tons of weapons that they hope will change the momentum of the battle.” And other media reports say the Pentagon has been preparing for various scenarios, including limited airstrikes. But Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Armed Services Committee, warned about American involvement.

“We can’t let ourselves get into a situation where this becomes a springboard for a general military situation with Syria to try to change the dynamic,” Reed said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “This has to be an international operation. It can’t be a unilateral American approach.”

Obama himself said Friday that there are limits to what the U.S. can and should do — despite his earlier “red line” statement.

“If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it — do we have the coalition to make it work?” Obama told CNN. “Those are considerations that we have to take into account.”

—Posted by Scott Martelle.

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