Assad, who has denied using chemical weapons, was defiant. In an interview published Tuesday on the website of the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, Assad accused the U.S. and other countries of ‘‘disdain and blatant disrespect of their own public opinion; there isn’t a body in the world, let alone a superpower, that makes an accusation and then goes about collecting evidence to prove its point.’’
The Syrian leader warned that if the U.S. attacks Syria, it will face ‘‘what it has been confronted with in every war since Vietnam: failure.’’
The Obama administration was moving ahead even as a United Nations team already on the ground in Syria collected evidence from last week’s attack. The U.S. said Syria’s delay in giving the inspectors access rendered the U.N. investigation meaningless and that the Obama administration had its own intelligence confirming chemical weapons use.
The U.N. team came under sniper fire Monday as it traveled to the site of the Aug. 21 attack and on Tuesday delayed a second inspection. A U.S. official said the U.N. team’s delay would not affect the Obama administration’s timeline for releasing its own intelligence assessments.
It’s unlikely that the U.S. would launch a strike against Syria while the United Nations team is still in the country. The administration may also try to time any strike around Obama’s travel schedule — he’s due to hold meetings in Sweden and Russia next week — in order to avoid having the commander in chief abroad when the U.S. launches military action.
The president has ruled out putting American troops on the ground in Syria and officials say they are not considering setting up a unilateral no-fly zone.
On Capitol Hill, bipartisan support for a military response appeared to be building, with some key lawmakers calling for targeted strikes. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said the Ohio Republican had ‘‘preliminary communication’’ with White House officials about the situation in Syria and a potential American response.
However, some lawmakers from both parties were calling on the president to consult Congress before moving forward. Republican Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia is asking colleagues to sign a letter to the president urging him to reconvene Congress and seek approval for any military action.
More than 100,000 people have died in clashes between forces loyal to Assad and rebels trying to oust him from power over the past two and a half years. While Obama has repeatedly called for Assad to leave power, he has resisted calls for a robust U.S. intervention, and has largely limited American assistance to humanitarian aid. The president said last year that chemical weapons use would cross a ‘‘red line’’ and would probably change his calculus in deciding on a U.S. response.
Obama took little action after Assad used chemical weapons on a small scale earlier this year and risks signaling to countries like Iran that his administration does not follow through on its warnings.
Officials said it was likely the targets of any cruise-missile attacks would be tied to Syria’s ability to launch chemical weapons attacks. Possible targets would include weapons arsenals, command and control centers, radar and communications facilities, and other military headquarters. Less likely was a strike on a chemical weapons site because of the risk of releasing toxic gases.
Military experts and U.S. officials said Monday that the strikes would probably come during the night and target key military sites.
AP writer Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and AP National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report from Bander Seri Begawan, Brunei