BERLIN Syrian government forces may have carried out a chemical weapons attack close to Damascus without the personal permission of President Bashar al-Assad, Germany's Bild am Sonntag paper reported on Sunday, citing German intelligence.
Syrian brigade and division commanders had been asking the Presidential Palace to allow them to use chemical weapons for the last four-and-a-half months, according to radio messages intercepted by German spies, but permission had always been denied, the paper said.
This could mean Assad may not have personally approved the attack close to Damascus on August 21 in which more than 1,400 are estimated to have been killed, intelligence officers suggested.
Germany's foreign intelligence agency (BND) could not be reached for comment.
Bild said the radio traffic was intercepted by a German naval reconnaissance vessel, the Oker, sailing close to the Syrian coast.
Last week the head of the BND, Gerhard Schindler, gave confidential briefings to the German parliament's defense and foreign affairs committees. Bild said Schindler told the defense committee that Syria's civil war could continue for years.
The chief of staff of Germany's armed forces, General Volker Wieker, also told lawmakers the influence of al-Qaeda linked forces with within the rebels was becoming stronger and stronger.
Members of the foreign affairs committee present at the briefing told Reuters Schindler had said that although the BND did not have absolute proof Assad's government was responsible, it had much evidence to suggest it was.
This included a phone call German spies intercepted between a Hezbollah official and the Iranian Embassy in Damascus in which the official said Assad had ordered the attack.
Germany, along with the European Union, blames the Syrian government for the attack but urged waiting for a report from U.N. weapons inspectors before any U.S.-led military response.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel repeated in an interview with Bild am Sonntag that Germany would not take part in any military intervention but that the use of chemical weapons should not go without response.
Merkel is fighting to win a third term in a federal election in two weeks. Germans are overwhelmingly opposed to military action in Syria.
(Reporting by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Angus MacSwan)