WASHINGTON — As President Obama weighs options for responding to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, his national security aides are studying the NATO air war in Kosovo as a possible blueprint for acting without a mandate from the United Nations.
With Russia still likely to veto any military action in the Security Council, the president appears to be wrestling with whether to bypass the United Nations, although he warned that doing so would require a robust international coalition and legal justification.
“If the US goes in and attacks another country without a UN 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 said Friday to CNN, in his first public comments after the deadly attack on Wednesday.
Obama described the attack as “clearly a big event of grave concern” and acknowledged that the United States had limited time to respond. But he said UN investigators needed to determine whether chemical weapons had been used.
Kosovo is an obvious precedent for Obama because, as in Syria, civilians were killed and Russia had longstanding ties to the government authorities accused of the abuses. In 1999, President Clinton used the endorsement of NATO and the rationale of protecting a vulnerable population to justify 78 days of air strikes.
A senior administration official said the Kosovo precedent was one of many subjects discussed in continuing White House meetings on the crisis in Syria. Officials are also debating whether a military strike would have unintended consequences, destabilize neighbors like Lebanon, or lead to even greater flows of refugees into Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt.
“It’s a step too far to say we’re drawing up legal justifications for an action, given that the president hasn’t made a decision,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the deliberations. “But Kosovo, of course, is a precedent of something that is perhaps similar.”
The Pentagon is moving naval forces closer to Syria in preparation for a possible decision by Obama to order strikes, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested on Friday.
Hagel declined to describe any specific movements of US forces. He said Obama asked that the Pentagon to prepare military options for Syria and that some of those options ‘‘requires positioning our forces.’’
US Navy ships are capable of a variety of military action, including launching Tomahawk cruise missiles, as they did against Libya in 2011 as part of an international action that led to the overthrow of the Libyan government.
‘‘The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for contingencies, and that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options — whatever options the president might choose,’’ Hagel sa
On Friday, the Russian government called on President Bashar Assad of Syria to allow UN investigators into the areas east of Damascus where the attack occurred.
But US and foreign diplomats said Russia’s move did not reflect any shift in its backing of Assad or its resistance to punitive measures in the Security Council.
In a statement, Russia’s foreign ministry put the onus on Syria’s opposition forces to provide secure access to the site of the “reported incident.” A second statement suggested the Russians believed the attack was actually a provocation by the rebels. It cited reports criticizing government troops that were posted on the Internet hours before the attack.