WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Friday forcefully laid out its case that the Syrian government of Bashar Assad deliberately used poison gas to kill civilians, and President Obama declared he is contemplating a limited air campaign to deter further use of such weapons.
The flurry of events set off speculation that US warships could launch missile strikes at any moment, even as some members of Congress urged the White House to consult more fully with them, and concerns arose about whether the country would be drawn deeper into the conflict.
Obama stressed that he had learned lessons from mistakes made in recent US military engagements, saying any attack on Syria would be surgically done to deter future use of chemical weapons and would not be an effort to topple the Syrian government.
“When over 1,000 people are killed, including hundreds of innocent children, through the use of a weapon that 98 or 99 percent of humanity says should not be used even in war, and there is no action, then we are sending a signal that that international norm does not mean much,” he said. “That is a danger to our national security.”
But he also said that any military action would not include US ground troops, acknowledging that the American public is skeptical of any military intervention.
“There is a certain weariness, given Afghanistan,” Obama said. “There is a certain suspicion of any military action post-Iraq. And I very much appreciate that.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry was given the primary responsibility for laying out the case fo
r action, and he did so in a stern address from the State Department that portrayed Assad as a heartless killer, responsible for the deaths of innocent children.
“This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons,” Kerry said. “This is what Assad did to his own people.”
To buttress the administration’s case, the White House released a four-page unclassified intelligence assessment that was largely a summary and did not contain supporting documentation such as intercepted cables. Instead, the summary said US intelligence agencies have “high confidence” that Syrian troops loyal to Assad fired rockets and artillery shells containing toxic chemicals into some suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21, killing at least 1,429 civilians, including 426 children.
The assessment said it was based on intercepted communications, satellite images of the attacks, video evidence, and medical reports of thousands of men, women, and children who in the ensuing hours exhibited the symptoms of exposure to nerve gas. The report said it was “highly unlikely” that rebel groups were responsible for the chemical weapons attacks, which Syria has contended.
At least a half-dozen US warships, outfitted with Tomahawk missiles and other long-range weapons, are in range of Syria, according to the Navy, and are prepared to launch an attack on Syrian military targets.
Obama’s remarks were also aimed at the Syrian leadership, analysts said. US officials are deeply concerned that the fall of the Syrian regime, which has been battling rebel groups and Islamic militants, could create more chaos. There is also concern that if Assad believes he is a target of the United States he could order the use of more chemical weapons or attack neighboring Israel in a last gasp, triggering a wider regional conflict.
Syria’s government-run media on Friday quoted officials in Damascus as calling the US intelligence charges “terrorist lies,” repeating earlier denials that it was responsible for the attacks.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, sought support for action from members of both parties in Congress, where calls continued for more information.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, again called on Obama to make a better case to the American public.
“It is his responsibility to explain to Congress and the American people the objectives, strategy, and legal basis for any potential action,” Brendan Buck, Boehner’s spokesman, said Friday. “We – and the American people – look forward to more answers from the White House.”
At least 150 members of the House of Representatives, meanwhile, have requested in writing that Obama seek a formal vote in Congress.
“Though consulting with Congress is helpful, it is in no way an adequate substitute for President Obama obtaining statutory authority from Congress prior to the use of military force, as required by the Constitution,” said Representative Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Obama indicated he was prepared to order a strike unilaterally, and without international backing or the participation of allied nations.
On Thursday, the British House of Commons defeated a resolution authorizing use of force against Syria, while the UN is not expected to take any action amid resistance from Russia, which wields a veto in the UN Security Council.
“A lot of people want something to be done but don’t want to do it,” Obama said, while stressing the any operation would not be “open-ended . . . We’re not considering any boots on the ground approach.”
France’s leader agreed a military response was necessary. “Otherwise, it would be taking the risk of an escalation that would normalize the use of these weapons and threaten other countries,” said President François Hollande.
Meanwhile, the government of Turkey — which neighbors Syria and hosts large numbers of Syrian refugees who have fled from the civil war — has signaled it would also take part in a military strike. Turkish officials have said Assad’s forces were responsible for the attack.
In the wake of the Iraq War, which was based on intelligence that incorrectly said there was a hidden arsenal of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, the Obama administration took pains Friday to make the case that Syria’s government was to blame.
Kerry, in describing the intelligence findings at the State Department, spoke in a forceful cadence that sounded like steps toward the decision to take miliary action.
“We know that for three days before the attack the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area making preparations,” Kerry said.
“And we know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons. We know that these were specific instructions. We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time. We know where they landed and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.”
The summary of intelligence released by the White House said spy agencies had eavesdropped on conversations among Syrian officials that proved complicity in the chemical attack by the regime.
“We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the UN inspectors obtaining evidence,” the intelligence summary said.
Other information was compiled from multiple public sources, including Syrian doctors and health professionals.
“Three hospitals in Damascus received approximately 3,600 patients displaying symptoms consistent with nerve agent exposure in less than three hours,” the intelligence report stated. “The reported symptoms, and the epidemiological pattern of events — characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers — were consistent with mass exposure to a nerve agent.”
Kerry placed particular emphasis on the number of children who were victims.
“Instead of being tucked safely in their beds at home,” he said, “we saw rows of children lying side by side sprawled on a hospital floor, all of them dead from Assad’s gas and surrounded by parents and grandparents who had suffered the same fate.”
Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.