U.S. officials’ strong words on Syria signal that attack is near

The Obama administration has “high confidence” that Syria used chemical weapons to kill civilians based on a dossier of evidence, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Friday. (The Washington Post)

The Obama administration laid out a case Friday for launching a military strike against Syria that left little room for doubt that an attack is imminent.

President Obama said he had not made a decision. But he said impunity for a massive use of chemical weapons would be a danger to U.S. national security and a sign that the world was “paralyzed” in the face of mass killing.

“A lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it,” Obama said. He acknowledged that the world feels a “certain weariness, given Afghanistan,” but made no mention of Thursday’s parliamentary vote in Britain, which ruled out participation in an attack.

The most forceful argument, and the clearest indication that action is near, came from Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who outlined intelligence findings against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he said were “as clear as they are compelling.”

“I’m not asking you to take my word for it,” Kerry said. “Read it for yourself, everyone, those listening, all of you, read for yourself the evidence from thousands of sources, evidence that is already publicly available.”

Read the document

Kerry

U.S. assessment on alleged Syrian chemical-weapon attack

Official U.S. government report on the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government against rebels on Aug. 21.

As Kerry spoke, the White House released a four-page report saying the U.S. intelligence community had concluded with “high confidence,” based on intercepted communications, overhead surveillance, videos and witness statements that Assad’s government had planned, authorized and carried out an Aug. 21 nerve-gas attack near Damascus. Kerry said the gas attack killed at least 1,429 Syrians, 426 of them children.

The precision of those numbers appeared designed to illustrate both the outrage of chemical weapons use and the depth of U.S. intelligence and information-gathering.

Kerry acknowledged an inevitable comparison to a similar public statement made nearly a decade ago about weapons of mass destruction in another Middle Eastern country. The intelligence community, he said, was “more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment.”

The administration has sought to portray a Syria strike as morally justified, militarily limited, and necessary to maintain both U.S. leadership and security. Those arguments thus far have failed to dent strong public opposition to any new U.S. overseas military involvement.

A map of the alleged chemical attack sites in Damascus

An international response is necessary to uphold nearly a century of prohibition of chemical weapons use after the horrors of World War I, Kerry said. In addition, he said, “it matters to our security and the security of our allies. It matters to Israel. It matters to our close friends Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, all of whom live just a stiff breeze away.”

“It is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something,” Kerry said, mentioning Iran, North Korea and the Islamist militant movement Hezbollah. Others, he said, “are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they, too, can put the world at greater risk.”

A vocal minority of lawmakers believe there is no justification for intervention. But Congress members of both parties have refrained from outright opposition or said they support a strike, even as they insisted on more consultation.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who this week sent Obama a list of questions, indicated that Friday’s answers were insufficient. “As we have said, if the president believes this information makes a military response imperative, it is his responsibility to explain to Congress and the American people the objectives, strategy, and legal basis for any potential action,” Boehner press secretary Brendan Buck said.

Administration officials continued their calls to Congress, where a more detailed, classified version of the intelligence assessment has been distributed. But officials said that a vote on a Syria strike, which some lawmakers have demanded, was unlikely.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, have strongly indicated that the timing of an attack would not allow for members scattered across the country to be called back from the congressional recess. The attack probably would come as a series of strikes by Tomahawk cruise missiles from U.S. warships in the Mediterranean.

More important, Obama and his advisers have concluded that congressional approval is not needed. The administration reached a similar conclusion when the United States led a United Nations-approved NATO attack on Libya in 2011. At the time, the White House maintained that the War Powers Act did not apply because U.S. forces who participated in the air assault were not at risk, and direct U.S. participation ended before the 60-day deadline that triggers the Act’s implementation.

“I agree with Secretary Kerry that the world cannot let such a heinous attack pass without a meaningful response,” Senate intelligence committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement, “and I hope the international community will take appropriate action.”

But in a major difference with the Libya operation, the international community has indicated it will not participate.

Action at the U.N. Security Council has been blocked by Russian and Chinese opposition. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the five permanent members of the council on Friday that it would take U.N. weapons inspectors who are due to depart Damascus before dawn Saturday up to two weeks to determine whether chemical weapons had been used. That is far beyond a U.S. timeline now drawn in days, rather than weeks.

At NATO, none of the 28 members has proposed alliance involvement. In Denmark on Friday, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that while the use of chemical weapons “demands an international response so it doesn’t happen again,” he saw “no NATO role in an international reaction to the [Syrian] regime.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s loss of Thursday’s parliamentary vote to authorize participation left the United States without its traditional ally in such operations.

While supportive Arab governments may provide token assistance in command or communications for the operation, only France has indicated it plans direct involvement.

European and Arab governments will support the action, French President François Hollande said in an interview with Le Monde published Friday. But, he told the newspaper, “there are few countries with the capability to inflict punishment through appropriate means. France is one of them. It’s ready.”

The precise role France would take remained unclear. Although it has land-based cruise missiles, it has no sea-launch capability.

As outlined by administration officials, the most likely scenario for attack would be the launch of a barrage of missiles from among five U.S. naval warships now in the area. Each of the ships, currently spread across the eastern Mediterranean some distance from land, has several dozen missiles, each with a range of up to 1,000 miles.

Target lists already drawn up are said to be related to Syria’s chemical weapons capability, including delivery vehicles and command centers. Officials have said that chemical weapons storage sites, which are widely dispersed in populated areas, would not be hit.

Colum Lynch at the United Nations and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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