“We’re actively looking at the various legal angles that would inform a decision,” said an official who spoke about the presidential deliberations on the condition of anonymity. Missile-armed U.S. warships are already positioned in the Mediterranean.
As the administration moved rapidly toward a decision, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the use of chemical weapons in an attack Wednesday against opposition strongholds on the outskirts of Damascus is now “undeniable.”
Evidence being gathered by United Nations experts in Syria was important, Kerry said, but not necessary to prove what is already “grounded in facts, informed by conscience and guided by common sense.”
The team of U.N. weapons investigators on Monday visited one of three rebel-held suburbs where the alleged attack took place, after first being forced to withdraw when their vehicles came under sniper fire. The Syrian government, which along with Russia has suggested that the rebels were responsible for the chemical attack, agreed to the U.N. inspection over the weekend.
Videos and statements by witnesses and relief organizations such as Doctors Without Borders have proved that an attack occurred, Kerry said. The U.S. intelligence report is to be released this week.
Among the factors, officials said, are that only the government is known to possess chemical weapons and the rockets to deliver them, and its continuing control of chemical stocks has been closely monitored by U.S. intelligence.
Kerry said Syrian forces had engaged in a “cynical attempt to cover up” their actions, not only by delaying the arrival of the U.N. team but by shelling the affected area continually. Any U.S. strike would probably await the departure of the U.N. inspectors from Syria.
Kerry’s statement, which he read to reporters in the State Department briefing room without taking questions, was part of an escalating administration drumbeat, which is likely to include a public statement by Obama in coming days. Officials said the public warnings are designed partly to wring any possible cooperation out of Russia — or an unlikely admission from the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — before Obama makes his decision.