U.N. inspectors were stymied Friday in their attempts to investigate this week’s alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria, as the United States and Russia escalated their disagreement over which of the country’s warring camps was blocking the probe.
President Obama, in his first extended public statement on the attack, said his administration was still gathering information on what he called a “troublesome” situation that could affect “some core national interests that the United States has,” including nonproliferation and regional stability.
But Obama, whose top national security advisers met Thursday to review options for a response, including military action, also emphasized his desire to avoid “jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations” and may not comport with international law. He spoke during a CNN interview that aired Friday morning.
Among the options at Obama’s disposal are cruise-missile-armed U.S. naval assets currently in the Mediterranean. Speaking to reporters Friday during a trip to the Far East, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that some of the options the Pentagon has prepared for Obama “requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry [them] out,” the Associated Press reported.
Those options, including using cruise missiles to attack Syrian government bases or establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, have been on the table for many months and have been publicly outlined by Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and others. As recently as this week, Dempsey — who defense officials said is meeting this weekend with regional defense chiefs from the Middle East in a long-scheduled conference — said that none of those actions was likely to achieve U.S. goals of a democratic and stable Syria, and indicated that his own recommendation to Obama was to continue the current policy of humanitarian aid and efforts to bolster the opposition.
The administration has been in close contact with allies and partners from Britain to Turkey. U.S. officials have repeatedly indicated they would seek an international mandate or, at the very least, closely coordinate with partners.
For the moment, no action has been authorized and all options remain on hold awaiting confirmation of what the administration has said appears to have been a major chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government against dug-in opposition forces in the Damascus suburbs.
U.S. intelligence officials, who in June concluded that the Syrian government had used small amounts of chemical weapons in previous attacks, discounted reports Friday that the United States had detected movement at chemical storage sites before the Wednesday attack. The officials said they were not prepared to confirm or discount the new allegations.
“Assessments of this type can take time to develop,” one official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
Syria’s government has denied responsibility for any chemical attacks. Russia, its principal ally, has accused the opposition of staging Wednesday’s attack to discredit Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In a series of statements Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it had urged the Syrian government to permit the inspections and praised its “constructive approach.” But the ministry said there had been “no signals from the opposition . . . to ensure safe work of the U.N. experts in the territory it controls.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki countered that “the only hindrance to the U.N. investigative team having unfettered access to all sites where there are credible reports of chemical weapons use is the Syrian regime.”
The inspection team, which arrived in Syria on Sunday under a government-negotiated agreement to examine sites of previous alleged chemical use in western Syria, cannot visit the new area — just a few minutes’ drive from its Damascus hotel — without government permission and security assurances from both sides.
In New York, Kevin Kennedy, acting head of the U.N. Department of Safety and Security, said his office was still awaiting both. He said the department is conducting an assessment of the risks, after which it will make a recommendation on whether “it is a go or a no-go.”
“It’s an active war zone in Damascus,” said Kennedy, who has gained extensive experience managing U.N. humanitarian operations in the world’s deadliest trouble spots over the past 20 years. “I was there a few months ago. You hear every day impacts, shells. There might be 10 in a day; you might hear 80 in a day. You can see airstrikes; you can see artillery. You get shot at. I was only there for 31 / 2 days as a visitor, and my car was shot; we were shot at twice.”
“There’s places in Syria we’ve not gone to for months simply because it’s just not safe to go, and we can’t mitigate the risk,” he said.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sent his top disarmament official to Damascus on Thursday to secure permission for the inspection team — headed by Swedish disarmament expert Ake Sellstrom — to examine the site of Wednesday’s alleged attack and interview witnesses.
“I can think of no good reason why any party, either government or opposition forces, would decline this opportunity to get to the truth of the matter,” Ban told a diplomatic forum in Seoul on Friday, the Reuters news agency reported.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has been unsuccessfully seeking government permission to visit Ghouta, the area where the attack took place, for more than six months, ICRC spokeswoman Rima Kamal said in a telephone interview from Damascus.
“The opposition is still in control there, and military operations have been ongoing in the area intermittently on and off for several months,” she said. This week, Kamal said, “was an escalation of military operations, but that’s not the exception.”
Military operations were still reported Friday morning, she said, “and the area is still closed and sealed off.”
The ICRC does not travel under the protection of any combatant group, but rather negotiates with all sides for security guarantees. “You don’t just walk into an area under heavy fighting,” Kamal said. “You coordinate and secure safe passage.”
The first step, she said, is to seek government permission to travel to a specified area. “We had a meeting with Syrian authorities yesterday” to repeat long-
standing requests to travel to eastern Ghouta.
If permission is granted, the government provides a letter that is supposed to guarantee passage through its own military checkpoints. Then the organization begins efforts to coordinate similar arrangements with the rebels.
“We have constant access to armed opposition groups,” Kamal said. But “the arrangement, the crossing into the area of concern, would only come after you had been granted access by the Syrian authorities.”
Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said that in a telephone call Thursday with Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Ahmad al-Jarba, leader of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, “pledged the opposition’s cooperation with the U.N. investigation and to facilitate access to all opposition-
Thus far, evidence to support opposition claims of the attack has included numerous videos and photographs of lifeless bodies of men, women and children, along with witness testimony obtained via telephone and the Internet.
Activists said they are working to smuggle skin, hair and blood samples to inspectors in an effort to prove their claims that at least hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of people were killed by chemical weapons.
Asked about the possibility of U.S. intervention, Obama told CNN that he had to weigh carefully what he thinks is in the best short- and long-term interests of the United States.
“We remain the one indispensable nation,” said Obama, who was interviewed in the midst of his college campus bus tour in New York and Pennsylvania. “There’s a reason why, when you listen to what’s happened around Egypt and Syria, that everybody asks what the U.S. is doing. It’s because the United States continues to be the one country that people expect can do more than just simply protect [its] borders.”
At the same time, Obama said, “that does not mean that we have to get involved with everything immediately,” despite calls for action from opposition groups and some U.S. lawmakers.
“We have to think through strategically what’s going to be in our long-term national interests, even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians.”
But when asked by CNN anchor Chris Cuomo whether the time frame for a U.S. decision had grown shorter, Obama replied, “Yes.”
Philip Rucker in New Milford, Pa., Loveday Morris in Beirut, Colum Lynch at the United Nations, Will Englund in Moscow and Ernesto Londo