WASHINGTON – Edging toward a punitive strike against Syria, President Obama said Friday he is weighing “limited and narrow” action as the administration accused Bashar Assad’s government of launching a chemical weapons attack that killed at least 1,429 people – far more than previous estimates – including more than 400 children.
No “boots on the ground,” Obama said, seeking to reassure Americans weary after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also ruled out any open-ended commitment.
With France as his only major public ally, Obama told reporters he has a strong preference for multilateral action. “Frankly, part of the challenge we end up with here is a lot of people think something should be done but nobody wants to do it,” he added.
Halfway around the world, U.S. warships were in place in the Mediterranean Sea. They carried cruise missiles, which can find a target hundreds of miles away without the need of air cover or troops on the ground.
In what appeared increasingly like the pre-attack endgame, U.N. personnel dispatched to Syria carried out a fourth and final day of inspection Friday as they sought to determine precisely what happened in last week’s attack. The international contingent arranged to depart today and head to laboratories in Europe with the samples they have collected.
The Syrian government said administration claims were “flagrant lies” akin to faulty Bush administration assertions before the Iraq invasion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. A Foreign Ministry statement read on state TV said that “under the pretext of protecting the Syrian people, they are making a case for an aggression that will kill hundreds of innocent Syrian civilians.”
Obama met with his national security aides at the White House and then with diplomats from Baltic countries, saying he has not yet made a final decision on a response to the attack.
But the administration did nothing to discourage predictions that he would act – and soon. It was an impression heightened both by strongly worded remarks from Secretary of State John Kerry and the release of an unclassified intelligence assessment that cited “high confidence” that the Syrian government carried out the Aug. 21 chemical attack.
In addition to the dead, the assessment reported that about 3,600 patients “displaying symptoms consistent with nerve agent exposure” were seen at Damascus-area hospitals after the attack. To that, Kerry added that “a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact and actually was afraid they would be discovered.” He added for emphasis: “We know this.”
Citing an imperative to act, Kerry said “it is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it because then maybe they, too, can put the world at greater risk.”
The president said the attack “threatens our national security interest by violating well-established international norms.”
While Obama was having trouble enlisting foreign support, French President Francois Hollande was an exception. The two men spoke by phone, then Hollande issued a statement that they had “agreed that the international community cannot tolerate the use of chemical weapons, that it must hold the Syrian regime responsible and send a strong message to denounce the use” of such arms.
The day’s events produced sharply differing responses from Republican members of Congress. Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Obama needed to go further than he seems to be planning. “The goal of military action should be to shift the balance of power on the battlefield against Assad and his forces,” they said in a statement.
But Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that if the president believes in a military response to Syria, “it is his responsibility to explain to Congress and the American people the objectives, strategy and legal basis for any potential action.”
Dozens of lawmakers, most of them Republican, have signed a letter saying Obama should not take military action without congressional approval, and top leaders of both political parties are urging the president to consult more closely with Congress before giving an order to launch hostilities.
Despite the urgings, there has been little or no discussion about calling Congress back into session to debate the issue. Lawmakers have been on a summer break for nearly a month, and are not due to return to the Capitol until Sept. 9.
Obama has long been wary of U.S. military involvement in the Syrian civil war, which has killed an estimated 100,000 civilians in more than two years. His reluctance stems in part from recognition that while Assad has ties to Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, the rebels seeking to topple him have connections with al-Qaida terrorist groups.
Still, Obama declared more than a year ago that the use of chemical weapons would amount to a “red line” that Assad should not cross. And Obama approved the shipment of small weapons and ammunition to the Syrian rebels after an earlier reported chemical weapons attack, although there is little sign that the equipment has arrived.