Update: Obama says Syrian chemical arms use a challenge to security

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Updated: August 30, 2013, 1:26 PM

 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Friday the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons is a direct threat to U.S. and global security, and indicated the United States was ready to act to hold the Assad regime accountable.

"This kind of attack is a challenge to the world," Obama said in brief remarks at the White House.

He added that he hasn't made a final decision on his response, and that "in no event" will it involve U.S. troops on the ground in Syria. Any action will be "limited, narrow."

Obama spoke after his administration released a U.S. intelligence assessment that concluded with "high confidence" that the Syrian regime carried out a chemical attack that killed 1,429 people earlier this month in a Damascus suburb.

The report is a key part of the case being built by the Obama administration to justify taking military action against Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.

Obama referred to the inability of the U.S. and its allies to overcome objections to action by Russia and China at the United Nations Security Council and the surprise vote by the British House of Commons blocking Britain from taking military action.

France signaled it might act as the principal U.S. ally in a military strike against Syria, filling a hole left by Britain's unexpected desertion of the U.S.

"I recognize that all of us here in the United States, in Great Britain and many parts of the world, there's a certain weariness given Afghanistan. There's a certain suspicion of any military action post-Iraq," Obama said.

"Part of the challenge that we end up with here is that a lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it," he said.

Secretary of State John Kerry made a similar point earlier as he laid out the case made in the intelligence assessment.

If the U.S. doesn't respond, he said, "there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will."

The U.S. intelligence assessment concluded with "high confidence" that the Syrian regime carried out a chemical attack that killed 1,429 people earlier this month in an area near Damascus.

Three days before the Aug. 21 attack, U.S. intelligence officials concluded that personnel from the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, a unit of Syria's Defense Department, were preparing chemical munitions, based on evidence including intercepted communications, satellite intelligence and spies.

The attacks began about 2:30 a.m. local time on Aug. 21, according to the report, and within four hours social media reported attacks from at least 12 locations.

Three hospitals in the Damascus region received about 3,600 patients with symptoms consistent with nerve-gas exposure.

According to the assessment, Syria maintains a stockpile of many chemical agents, including mustard, sarin and VX and has "thousands" of munitions to deliver them.

It said Assad is the ultimate decision-maker, who is surrounded by loyalists to carry out his wishes.

An administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity declined to say whether the U.S. has concluded that Assad directly ordered the use of the chemical weapon.

The timing of the next move hangs in part on the work of a UN inspection team now in Syria that was mandated to determine whether a chemical attack occurred, not who ordered it and carried it out. The U.N. inspectors were scheduled to leave Syria by Saturday morning. Their departure would clear away an impediment for a strike to begin.

Obama also faces domestic hurdles. More than 100 of the 435 lawmakers in the House, including 18 of his fellow Democrats, signed a letter this week saying that Syria doesn't pose a direct threat to the U.S. and calling on Obama to seek congressional approval before taking any military action.

Obama said he will continue consulting with Congress without saying whether he will seek the approval from lawmakers.

Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said Obama still needs to lay out his objectives, strategy and legal justification for an attack.

"We — the American people — look forward to more answers from the White House," Buck said in a statement.

Almost 80 percent of Americans say Obama should seek congressional approval before taking any military action in Syria, according to a poll conducted Aug. 28-29 for NBC News.

Only 42 percent said they would support a U.S. military response, though that rises to 50 percent when the action specified is limited cruise-missile strikes targeted on infrastructure used to carry out chemical-weapons attacks.

The poll of 700 adults has an error margin of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.Obama also has his schedule to consider. He's set to leave the U.S. Sept. 3 for a trip to Sweden followed by attendance at the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. The summit host is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been Assad's main ally.

While nothing would stop Obama from ordering a strike from overseas, it "would be unusual and awkward" for him to do so, said Damon Wilson, a former NATO and National Security Council official who's now executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, a policy group in Washington.

Also at the St. Petersburg summit will be British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande, who said he still favors delivering a targeted blow against Syria.

"There are few countries with the capacity to mete out a sanction using appropriate means," Hollande said in an interview with the newspaper Le Monde published today. "France is among them and is ready."

Latest developments

The United States is considering launching a punitive strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, blamed by the U.S. and the Syrian opposition for an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in a rebel-held suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus.

Here’s a look at key Syria developments around the world Friday amid heightened tensions over potential military action:

UNITED STATES:

The U.S. government said it has “high confidence” that Syria’s government carried out a chemical weapons attack — killing 1,429 people, including at least 426 children. Those numbers are significantly higher than what Syrian activists and aid workers have reported from Syria. The U.S. chemical weapons assessment said Assad’s government used an unidentified nerve agent, and cites human and satellite intelligence that it said backs up publicly available videos and other evidence.

SYRIA:

U.N. experts completed a final day of on-site visits in their investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. Shops and supermarkets in Damascus were filled with people stocking up on bread, canned food and candles ahead of expected strikes, but there were no apparent signs of panic or shortages. U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said the chemical weapons investigators visited a military hospital in Damascus in response to the Syrian government’s allegations of three chemical weapons attack against Syrian soldiers earlier this month. The team is now packing and getting ready to leave Syria on Saturday.

UNITED NATIONS:

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon privately briefed the five permanent members of the Security Council on the activities of the chemical weapons team. Nesirky said the team has concluded its collection of evidence related to the alleged Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, including visits to field hospitals, interviews with witnesses and doctors, and gathering biological samples and environmental samples. He said U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane will meet with Ban in New York on Saturday to give him a report on the investigation.

DENMARK:

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen from Copenhagen said the alliance has no plans for military action in Syria. He said approval for doing so would require the approval all 28 NATO members. But Rasmussen pointed the finger toward Syrian forces for the chemical weapons attack: “It demands cynicism beyond what is reasonable to believe that the opposition is behind a chemical attack in an area it already largely controls.”

FRANCE:

French President Francois Hollande said his country can go ahead with plans to strike Syria for allegedly using chemical weapons despite the British parliament’s failure to endorse military action. He told the newspaper Le Monde that the “chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished.”

RUSSIA:

Presidential foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov expressed puzzlement over why the U.N. team had finished its work “when there are many questions about a possible use of chemical weapons in other areas in Syria.” Russia has insisted there is no evidence the government is behind the attack. Russia and China have said that they would block any U.N. resolution that authorizes use of force against Syria’s government.

BRITAIN:

Treasury chief George Osborne warned that Britain should not turn its back on the world after the stunning parliamentary defeat of a government motion for military intervention in Syria. He told the BBC there will be “national soul-searching” about Britain’s global role after the “no” vote.

GERMANY:

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Germany isn’t considering joining military action against Syria and hasn’t been asked by others to do so. Berlin has called for the international community to take a “clear position” following the alleged chemical attack, but has left open what exactly that might entail.

IRAQ:

Followers of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr held rallies in Baghdad and the southern Iraqi city of Basra to denounce any Western strikes against Syria. In the capital, about 2,000 Sadrists demonstrated while chanting anti-American slogans after Friday prayers. About 3,000 Sadrists rallied in Basra, some carrying banners reading “No to America.”

TUNISIA:

Foreign minister Othman Jerandi expressed opposition to any kind of foreign intervention in Syria, citing the “negative consequences” of any such operation. He called for “peaceful means and dialogue to find a solution to the crisis” to protect Syria’s civilian population and preserve the country’s territorial integrity.

— The Associated Press