WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama met with his national security team to discuss potential military options in Syria Saturday, as an international relief group said Syrian hospitals reportedly treated 3,600 patients displaying symptoms of chemical weapons exposure after an attack that killed scores of civilians.
Obama convened the Saturday summit at the White House amid pressure for the administration to respond to the attack in Syria, which if confirmed, would be Syrian President Bashar Assad’s most flagrant violation yet of Obama’s “red line” warning against the use of chemical warfare.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters Saturday that Obama had asked the Defense Department for “options” in a situation that Obama described on Friday as a “big event of grave concern." Obama also sought backing from a key US ally, speaking Saturday with British Prime Minister David Cameron and agreeing to consult on “possible responses by the international community to the use of chemical weapons.” Cameron issued a stern warning too on the lethal consequences.
A White House official said Saturday Obama had directed U.S. intelligence agencies to pull together facts and evidence to determine what happened and that “once we ascertain the facts, the president will make an informed decision about how to respond.”
The official said the U.S. has a “range of options available” and that Obama would “act very deliberately so that we’re making decisions consistent with our national interest as well as our assessment of what can advance our objectives in Syria.”
The Syrian regime, which has denied the use of chemical weapons and sought to put the blame on the opposition, reportedly will allow UN inspectors to visit the site of last week’s attack.
Press TV, Iran’s state-run satellite news channel quoted Iran’s foreign minister as saying he had spoken with his Syrian counterpart who told him the government would cooperate with a UN team in the country. Syria’s Information Minister warned that a U.S. strike would backfire, telling Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV that the “repercussion would be a ball of fire that would burn not only Syria but the whole Middle East,” the Associated Press reported.
Doctors Without Borders said Saturday that three hospitals in Syria it supports are reporting that they received approximately 3,600 patients displaying symptoms of exposure to toxic chemicals on the day of the attack last week in eastern Damascus. Of those patients, 355 reportedly died.
Doctors Without Borders has not been able to access the facilities due to “significant security risks,” the international medical group said, adding that it has a “strong and reliable collaboration” with medical networks and hospitals in the area.
Medical staff working in the Syrian facilities provided detailed information to the group’s doctors regarding “large numbers of patients arriving with symptoms including convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress,” said Dr. Bart Janssens, Doctors Without Borders’ director of operations.
Patients were treated using atropine, a drug used to treat neurotoxic symptoms, which the aid group said it’s now trying to replenish.
Janssens said his group “can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack.” But he added, “the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events - characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers - strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent.”
He said the use would “constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons.”
The number of dead from last week’s attack is still undetermined. The Britian-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, generally considered the most authoritative chronicler of casualties in the war-torn country, said it had confirmed that at least 322 people had died in the attacks, including at least 90 rebel fighters, 86 women and 54 children. Director Rami Abdurrahman said he was still reviewing hundreds of names and expected the final tally to be much higher.
In Syria, Abu Ahmed, a pharmacist who has been volunteering as a medic for the rebels for two years, said he arrived on the scene at 5 a.m., two hours after the attack, and that he and others treating the injured became sick.
“The people helping did get sick with symptoms like headache, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea,” he said Saturday via Skype. “I had headache only, and diarrhea.”
He said the medical staff of 72, includes five doctors who had gloves and masks and suffered fewer problems.
He said the staff treated about 600 people and about 150 of them died, the majority of them children who had been sleeping in basements for protection from the shelling.
“’There has been very bad fighting the last two days,” he said.
The administration has expressed caution about intervening in what Obama has called a “sectarian, complex” conflict, but the use of chemical weapons would be the second transgression since Obama a year ago warned Damascus that the use of chemical weapons was a "red line" for the U.S., and critics say the administration risks American credibility if it does not respond more aggressively.
Obama, however, expressed caution in a CNN interview that aired Friday, warning against “very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region."
And although Obama underscored that the use of chemical weapons “starts getting to some core national interests,” he made it clear he’s concerned about taking military action without a U.N. Security Council resolution.
With Assad’s ally, Russia, likely to use its veto to block such a resolution, one option would be for Obama to follow the precedent set by former President Bill Clinton with the 1999 U.S.-led air campaign to halt Serbia’s bloody onslaught against Kosovo’s independence-seeking Albanian majority.
Denied Russian support for a U.N. resolution, Clinton used the backing of NATO and the justification of stopping the slaughter and ethnic cleansing of Albanian civilians to launch the air campaign.
In the case of Syria, Obama could look to build international support for U.S. military strikes against Syria from the Arab League, which suspended Damascus from its membership in 2011, and from NATO. Defense Secretary Hagel did not rule out the possibility of unilateral U.S. action, but said the U.S. is "working in close consultation with our international partners on this."
The White House says Obama has all but ruled out U.S. military on the ground in Syria. Hagel noted that the U.S. has a battery of F-16 fighter jets in Jordan, and Patriot surface-to-air missiles in Turkey. A fourth Tomahawk cruise missile naval destroyer has been moved closer to Syria to supplement three warships already deployed in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned of the risks of U.S. military intervention in Syria, telling Congress in July that “should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”
Hagel, warning of the possibility of a follow-up chemical weapons attack in Syria, said a decision on a response by the United States and its international partners "should be made swiftly."
Prothero, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Beirut. Clark reported from Washington. McClatchy reporters Jonathan Landay and James Rosen also contributed to this report.