WASHINGTON -- A U.N. team began inspecting the site of a possible chemical weapons attack near Damascus on Monday as the United States used its strongest language yet to condemn the Syria government for purportedly using deadly nerve gas to kill hundreds of its own people in an escalating and bloody civil war.
Secretary of State John Kerry described Syria’s use of chemical weapons as “undeniable,” “inexcusable” and “a moral obscenity” that “should shock the conscience of the world.”
But Kerry – the most senior U.S. official to speak publicly about the issue in recent days – stopped short of detailing the administration’s response to a conflict that already has killed more than 100,000 people, saying only that talks with allies were continuing as President Barack Obama looks to make “an informed decision.”
Kerry did not allude to any possible military strike, as other Obama administration officials have done, and contributed to an atmosphere of expectation where the question appears no longer to be “if” some kind of attack on Syria will occur, but “when?”
Kerry’s brief remarks came after three key American allies – Britain, France and Turkey – indicated that they would support military action against Syria by the U.S. even without a United Nations mandate. The British navy is reportedly moving into position to assist the U.S. Navy in any possible strike on Syria. The Telegraph reported that the British navy was drawing up a list of cruise missile targets.
Russia – which has prevented the U.N. Security Council from taking strong action against Syria – immediately criticized the United States, saying any attack against Syrian President Bashar Assad would lead to more chaos in the region and be reminiscent of former President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq a decade ago.
“Obama is moving unstoppably toward war in Syria, just like Bush moved toward war in Iraq,” Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian Parliament’s international affairs committee, said in a statement. “Like in Iraq, this war will not be legitimate, and Obama will become a clone of Bush.”
In Syria, U.N. weapons inspectors dodged sniper fire Monday as they tried to visit a neighborhood in suburban Damascus after receiving permission by Assad’s government to investigate rebel claims that a regime-led chemical attack Wednesday killed more than 1,000 people. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, generally considered the most authoritative chronicler of casualties in the war-torn country, and Doctors Without Borders confirmed that at least 300 people had died in the attacks.
Assad has repeatedly denied responsibility for the attack, which he blames on terrorist groups attempting to draw the West into the war.
“The area is contiguous with Syrian army positions, so how is it possible that any country would use chemical weapons – or any weapons of mass destruction – in an area where its own forces are located?” Assad told the daily Russian newspaper Izvestia.
Despite both sides offering inspectors a safe passage, U.N. officials said they were forced to retreat and replace a vehicle after unknown gunmen opened fire. The inspectors returned, however, and visited at least one of the scenes, gathering soil samples and interviewing rebels and residents.
Rebel spokesmen said the U.N. convoy was assailed by paramilitary regime loyalists intent on intimidating inspectors.
“They were fired on in the no-man’s land just as they passed the last regime checkpoint outside Moadamiyeh,” said Abu Musab, a local activist sympathetic to the rebels. “The (rebel) leadership had ordered a ceasefire today to allow them access.”
The Syrian government immediately blamed the incident – in which no one was hurt – on “armed terrorist groups” that broke the ceasefire as Syrian government guides were attempting to help the inspectors gain access to the sites.
Obama has long been reluctant to intervene in Syria, considered to have the largest chemical weapons stockpile in the Middle East, despite describing the use of such weaponry as a “red line” that would draw American involvement.
Direct U.S. military action against Assad’s regime would occur over the misgivings of a majority of Americans, according to a new poll, and with only limited support from Congress.
The fallout from such action includes possible retaliation from Iran, Russia and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah – Assad’s three chief foreign patrons – and U.S. entanglement in a new Middle East conflict after years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, many foreign policy analysts argue that Obama has a moral imperative to step in now, though he faces the tricky task of devising a meaningful punishment for Assad without pulling the U.S. deeper into a long-term war that is already spilling into neighboring countries.
Asked about Americans being held in Syria even as the administrations weighs military action, White House spokesman Jay Carney said it is “obviously aware” of Americans held by the Assad regime but declined to comment on how the issue would play into its deliberations. This month marked a year since American journalist Austin Tice, who wrote for McClatchy, was detained while covering the civil war in Syria.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel indicated Monday that the United States would be unlikely to take unilateral military action in Syria.
“If there is any action taken, it will be concert with the international community and within the framework of a legal justification,” Hagel told reporters in Indonesia.
But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that Western nations could intervene even without U.N. backing.
“Otherwise it might be impossible to respond to such outrages, such crimes, and I don’t think that’s an acceptable situation,” he said in a BBC interview. “We cannot, in the 21st century, allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity, that people can be killed in this way, and there are no consequences for it.”
Obama, meanwhile, faced increasing pressure in Washington to declare his intentions.
Republicans Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called on the White House to take decisive action to end the war and Assad’s rule.
But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who spoke to White House officials Monday afternoon, believes that before any action is taken there must be “meaningful consultation with members of Congress,” said his spokesman, Brendan Buck.
Carney declined to say whether Obama would act without congressional or U.N. authorization, but he said the president is likely to make the case for whatever he decides.
“He has not made that decision and when he does,” Carney said, “I’m sure you will hear from him.”
Hannah Allam, Lesley Clark and James Rosen of the Washington Bureau contributed.