WASHINGTON -- Pledging a stand against the “indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons,” Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday laid out the Obama administration’s case for a military intervention in Syria based on intelligence that says the Syrian regime gassed civilians multiple times in defiance of international norms.
Kerry’s remarks, along with statements from President Barack Obama later in the day, left little doubt that a U.S. missile strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime was imminent, even without American popular support, backup from close ally Britain or the approval of the United Nations. The administration’s isolation in calling for speedy punitive action in Syria reflects the legacy of faulty intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war. Nations are reluctant to sign up for another U.S.-led intervention when questions remain about details of the alleged chemical attack, as well as about potential fallout from a U.S. strike in an already volatile region.
Kerry said that history would judge inaction on Syria harshly and insisted the U.S. wasn’t alone in its call for an international response, noting words of support from the Arab League, France and Australia.
“This matters to us, and it matters to who we are, and it matters to leadership and to our credibility in the world,” Kerry said.
Although they gave no timing or other details of an attack, Obama and Kerry argued that the United States had a duty to respond and was considering a “limited, narrow act” to serve as a warning message not only to Assad but to North Korea, Iran, Hezbollah and any other U.S. foes that might be tempted to use chemical weapons.
In acknowledgment of the deep misgivings of Americans about a military strike, the administration stressed that any intervention would “bear no resemblance” to the long-term wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, or yoke the U.S. to the bloody Syrian civil war that’s now well into its third year.
“We’re not considering any open-ended commitment. We’re not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach,” Obama said at the White House. “What we will do is consider options that meet the narrow concern around chemical weapons, understanding that there’s not going to be a solely military solution to the underlying conflict and tragedy that’s taking place in Syria.”
The Obama administration’s case for intervention rests on U.S. intelligence, much of which remains classified and will not be released publicly, that says regime forces made preparations for an Aug. 21 attack in an eastern suburb of Damascus, equipped its forces with gas masks and launched rockets from regime-held areas to 12 separate sites. The intelligence also cites intercepted communications from a senior regime official who’s said to acknowledge the regime’s use of chemical weapons in the Ghouta area and to express concern about being discovered.
In addition, U.S. officials point to dozens of amateur videos and the accounts of medical workers that portray a large-scale attack whose victims suffered symptoms that were consistent with exposure to a chemical agent.
“All of them show and report victims with breathing difficulties, people twitching with spasms, coughing, rapid heartbeats, foaming at the mouth, unconsciousness and death,” Kerry said.
White House officials suggested “frustration” as a motive behind the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons, noting that the 12 neighborhoods targeted by the attack were among those that the regime had failed to clear of opposition forces, “despite the fact that they had deployed nearly all of their conventional weapon systems,” according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence findings.
The official called the regime’s failure to clear the area “certainly a motivation for the regime” and said the intelligence community has found in the past that “chemical weapons are introduced in order to break that type of stalemate.”
While international experts generally agree that some form of chemical attack occurred that day in the Ghouta area, and likely on a smaller scale in previous incidents, there are still questions about the strength of the U.S. evidence, and whether it clearly shows regime culpability.
For example, the assessment of the Aug. 21 attack in Ghouta was not based on any physiological samples, according to a senior administration official speaking on condition of anonymity so as to freely discuss a sensitive issue. The official explained that such samples weren’t included because of “how shortly ago this attack took place.”
A Syrian Army unit likely did use the chemical weapons, but that assessment is on the balance of probability, not the facts as they have been presented so far in U.S. and British intelligence reports, said Richard Guthrie, the former leader of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“We’re not seeing what I would feel would be good enough evidence that would convince a jury in a court of law,” Guthrie said.
Guthrie is among the many chemical weapons specialists calling on the United States to delay punitive action pending the release of findings from U.N. inspectors who just wrapped up an investigation in Syria and were en route to New York to begin a reconstruction of the events at Ghouta. The inspection team’s mandate didn’t extend to determining culpability for the attack.
The United States already has dismissed the U.N. as an avenue for action on Syria because any resolutions are certain to be blocked by Assad ally Russia, which holds veto power on the Security Council.
“We don’t want the world to be paralyzed,” 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.”
Another point of dispute is the Ghouta death toll, with a wide gap between the tally put forth by the administration and the figures compiled by Syrian opposition groups, British intelligence and international medical workers.
In the unclassified version of the U.S. intelligence report that was released Friday, the death toll is listed at 1,429 – including 426 children – and the only attribution given is “a preliminary U.S. government assessment.”
Only a day before, Britain’s joint intelligence committee released a report on the Ghouta attack that confirmed just 350 fatalities, a number more in line with the accounts of other groups such as the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, generally considered the most authoritative chronicler of casualties in the civil war.
Last week, the observatory said it had confirmed at least 322 deaths in the attacks, including at least 90 rebel fighters, 82 women and 54 children. And the international aid group Doctors Without Borders has said that three hospitals it supports in Syria received approximately 3,600 patients displaying symptoms of exposure to toxic chemicals on the day of the attack. Of those patients, 355 reportedly died.
The Local Coordinating Committee of Syria, an anti-Assad group, said in a Facebook posting that it had tabulated 1,252 dead in 11 different “medical points,” with the largest number, 400, in Zamalka.
Not even the high number of apparent chemical weapons casualties – and the wrenching videos of their suffering – appears to have moved the American public any closer to supporting a U.S. attack on Syria. Polls show that Americans remain skeptical of the mission and largely confused about the Syrian crisis.
An NBC News poll taken Wednesday and Thursday found half do not support military action in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. And by 41 percent to 27 percent, they don’t see use of military force as improving the lives of Syrian civilians.
Noting the lack of popular support for intervention from a war-weary American population, Kerry said: “Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility.”
There were also divergent views coming from Capitol Hill after Kerry and Obama spoke Friday. Lawmakers who advocate action against Syria continued to do so, while members of the House of Representatives and Senate who believe that Obama must consult with them before intervening in Syria clung to their beliefs.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., hawks who’ve chastised Obama for a perceived passivity on Syria, urged him to launch a powerful attack against Assad in response to last week’s chemical weapons attack outside Damascus.
“The goal of military action should be to shift the balance of power on the battlefield against Assad and his forces,” McCain and Graham said in a statement. “The United States, together with our allies, should take out Assad’s air power, ballistic missiles, command and control, and other significant military targets, and we should dramatically increase our efforts to train and arm Syrian opposition forces.”
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed concern about a military strike done without support of other nations and before United Nations inspectors finish their work.
Instead, Levin urged Obama to “send a powerful message to the Assad regime by immediately getting lethal aid to vetted elements of the Syrian opposition.”
But several lawmakers said the Obama administration still hasn’t done enough to state its case for intervention in Syria, especially if the United States must act alone.
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, summed up the concerns: “As we have said, if the president believes this information makes a military response imperative, it is his responsibility to explain to Congress and the American people the objectives, strategy, and legal basis for any potential action.”
David Lightman, William Douglas, Lindsay Wise and James Rosen contributed from Washington. Special correspondent Mitchell Prothero contributed from Beirut.