WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's administration Friday forcefully presented a case for a strike on Syria.
The president said he was considering a “limited” attack and Secretary of State John Kerry said there was “clear” and “compelling” evidence that the government of President Bashar Assad had used poison gas against its citizens.
Obama and Kerry spoke as the administration released an unclassified intelligence report on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
“Read for yourselves the evidence from thousands of sources,” Kerry said in laying out the administration's case for strikes on Syria. “This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people.”
Kerry said more than 1,400 people were killed in the chemical attack, including more than 400 children.
A four-page intelligence summary released by the White House said the government had concluded that the Assad government had “carried out a chemical weapons attack” outside Damascus, based on human sources as well as communications intercepts.
The suggestion that the opposition might have been responsible “is highly unlikely,” the assessment said.
The president said he was continuing to consult with Congress and allies in other countries but said that any attack would not involve U.S. troops on the ground in Syria.
“We're not considering any open-ended commitment. We're not considering any boots on the ground approach,” Obama told reporters before meeting with Baltic leaders in the White House. He said he had “not made any decisions” about what actions the United States would take in Syria.
Kerry said the administration had “high confidence” in the intelligence, much of which was being released to the public as he spoke.
He vowed that the government had carefully reviewed the evidence to avoid the kind of intelligence failures that preceded the Iraq War.
“We will not repeat that moment,” he said.
Kerry said the time for questions about what happened in Syria had passed.
He said that taking action in the face of the use of chemical weapons “matters deeply to the credibility and the future interests of the United States.”
Obama said many people were “war weary,” and — without singling out the decision by Britain not to join in any attack — added that “a lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it.”
The president said he appreciated that there was a “certain weariness” after the war in Afghanistan and a suspicion about military action in the aftermath of the Iraq War. But he said that the United States would be sending a message to the world if it did nothing.
“It's important for us to recognize that when over a thousand people are killed, including hundreds of innocent children, through the use of a weapon that 98 or 99 percent of humanity says should not be used even in war, and there is no action, then we're sending a signal,” he said.
U.S. intelligence agencies in the three days before the Aug. 21 attack detected signs of activities by the Syrian authorities “associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack,” the assessment said.
Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the suburb of Adra from Aug. 18 until early on the morning of Aug. 21. On that date, it added, a “Syrian regime element prepared for a chemical weapons attack,” including the use of gas masks.
Spy satellites detected rocket launchings from government-controlled territory 90 minutes before the first reports of a chemical weapons attack.
The intelligence agencies said they had identified more than 100 videos related to the attack, many showing large numbers of bodies with physical signs consistent with nerve agents.
The agencies also said they had intercepted the communications of a senior Syrian official who “confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on Aug. 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence,” the assessment said.
The administration has repeatedly said there is no question that Assad's government used chemical weapons against its own people in an attack that killed hundreds.
That would cross the red line that Obama drew last year, when he declared that the large-scale use of chemical weapons by Assad would “change my calculus” about U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war.
Halfway around the world, U.S. warships were in place in the Mediterranean Sea armed with cruise missiles, long a first-line weapon of choice for presidents because they can find a target hundreds of miles distant without need of air cover or troops on the ground.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said the military is ready to execute any decision by Obama.
Another sign of stiffening Capitol Hill opposition to strikes in Syria came from a statement issued Friday by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb.
Earlier in the week, Fortenberry had harshly criticized the use of chemical weapons but said he had serious reservations on unilateral U.S. military intervention.
On Friday he went even further, however, saying point-blank in a statement that Obama should not move unilaterally to attack Syria and that the president has an obligation to seek congressional approval before taking military action
“The U.S. should not bomb Syrians in the name of stopping violence in Syria,” Fortenberry said. “Quick, unilateral military strikes might satisfy the president's 'red line' rhetoric, but the collateral damage and destabilization risks are too high.”
Fortenberry urged House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to introduce a resolution to stop U.S. military intervention in Syria.
Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, meanwhile, 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.
World-Herald staff writer Joseph Morton contributed to this report, which includes material from the Associated Press.
Testing of evidence at special labs is rigorous
THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — They've endured delays, unrelenting scrutiny and snipers' bullets in Damascus. Now U.N. inspectors who have been gathering evidence of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria's capital are to return to their Netherlands base, setting in motion a meticulous testing process at specially accredited laboratories.
In accordance with the team's U.N. mandate, this analysis will establish whether a chemical attack took place but not who was responsible. The team left Syria today and crossed into Lebanon. It wasn't clear how long the testing of their samples would take.
It is rigorous, though. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the watchdog group appointed to oversee the 1993 international treaty against chemical weapons has stringent guidelines for handling and testing samples. The goal is to deliver unimpeachable results to the United Nations. The key: solid chain-of-custody rules for handling the samples plus analysis of each by two or possibly three different labs. The OPCW works with 21 laboratories around the world.
The inspectors' mission in Syria has been shrouded in as much secrecy as possible and will remain so once the team returns to The Hague, where the OPCW is based.
Ban Ki Moon, the U.N. secretary-general, is to get a briefing this weekend.
» The formal rules call for the inspectors to deliver a situation report after 24 hours, a preliminary report after 72 hours and a final report within 30 days, although former U.N. officials said the current crisis was likely to shorten that timeline.
» Syria is one of only five nations never to have signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, the treaty banning chemical weapons. The inspectors were operating in Syria on assignment from the U.N. under a deal negotiated with Syria.
This report includes material from the New York Times.