WASHINGTON (CNN) — Declaring himself “war-weary” but determined to hold Syria accountable for using banned chemical weapons, President Barack Obama said Friday he was considering a limited response to what U.S. intelligence assessed with “high confidence” as a Syrian attack that killed more than 1,400 people.
Obama told reporters he had yet to make a final decision, but hinted at a military strike that sources and experts say would entail cruise missiles fired from U.S. naval ships at Syrian command targets — but not any chemical weapons stockpiles.
“It is not in the national security interests of the United States to ignore clear violations” of what he called an “international norm” banning the use of chemical weapons, Obama said at a meeting with visiting heads of Baltic nations Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
He called the Syrian attack a “challenge to the world” that threatens U.S. allies Israel, Turkey and Jordan while increasing the risk of such weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.
Earlier, Secretary of State John Kerry released details of a declassified U.S. intelligence report in an effort to muster support at home and abroad for a military response against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
However, NATO allies want the United Nations to authorize any military response, something that both Kerry and Obama said was unlikely because of opposition by permanent Security Council member Russia, a Syrian ally.
“My preference would have been that the international community already would have acted,” Obama said, citing what he called “the inability of the Security Council to move in the face of a clear violation of international norms.”
He expressed frustration with the lack of international support, saying that “a lot of people think something should be done, but nobody seems willing to do it.”
“It’s important for us to recognize that when over 1,000 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 that that international norm doesn’t mean much,” Obama said. “And that is a danger to our national security.”
The remarks by Obama and Kerry, and the release of the intelligence report, came as Obama’s administration faced rising resistance to a military strike against the Syrian government both at home and abroad.
Britain’s Parliament voted against joining a coalition sought by Obama to respond militarily, denying the president a key NATO ally that has steadfastly supported previous campaigns.
In Washington, questions about the veracity of the U.S. intelligence and whether Washington is headed for another long war based on false information — like happened in Iraq — have emerged from both parties in Congress.
“I assure you nobody ends up being more war-weary than me,” Obama said, adding that he was not considering any option that would entail “boots on the ground” or a long-term campaign.
Instead, Obama said, he and his top military and security aides were looking at a “limited, narrow act” to ensure that Syria and others know the United States and its allies won’t tolerate future similar future violations.
Kerry: “We will not repeat” Iraq
Earlier, Kerry insisted that the situation differs from Iraq, saying the intelligence community “reviewed and re-reviewed” its information “more than mindful of the Iraq experience.” And he added: “We will not repeat that moment.”
He cited particular evidence that shows al-Assad’s regime was responsible.
“We know that for three days before the attack, the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area, making preparations,” Kerry said. “And we know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons.”
In addition, “we know where the rockets were launched from, and at what time,” he said. “We know where they landed, and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.”
Quoting from the U.S. assessment, Kerry said the attack killed 1,429 people, including more than 400 children.
“We assess with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack against opposition elements in the Damascus suburbs,” he said.
Al-Assad’s government has claimed that jihadists fighting on the opposition’s side carried out the chemical weapons attacks on August 21 to turn global sentiments against it. Senior administration officials told reporters Friday there is no evidence to support that claim.
Citing support from the Arab League, Turkey and France, Kerry said, “We are not alone in our will to do something” in response to the attack. He brushed off the British Parliament vote against joining a military invention, saying that the United States “makes our own decisions on our own timelines, based on our values and our interests” in deciding the proper course of action.
Meanwhile, the U.N. mission investigating the suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria has completed its collection of samples, said Martin Nesirky, spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general.
Nesirky told reporters that inspectors visited a government military hospital in Damascus and the last of them will leave Syria on Saturday.
Even as the inspection was winding down, opposition activists said Friday there is evidence of another deadly assault in Syria involving an incendiary agent. Seven people died and dozens were injured Monday in the attack on a school in northern Syria.
As the U.N. inspectors began leaving Syria on Friday, Obama met with his national security team amid continuing U.S. signals of a possible military attack.
A U.N. Security Council meeting on Syria ended in deadlock Thursday, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met Friday with the panel’s five permanent members to try to find consensus. So far, opposition by Russia to any military response has scuttled U.N. action, and Kerry expressed little hope for a breakthrough.
“Because of the guaranteed Russian obstructionism of any action through the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. cannot galvanize the world to act as it should,” he said.
While the British vote was a blow to Obama’s hopes of getting strong support from key NATO allies and some Arab League states, regional NATO ally Turkey on Friday backed the U.S. contention that al-Assad’s regime was responsible for the chemical attack.
“The information at hand indicates that the opposition does not have these types of sophisticated weapons,” said Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. “From our perspective, there is no doubt that the regime is responsible.”
Alone or together?
The White House has made clear that the United States will respond in some form to the use of chemical weapons.
Previously, it ruled out U.S. troops on the ground or imposing a no-fly zone. Sources have indicated a campaign of limited strikes by cruise missiles fired from U.S. naval ships in the region, targeting military command centers but not chemical weapons stockpiles, is the likely option.
However, the British Parliament vote and demands by other key European allies, including France and Germany, to put off a decision until after the U.N. inspectors report on what happened in Syria have slowed the response time.
French President Francois Hollande told Le Monde newspaper that intervention should be limited and not be directed toward al-Assad’s overthrow, a position also expressed by Obama.
On Friday, former President George W. Bush said Obama’s “got a tough choice to make.”
“I was not a fan of Mr. Assad. He’s an ally of Iran, he’s made mischief,” Bush told Fox News. “If he (Obama) decides to use the military, he’s got the greatest military in the world backing him up.”
Also Friday, another Obama predecessor, former President Jimmy Carter, said “a punitive military response without a U.N. Security Council mandate or broad support from NATO and the Arab League would be illegal under international law and unlikely to alter the course of the war.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has repeatedly said the United States will respond to Syria in concert with allies.
“Our approach is to continue to find an international coalition that will act together,” he told journalists Friday in Manila, Philippines.
Skeptics of military action have pointed at the decision to use force in Iraq, when the United States government under Bush marched to war based on a thin claim that dictator Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction.
Opponents are conjuring up a possible repeat of that scenario in Syria, though the intelligence being gathered on the use of WMDs in Syria may be more sound.
An NBC News poll conducted Wednesday and Thursday indicated that 50% of the public says the United States should not take military action against Damascus in response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons against its own citizens, with 42% saying military action would be appropriate.
But the survey suggested that if military action would be confined to air strikes using cruise missiles, support rises.
Supporters of a strong U.S. response say that no further proof is needed that the Syrian regime was responsible.
“Come on. Does anybody really believe that those aren’t chemical weapons — those bodies of those children stacked up?” Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Thursday on CNN.
Democrats say Obama needs to make the case to Congress that al-Assad’s regime was responsible and that a possible intervention won’t get out of hand.
“The action has to have a very limited purpose, and the purpose is to deter future use of chemical weapons,” Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland told CNN.
More than 160 legislators, including 63 of Obama’s fellow Democrats, signed letters calling for either a vote or at least a “full debate” before any U.S. action.
The author of one of those letters, Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California, said Obama should seek “an affirmative decision of Congress” before committing American forces. Congress is in recess until September 9, though some members advocate returning early to debate the matter.
Haunted by Iraq
Before military intervention got voted down by Parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron had said his government would not act without first hearing from the U.N. inspectors and giving Parliament another chance to decide the matter. But his opposition seemed to be reminded of the Iraq war.
“I think today the House of Commons spoke for the British people who said they didn’t want a rush to war, and I was determined we learned the lessons of Iraq, and I’m glad we’ve made the prime minister see sense this evening,” Labour Party leader Ed Miliband told the Press Association.
Though Cameron did not need parliamentary approval to commit to an intervention, he felt it important “to act as a democrat, to act a different way to previous prime ministers and properly consult Parliament,” he said Friday.
He regrets not being able to build a consensus of lawmakers, he said.