A military strike on Syria appeared imminent Friday as President Obama and his administration publicly rolled out in great detail its case for why the regime of Bashar al-Assad should be punished for using chemical weapons against Syrian civilians last week.
As the White House released an unclassified intelligence report on the Syrian military’s Aug. 21 use of chemical weapons, President Obama said he was seriously considering “limited” military action to reinforce the ban on chemical weapons under international law.
“We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale,” Obama said.
“We are looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act that would help make sure that not only Syria but others around the world understand that the international community cares about maintaining this chemical weapons ban and norm,” the president said.
“We are not considering any opened-ended commitment. We are not considering any boots on the ground,” Obama said.
Obama said he has not made any final decision about a strike.
The well-orchestrated release of an unusually detailed intelligence report signals that the White House may initiate missile strikes soon — potentially today or this weekend — rather than waiting for the United Nations to complete its assessment, which is not likely to come until next week.
Also on Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke publicly and called the the Syria incident a “crime against conscience, a crime against humanity, a crime against the most fundamental principles of the international community.”
The strikes are likely to involve Tomahawk missile strikes launched from Navy ships. At least four Navy destroyers are off the coast of Syria awaiting a possible order from the commander-in-chief, military officials say. That’s an increase from the typical two deployed to that area. Combined they are probably loaded with about 200 Tomahawk missiles.
The White House released a four-page document outlining the intelligence underpinning the “high-confidence assessment” that the Syrian regime deliberately fired rockets containing chemical weapons into neighborhoods outside the Syrian capital of Damascus that are controlled by rebel forces, with a death toll estimated to be more than 1,400.
“It’s completely vetted by the U.S. intelligence community,” a senior administration official said.
Obama has not made any final decisions about strikes, the administration official said.
Nevertheless, the intelligence shows that the chemical weapons attack “was executed under the command and control of the Assad regime,” the official said.
“What is clear to us is there needs to be consequences,” the White House official said.
The White House appeared ready to press ahead with strikes despite a diplomatic setback on Thursday when the British government said it would not participate in any military operations absent some authority from the U.N.
Kerry acknowledged that most Americans are weary of war. A recent poll suggested that only 9 percent of Americans support a military action in Syria.
“But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about,” Kerry said.
Obama echoed that sentiment.
“I recognize that all of us — here in the United States, in Great Britain and many parts of the world — there is a certain weariness given Afghanistan. There is a certain suspicion of any military action post-Iraq, and I very much appreciate that,” Obama said.
“On the other hand, it’s important for us to recognize that when over 1,000 people are killed, including hundreds of children ... it is not in the national security interests of the United States to ignore a clear violation of these kinds of norms.”
Kerry said the strikes would help reinforce American credibility and discourage others — namely Iran — from violating international law and using weapons of mass destruction. Many experts say the administration wants to back up President Obama’s remark in August 2012 that using chemical weapons was a “red line” that would “change my equation” about military involvement.
“This matter is beyond the borders of Syria,” Kerry said. “It is about whether Iran, which itself has been a victim of chemical weapons attack, will now feel emboldened in the absence of any action, to obtain nuclear weapons. Its about Hezbollah; it’s about North Korea or any other dictator” who might seek weapons of mass destruction, Kerry said.
The administration does not want to tip the balance in the 2-year-old civil war, where Asssad’s military is battling rebels that include many Islamic extremists. “Our response would be tied to the issue of chemical weapons use ... not regime change,” a senior administration official said.
The proposed strikes on Syria created a rare bipartisan moment on Capitol Hill, where arch rivals like Nancy Pelosi, the House’s top Democrat, and John Boehner, its top Republican, issued statements saying Obama needed to do more to convince Congress and the American people that military action was necessary.
Yet Congress, which is not in session, made no plans to reconvene over the holiday weekend and call for a vote on the matter.
There are about 2,200 Marines aboard the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, currently in the U.S. Central Command region but not operating along the Syrian coast.
There are about 1,000 troops in Jordan, including a detachment of F-16 fighter jets and troops who specialize in chemical weapons.
Air Force fighter jets based in Europe and the Middle East could reach Syrian targets, but top Pentagon officials routinely warn about Syria’s relatively robust air defense capabilities, which experts say make manned sorties into Syrian air space unlikely due to the risk of U.S. casualties.