Obama ready to forge ahead against Syria, U.S. officials say
All indications suggest a strike could occur soon after U.N. investigators charged with scrutinizing the Aug. 21 attack leave the country, something they are scheduled to do Saturday.
The New York Times
Syria: President Bashar Assad said his country “will defend itself against any aggression,” signaling defiance to mounting Western warnings of a possible punitive strike.
France: The French military is ready to commit forces to an operation in Syria if President François Hollande approves it.
United Nations: Ban Ki-moon, U.N. secretary-general, cut short a European trip and rushed home to prepare for a briefing by chemical-weapons inspectors now in Syria. He implored President Obama to refrain from a threatened military strike.
Egypt: Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmy said his country strongly opposes military action against Syria and would not support possible punitive strikes by the U.S. and its allies against the Syrian regime.
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — President Obama is prepared to move ahead with a limited military strike on Syria, administration officials said Thursday, despite a stinging rejection of such action Thursday by America’s stalwart ally Britain and mounting questions from Congress.
The negative vote in Britain’s Parliament was a heavy blow to Prime Minister David Cameron, who had pledged his support to Obama and called on lawmakers to endorse Britain’s involvement in a brief operation to punish the government of President Bashar Assad for apparently launching a deadly chemical-weapons attack last week that killed hundreds.
The vote was also a setback for Obama, who, having given up hope of getting U.N. Security Council authorization for the strike, is struggling to assemble a coalition of allies against Syria.
But administration officials made clear the eroding support would not deter Obama in deciding to go ahead with a strike. Pentagon officials said the Navy had moved a fifth destroyer into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Each ship carries dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles that would likely be the centerpiece of any attack on Syria.
Even before the parliamentary vote, White House officials said, Obama decided there was no way he could overcome objections by Russia, Syria’s longtime backer, to any resolution in the Security Council.
Although administration officials cautioned that Obama had not made a final decision, all indications suggest a strike could occur soon after U.N. investigators charged with scrutinizing the Aug. 21 attack leave the country. They are scheduled to depart Damascus on Saturday.
The U.N. experts have been carrying out on-site investigations this week to determine whether chemical weapons were used in the attack that the group Doctors Without Borders says killed 355 people. Inspectors visited the eastern suburb of Zamalka, where they interviewed survivors and collected samples. Amateur video posted online showed U.N. inspectors in gas masks walking through the rubble of a damaged building.
The Obama administration made its case for military action to congressional leaders late Thursday, trying to head off growing pressure from Democrats and Republicans to provide more information about the administration’s military planning and seek congressional approval for any action.
In a conference call with Republicans and Democrats, top officials from the State Department, the Pentagon and the nation’s intelligence agencies said the evidence was clear that Assad’s forces had carried out the attack, according to officials who were briefed.
While the intelligence does not tie Assad directly to the attack, these officials said, the administration said the United States had the evidence and legal justification to carry out a strike aimed at deterring the leader from using such weapons again.
A critical piece of the intelligence, officials said, is an intercepted telephone call between Syrian military officials, one of whom seems to suggest that the chemical-weapons attack was more devastating than was intended. “It sounds like he thinks this was a small operation that got out of control,” one intelligence official said.
Republican lawmakers said White House officials dismissed suggestions that the scale of the attack was a miscalculation, indicating that the officials believe Syria intended to inflict the widespread damage.
“I’m comfortable that the things the president told Assad not to do he did,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who took part with seven other Republican senators in a separate briefing by the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough.
Among the officials on the conference call were Secretary of State John Kerry; Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel; the director of national intelligence, James Clapper; and the national-security adviser, Susan Rice. It was unclassified, which means the administration gave lawmakers only limited details about the intelligence they assert bolsters the case for a military strike.
Before the call, however, some prominent lawmakers expressed anger that the White House was planning a strike without significant consultations with Congress.
“When we take what is a very difficult decision, you have to have buy-in by members and buy-in by the public,” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Thursday on MSNBC. “I think both of those are critically important and, right now, none of that has happened.”
After the 90-minute conference call, some senior lawmakers were not convinced that the Obama administration had made its case for military action in Syria. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Obama needed to make a forceful case to convince both Congress and a “war weary” country.
Obama, officials said, is basing his case for action both on safeguarding international standards against the use of chemical weapons and on the threat to America’s national interest.
That threat, they said, is both to allies in the region, such as Turkey, Jordan and Israel, and to the United States itself, if Syria’s weapons were to fall into the wrong hands or if other leaders were to take U.S. inaction as an invitation to use unconventional weapons.
The United States has conducted unilateral bombing campaigns without seeking international endorsement before. But it made a direct case for self-defense.
In 1986, President Reagan ordered an airstrike on Tripoli after concluding that Libya was behind the bombing of a Berlin disco that killed two U.S. military personnel. In 1998, after deadly bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Clinton authorized cruise missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.