President Obama is weighing a military strike against Syria that would be of limited scope and duration, designed to serve as punishment for Syria’s use of chemical weapons and as a deterrent, while keeping the United States out of deeper involvement in that country’s civil war, according to senior administration officials.
The timing of such an attack, which would probably last no more than two days and involve sea-launched cruise missiles — or, possibly, long-range bombers — striking military targets not directly related to Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, would be dependent on three factors: completion of an intelligence report assessing Syrian government culpability in last week’s alleged chemical attack; ongoing consultation with allies and Congress; and determination of a justification under international law.
“We’re actively looking at the various legal angles that would inform a decision,” said an official who spoke about the presidential deliberations on the condition of anonymity. Missile-armed U.S. warships are already positioned in the Mediterranean.
As the administration moved rapidly toward a decision, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the use of chemical weapons in an attack Wednesday against opposition strongholds on the outskirts of Damascus is now “undeniable.”
Evidence being gathered by United Nations experts in Syria was important, Kerry said, but not necessary to prove what is already “grounded in facts, informed by conscience and guided by common sense.”
The team of U.N. weapons investigators on Monday visited one of three rebel-held suburbs where the alleged attack took place, after first being forced to withdraw when their vehicles came under sniper fire. The Syrian government, which along with Russia has suggested that the rebels were responsible for the chemical attack, agreed to the U.N. inspection over the weekend.
Videos and statements by witnesses and relief organizations such as Doctors Without Borders have proved that an attack occurred, Kerry said. The U.S. intelligence report is to be released this week.
Among the factors, officials said, are that only the government is known to possess chemical weapons and the rockets to deliver them, and its continuing control of chemical stocks has been closely monitored by U.S. intelligence.
Kerry said Syrian forces had engaged in a “cynical attempt to cover up” their actions, not only by delaying the arrival of the U.N. team but by shelling the affected area continually. Any U.S. strike would probably await the departure of the U.N. inspectors from Syria.
Kerry’s statement, which he read to reporters in the State Department briefing room without taking questions, was part of an escalating administration drumbeat, which is likely to include a public statement by Obama in coming days. Officials said the public warnings are designed partly to wring any possible cooperation out of Russia — or an unlikely admission from the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — before Obama makes his decision.
The administration decided to postpone a meeting with the Russians this week in The Hague to discuss a negotiated solution to the Syrian war, “given our ongoing consultations about the appropriate response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria on August 21,” a State Department official said.
At the State Department, Kerry said, “Make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny.”
He and other officials drew a sharp distinction between U.S. action related to a violation of international law by what they called Assad’s “massive” use of chemical weapons and any direct military involvement in the Syrian conflict, which is in its third year.
“What we are talking about here is a potential response . . . to this specific violation of international norms,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “While it is part of this ongoing Syrian conflict in which we have an interest and in which we have a clearly stated position, it is distinct in that regard.”
Obama and other officials have said repeatedly that no U.S. troops would be sent to Syria. But despite Obama’s year-old threat of an unspecified U.S. response if Assad crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons, even a limited military engagement seemed unlikely before Wednesday’s attack near Damascus.
“This international norm cannot be violated without consequences,” Kerry said.