US President Barack Obama has ordered the release of new evidence ahead of a limited military operation in Syria following the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians.
The Obama administration will seek to provide concrete evidence that President Bashar Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons, thereby justifying American military intervention and avoiding a debacle similar to the one that ensued when the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq failed to produce a “smoking gun.”
That war was launched by the George W. Bush administration under the pretense that Iraq’s then-ruler, Saddam Hussein, had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, an allegation which was never substantiated.
Unlike the invasion of Iraq, however, US-led military action in Syria will likely be brief and limited in scope, a punishment for chemical attacks and a deterrent against future use of nonconventional weapons, administration officials told the Washington Post on Monday, stressing that the United States had no desire to become embroiled in the civil war there.
Two administration officials said the US was expected to make public a more formal determination of chemical weapons use on Tuesday, with an announcement of Obama’s response likely to follow quickly. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the internal deliberations.
US action will last only one or two days and originate from American vessels already stationed in the eastern Mediterranean, the Washington Post report said, but won’t take place before the completion of a detailed intelligence assessment and an analysis of the legality of such a move, and before US allies and Congress are consulted.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday there was “undeniable” evidence of a large-scale chemical weapons attack in Syria, with intelligence strongly pointing to Assad’s government, and that “this international norm cannot be violated without consequences.” He said the administration would be presenting evidence supporting its allegations against Assad.
On Saturday, a leading German news magazine reported that Israeli intelligence had intercepted Syrian officials discussing the chemical strike and that the communications proved that the Assad government was behind the use of nonconventional weapons.
An Israeli team, headed by outgoing National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror, was in Washington Monday for security consultations, with a special emphasis placed on Syria and the consequences and details of a potential US strike. Both Syrian and Iranian officials threatened Monday that if such a strike were to take place, Israel would be targeted in response.
Speaking to reporters at the State Department on Monday, Kerry was harshly critical of chemical warfare, his tough language marking the clearest justification yet for US military action in Syria.
“By any standard, it is inexcusable and — despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured — it is undeniable,” said Kerry, the highest-ranking US official to confirm the attack in the Damascus suburbs that activists say killed hundreds of people.
The White House said last year that type of warfare would cross a “red line,” and this week the US, along with allies in Europe, appeared to be laying the groundwork for the most aggressive response since Syria’s civil war began more than two years ago.
The international community appeared to be considering action that would punish Assad for deploying deadly gases; not sweeping measures aimed at ousting the Syrian leader or strengthening rebel forces. The focus of the internal debate underscores the scant international appetite for a large-scale deployment of forces in Syria and the limited number of other options that could significantly change the trajectory of the conflict.
“We continue to believe that there’s no military solution here that’s good for the Syrian people, and that the best path forward is a political solution,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. “This is about the violation of an international norm against the use of chemical weapons and how we should respond to that.”
The Obama administration was moving ahead even as a United Nations team already on the ground in Syria collected evidence from last week’s attack. The US said Syria’s delay in giving the inspectors access rendered their investigation meaningless, while officials said the administration had its own intelligence confirming chemical weapons use. UN officials disagreed that it was too late.
“What is before us today is real and it is compelling,” Kerry said. “Our understanding of what has already happened in Syria is grounded in facts.”
The US assessment is based in part on the number of reported victims, the symptoms of those injured or killed and witness accounts. Assad has denied launching a chemical attack.
It’s unclear whether Obama would seek authority from the UN or Congress before using force. The president has spoken frequently about his preference for taking military action only with international backing, but it is likely Russia and China would block US efforts to authorize action through the UN Security Council.
Last week’s attack in the Damascus suburbs is a challenge to Obama’s credibility. He took little action after Assad used chemical weapons on a small scale earlier this year and risks signaling to countries like Iran that his administration does not follow through on its warnings.
Syrian activists say the August 21 attack killed hundreds; the group Doctors Without Borders put the death toll at 355 people.
The US Navy last week moved a fourth destroyer into the eastern Mediterranean. Each ship can launch ballistic missiles.
Officials said it was likely the targets of any cruise-missile attacks would be tied to the regime’s ability to launch chemical weapons attacks. Possible targets would include weapons arsenals, command and control centers, radar and communications facilities, and other military headquarters. Less likely was a strike on a chemical weapons site because of the risk of releasing toxic gases.
Military experts and US officials on Monday said that the precision strikes would probably come during the night and target key military sites.
The president has ruled out putting American troops on the ground in Syria and officials say they also are not considering setting up a unilateral no-fly zone.
It’s unlikely that the US would launch a strike against Syria while the United Nations team is still in the country. The administration may also try to time any strike around Obama’s travel schedule — he’s due to hold meetings in Sweden and Russia next week — in order to avoid having the commander in chief abroad when the US launches military action.