Despite the British parliament’s rejection of a UK role in a military strike against Syria, and American public wariness over intervention, the US is determined to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, the US ambassador to Israel said Friday.
The administration’s ongoing consultations and deliberations were “about what the appropriate response will be” to President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons in an attack that reportedly killed hundreds last Wednesday, said Ambassador Dan Shapiro. “There will be a response.”
Shapiro said the deliberations were not about whether chemical weapons were used, or whether it was the Assad regime that used them. Those issues were definitively resolved, he indicated, and quoted President Barack Obama as having said that those who used such weapons would be held accountable.
US officials have expressed disappointment at the shock parliamentary vote opposing UK involvement in any military intervention, but have indicated that a US-led punitive strike is still being planned.
An American public opinion poll Friday showed 50 percent of Americans opposing US military action against the Assad regime, and 42% supporting it. The NBC poll also found almost 8 out of 10 Americans want Obama to secure congressional approval before employing force
“The president of the United States is elected with the duty to protect the national security interests in the United States of America,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday.
Even before the vote in London, the US was preparing to act without formal authorization from the United Nations, where Russia has blocked efforts to seek a resolution authorizing the use of force, or from Capitol Hill. But the US had expected Britain, a major ally, to join in the effort.
Top US officials spoke with certain lawmakers for more than 90 minutes in a teleconference Thursday evening to explain why they believe Assad’s government was the culprit in a suspected chemical attack last week. Lawmakers from both parties have been pressing Obama to provide a legal rationale for military action and specify objectives, as well as to lay out a firm case linking Assad to the attack.
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and already a supporter of moving against Syria in a limited way, said after the briefing that “strong evidence of the Assad regime’s continued use of chemical warfare” merited a military response.
It remained to be seen whether any skeptics were swayed, given the expectation that officials would hold back classified information to protect intelligence sources and methods.
Caitlin Hayden, Obama’s National Security Council spokeswoman, said the US would continue to consult with Britain but Obama would make decisions based on “the best interests of the United States.”
It was not certain the US would have to act alone. France announced that its armed forces “have been put in position to respond” if President Francois Hollande commits forces to intervention against Syria. Hollande does not need French parliamentary approval to launch military action that lasts less than four months.
Obama discussed the situation in Syria with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who wrote to the president earlier this week seeking a legal justification for a military strike and the objectives of any potential action.
Assad, who has denied using chemical weapons, vowed his country “will defend itself against any aggression.”
Some of the UN chemical weapons experts will travel directly from Syria on Saturday to different laboratories around Europe to deliver “an extensive amount of material” gathered, UN spokesman Farhan Haq said. While the mandate of the UN team is to determine whether chemical agents were used in the attack, not who was responsible, Haq suggested the evidence — which includes biological samples and witness interviews — might give an indication of who deployed gases.
Obama and other top officials have not revealed definitive evidence to back claims that Assad used chemical weapons on Syrians. US officials say the intelligence assessments are no “slam dunk,” with questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria’s chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike.
Despite shortcomings in the intelligence, the White House signaled urgency in acting, with Earnest, the White House spokesman saying the president believes there is a “compressed time frame” for responding.
“It is important for the Assad regime and other totalitarian dictators around the world to understand that the international community will not tolerate the indiscriminate, widespread use of chemical weapons, particularly against women and children as they’re sleeping in their beds,” he said.
But many Congress members were pressing Obama to explain the need for military action and address fears that such a move might draw the US deeper into the Syrian civil war.
The White House has not responded directly to Boehner’s letter seeking more answers about Syria operations and the speaker’s office appeared unsatisfied after the president’s call Thursday.
“Only the president can answer these questions, and it is clear that further dialogue and consultation with Congress, as well as communication with the American public, will be needed,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said.
Washington Rep. Adam Smith, senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, cautioned that an attack might be ineffective and might draw the United States into the Syrian civil war, now in its third year.
“Simply lashing out with military force under the banner of ‘doing something’ will not secure our interests in Syria,” Smith said in a statement.
Obama continued making his case for a robust response to world leaders, speaking Thursday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. With national elections scheduled in Germany for next month, Merkel is unlikely to pull her country into a military conflict.
Merkel also discussed Syria by phone Thursday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, insisting that the attack “requires an international reaction,” Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert said.
Obama has ruled out putting American forces on the ground in Syria or setting up a no-fly zone over the country. He’s also said any US response to the chemical weapons attack would be limited in scope and aimed solely at punishing Assad for deploying deadly gases, not at regime change.
“We do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable,” he said during a television interview.
The most likely military option would be Tomahawk cruise missile strikes from four Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. At a minimum, Western forces are expected to strike targets that symbolize Assad’s military and political might: military and national police headquarters, including the Defense Ministry; the Syrian military’s general staff; and the four-brigade Republican Guard that is in charge of protecting Damascus, Assad’s seat of power. Assad’s ruling Baath Party headquarters could be targeted, too.
US officials also are considering attacking military command centers and vital forces, communications hubs and weapons caches, including ballistic missile batteries.