United Nations weapons inspectors left Syria Saturday carrying crucial cargo — evidence and witness accounts collected from the sites of chemical weapons attacks.
With U.S. President Barack Obama considering a limited strike on Syrian military installations, many of his allies and critics at home and abroad are beseeching him to wait for the U.N. to release the findings before making any decisions.
The inspectors are expected to brief U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Ban has said he will present the material to the U.N. Security Council, but he wants to wait until a final report is completed.
It could take a week.
Obama declared himself “war-weary,” but said he is determined to hold Syria accountable for the chemical attacks against its own people. The administration said it is sure he killed hundreds of civilians with poison gas in multiple attacks.
The rockets packing chemical payloads landed in areas held by Syria’s own troops, foreign minister Walid Moallem said. Why would his government gas its own soldiers? he asked.
The opposite is true, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday, presenting a U.S. intelligence report on the attacks. The administration declassified the findings in an effort to drum up support for a military response.
“We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods,” he said.
British intelligence had put the number of people killed in the attacks at more than 350. The U.S. report quadrupled the death toll to 1,429. Kerry said that more than 400 of the victims were children.
The report alleged that the attacks were well planned.
“We know that for three days before the attack, the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area, making preparations,” Kerry said. “And we know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin ended his silence Saturday on the topic, blasting the U.S. allegations as a “provocation,” Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported.
There is no proof behind them yet, he said.
“If they say that the governmental forces used weapons of mass destruction… and that they have proof of it, let them present it to the U.N. inspectors and the Security Council,” Putin said.
A year ago, Obama said that such an attack by the Syrian regime would cross a “red line,” which he would not tolerate, but as he mulls military options, he is facing resistance even from those close to him.
Some NATO allies want the U.N. to sign off on any military response, but Russia, which has a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, has said it will block any measure that included military force against its close ally, Syria.
Obama accused the Council of being unable to “move in the face of a clear violation of international norms.” Kerry blamed this on “the guaranteed Russian obstructionism.”
The Kremlin has kept up the pressure on the Obama administration not to strike on its own.
“Washington’s statements threatening to apply force to Syria are unacceptable,” Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement Friday.
And Obama lost any chance of military support from a chief traditional ally this week.
Britain’s Parliament voted against joining a coalition, after steadfastly supporting previous campaigns.
Kerry brushed off the vote, saying that the United States “makes our own decisions on our own time lines, based on our values and our interests” in deciding the proper course of action.
In Washington, questions about the veracity of the U.S. intelligence and whether the nation is headed for another long war based on false information — like what happened in Iraq — have emerged from both parties in Congress.
More than 160 legislators, including 63 of Obama’s fellow Democrats, signed letters calling for either a vote or at least a “full debate” before any U.S. action.
Kerry has insisted that the situation differs from Iraq, when then-President George W. Bush justified the 2003 U.S. invasion by saying that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction — a charge that turned out to be untrue.
Kerry said in this instance, the intelligence community “reviewed and re-reviewed” its information “more than mindful of the Iraq experience.” And he added: “We will not repeat that moment.”
The president seconded that.
“I assure you nobody ends up being more war-weary than me,” Obama said, adding that he was not considering any option that would entail “boots on the ground” or a long-term campaign.
He has also previously ruled out setting up a no-fly zone.
The president bemoaned international and domestic apprehensions. “A lot of people think something should be done, but nobody seems willing to do it.”
“It’s important for us to recognize that when over 1,000 people are killed, including hundreds of innocent children, through the use of a weapon that 98 or 99% of humanity says should not be used even in war, and there is no action, then we’re sending a signal that that international norm doesn’t mean much,” Obama said. “And that is a danger to our national security.”
Obama told reporters he had yet to make a final decision, but hinted at a military strike that sources and experts say would entail cruise missiles fired from U.S. Navy ships at Syrian command targets — but not at any chemical weapons stockpiles.
Striking them could unleash poison gas that might kill more innocent civilians.
“All the targets have already been identified,” retired Maj. Gen. James Marks told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “The software has been uploaded, so that the very latest targeting information is available, so the cruise missiles will strike where they are intended to go.”
Kicking off an attack would only take minutes, he said.
Obama said he and his top military and security aides were looking at a “limited, narrow act” to ensure that Syria and others know the United States and its allies won’t tolerate future violations.
Marks warned that the idea of a limited engagement could be an illusion. The president needs to be ready for counteractions by Syria or others in the region that could lead to extended entanglement, he said.
Iranian officials have issued veiled threats that a U.S. intervention would have consequences for America and its allies, particularly Israel.
Paul Bremer, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, would like to see a deeper involvement to send a clear signal not only to Syria but to Iran as well, to discourage it from continuing its quest for nuclear weapons.
“I hope, frankly, he acts in a much more vigorous and robust sense than we are getting the impression.”
Obama should take out al-Assad’s air force and set up a no-fly and no-move zone along Syria’s borders, he said.
A limited strike could make the situation worse. “It may make us look weak rather than strong,” he said.
He said backing down is not an option for the president.
Former U.N. Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix, who scoured Iraq for signs of weapons of mass destruction ahead of the U.S. invasion there but was unable to find any before Washington told inspectors to leave ahead of military action, calls for a different approach.
First, the Security Council needs to issue a blanket condemnation of the use of chemical weapons by anyone in the world.
“It is a different thing to have a condemnation on behalf of the whole world by the world’s highest council, the Security Council, rather than having it simply come out of Washington,” he said.
The Russians could even take the initiative on the resolution, he said.
“I think it’s a secondary matter to point out who used it. Accountability can come later.”
After the blanket condemnation, all parties supporting each side in the conflict should push them to a cease-fire, Blix said. Military intervention would nix that possibility.
“Now we will have quarrels, if the U.S. goes ahead, rather than a united Security Council.”
Blix says Syria may have well used the weapons. And perhaps the rebels have, too, he said.
If the administration does decide upon a military intervention, even without the UK by its side, it may not have to go it alone.
Kerry cited support from the Arab League, Turkey and France.
French President Francois Hollande told Le Monde newspaper that intervention should be limited and not be directed toward President Bashar al-Assad’s overthrow, a position also expressed by Obama.
But Turkey disagrees. It wants the administration to go all out.
“The intervention shouldn’t be a one to two-day hit-and-run. It should bring the regime to the brink of giving up,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said late Friday.
While the British vote was a blow to Obama’s hopes of getting strong support from key NATO allies and some Arab League states, regional NATO ally Turkey on Friday backed the U.S. contention that al-Assad’s regime was responsible for the chemical attack.
“The information at hand indicates that the opposition does not have these types of sophisticated weapons,” said Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. “From our perspective, there is no doubt that the regime is responsible.”
Australia also weighed in, with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd saying the evidence against al-Assad was overwhelming and, “therefore, the focus now legitimately lies on the most appropriate form of international response.”
Another ally in the strike may be the American people.
An NBC News poll conducted Wednesday and Thursday indicated that 50% of those questioned say the United States should not take military action against Damascus in response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons against its own citizens, with 42% saying military action would be appropriate.
But the survey suggested that if military action would be confined to airstrikes using cruise missiles, support rises.