US President Barack Obama on Thursday prepared for the possibility of launching unilateral American military action against Syria within days as Britain opted out in a stunning vote by Parliament. Facing skepticism at home, too, the administration shared intelligence with lawmakers aimed at convincing them the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its people and must be punished.
Despite roadblocks in forming an international coalition, Obama appeared undeterred and advisers said he would be willing to retaliate against Syria on his own.
“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.
Even before the vote in London, the U.S. 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 U.S. had expected Britain, a major ally, to join in the effort.
Top U.S. officials spoke with certain lawmakers for more than 90 minutes in a teleconference Thursday evening to explain why they believe Bashar 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, to specify objectives and to lay out a firm case linking Assad to the attack.
Afterward, the House Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, pointedly sided with Republican Speaker John Boehner of Ohio in urging the administration to do more to engage with Congress on the matter, even as she expressed “my appreciation for the measured, targeted and limited approach the president may be considering.”
She said in a statement she agreed with Boehner and other lawmakers who say the administration needs to consult more with “all members of Congress” – a reference to the limited circle briefed Thursday night – and provide “additional transparency into the decision-making process.”
The high-level officials who spoke to the lawmakers offered more details of the suspected chemical attack and their firm conviction that the Syrian government was to blame – but little new evidence backing up that conviction. It remained to be seen whether any skeptics were swayed by the call, given the expectation in advance that officials would hold back classified information to protect intelligence sources and methods.
The officials told lawmakers 1,300 men, women and children died in the attack, said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. That’s a far higher death toll than has been reported; the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders says the attack outside Damascus killed 355.
A number of lawmakers raised questions in the briefing about how the administration would finance a military operation as the Pentagon is grappling with automatic spending cuts and reduced budgets.
Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee and a participant on the call, said in a statement that the administration presented a “broad range of options” for dealing with Syria but failed to offer a single plan, timeline, strategy or explanation of how it would pay for any military operation.
“The main thing was that they have no doubt that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons,” New York Rep. Eliot Engel, top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a supporter of Obama’s course, said after the briefing.
Even so, he said the officials did not provide much new evidence of that.
“They said they have (intercepted) some discussions and some indications from a high-level official,” he said, and that they possess intelligence showing material being moved in advance of the attack.
An intelligence report similar to the findings shared with lawmakers Thursday night is expected to be released publicly on Friday.
In London, Prime Minister David Cameron argued a military strike would be legal on humanitarian grounds. But he faced deep pressure from lawmakers and had already promised not to undertake military action until a U.N. chemical weapons team on the ground in Syria released its findings about the Aug. 21 attack.
The prime minister said in terse comments after the vote that while he believes in a “tough response” to the use of chemical weapons, he would respect the will of the House of Commons.
Caitlin Hayden, Obama’s National Security Council spokeswoman, said the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
Assad, who has denied using chemical weapons, vowed his country “will defend itself against any aggression.”
Some of the U.N. chemical weapons experts will travel directly from Syria on Saturday to different laboratories around Europe to deliver “an extensive amount of material” gathered, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said. While the mandate of the U.N. 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. U.S. 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.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the intelligence publicly.
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 U.S. deeper into the Syrian civil war.
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 U.S. 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.
U.S. officials also are considering attacking military command centers and vital forces, communications hubs and weapons caches, including ballistic missile batteries.
Photo: The Norfolk-based USS Stout reportedly arrived in the eastern Mediterranean later Thursday as the U.S. prepares for possible airstrikes on Syria over its government’s alleged chemical weapons use.
The Stout will replace one of the four Norfolk-based destroyers already in the area: the USS Gravely, the USS Mahan, the USS Barry and the USS Ramage, according to the Navy.