Obama girds for response against Syria; Kerry: Chemical attack against civilians a ‘moral obscenity’

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Secretary of State John F. Kerry declared Monday that a chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria was undeniable and an act of “moral obscenity.”

But tough talk aside, President Obama’s aides were working to prepare the American public and allies for a limited U.S. military retaliation while avoiding a larger-scale response that would try to alter the outcome of that country’s civil war.

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In some of the administration’s harshest words yet for the Syrian regime, Mr. Kerry accused President Bashar Assad of killing more than 300 civilians with chemical weapons Wednesday in one of the deadliest attacks in the 2-year-old war.

“The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity,” Mr. Kerry said. “By any standard, it is inexcusable. And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.”

He made the comments as the Syrian government allowed a team from the United Nations to investigate the site of the attack, although several Obama administration officials characterized the authorization as too late to be credible.

Those inspectors came under fire on their way to the Damascus suburb where the chemical attack took place, though nobody was hurt and the team reached its destination and started to work.

In spite of Mr. Kerry’s tough talk, Mr. Obama had not decided Monday on a range of options, including missile strikes. But White House press secretary Jay Carney left little doubt that the president will use military force against Syria in the coming days, saying the attack Wednesday was on a “much graver and broader scale” than reports in the spring of chemical weapons use.

Mr. Carney said the president was consulting with his national security team and indicated that Mr. Obama would make a statement to the American public in the days ahead.

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“He is evaluating the appropriate response,” Mr. Carney said. “You will hear from him about that. We will make it clear to the public what our views are and what our actions will be.”

The eventual response has been months in the making for Mr. Obama, who vowed a year ago that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a “red line” requiring a tougher response from the U.S. In the spring, after reports surfaced of likely chemical weapons use, Mr. Obama agreed to step up military aid to rebel groups fighting Mr. Assad’s regime.

The White House emphasized Monday that any U.S. response would be a direct retaliation for the chemical weapons attack last week and not a larger effort to turn the tide of the war. Mr. Carney said the attack was “a clear violation of an international norm.”

Syrian officials warned the U.S. to back off. Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mikdad told The Associated Press in an interview in Damascus that a U.S. attack would trigger “chaos in the entire world.”

More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to the U.N.

Mr. Carney reiterated that the president opposes sending ground troops into Syria, and he downplayed suggestions that the U.S. and its allies would impose a no-fly zone, as some Republican lawmakers have urged. That appeared to leave Mr. Obama with the option of missile strikes against Syrian military targets, although his spokesman would not speculate.

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About the Author
Guy Taylor

Guy Taylor

Guy Taylor is the National Security Team Leader at The Washington Times, overseeing the paper’s State Department, Pentagon and intelligence community coverage. He’s also a frequent guest on The McLaughlin Group and C-SPAN.

His series on political, economic and security developments in Mexico won a 2012 Virginia Press Association award.

Prior to rejoining The Times in 2011, his work was ...

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