Obama struggles to justify Syria attack to skeptical Americans, Congress

The White House on Tuesday began to lay out a public justification for a possible bombing of Syria, saying the nation’s use of chemical weapons is a threat to U.S. interests — a scenario that opens the door to military strikes that wouldn’t require authorization from Congress or the United Nations.

Spokesman Jay Carney said President Obama had not decided on military action but was conferring with lawmakers, allies and members of his national security team about the forcefulness needed to punish the Syrian government for violating international law.


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“It is in the clear national security interests of the United States that the use or proliferation of chemical weapons on this scale not go unanswered,” Mr. Carney said, adding that the attack was of particular concern because it took place “in this highly volatile region.”

Mr. Carney did not describe the intelligence that linked Syrian President Bashar Assad to the attack or how it was a direct threat to the U.S., which would give the Mr. Obama latitude in starting a bombing campaign. But he did say the Assad regime is the only force in Syria known to have chemical weapons and the rockets that could deliver them.

He also said intelligence agencies are preparing to provide evidence of Mr. Assad’s role in the attack and cited the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international arms control agreement that bans the use of such weapons. The U.S. and 188 other nations have signed the pact; Syria has not.

The administration is making its case to a war-weary public and is beginning to meet resistance from Congress, where Democrats and Republicans say the president needs to be more transparent about a military strike on a country that has not attacked the U.S.

“Before any action is taken regarding Syria, it is imperative that President Obama make the case to the American people and consult with Congress,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate. “He needs to explain what vital national interests are at stake and should put forth a detailed plan with clear objectives and an estimated cost for achieving those objectives.”

An Aug. 21 attack near Damascus reportedly killed more than 300 civilians, including women and children, and powerful photos and video later showed bodies laid out shoulder to shoulder with no visible wounds — which the rebels said showed chemical weapons were used.


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The regime of Mr. Assad has denied that it used chemical weapons, but others, including humanitarian groups and journalists in Syria, say it was undoubtedly a chemical attack.

On Monday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said it was undeniable that the regime had used chemical weapons and called the act a “moral obscenity.”

But on Tuesday in Damascus, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency issued a statement accusing Mr. Kerry of citing “fabricated” evidence and saying he was “jumping over” the work of U.N. inspectors, showing that the U.S. intended to exploit events.

Also, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim said the Assad government was not obstructing the work of U.N.-backed inspectors trying to examine the scene of the attack. But he later announced that a second day of inspections would be pushed back a day. Mr. al-Muallim cited disputes among groups of rebels as the reason for the postponement.

He vowed that the Syrian army would carry out its campaign against the rebels despite the threat of foreign strikes, which he said would only serve interests linked with al Qaeda.

Despite that defiant talk, pressure continues to build on Syria. The Arab League issued a statement Tuesday saying it holds the Syrian regime responsible for the chemical attack.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has spoken with Mr. Obama in recent days about a coordinated response, said the allies are not looking to get involved in another war in the Middle East. But he said the international community cannot allow a chemical weapons attack to go unpunished.

“This is not about wars in the Middle East,” Mr. Cameron told the BBC. “This is not even about the Syrian conflict. It’s about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong and the world shouldn’t stand idly by. It must be right to have some rules in our world and to try to enforce those rules.”

Mr. Cameron said any action by the U.S. or a coalition “would have to be legal; would have to be proportionate.”

“It would have to be specifically to deter and degrade the future use of chemical weapons,” he said, adding that Syria has used chemical weapons on at least 10 occasions in the more than 2-year-old civil war.

French President Francois Hollande also said his government is prepared to retaliate against Syria for chemical weapons use.

In the U.S., however, polling suggests that the public is reluctant to get entangled, and lawmakers are reflecting that. There has been no polling since the chemical weapons attack, but surveys earlier this summer by Pew, NBC News and Gallup consistently show two-thirds of Americans oppose military involvement in Syria.

While some say Mr. Obama risks losing credibility if he doesn’t act, others are questioning the U.S. interests at stake and whether Mr. Obama will strike out on his own or go to Congress for permission.

A coalition of Republicans and Democrats in the House has crafted a letter to the president telling him they are ready to reconvene and hear his case for military action — but warning him not to act until he seeks permission.

“Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution,” said the letter, led by Rep. Scott E. Rigell, Virginia Republican.

Mr. Obama and top aides have begun making calls to congressional leaders to talk over the situation and options, but it was unclear whether that met the definition of consultation that House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, laid out this week.

Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a statement Tuesday in which he agreed that chemical weapons use was unacceptable and affected U.S. national security but then issued the same warning that Mr. Cornyn did.

“The consequences are too great for Congress to be brushed aside,” he said.

Mr. Carney dismissed questions about Mr. Obama’s powers to act unilaterally, saying those were hypothetical at this point.

But he did say Mr. Obama is not contemplating an attack that would target Mr. Assad for assassination.

“It is not our policy to respond to this transgression with regime change,” Mr. Carney said.

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said U.S. forces are ready to act on any presidential order to strike Syria.

“We are prepared. We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take,” Mr. Hagel said.

The latest situation is colored by Mr. Obama’s experience two years ago, when he committed U.S. forces to bomb Libya and provide the air power that helped that country’s rebels oust longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Mr. Obama did not seek authorization from Congress for that action. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 allows a president to take military action as long as Congress is notified within 48 hours and the commitment of forces is limited to a set number of days.

Members of Congress sued in 2011, arguing that Mr. Obama exceeded his powers under the 1973 law. But Gadhafi was ousted and the country turned over to a new government, leading a judge to toss out the lawmakers’ case as mooted by those events.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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