The Obama administration on Friday made its public case for retaliatory strikes on the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, saying there is no doubt that government troops fired chemical weapons on a Damascus suburb last week, killing 1,429 people.
The White House released a four-page assessment of intelligence and analysis, and Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Friday outlined the details in a speech, saying the world cannot let a chemical weapons attack go unpunished. He specifically challenged other governments that have reached the same conclusions about the Assad regime's culpability.
"The primary question is really no longer, what do we know," Mr. Kerry said. "The question is what are we — we collectively — what are we in the world going to do about it."
The latest information didn't seem to answer all concerns of members of Congress, who have said the administration needs to make a clear case before taking action.
"As we have said, if the president believes this information makes a military response imperative, it is his responsibility to explain to Congress and the American people the objectives, strategy, and legal basis for any potential action," said Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner. "We – and the American people – look forward to more answers from the White House."
The White House assessment said the attack, on 12 locations in the Damascus area, killed at least 1,429 people, including at least 426 children — a specific death rate that is higher than many of the initial reports had suggested.
In the assessment, U.S. officials said they detected rocket launches from territory controlled by troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, and a review of video of the attack suggests that the wounds were consistent with chemical weapons use.
"We know where the rockets were launched from, and at what time," Mr. Kerry said. "We know where they landed, and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas, and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods."
"We know that a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime," Mr. Kerry added.
Mr. Kerry said the findings fly in the face of global skepticism toward claims of certainty by the American intelligence community that have arisen after a decade of U.S.-led war and occupation in Iraq that was predicated on inaccurate intelligence about weapons of mass destruction.
"Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack," Mr. Kerry said. "I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment."
Syrian regime officials have denied using chemical weapons, and have speculated that in fact the rebels might have used them instead.
But the U.S. assessment said it is the regime that has the type of weapons believed to have been used.
"We assess the Syrian opposition does not have the capability to fabricate all of the videos, physical symptoms verified by medical personnel and NGOs, and other information associated with this chemical attack," the report said.
Mr. Kerry stopped short of saying the United States will definitely engage in a retaliatory military strike against Syria, but were the capstone of a week-long effort by the Obama administration to rally support for for such a strike.
Mr. Kerry said the U.S. will have to act without the U.N.'s blessing because Russia, a key world power supporting the Assad government, would block any resolution approving retaliatory strikes.
"Because of the guaranteed Russian obstructionism of any action through the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. cannot galvanize the world to act, as it should," Mr. Kerry said.
As a result, he added, "President Obama will ensure that the United States of America makes our own decisions on our own timelines based on our values and our interests."
The four-page assessment was released to the public, but the administration said it was giving a more detailed assessment to members of Congress that laid out extra information that couldn't be released because it would compromise sources.
After Mr. Kerry spoke, a senior administration official said the president is "contemplating a military response that is tailored and limited." But the official said Mr. Obama has not made up his mind.
"The president had not made a final determination about a course of action," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He'll have to make a decision, and he'll certainly keep the American people informed as he does. It's important for the president to be prudent and careful in his decision-making."
Administration officials said there is little doubt that Mr. Assad is ultimately responsible for the attack, saying Syria's chemical weapons program is "tightly commanded and tightly controlled."
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