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.
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.
“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.
Time has passed?
But as the international chorus grew louder for a military strike, some Middle East specialists say the administration’s best chance for effective intervention has passed and that such action would be too late to weaken the position of Mr. Assad.
“Even if the U.S. does intervene militarily, the time window for its best option has already passed,” said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Every option today comes up against the reality that Assad is now far stronger, the country is increasingly being split into Assad and rebel-controlled sections, the rebels are fractured and rebel forces have strong Sunni Islamist extremist elements, and the nation is increasingly polarizing,” he said.
Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, also was skeptical about what would come of a military strike, saying any U.S. response likely would be “a punitive attack where the United States is simply trying to exact a cost for what was done.”
Mr. Haas said he did hope that “in the process it will have a deterrent capability as well,” the administration likely isn’t going to try to alter the outcome of the civil war in Syria.
“My sense is that the administration is trying to find something of a halfway house, something that is large enough to reinforce the norm against WMD use, something that is large enough to make the statement about red lines credible, at the same time not so large or open-ended that it makes the United States a de facto protagonist in the civil war. My guess is the administration is looking to thread that needle,” he said.
Mr. Obama has resisted for two years taking direct military action in Syria, even after reports surfaced in the spring that chemical weapons likely had been used in the civil war and warned of the “red line” that using weapons of mass destruction would be.
While the administration raised its rhetoric against Syria, Mr. Obama’s only public appearance Monday was at a White House ceremony where he awarded the Medal of Honor to Army Staff Sgt. Ty Carter for bravery during a desperate battle in Afghanistan in October 2009.
Lawmakers increasingly are asking the administration that they be apprised of any planned military moves, and some conservatives accuse him of being more solicitous of the United Nations than Congress.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said on his Twitter account Monday: “Pres. Obama considers waiting on UN for permission to intervene in #Syria, but will he wait on the U.S. Congress?”
An aide to House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said Mr. Obama needs to explain to Congress and the public “clearly and resolutely” before taking any military action.
“The options facing the president are complicated, have far-reaching ramifications, and may require significant resources,” said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck. “More than just to Congress, the president has an obligation to the American people to explain the rationale for the course of action he chooses; why it’s critical to our national security; and what the broader strategy is to achieve stability.”
The White House said it has been consulting with lawmakers and will continue to do so, although Mr. Carney didn’t say whether the administration would formally request authorization for military action, as President Bush did with the 2003 Iraq invasion.
The White House said the president had spoken with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron about Syria and “possible responses by the international community.”
Russia warned Monday against any military action, accusing the Western powers of having assumed the role of “both investigators and the U.N. Security Council.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said “the use of force without a sanction of the U.N. Security Council,” where the Kremlin holds a veto over any action, would be “a crude violation of the international law.” The Kremlin has supported the Assad regime for decades, stretching back into the Cold War era.
Mr. Assad repeated denials that his forces had used chemical weapons, saying it would make no sense for them to do so in an area where his own forces and loyal populations mingle with rebel units. He told the Russian newspaper Izvestia that the charges were “politically motivated” and the result of first making charges “only then they start collecting evidence.”
A team of U.N. chemical weapons inspectors Monday reached the site of the alleged chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime after first being forced to retreat when it came under attack by snipers. The inspectors visited hospitals, interviewed witnesses, survivors and doctors and collected samples.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that he had asked his top disarmament official, Angela Kane, who is in Damascus to oversee the investigation, to register a “strong complaint to the Syrian government and authorities of opposition forces” to ensure the safety of the inspectors.
The Assad regime used chemical weapons in the Ghouta area outside Damascus on Aug. 21, according to multiple Syrian rebel sources. More than 300 civilians, including children, were killed.
• Ashish Kumar Sen contributed to this report.