Published December 20, 2015
President Obama signaled Friday that the U.S. could act alone to punish Syria for a chemical weapons attack last week, saying the nation has an "obligation as a leader in the world" to hold rogue regimes to account for breaching the rules of war.
Facing rising skepticism in Congress and abroad, the president and top Cabinet officials tried to make a robust case for intervention on Friday -- releasing an intelligence report showing "high confidence" the Assad regime carried out the strike and arguing that responding would be in the U.S. interest.
"This kind of attack is a challenge to the world," Obama said, adding: "A lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it."
He said his preference would be to form an international coalition to respond, but "we don't want the world to be paralyzed." Obama said he hasn't yet made a decision, but is considering a "limited, narrow act" to send a message to Syria and others about the use of chemical weapons.
The comments put in stark terms the Obama administration's position on the possibility of a military response -- and particularly a missile strike -- despite fraying international support.
The administration so far has failed to win over the U.N. Security Council, and British lawmakers on Thursday voted to reject any participation in a military strike. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, though, indicated they were prepared to move forward and downplayed the importance of U.N. authorization.
Obama charged that there is an "incapacity" at this point for the U.N. Security Council to act.
As U.N. inspectors pull out of Syria following a week-long investigation into the attack, Kerry said the probe would not implicate anybody; only confirm whether the weapons were used.
"By the definition of their own mandate, the U.N. can't tell us anything we haven't shared with you this afternoon or that we don't already know," Kerry said.
Kerry was the most impassioned as he made the case for an unspecified intervention, saying there's "no doubt" the Assad regime was behind this "crime against humanity."
He cited the findings of the unclassified portions of the intelligence assessment, saying there's clear evidence chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime last week.
"I'm not asking you to take my word for it," Kerry said, urging people to read the report. "This is what Assad did to his own people."
Kerry called Bashar Assad a "thug" and a "murderer" who must not be allowed to escape retribution for the attack.
The intelligence assessment said the U.S. government has "high confidence" that the Syrian government carried out the chemical attack using a nerve agent.
The report said preliminary findings show 1,429 people were killed in the attack, including at least 426 children.
The assessment claimed that Syrian chemical weapons personnel even spent the three days prior to the attack preparing for the strike. The personnel allegedly were operating in a Damascus suburb from Aug. 18 until the day of the attack, near an area the regime uses to mix weapons like sarin gas. On the morning of the attack on Aug. 21, according to the report, "a Syrian regime element" prepared for a strike, "including through the utilization of gas masks."
A senior U.S. official told Fox News that although the intelligence was obtained up to three days prior to the attack, the bits of intelligence gathered only made sense once the attack had been executed, meaning the U.S. knew of no advance warning of the chemical strike.
The report said the symptoms of victims -- "unconsciousness, foaming from the nose and mouth, constricted pupils, rapid heartbeat and difficulty breathing" -- as well as videos showing dead victims with no visible injuries are all consistent with chemical weapons use.
"We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time," 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."
As Kerry and the rest of the administration make their public case for intervention in Syria, they are still running into heavy skepticism from Congress, in addition to the vote in London on Thursday, though France and other allies could still join the U.S.
Kerry said Friday the administration is mindful of concerns about an Iraq war repeat, and will continue talking to Congress, allies and the American people. But he said this would involve no boots on the ground and bear "no resemblance" to Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Libya.
"We know that after a decade of conflict the American people are tired of war. Believe me I am too. But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility," he said.
The Obama administration briefed lawmakers on Thursday evening and was holding another briefing for staff on Friday. Meanwhile US Navy officials told Fox News that a marine amphibious ship, the USS Antonio, has now joined the US destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said Obama still has a "responsibility to explain to Congress and the American people the objectives, strategy, and legal basis for any potential action."
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., though, said she agrees with Kerry "that the world cannot let such a heinous attack pass without a meaningful response."