A U.S. intelligence assessment concluded with “high confidence” that the Syrian regime carried out a chemical attack that killed 1,429 people earlier this month in a Damascus suburb.
The intelligence community’s findings “are as clear as they are compelling,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at the State Department as the four-page report was released.
If the U.S. doesn’t respond, he said, “There will be no end to the test of our resolve.”
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The report said the findings were compiled from U.S. communications intercepts, satellite data and accounts from international and Syrian medical personnel, videos, journalist and witness accounts, thousands of social media reports from at least a dozen locations in the Damascus area. Information was also gathered from “highly credible nongovernmental organizations,” according to the document.
The report released today is a key part of the case being built by President Barack Obama to justify taking military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
France signaled it might act as the principal U.S. ally in a military strike against Syria, filling a hole left by Britain’s unexpected desertion of the U.S. yesterday. Germany, the other major U.S. European ally, has said it doesn’t plan any military participation.
Russia and China have thwarted attempts to get United Nations backing for military action.
According to the assessment, Syria maintains a stockpile of many chemical agents, including mustard, sarin and VX and has “thousands” of munitions to deliver them.
It said Assad is the ultimate decision-maker, who is surrounded by loyalists to carry out his wishes.
Investigators wrote that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons “on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.”
The timing of the next move hangs in part on the work of a UN inspection team now in Syria that was mandated to determine whether a chemical attack occurred, not who ordered it and carried it out. The UN inspectors leave Syria tomorrow morning. Their departure would clear away an impediment for a strike to begin.
Obama also faces domestic hurdles. More than 100 of the 435 lawmakers in the U.S. House, including 18 of his fellow Democrats, signed a letter this week saying that Syria doesn’t pose a direct threat to the U.S. and calling on Obama to seek congressional approval before making any military move.
Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were among the administration officials last night who briefed leaders of Congress and the top members of committees that oversee national security matters.
Following the call, some lawmakers expressed support for a limited strike against Syria, with others calling for more time.
Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested an interim move while the administration awaits a report from UN weapons inspectors and seeks more conclusive evidence about the attack near Damascus.
Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn criticized the White House, saying Obama lacks a clear plan.
“Last night the administration failed to explain how they intend to effectively respond to the situation in Syria,” he said in a statement today. “The lack of a strategic plan and failure of leadership is evident in our country, Syria and across the globe.”
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee was among the lawmakers backing a strong response. The top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee got a classified briefing from the administration yesterday morning and said after last night’s briefing that he would “support surgical, proportional military strikes given the strong evidence of the Assad regime’s continued use of chemical warfare.”
Almost 80 percent of Americans say Obama should seek congressional approval before taking any military action in Syria, according to a poll conducted Aug. 28-29 for NBC News.
Only 42 percent said they would support a U.S. military response, though that rises to 50 percent when the action specified is limited cruise missile strikes targeted on infrastructure used to carry out chemical weapons attacks.
The poll of 700 adults has an error margin of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
Obama also has his schedule to consider. He’s set to leave the U.S. Sept. 3 for a trip to Sweden followed by attendance at the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. The summit host is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been Assad’s main ally.
While nothing would stop Obama from ordering a strike from overseas, it “would be unusual and awkward” for him to do so, said Damon Wilson, a former NATO and National Security Council official who’s now executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, a policy group in Washington.
Also at the St. Petersburg summit will be U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande, who said he still favors delivering a targeted blow against Syria.
“There are few countries with the capacity to mete out a sanction using appropriate means,” Hollande said in an interview with the newspaper Le Monde published today. “France is among them and is ready.”
France fought alongside the U.S. in the first Gulf War, Kosovo and Afghanistan, and was one of the driving forces behind the setup of a NATO no-fly zone and civilian-protection mission over Libya that led to the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. French support in the campaign against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad flips the coalition that fought the Iraq war a decade ago, which Britain backed and France opposed.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was quoted by TV2 in Denmark as saying the North Atlantic Treaty Organization won’t participate in a strike against Syria.
“I don’t predict a NATO role,” Rasmussen was quoted as saying.
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