Sunday, March 9, 2014
By KAREN DEYOUNG and ANNE GEARAN The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — President Obama is weighing a military strike against Syria that would be of limited scope and duration – designed to serve as punishment for Syria's use of chemical weapons and as a deterrent – while keeping the U.S. out of deeper involvement in that country's civil war, senior administration officials said.
In this image taken from amateur video posted online, appearing to show a presumed UN staff member measuring and photographing a canister in the suburb of Moadamiyeh in Damascus, Syria, Monday Aug. 26, 2013, the suburb of Damascus where the Syrian regime allegedly used deadly chemical weapons. AP could not verify the authenticity of the video, but it is consistent with Associated Press reports. U.N. experts collected samples and testimony from Syrian doctors and victims of an alleged chemical weapons attack on Monday following a treacherous journey through government and rebel-held territory during which their convoy was struck by snipers. (AP Photo/MEDIA OFFICE OF MOADAMIYEH)
This Aug. 21, 2013, file image provided by by Shaam News Network, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show several bodies being buried during a funeral in a suburb of Damascus, Syria. A senior administration official said Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013, that there is “very little doubt” that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in an incident that killed at least a hundred people last week, but added that the president had not yet decided how to respond. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, File)
The attack would probably last no more than two days and involve sea-launched cruise missiles -- or possibly long-range bombers -- striking military targets not directly related to Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, the officials said.
The timing is dependent on three factors: completion of an intelligence report assessing Syrian government culpability in last week's alleged chemical attack; ongoing consultation with allies and Congress; and determination of a justification under international law.
"We're actively looking at the various legal angles that would inform a decision," said an official who spoke about the presidential deliberations on the condition of anonymity. Missile-armed U.S. warships are already positioned in the Mediterranean.
As the administration moved rapidly toward a decision, Secretary of State John Kerry said the use of chemical weapons in an attack Wednesday against opposition strongholds on the eastern outskirts of Damascus is now "undeniable."
Evidence being gathered by United Nations experts in Syria was important, Kerry said, but not necessary to prove what is already "grounded in facts, informed by conscience and guided by common sense."
On Monday, the team of U.N. weapons investigators visited one of three rebel-held suburbs where the alleged attack took place, after first being forced to withdraw when their vehicles came under sniper fire. The Syrian government, which along with Russia has suggested that the rebels were responsible for the chemical attack, agreed to the U.N. inspection over the weekend.
Videos and statements by witnesses and relief organizations such as Doctors Without Borders have proven that an attack occurred, Kerry said. The U.S. intelligence report is to be released this week.
Among the factors, officials said, are that only the government is known to possess chemical weapons and the rockets to deliver them, and its continuing control of chemical stocks has been closely monitored by U.S. intelligence.
Kerry said Syrian forces had engaged in a "cynical attempt to cover up" their actions, not only by delaying the arrival of the U.N. team but by shelling the affected area continually. Any strike would probably await the departure of the U.N. inspectors from Syria.
Kerry's statement, which he read to reporters in the State Department briefing room without taking questions, was part of an escalating administration drumbeat, which is likely to include a public statement by Obama in coming days. Officials said the public warnings are designed partly to wring any possibility of cooperation out of Russia – or an unlikely admission from the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad – before Obama makes his decision.
"Make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny," Kerry said.
He and other officials drew a sharp distinction between U.S. action related to a violation of international law by what they called Assad's "massive" use of chemical weapons, and any direct military involvement in the Syrian conflict, which is in its third year.
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In this citizen journalism image, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Syrians inspect the rubble of damaged buildings due to heavy shelling by Syrian government forces in Aleppo, Syria, on Monday.
The Associated Press / Aleppo Media Center AMC