August 29, 2013

Obama: Syria used chemical weapons on civilians

Russia attempts to stop intervention, but the president says the U.S. could act alone if the United Nations can't break its gridlock.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Wednesday declared unequivocally that the United States has "concluded" that the Syrian government carried out a deadly chemical weapons attack on civilians. But new hurdles emerged that appeared to slow the formation of an international coalition that could use military force to punish Syria.

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In this citizen journalism image provided by the United media office of Arbeen which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, members of a U.N. investigation team arrive in the Damascus countryside of Zamalka, Syria, on Wednesday.

AP

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Obama did not present any direct evidence to back up his assertion that the Syrian government bears responsibility for the attack. At the same time, U.S. officials were searching for additional intelligence to bolster the case for a strike against Assad's military infrastructure. Questions remained about whether the attack could be linked to Assad or high officials and whether a rogue element of the Syrian military could have used the weapons on its own authority.

While Obama said he is still evaluating possible military retaliation, he vowed that any American response would send a "strong signal" to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out," Obama said during an interview with "NewsHour" on PBS. "And if that's so, then there need to be international consequences."

Earlier Wednesday, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council failed to reach an agreement on a draft resolution from the British seeking authorization for the use of force. Russia, as expected, objected to international intervention.

Obama administration officials said they would take action against the Syrian government even without the backing of allies or the United Nations because diplomatic paralysis must not prevent a response to the alleged chemical weapons attack outside the Syrian capital last week.

Despite the administration's assertions that it would press forward without the U.N., momentum for international military action appeared to slow.

British Prime Minister David Cameron promised British lawmakers he would not go to war until a U.N. chemical weapons team on the ground in Syria has a chance to report its findings, pushing the U.K.'s involvement in any potential strike until next week at the earliest. Cameron called an emergency meeting of Parliament on Thursday to vote on whether to endorse international action against Syria.

Even so, British Foreign Secretary William Hague suggested that U.S. military action need not be constrained by Britain. "The United States are able to make their own decisions," he told reporters late Wednesday, just after speaking with Secretary of State John Kerry.

More intelligence was being sought by U.S. officials. While a lower-level Syrian military commanders' communications discussing a chemical attack had been intercepted, they don't specifically link the attack to an official senior enough to tie the killings to Assad himself, according to one U.S. intelligence official and two other U.S. officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the intelligence publicly.

The White House ideally wants intelligence that links the attack directly to Assad or someone in his inner circle, to rule out the possibility that a rogue element of the military acting without Assad's authorization.

That quest for added intelligence has delayed the release of the report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence laying out evidence against Assad. The report was promised earlier this week by administration officials.

The CIA and the Pentagon have been working to gather more human intelligence tying Assad to the attack, relying on the intelligence services of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel, the officials said. The administration was planning a teleconference briefing Thursday on Syria for leaders of the House and Senate and national security committees in both parties, U.S. officials and congressional aides said.

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