Politics

August 31, 2013

Syria killed 1,429 with chemical weapons, U.S. says

With France as an ally, Obama weighs 'limited' retaliation for the Assad regime's attack against its citizens.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Edging toward a punitive strike against Syria, President Obama said Friday he is weighing "limited and narrow" action as the administration bluntly accused Bashar Assad's government of launching a chemical weapons attack that killed at least 1,429 people -- far more than previous estimates -- including more than 400 children.

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President Barack Obama pauses after speaking to members of the media during his meeting with Baltic leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington on Friday. Obama said he hasn't made a final decision about a military strike against Syria.

The Associated Press

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Secretary of State John Kerry makes a statement about Syria at the State Department in Washington on Friday.

The Associated Press

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A look at major U.S. military strikes as ordered by the last five U.S. presidents and the degree of international support behind the actions.

RONALD REAGAN

— Beirut (1982-83): U.S. troops deployed to Lebanon as part of a three-nation peacekeeping force. Reagan ordered limited airstrikes, with France, to retaliate for 1983 bombing on military barracks that killed 299 U.S. and French troops.

— Grenada (1983): Invasion by an estimated 7,000 U.S. troops and 300 Organization of American States troops after a government coup; was condemned by Britain and the U.N. but supported by six Caribbean island nations that said it was justified under the OAS charter.

— Libya (1986): Airstrikes to punish leader Moammar Gadhafi's regime for a Berlin disco explosion that wounded U.S. 79 Americans and killed two. The U.K. supported the strikes but the U.N. General Assembly condemned them.

GEORGE H.W. BUSH

—Panama (1989): Invasion by more than 26,000 troops after dictator Manuel Noriega declared war on the U.S. for sanctions on its drug-trafficking government. A U.S. Marine was killed after Noriega declared war but before the invasion began.

—Iraq (1991): Invasion of Iraq with troops from 33 other counties to enforce U.N. Security Council resolution that ordered Saddam Hussein to withdraw forces from Kuwait.

—Somalia (1992): Deployed troops for peacekeeping and humanitarian aid mission under U.N. Security Council resolution.

BILL CLINTON

— Iraq (1993): Launched cruise missiles into Baghdad, hitting Iraqi intelligence headquarters, in retaliation for assassination plot against President George H.W. Bush.

— Somalia (1993): Increased troop deployment for security and stability mission with 35 other nations under U.N. Security Council resolution.

— Haiti (1994) Deployed troops for peacekeeping and nation-building mission as authorized by U.N. Security Council resolution.

— Bosnia (1994-96): Launched airstrikes with NATO allies over 18 months, culminating with bombings, artillery attacks and cruise missile strikes against Bosnia Serbs, by request of U.N. Secretary General Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali and to enforce no-fly zones as authorized by at least three U.N. Security Council resolutions. Deployed troops in year-long NATO peacekeeping mission.

— Iraq (1996): Launched cruise missiles at targets in southern Iraq in retaliation against attacks on U.S. jets enforcing no-fly zones to protect Iraqi minorities as authorized by U.N. Security Council resolution.

— Sudan, Afghanistan (1998): Launched cruise missiles at terrorist training camps in Sudan and Afghanistan in retaliation against U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 220 people, including 12 Americans.

— Iraq (1998): Launched cruise missiles and airstrikes on a number of Baghdad targets to punish Saddam Hussein for not complying with U.N. chemical weapons inspections as required under U.N. Security Council resolutions.

—Kosovo: (1999): Launched airstrikes and cruise missiles over more than three months at Yugoslavian military targets, power stations, bridges and other facilities as part of NATO mission.

GEORGE W. BUSH

— Afghanistan (2001): Invaded as part of NATO mission after attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. There are currently about 100,000 troops from 48 countries in Afghanistan with the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force, 60,000 of them American. By the end of this year, the NATO force will be halved, and all foreign combat troops are to leave by the end of next year.

— Iraq (2003): Invaded with "coalition of the willing" of 48 nations to overthrow Saddam Hussein. As many as 160,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq at the peak of the war and all forces withdrew in December 2011 as required under a security agreement between Iraq and the U.S.

BARACK OBAMA

— Libya (2011): Launched cruise missiles and commanded initial international military operation to enforce U.N. Security Council resolution that called for a ceasefire in the Libyan civil war and established a no-fly zone.

— Osama bin Laden (2011): While not an attack on a foreign nation, the raid that killed the al-Qaida leader is considered one of the Obama administration's top military and intelligence successes and was carried out without permission from Pakistan, where bin Laden was hiding.

ALSO NOTED:

— Hundreds of deadly drone strikes have been carried out on al-Qaida targets during the Obama and the George W. Bush presidencies. The vast majority of them have been in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. It's disputed whether the governments of all of those nations have given the U.S. permission for the strikes.

 

No "boots on the ground," Obama said, seeking to reassure Americans weary after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With France as his only major public ally, Obama told reporters he has a strong preference for multilateral action. He added, "Frankly, part of the challenge we end up with here is a lot of people think something should be done but nobody wants to do it."

Halfway around the world, U.S. warships were in place in the Mediterranean Sea. They carried cruise missiles, long a first-line weapon of choice for presidents because they can find a target hundreds of miles distant without need of air cover or troops on the ground.

In what appeared increasingly like the pre-attack endgame, U.N. personnel dispatched to Syria carried out a fourth and final day of inspection as they sought to determine precisely what happened in last week's attack. The international contingent arranged to depart on Saturday and head to laboratories in Europe with the samples they have collected.

Video said to be taken at the scene shows victims writhing in pain, twitching and exhibiting other symptoms associated with exposure to nerve agents. The videos distributed by activists to support their claims of a chemical attack were consistent with Associated Press reporting of shelling in the suburbs of Damascus at the time, though it was not known if the victims had died from a gas attack.

The Syrian government said administration claims were "flagrant lies" akin to faulty Bush administration assertions before the Iraq invasion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. A Foreign Ministry statement read on state TV said that "under the pretext of protecting the Syrian people, they are making a case for an aggression that will kill hundreds of innocent Syrian civilians."

Residents of Damascus stocked up on food and other necessities in anticipation of strikes, with no evident sign of panic. One man, 42-year-old Talal Dowayih, said: "I am not afraid from the Western threats to Syria; they created the chemical issue as a pretext for intervention, and they are trying to hit Syria for the sake of Israel."

Obama met with his national security aides at the White House and then with diplomats from Baltic countries, saying he has not yet made a final decision on a response to the attack.

But the administration did nothing to discourage the predictions that he would act -- and soon. It was an impression heightened both by strongly worded remarks from Secretary of State John Kerry and the release of an unclassified intelligence assessment that cited "high confidence" that the Syrian government carried out the attack.

In addition to the dead, the assessment reported that about 3,600 patients "displaying symptoms consistent with nerve agent exposure" were seen at Damascus-area hospitals after the attack. To that, Kerry added that "a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact and actually was afraid they would be discovered." He added for emphasis: "We know this."

The assessment did not explain its unexpectedly large casualty count, far in excess of an estimate from Doctors Without Borders. Not surprisingly -- given the nature of the disclosure -- it also did not say expressly how the United States knew what one Syrian official had allegedly said to another.

Mindful of public opinion, Kerry urged Americans to read the four-page assessment for themselves. He referred to Iraq -- when Bush administration assurances that weapons of mass destruction were present proved false, and a U.S. invasion led to a long, deadly war. Kerry said this time it will be different.

"We will not repeat that moment," he said.

Citing an imperative to act, the nation's top diplomat said "it is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it because then maybe they, too, can put the world at greater risk."

The president said firmly that the attack "threatens our national security interest by violating well-established international norms."

While Obama was having trouble enlisting foreign support, French President Francois Hollande was an exception. The two men spoke by phone, then Hollande issued a statement saying they had "agreed that the international community cannot tolerate the use of chemical weapons, that it must hold the Syrian regime responsible and send a strong message to denounce the use of (such) arms."

The day's events produced sharply differing responses from members of Congress -- and that was just the Republicans.

Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Obama needed to go further than he seems planning. "The goal of military action should be to shift the balance of power on the battlefield against Assad and his forces," they said in a statement.

But a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, Brendan Buck, said if the president believes in a military response to Syria, "it is his responsibility to explain to Congress and the American people the objectives, strategy, and legal basis for any potential action."

The looming confrontation is the latest outgrowth of a civil war in which Assad has tenaciously -- and brutally -- clung to power. An estimated 100,000 civilians have been killed in more than two years, many of them from attacks by the Syrian government on its own citizens.

Obama has long been wary of U.S. military involvement in the struggle, as he has been with turbulent events elsewhere during the so-called Arab Spring. In this case, reluctance stems in part from recognition that while Assad has ties to Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, the rebels seeking to topple him have connections with al-Qaida terrorist groups.

Still, Obama declared more than a year ago that the use of chemical weapons would amount to a "red line" that Assad should not cross. And Obama approved the shipment of small weapons and ammunition to the Syrian rebels after an earlier reported chemical weapons attack, although there is little sign that the equipment has arrived.

With memories of the long Iraq war still fresh, the political crosscurrents have been intense domestically and abroad.

Dozens of lawmakers, most of them Republican, have signed a letter saying Obama should not take military action without congressional approval.

But there has been little discussion about calling Congress back into session to debate the issue.

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