WASHINGTON – Western governments made the case for military action against Syria on Thursday as embattled President Bashar Assad threatened retaliation if attacked and his ally, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, sent warships to the region.
Though US President Barack Obama said that he has yet to make a decision on how best to proceed, the White House remained adamant that the use of chemical weapons grossly violates international norms and renewed its demand that the perpetrators of such crimes face serious consequences.
The United States is looking at a response to Syrian use of chemical weapons that is “very discrete and limited” and not open-ended, the White House said on Thursday, as Obama consulted German Chancellor Angela Merkel by phone.
The US, Great Britain, France, Germany, Turkey, Jordan, Canada, Australia, the Arab League and Israel have all determined that Assad’s armed force carried out a massive chemical attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on August 21. More than a thousand died in the attack, and thousands more were wounded.
Washington and its allies have “no smoking gun” proving Assad personally ordered his forces to use chemical weapons, US national security officials said on Thursday.
In secret intelligence assessments and a still-unreleased report summarizing US intelligence on the alleged gas attack, US agencies express high confidence that Syrian government forces carried out the strike, and that Assad’s government therefore bears responsibility, the officials said.
“This was not a rogue operation,” one US official said.
However, the evidence does not prove that Assad himself ordered that chemical munitions be used, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Evidence that forces loyal to Assad were responsible goes beyond the circumstantial to include electronic intercepts and tentative scientific samples from the neighborhood that was attacked, officials said.
Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr, vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, were among senior US officials who were slated to brief senior members of Congress on Thursday about the situation in Syria and related intelligence assessments, congressional aides said.
But the White House and 10 Downing Street both faced an onslaught of questions laced with references to the botched intelligence assessments that led to the allied invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron both acknowledged those concerns, but rejected the comparison as fundamentally flawed.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama’s potential response to Syria’s chemical weapons attack stood in stark contrast to the Iraq experience.
“What we’re talking about here is something very discrete and limited,” he said, and not an open-ended conflict aimed at regime change.
The Western leaders said that the lead-up to the Iraq War involved faulty intelligence justifying a massive ground war, while the Syrian crisis is supported by an abundance of opensource intelligence and the acknowledgment of chemical weapons stockpiling and use, and involves no threat of a Western invasion whatsoever.
“If we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way – we send a shot across the bow – saying, ‘Stop doing this,’ this can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term,” Obama told PBS in an interview on Wednesday night.
Cameron made a similar case in front of the House of Commons on Thursday, reconvened in a special session to discuss the crisis. He reiterated that the use of chemical weapons in this day and age requires a robust international response.
But Cameron rolled back threats that British military action was imminent. He said that the UK would not take action until the United Nations chemical weapons team had presented its findings from an investigation on the ground to the Security Council, and until a second vote in Parliament – following one held on Thursday evening – authorized the use of force against the Assad regime.
“It is this House that will decide what next steps we will take,” Cameron told House of Commons members.
Cameron had recalled Parliament from summer recess for an emergency vote, which was originally aimed at approving military action for the prime minister.
But the prime minister now says he will first wait for the UN team to submit its findings, make a “genuine attempt” at rounding up unanimous Security Council support for a forceful response, and will then hold a second vote in Parliament, likely around Tuesday.
The UN said its team of inspectors would leave Syria on Saturday and then report to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Russia called for an immediate Security Council conference on the crisis unfolding in Syria for Thursday afternoon, following Wednesday’s inconclusive meeting on the matter.
The meeting came as US government officials told The Jerusalem Post that the United States believes any language put forth to the Security Council for a resolution on Syria is “dead on arrival.”
“We’ve seen two years of Russian intransigence” on Syria, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
“I don’t know why we would expect a shift today.”
Harf said the US does not see an avenue forward through the Security Council, where Russia and China – also wary of intervention efforts – have veto power.
“We are not proceeding with a vote on this draft resolution,” she said, after the UK submitted a first draft of a resolution that would empower the international community to use “all necessary measures” to hold Assad accountable.
“We are making our own decisions on our own timeline,” Harf added. “The Russians have been clear that they have no interest in holding the Syrian regime accountable.”
The US sent yet another navy destroyer to join the four that have been positioned in the eastern Mediterranean over the past week. The Royal Navy has also sent ships, and has positioned air force jets in Cyprus “to protect national interests.”
But the Russian Interfax news agency quoted a source in the armed forces’ general staff as saying Russia, Syria’s most powerful ally, was deploying a missile cruiser from the Black Sea Fleet and a large anti-submarine ship from the Northern Fleet in the “coming days.”
Reuters contributed to this report.