US response to Syria chemical weapons attack 'not aimed at regime change'

White House: Little doubt Assad regime used WMDs.

Obama looking serious, thoughful 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
Obama looking serious, thoughful 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
WASHINGTON – The United States, France and Britain made final preparations to attack Syria on Wednesday, but American officials insist that US President Barack Obama, leading the coalition, has not yet decided how best to proceed.
Obama and his counterparts have agreed, however, that “there must be a response” to last week’s massacre in a Damascus suburb, White House press secretary Jay Carney told journalists on Tuesday.
The West believes that the devastating attack, which led to the deaths of over a thousand civilians, was the result of chemical warfare.
“We cannot allow this kind of violation of an international norm,” Carney said.
Western governments say “there is very little doubt” that Syrian President Bashar Assad perpetrated the attack, and have told rebels that an attack could come within days.
Participants at a meeting in Istanbul told Reuters that US and other diplomats warned Syrian opposition leaders on Monday to expect action that would punish Assad for alleged poison gas attacks – and to be ready to negotiate if his government sues for peace.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC that the US military is “ready to go... with whatever option the president wishes to take.”
“This is about the large-scale, indiscriminate use of weapons that the civilized world, long ago, decided must never be used at all,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday.
The secretary’s comments were intended to lay the groundwork for the moral case for intervention, an American official told The Jerusalem Post.
“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,” he said.
While no order has been issued by the US president, his national security staff and cabinet have been told to operate under the assumption that he will move forward with the strike in the coming days.
On Wednesday, NATO began preparing a statement on Syria for release, while British Prime Minister David Cameron recalled Parliament for a crisis vote. His spokesman said that plans were being drawn up for possible military action.
Meanwhile, the French Foreign Ministry vowed not to “shirk its responsibilities,” with one official saying that France was “on board” with taking action without unanimous support from the United Nations Security Council.
French President Francois Hollande said he was “ready to punish” Assad, citing a 2005 UN provision for international action to protect civilians from their own government. Similar arguments were used by NATO to bomb Russian ally Serbia after the killing of civilians in Serbia’s then-province of Kosovo.
Similarly, the Turkish government, a NATO member, called for action against Assad for what it called a “crime against humanity.”
However, Obama has experienced pushback from military officials, sources say, possibly delaying a decision on whether or not to strike until next week, before Obama joins other world leaders at the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The summit sets a tense stage for Russia and the US, whose leaders have exchanged sharp words over how to proceed in the Syrian crisis. Peace talks on Syria set for the Hague, coordinated by the two powers, were postponed on Tuesday.
Russian officials said on Monday that military action would have devastating consequences for the entire Middle East, and would be a repeat of grave mistakes made by the US in the past, in an allusion to its invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Obama is set to declassify an intelligence report this week, put together by his national security team at his request, proving “incontrovertibly” that chemical weapons were used by Assad against his own people on a massive scale on August 21 in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, officials said.
That report will be presented as both a moral and legal basis for any potential military response.
A US government official told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday that all military options currently under consideration by Obama against Syria are aimed at punishing the perpetrators of last week’s chemical attack outside Damascus, as well as inhibiting their ability to conduct further gas attacks.
“The purpose is a response to the use of chemical weapons,” the official said. “We are not contemplating any action aimed at regime change.”
The White House has reiterated that the president does not believe there is a military solution to the Syrian civil war, and added that “a decision about the use of military force has not been made” in response to last week’s events.
Assad has said that the civil war in his country can only be won “on the battlefield.”
Western allies will likely coordinate the attack to avoid launching a military campaign in the Middle East on Islam’s day of prayer, Jumu’ah, on Friday.
Therefore, if the attack is to last several days, it could begin as soon as Saturday or, alternatively, within the next 24 hours.
Obama and Cameron have reached out to the leaders of other allied nations, including Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Canada’s Stephen Harper, who both shared “grave concern” over Syria.
Harper said that he believes that “significant use of chemical weapons merits a firm response from the international community in an effective and timely manner,” his spokesman Andrew Mac- Dougall said in a statement.
Reuters contributed to this report