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Obama Intimates Strike Against Syria Is Near

Obama Intimates Strike Against Syria Is Near

By Alexis Simendinger - August 31, 2013

President Obama said his final decision about options to hold the Syrian regime “to account” for killing as many as 1,429 people during a chemical attack is pending, but he spoke Friday afternoon like a man who has reached a conclusion.

The United States is prepared to act alone to communicate a stern message to President Bashar al-Assad and his forces that using weapons of mass destruction violates international norms, and is a moral “outrage,” he said.

The timing of U.S. action appeared likely within days, pending the completion of additional classified briefings for members of Congress and their staffs Friday evening, a briefing Saturday by phone for GOP senators, and continuing discussions with international allies. The administration also wants to see that a team of United Nations weapons inspectors is safely out of Syria.

White House aides said Obama would address the American people when action is imminent. He is scheduled to travel Tuesday evening to Stockholm, and he will be in Russia Thursday and Friday for the annual G-20 summit with world leaders.

The United Kingdom, as a result of Parliament’s vote of disapproval Thursday, will not partner with the United States to strike Syria, although France indicated it would like to help militarily. The president spoke again by phone with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande, the White House said in separate statements Friday.

Obama said he understood global reservations and domestic anxieties about embarking on any military operation.

“I recognize that [among] all of us -- here in the United States, in Great Britain and in many parts of the world -- there is a certain weariness, given Afghanistan. There's a certain suspicion of any military action, post-Iraq. And I very much appreciate that.”

Only by punishing the Syrian regime, Obama argued, can the international community demonstrate its commitment to enforce an existing ban on chemical weapons.

It has been a year since the president first upped the ante by establishing his “red line.” More than 100,000 people have died in Syria from conventional warfare since the civil war began more than two years ago. Until Syrians chronicled the horror of a mass poisonings Aug. 21 in videos and photographs posted on the Internet, the administration had been content to offer humanitarian aid and limited military help to the opposition fighters.

But on Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry conceded that chemical attacks in Syria took place “multiple times this year.” They were “on a smaller scale,” but were conducted by Assad’s forces, and occurred “not very far from where last Wednesday's attack happened,” he said. The extent of the crisis a week ago was a tipping point.

Syria’s apparent willingness to use chemical weapons on a dramatic scale factored heavily into the administration’s determination that it “cannot be tolerated.”

Obama did not argue Friday that a U.S. response was justified under international law, but he said a “limited, narrow act” against Syria would be in America’s national interests.

“It is not in the national security interests of the United States to ignore clear violations of these kinds of international norms, and the reason is because there are a whole host of international norms out there that are very important to us,” the president said in the Cabinet Room during a meeting with leaders from Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.

“We have, currently, rules in place dealing with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We have international norms that have been violated by certain countries, and the United Nations has put sanctions in place,” he continued. “But if there's a sense that over time nobody's willing actually to enforce them, then people don't take them seriously.”

The president characterized the chemical slaughter of civilians, including children, near Damascus as both indiscriminate and massive, but he assured Americans that a U.S. response would be constrained. “I repeat, we're not considering any open-ended commitment,” he said.

Obama and Kerry, who outlined the administration’s intelligence findings implicating Assad and his government, reiterated that there would be no U.S. “boots on the ground.”

Neither Obama nor Kerry explained in any detail how limited missile strikes launched from any of the five U.S. destroyers now in the Mediterranean -- reported to be the pending U.S. military option -- would prevent future use of chemical weapons in Syria; hasten a political resolution to the civil war; or purge that country of Assad’s rule -- all stated objectives of the U.S. government.

Kerry’s assignment to publicly outline the U.S. intelligence appeared to be aimed at multiple audiences. As secretary of state, he is the nation’s top diplomat, who has urged Syria to participate in negotiated political talks in Geneva. A Vietnam veteran, he also served in the Senate for nearly 30 years and has years of experience with lawmakers, some of whom are urging Obama to seek congressional approval before striking Syria. Kerry was also the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004 who sought to deny George W. Bush a second term, largely on the basis of his conduct of the Iraq War.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told members of Congress this summer that the Pentagon had options to change the military equation in Syria, but he said such intervention could not by itself resolve the ongoing political conflicts.

In a four-page, declassified document and a map released Friday, the U.S. intelligence community described why it was highly confident that the Syrian regime, commanded directly or indirectly by Assad, was responsible for the Aug. 21 attack.

The possibility that opposition fighters used chemical weapons in the suburbs near Ghouta was called “highly unlikely” Friday. Administration officials, speaking to reporters on background, rejected one hypothesis that mistakes by factions of the Syrian government killed more than 1,000 people with an unnamed chemical agent.

The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons Aug. 21, and it called the U.S. charges “fabricated” in a statement released Friday following Kerry’s remarks.

Administration officials, including Kerry, said the intelligence data came from historical knowledge of Syria’s chemical weapons program; satellite imagery; signal intercepts; eyewitness accounts; and publicly available evidence distributed after the attacks via independent reporting and social media.

The administration said it has information about Syria’s preparations before the attacks, and conversations after the poisoning deaths that officials said implicated Assad’s chemical weapons personnel.

“We have intelligence that leads us to assess that Syrian chemical weapons personnel -- including personnel assessed to be associated with the SSRC [Scientific Studies and Research Center in Damascus, believed to be the brain trust of chemical, nuclear and missile technologies development] -- were preparing chemical munitions prior to the attack. In the three days prior to the attack, we collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack,” the declassified intelligence document reported.

“Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of ‘Adra from Sunday, August 18 until early in the morning on Wednesday, August 21 near an area that the regime uses to mix chemical weapons, including sarin. On August 21, a Syrian regime element prepared for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area, including through the utilization of gas masks. Our intelligence sources in the Damascus area did not detect any indications in the days prior to the attack that opposition affiliates were planning to use chemical weapons.”

The document released Friday said Assad’s officials knew at once what had killed so many people so close to the capital city.

“We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence,” the report stated. “On the afternoon of August 21, we have intelligence that Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations.”

Administration officials clarified that intelligence data assembled by the United States -- tied to Syria’s preparations for the chemical attacks, for instance -- may not have been received or analyzed “in real time.”

“Timelines for all of our streams of intelligence are different,” one official explained to reporters. “And so, in some cases, we can and do get something close to real time; and other times, because of the nature of the access or the procedure or the process, there is some built-in delay.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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