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.
Obama did not present any direct evidence to back up his assertion that the Syrian government bears responsibility for the attack. While he said he is still evaluating possible military retaliation, the president 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 PBS’ NewsHour. “And if that’s so, then there need to be international consequences.”
Syria, which sits on one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, has denied the charges. Moreover, Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, is demanding that United Nations experts investigate three alleged chemical weapons attacks against Syrian soldiers. He said the attacks occurred on Aug. 22, 24 and 25 in three suburbs of the Syrian capital and dozens of soldiers are being treated for inhaling nerve gas.
Earlier Wednesday, the five permanent members of the United Nations 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 today 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.
U.S. officials were in search of additional intelligence to bolster the White House’s case for a strike against Assad’s military infrastructure.
American intelligence intercepted lower-level Syrian military commanders’ communications discussing a chemical attack, but the communications 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.
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 decided to use chemical weapons without Assad’s authorization.