U.S. appears to weigh military response to alleged Syrian use of chemical weapons

Hannah Allam,James Rosen | Tribune Media,Jonathan Landay

U.S. officials on Sunday called Syria’s decision to allow a U.N. team to investigate the site of a purported chemical attack “too late to be credible,” signaling that the Obama administration was leaning toward a military intervention in the two-year-old civil war.

Great Britain, meanwhile, issued a statement that left no doubt that it believed the Syrian government was responsible for the alleged chemical attack Aug. 21 that left more than 300 people dead.

“We are clear in the British Government that it was the Assad regime that carried out this…large- scale chemical attack, last Wednesday that has led to the…agonizing deaths of so many hundreds of people, including, tragically, so many children,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement. “The eyewitness accounts, the fact this area was under bombardment by the regime forces at the time that the chemical attack took place. It all points in that direction to the responsibility of the regime.”

But any strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime would occur over the misgivings of a majority of Americans, according to a new poll, and with only limited support from Congress. The fallout from such action includes likely retaliation from Iran, Russia and the Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah – Assad’s three chief foreign patrons – and could draw the United States deeply into a new Middle East conflict after years of entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, many foreign policy analysts argue that after more than two years and a death toll exceeding 100,000, President Barack Obama has a moral imperative to step in now because of the escalation from the regime’s apparent use of chemical weapons in defiance of his warning that such warfare was a “red line.”

Statements from the administration over the weekend suggests that Obama’s extreme reluctance to wade into the bloody crisis was easing, though there were no details yet on a course of action as U.S. officials continued consultations with European and Arab allies.

Obama appeared to be shoring up international support for action, speaking with his second ally in as many days, French President Francois Hollande. The White House said the two discussed "possible responses by the international community" and agreed to stay in touch.

At a news conference Sunday in Malaysia, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reiterated that he’d prepared "options for all contingencies" at Obama’s request.

"We are prepared to exercise whatever option if he decides to employ one of those options," Hagel said.

Pressed on whether there will be a U.S. military response at some point, Hagel responded: "When we have more information, then that answer will become clear."

U.S. officials repeatedly have said that Syria should allow U.N. inspectors into Ghouta, the eastern suburb of Damascus where hundreds were killed last week in a suspected chemical attack, if it didn’t have anything to hide.

The Syrian government, via the state news agency SANA, said that it would allow the foreign inspectors into Ghouta after reaching an agreement with the U.N. that takes effect “immediately.” The report said that Syria was ready “to cooperate with the U.N. investigators to expose the false allegations of the terrorist groups accusing the Syrian forces of using chemical weapons.”

At the U.N., Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that Syria “affirmed that it will provide the necessary cooperation, including the observance of the cessation of hostilities at the locations related to the incident,” according to a U.N. statement.

The U.N. team is preparing to begin on-site inspections Monday.

Even with the green light from the Syrians, the U.N. team could face security problems if they attempt to visit Ghouta, which has seen heavy fighting in recent days as the regime pounds the countryside in an offensive against rebel forces, which includes jihadist fighters.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, dismissed Syria’s “belated decision,” saying that the regime obfuscated for so long that now “the evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime’s persistent shelling and other intentional actions over the last five days.”

“There is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime in this incident,” the official said, citing the high number of casualties, victims’ symptoms, eyewitness accounts and the intelligence assessments of the U.S. and its allies.

Rebel commanders in the area around Ghouta have been difficult to reach in the days since the alleged attack because of an ongoing Syrian army offensive in the area. One local activist, Abu Ahmed, said in an online interview that fighting had continued since the attack and each day had seen significant casualties among both rebel fighters and civilians. But the Syrian Military Council, which represents several of the rebel factions operating in the area has already said that it will offer a ceasefire to allow inspectors into the area.

Syria’s agreement seems to be aimed at buying time because of stronger signals from the United States and its allies to respond militarily, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, a research institute in Qatar.

“We’ve gotten this far because there is a feeling that there is a sense of resolve from the United States that I believe has come only in the last couple of days,” Sheikh said.

Chemical weapons policy expert Jean Pascal Zanders warned that any legitimate investigation would not be quick and should be entirely private until finished.

He noted that beyond getting experts on the ground, investigators would have to collect samples from soil, ammunition fragments and even from victims. After collection, the samples would have to be transported and studied in certified laboratories in three different nations.

In considering the nature of the Syrian attacks, he wrote on his website, The Trench, which is dedicated to chemical weapons studies, the investigation could be slow.

“The exact nature of the agent or agents is impossible to determine from the pictures or film footage,” Zanders wrote.

If confirmed, the Aug. 21 attack in Ghouta would be the biggest chemical weapons incident so far. The administration previously had assessed that the regime had used such arms only on a much smaller scale, and did not respond forcefully.

The number of dead is still undetermined. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, generally considered the most authoritative chronicler of casualties in the war-torn country, said it had confirmed that at least 322 people had died in the attacks, including at least 90 rebel fighters, 86 women and 54 children.

Director Rami Abdul-Rahman said he was still reviewing hundreds of names and expected the final tally to be much higher.

The images of dead and dying Syrians from the Ghouta attack sparked global outrage, but don’t appear to have changed the American public’s opposition to a U.S. military intervention, according to the findings released Sunday from a Reuters/Ipsos poll that was conducted Aug. 19-23.

About 60 percent of Americans said that Obama shouldn’t intervene in Syria’s civil war, while just 9 percent favored action, according to the survey. More Americans would support U.S. intervention if the use of chemical weapons were to be confirmed – with 25 percent in favor, 46 percent opposed – but that’s actually a decline in backing since Aug. 13, when a previous Reuters/Ipsos poll asked the same question and got responses of 30.2 percent in support of intervention to 41.6 opposed.

In Congress, an influential Democrat and a prominent Republican sparred over how quickly the United States should respond and whether Obama should be able to order military action without congressional authorization.

Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he believes the Syrian government launched the chemical attacks.

"I think it’s very evident that the regime has acted in this way," Corker told Fox News Sunday. "I think there are indications this is real. This was not contrived. And obviously the world is a better place when the United States takes leadership. This is time for us to do this. I hope we will do it soon."

Corker said Obama should wait until Congress returns to Washington in two weeks from its summer break, and then seek lawmakers’ authorization for several possible military responses.

"I hope the president, as soon as we get back to Washington, will ask for authorization from Congress to do something in a very surgical and proportional way, something that gets their attention, that causes them to understand that we are not going to put up with this kind of activity," Corker said.

He said U.S. options could range from missile attacks by naval destroyers off Syria’s coast to employing the help of American and allied forces in nearby countries.

"You’re aware that we have people on the ground in very nearby locations," Corker said. "But obviously not (U.S.) boots on the ground."

Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the United States may not be able to wait until Congress reconvenes, and that the president should be able to act without first obtaining its permission.

"I think we have to act rather quickly," Engel said. "I think the horrific killings of people, murdering his own people he’s been doing it for a while now, but obviously the gas that was used to kill his own people, I think we have to respond...in conjunction with our NATO allies."

Engel said Obama does not need congressional authorization for the initial U.S. response.

"I do agree with Sen. Corker that I think Congress needs to be involved, but perhaps not initially…But we cannot sit still,” he said. “We’ve got to move, and we’ve got to move quickly."

Lesley Clark contributed from Washington, Jonathan Landay from Cairo, Matt Schofield from Berlin, and special correspondent Mitchell Prothero from Beirut.

By Hannah Allam, James Rosen and Jonathan Landay
McClatchy Washington Bureau