(Updates with report of UN inspectors leaving Syria in fourth paragraph, Putin in sixth paragraph. See EXTRA for more on the Syrian conflict.)
Aug. 31 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry set the stage for an American military attack to punish Syria for the use of chemical weapons.
Obama and Kerry brushed aside obstacles yesterday to unilateral U.S. action, indicating they wouldn’t wait for congressional approval, international backing or a definitive report from the United Nations weapons inspectors. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denies using chemical arms.
History “would judge us all extraordinarily harshly” if the U.S. doesn’t respond to the use of chemical weapons, Kerry said in a televised address yesterday. The Aug. 21 attack outside Damascus killed 1,429 people, including at least 426 children, he said.
An attack could come this weekend, said administration officials who are taking part in planning and asked not to be identified discussing non-public information. UN inspectors have left Syria, removing an obstacle to U.S. strikes.
With the British Parliament rejecting military action this week, Russia preventing a UN Security Council resolution supporting an attack, Congress out of session and polls showing public opinion against the use of force against Syria, Obama is poised for one of the boldest moves of his presidency. Of major U.S. allies in Europe, only France has signaled willingness to join in.
“We call on the U.S. to think carefully before making decisions that obviously go against the opinion of the international community,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters today in Vladivostok, eastern Russia. “Rushing in such cases can lead to results completely contrary to expectations.”
The president and the secretary of state made a moral case for a punitive strike on Syria to deter the use of what Kerry called the “world’s most heinous weapons.”
The top U.S. diplomat cited Internet posts showing victims of a chemical attack, many struggling to breathe. “We saw rows of dead lined up in burial shrouds, the white linen unstained by a single drop of blood,” he said.
The threat of a military strike has weighed on markets. U.S. stocks fell yesterday, with the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index capping its worst monthly drop since May 2012. Even so, West Texas Intermediate crude oil fell for a second day after the U.K. Parliament voted not to participate.
Obama and Kerry said that while the president hasn’t made a final decision, the U.S. is considering only action that doesn’t involve ground troops and avoids embroiling American forces in Syria’s civil war.
“We are looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act that would help make sure that not only Syria, but others around the world, understand that the international community cares about maintaining this chemical-weapons ban and norm,” Obama said, speaking briefly at the White House.
Attacking Syria, even with satellite targeting and accurate Tomahawk cruise missiles, risks harming civilians and provoking Assad to unleash more chemical arms on his people. An attack muscular enough to help unseat Assad’s government might bolster rebels affiliated with al-Qaeda.
The Obama administration released a four-page intelligence assessment yesterday that concluded with “high confidence” that the Assad regime carried out last week’s attack.
The findings “are as clear as they are compelling,” Kerry said at the State Department. If the U.S. doesn’t respond, he said, “there will be no end to the test of our resolve.”
What the assessment didn’t do was tie the attack directly to orders from Assad, though it said he’s Syria’s ultimate decision maker, surrounded by loyalists. Administration officials have previously said the Syrian president bears responsibility for his military’s actions, regardless of whether he personally gave the order.
Kerry didn’t offer a legal basis for taking military action without authorization from the UN Security Council. “Because of the guaranteed Russian obstructionism,” he said, the UN “cannot galvanize the world to act as it should.”
Russia may call for an emergency meeting of all 15 members of the Security Council over the weekend to urge delaying any decision on a strike until after the UN inspectors’ probe is completed, according to a western diplomat who asked not to be identified citing the sensitivity of the situation.
The inspection team is determining whether a chemical attack occurred, though not who ordered it and carried it out. The inspectors are to fly to The Hague before delivering samples to laboratories in Europe, Martin Nesirky, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, told reporters yesterday in New York.
The report may take weeks to prepare because of the time required to complete the lab work, said a UN official who wasn’t authorized to comment and asked not to be identified.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem asked Ban in a phone call why the inspectors were leaving before completing their probe, according to the state-run SANA news agency. Nesirky said the team plans to return to Syria to continue investigating three earlier reports of chemical-weapons use.
According to the intelligence assessment, Syria has a stockpile of chemical agents -- including mustard, sarin and VX -- and “thousands” of munitions to deliver them.
The U.S. has warships on standby in the region that could launch Tomahawk cruise missiles. A Navy amphibious ship, the USS San Antonio, arrived in the eastern Mediterranean yesterday, joining five destroyers. The San Antonio, which typically carries about 300 Marines, could be used to evacuate U.S. personnel from embassies in the Middle East.
The U.S. intelligence assessment attributed its findings to communications intercepts, satellite data and accounts from medical personnel, journalists and witnesses, videos and thousands of social-media reports. Information also was collected from “highly credible non-governmental organizations,” according to the published document.
Intelligence analysts wrote that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons “on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.”
Obama faces domestic hurdles in waging a strike on Syria. More than 100 of the 435 lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives, including 18 of his fellow Democrats, signed a letter this week saying Syria doesn’t pose a direct threat to the U.S. and calling on him to seek congressional approval before any military action.
Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he told the administration yesterday the U.S. shouldn’t act “before the UN inspectors complete their work, and that the impact of such a strike would be weakened if it does not have the participation and support of a large number of nations, including Arab nations.”
Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who have long urged a more aggressive U.S. role in Syria, said Obama wasn’t planning to do enough.
“The purpose of military action in Syria should not be to help the president save face,” they said in a statement. “The goal of military action should be to shift the balance of power on the battlefield against Assad.”
Administration officials have been consulting leading lawmakers of both parties this week. The White House will hold a briefing later today for Republican senators.
Almost 80 percent of Americans say Obama should seek congressional approval before taking any military action, according to a poll conducted Aug. 28-29 for NBC News. Only 42 percent said they would support a U.S. military response, rising to 50 percent when the action specified is limited cruise- missile strikes targeted on Syrian infrastructure used to carry out chemical-weapons attacks. The poll of 700 adults has an error margin of 3.7 percentage points.
In France, a poll by BVA for Le Parisien newspaper showed 64 percent of respondents opposed to military action, with 34 percent in favor. BVA interviewed 1,010 people on the same dates for the poll, which has a margin of error of 2.5 points.
Obama is scheduled to leave the U.S. on Sept. 3 for a trip to Sweden followed by attendance at the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. The summit host is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been Assad’s main ally. Also in St. Petersburg will be French President Francois Hollande, who said in an interview with the newspaper Le Monde published yesterday that France is ready “to mete out a sanction using appropriate means” against Syria.
Top Government Stories: GTOP <GO> Top Syria news TOP SYRIA <GO> Top Mideast News: TOP GULF <GO>
--With assistance from Mark Deen in Paris, Robert Tuttle in Doha, Dana El Baltaji in Dubai, Gopal Ratnam, Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Nicole Gaouette, Tony Capaccio, David Lerman, John Walcott, Timothy R. Homan, Heidi Przybyla, Roger Runningen and Larry Liebert in Washington, Sangwon Yoon in United Nations and Ksenia Galouchko and Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow. Editors: Riad Hamade, Heather Langan