WASHINGTON/PARIS: The United States made clear on Friday that it would punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for the “brutal and flagrant” chemical weapons attack that it says killed more than 1,400 people in Damascus last week.
“We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale,” President Barack Obama told reporters at the White House.
He said the United States was still in the planning process for a “limited, narrow” military response that would not involve “boots on the ground” or be open-ended.
Earlier, Secretary of State John Kerry said it was essential not to let Syria get away with the attack, partly as a sign to those who might consider using chemical weapons in the future. He said the United States was joined by allies including France, “our oldest ally,” in its determination to act.
“History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction,” Kerry said in a televised statement delivered at the State Department.
“If a thug and a murderer like Bashar Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity,” it would set a bad example for others, such as Iran, Hezbollah and North Korea, Kerry said.
“Will they remember that the Assad regime was stopped from those weapons’ current or future use? Or will they remember that the world stood aside and created impunity?” he added.
Kerry laid out a raft of evidence he said showed Assad’s forces were behind the attack, and the U.S. government released an unclassified intelligence report at the same time including many of the details.
The report said the Aug. 21 attack killed 1,429 Syrian civilians, including 426 children.
The intelligence gathered for the U.S. report included an intercepted communication by a senior official intimately familiar with the attack as well as other intelligence from people’s accounts and intercepted messages, the four-page report said.
France said Friday it still backed military action to punish Assad’s government for the attack despite a British parliamentary vote against a military strike.
An aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a close Assad ally, seized on Thursday’s British “no” vote which set back U.S.-led efforts to intervene against Assad, saying it reflected wider European worries about the dangers of a military response.
Russia, Assad’s most powerful diplomatic ally, opposes any military intervention in Syria, saying an attack would increase tension and undermine the chances of ending the civil war.
Putin’s senior foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said the British vote represented majority opinion in Europe.
“People are beginning to understand how dangerous such scenarios are,” he told reporters. “Russia is actively working to avert a military scenario in Syria.”
Assad’s government has denied carrying out the chemical weapons attack, blaming rebels who it suggested were trying to provoke intervention.
Any military strike looks unlikely at least until U.N. weapons inspectors leave Syria Saturday.
Kerry said “guaranteed Russian obstructionism” would make it impossible for the United Nations to galvanize world action.
Kerry said the president had been clear that any action would be “limited and tailored” to punishing Assad, that it would not be intended to affect the civil war there and that Washington remained committed to a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said any international military intervention should be aimed at bringing an end to Assad’s rule.
“It can’t be a 24 hours hit-and-run,” Erdogan told reporters at a reception in the presidential palace in Ankara. “What matters is stopping the bloodshed in Syria and weakening the regime to the point where it gives up.”
The timing of any strikes may be complicated by Obama’s departure late on Tuesday for Sweden and a G-20 summit in Russia. He was not expected to order the strikes while in Sweden or Russia.
Kerry made clear Washington would not be swayed from acting by the opinions of other states: “President Obama will ensure that the United States of America makes our own decisions on our own timelines, based on our values and our interests.”
French President Francois Hollande told the daily Le Monde he still supported taking “firm” punitive action over an attack he said had caused “irreparable” harm to the Syrian people, adding that he would work closely with France’s allies.
Hollande is not constrained by the need for parliamentary approval of any move to intervene in Syria and could act, if he chose, before lawmakers debate the issue Wednesday.
“All the options are on the table. France wants action that is in proportion and firm against the Damascus regime,” he said.
Kerry said the U.S. intelligence community had carefully reviewed and rereviewed information regarding this attack. “I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment.”
Laying out the evidence, Kerry said Assad’s government has the largest chemical weapons program in the Middle East and was determined to rid the Damascus suburbs of the opposition.
“We know that for three days before the attack, the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area, making preparations,” Kerry said.
“And we know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons.”
He said rockets were launched from Assad-controlled areas and fell only on rebel-controlled areas, and he pointed to the thousands of reports and videos on social media from 11 sites in Damascus showing the impact of the attacks.
“We saw rows of dead lined up in burial shrouds, the white linen unstained by a single drop of blood,” he said.
“We know that a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact, and actually was afraid that they would be discovered,” Kerry said.
“In all of these things that I have listed, in all of these things that we know – all of them – the American intelligence community has high confidence, high confidence. This is common sense. This is evidence. These are facts.”
Obama’s national security team is holding at least two more briefings on Syria via conference call for members of Congress Friday, congressional aides told Reuters.
Polls show the public is largely opposed to U.S. military action, and after the Thursday briefing some lawmakers said they were still not convinced of the need for it. Some questioned whether the Pentagon could afford to attack Syria after spending cuts imposed on the federal government earlier this year.
Some allies have warned that military action without U.N. Security Council authorization may make matters worse.
Russia holds veto power as a permanent U.N. Security Council member and has blocked three resolutions meant to press Assad to stop the violence since a revolt against him began in 2011.
Western diplomats say they are seeking a vote in the 15-member Council on a draft measure, which would authorize “all necessary force” in response to the alleged gas attack, to isolate Moscow and show that other nations back military action.
But China said there should be no rush to force a council decision on Syria until the U.N. inspectors complete their work.
“Before the investigation finds out what really happened, all parties should avoid prejudging the results, and certainly ought not to forcefully push for the Security Council to take action,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a phone call, Xinhua reported.
NATO’s chief Fogh Rasmussen said for the first time Friday that the alliance has no plans for military action in Syria. He told reporters in Denmark that NATO has no plans to intervene in Syria, which would require the approval of all 28 of its members.