President Obama said on Wednesday that his administration has made the determination that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government is responsible for the large scale chemical weapons attack last week on rebel held territory just outside Damascus.
“We have looked at all the evidence, and we do not believe the opposition possessed … chemical weapons of that sort,” Obama said in an interview with PBS’s NewsHour. “We do not believe that, given the delivery systems, using rockets, that the opposition could have carried out these attacks. We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out. And if that’s so, then there need to be international consequences.”
The White House — in conjunction with the U.K., France and other allies — is still reportedly considering what those consequences will be. Obama said on PBS that he wants to “send a pretty strong signal” to Assad that his forces should not use chemical weapons again, but at the same time, he said he also wants to work diplomatically for a “political transition” inside Syria.
“A wide range of officials characterized the action under consideration as ‘limited, perhaps lasting no more than one or two days,” the New York Times reported this week. “The attacks, which are expected to involve scores of Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from American destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, would not be focused on chemical weapons storage sites, which would risk an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe and could open up the sites to raids by militants. The strikes would instead be aimed at military units that have carried out chemical attacks, the headquarters overseeing the effort and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks.”
The British government shares Obama’s assessment. Jon Day, the chair of the United Kingdom’s Joint Intelligence Committee, said in a statement released on Thursday that “[t]here is no credible intelligence or other evidence to substantiate the claims or the possession of [chemical weapons] by the opposition.”
Day added that the British intelligence community says that a “limited but growing body of intelligence” supports the claim that Assad’s forces were responsible for the attack.
“There is some intelligence to suggest regime culpability in this attack,” an accompanying dossier states. “These factors make it highly likely that the Syrian regime was responsible.”
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said experts currently in Syria inspecting the site of the alleged chemical attack will finish their work on Friday and report to him their findings by Saturday.
But now that the U.S. and U.K. appear to have reached a consensus that Assad was indeed responsible for the chemical weapons attack last week, their respective governments are tasked with presenting evidence and making the case to the public, a prospect that brings with it eerie similarities to the weeks and months leading up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
And according to news reports, that task may be a difficult one, as the AP says that the intelligence linking Assad to the attack isn’t 100 percent, “with questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria’s chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike.”
“A report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence outlining that evidence against Syria is thick with caveats,” the AP reports. “It builds a case that Assad’s forces are most likely responsible while outlining gaps in the U.S. intelligence picture.”
The New York Times notes that U.S. officials have said that there is no “smoking gun” linking Assad directly to the attacks and adds that “with the botched intelligence about Iraq still casting a long shadow over decisions about waging war in the Middle East, the White House faces an American public deeply skeptical about being drawn into the Syrian conflict.”
While the White House has been consulting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Syria, and continues to do so, Members of Congress don’t appear to be acquiescing to whatever the White House wants. More than 100 House members (98 Republicans and 18 Democrats) signed a letter on Wednesday urging Obama to “consult” with Congress and “receive authorization” before striking Syria. “Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior Congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution,” the letter says.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also said the White House should seek Congressional authorization for war in Syria at some point. But House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) wouldn’t go that far in a letter to the president, and instead asked the administration to provide a legal rationale.
To that end, the Washington Post reports that lawyers for the U.S. and its allies “have been exploring a range of legal frameworks for any operation, including propositions that members of the international community have the right to use force to protect civilians or to deter a rogue nation from using chemical weapons.”