WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is weighing a military strike against Syria that would be of limited scope and duration, designed to serve as punishment for Syria's use of chemical weapons and as a deterrent, while keeping the United States out of deeper involvement in that country's civil war, according to senior administration officials.
The timing of such an attack, which would probably last no more than two days and involve sea-launched cruise missiles -- or, possibly, long-range bombers -- striking military targets not directly related to Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, is dependent on three factors: completion of an intelligence report assessing Syrian government culpability in last week's alleged chemical attack; ongoing consultation with allies and Congress; and determination of a justification under international law.
"We're actively looking at the various legal angles that would inform a decision," said an official who spoke about the presidential deliberations on condition of anonymity. Missile-armed U.S. warships are already positioned in the Mediterranean.
As the administration moved rapidly toward a decision, Secretary of State John Kerry said the use of chemical weapons in an attack Wednesday against opposition strongholds on the eastern outskirts of Damascus is now "undeniable." Evidence being gathered by United Nations experts in Syria was important, Mr. Kerry said, but not necessary to prove what is already "grounded in facts, informed by conscience and guided by common sense."
Mr. Kerry said Syrian forces had engaged in a "cynical attempt to cover up" their actions, not only by delaying the arrival of the U.N. team, but also by shelling the affected area continually. Any strike would probably await the departure of the U.N. inspectors from Syria.
Mr. Kerry's statement, which he read in the State Department briefing room without taking reporters' questions, was part of an escalating administration drumbeat, which is likely to include a public statement by Mr. Obama in coming days.
Officials said the public warnings are meant partly to wring any possibility of cooperation out of Russia -- or an unlikely admission from Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime-- before Mr. Obama makes his decision.
"Make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny," Mr. Kerry said.
He and other officials drew a sharp distinction between U.S. action related to a violation of international law by what they called Mr. Assad's "massive" use of chemical weapons and any direct military involvement in the Syrian conflict, which is in its third year.
"What we are talking about here is a potential response ... to this specific violation of international norms," White House press secretary Jay Carney said. "While it is part of this ongoing Syrian conflict in which we have an interest, and in which we have a clearly stated position, it is distinct in that regard."
Mr. Obama and other officials have said repeatedly that no U.S. troops would be sent to Syria. But despite Mr. Obama's year-old threat of an unspecified U.S. response if Mr. Assad crossed a "red line" by using chemical weapons, even a limited military engagement seemed unlikely before Wednesday's attack near Damascus. "This international norm cannot be violated without consequences," Mr. Kerry said.
The options under consideration are neither new nor open-ended, officials said. Use of "limited stand-off strikes" has long been among the options the Pentagon has provided to Mr. Obama. "Potential targets include high-value regime air defense, air, ground, missile and naval forces as well as the supporting military facilities and command nodes," Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a June letter to Congress. "Stand-off air and missile systems could be used to strike hundreds of targets at a tempo of our choosing."
Although Gen. Dempsey, who has questioned the wisdom of direct military involvement in Syria, said such an operation would require "hundreds" of ships and aircraft, and potentially cost "in the billions," the action contemplated would be far smaller and designed more to send a message than cripple Mr. Assad's military and change the balance of forces on the ground. Syrian chemical weapons storage areas, which are numerous and widely dispersed, are seen as unlikely targets.
The language of international criminality has resonated among U.S. allies and lawmakers.
"We will have to act," said House Intelligence Committee member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who has long opposed any U.S. intervention, including the administration's decision earlier this summer to send light arms to Syrian opposition military forces. "I don't think we can allow repeated use of chemical weapons now, an escalated use of chemical weapons, to stand."
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the Foreign Relations Committee's senior Republican, emphasized that a U.S. strike should not be directed at altering the dynamic of Syria's civil war. "I think it should be surgical. It should be proportional. It should be in response to what's happened with the chemicals," he said in an NBC interview. "But the fact is, I don't want us to get involved in such a way that we change that dynamic on the ground." The senator said he thought the administration's attack response is "imminent."
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said: "Last November, I called for a more assertive U.S. approach to the conflict in Syria because it is in line with our national security interests and our humanitarian values. Taking action now will certainly be more difficult than it was last year, but if the administration does decide to act in collaboration with our allies in Europe and the Middle East, it should act decisively to avoid further extending the conflict."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he had been in touch with the White House. In a statement, he echoed concerns expressed by lawmakers from both parties that the administration further consults Congress before taking action.
The administration has said it will follow international law in shaping its response. Authorization for the use of force against another nation normally comes only from the U.N. Security Council -- where Russia and China have vetoed prior resolutions against Mr. Assad -- or in a NATO operation like the one in 1999 launched in the former Yugoslavia, without a U.N. mandate.
Administration lawyers are also examining possible legal justifications based on a violation of international prohibitions on chemical weapons use, or an appeal for assistance by a neighboring nation such as Turkey.
Top military chiefs from several nations gathered Monday in Amman, Jordan's capital, for a meeting initially set to discuss ways of improving the security of Syria's neighbors. It included military chiefs from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, a Jordanian security official told the Associated Press. Gen. Dempsey was also participating.
Britain, France and Turkey have said they would support action if chemical weapons use is confirmed, but a clear-cut case is also likely to make approval easier for allies such as Germany, which disagreed with NATO's 2011 operation in Libya despite a U.N. resolution. "The use of chemical weapons would be a crime against civilization," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Monday. "The international community must act should the use of such weapons be confirmed."
Consultations on Syria have been ongoing at the ambassadorial level at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where a meeting is set for Wednesday. The Arab League, which had approved the Libya operation, is also due to meet this week to discuss Syria.nation
First Published August 26, 2013 7:30 PM