WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration appeared Wednesday to be forging ahead with preparations to attack Syria. It dismissed a Syrian request to extend chemical weapons inspections there as a delaying tactic and said it saw little point in further discussion of the issue at the United Nations.
President Barack Obama said "there need to be international consequences" for the Aug. 21 chemical strikes that he said he has concluded were carried out by the Syrian government.
"I have no interest in any kind of open-ended conflict in Syria," Mr. Obama said in an interview with the PBS NewsHour, stressing that he has not decided to order a military attack. "But we do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on chemical weapons, they are held accountable."
A closed-door meeting of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members, called to consider a British-drafted resolution authorizing the use of force to prevent any further chemical weapons use in Syria, adjourned without action after Russia and China opposed the measure.
In response, U.S. officials made clear that they considered such initiatives irrelevant to Mr. Obama's decision on military action. Although officials gave no indication of when a U.S. attack might occur, they said they expect U.N. inspectors to leave Syria on Saturday.
The administration also hopes today to release a declassified intelligence assessment of evidence that it says will prove the Assad government's "undeniable" responsibility for the chemical attack outside Damascus. The U.N. investigators, charged with determining only whether chemical weapons were used, will not assess blame.
"Nobody disputes -- or hardly anybody disputes -- that chemical weapons were used on a large scale in Syria against civilian populations," Mr. Obama said, and the opposition does not possess the capability to undertake such attacks.
"We see no avenue forward [at the United Nations], given continued Russian opposition to any meaningful council action on Syria," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "Therefore, the United States will continue its consultations and will take appropriate actions to respond in the days ahead."
The U.S. dismissal seemed to put the administration and its allies at odds with the world body's leadership. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, without setting a deadline or addressing the Syrian request for an extension, said it was "essential to establish the facts," and the U.N. inspection team "needs time to do its job."
Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, said international law requires a Security Council decision before any military action. "I do know that President Obama and the American administration are not known to be trigger-happy," Mr. Brahimi said at a Geneva news conference. "What they will decide, I don't know."
Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, have said any attack would be of limited scope and duration and would likely target military installations. The Defense Department has positioned warships armed with cruise missiles in the Mediterranean, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said the military is "ready to go" should Mr. Obama give the order.
Russia and Iran, Syrian President Bashar Assad's principal outside backers throughout the civil war that began more than two years ago, have warned of what Moscow has called the "catastrophic consequences" of military intervention.
France, which holds the fifth permanent U.N. Security Council seat, this week said Mr. Assad should be "punished" for the chemical weapons attack.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has also strongly backed Mr. Obama's position on the need to punish Syria for the attack that left hundreds dead, and the two leaders have consulted closely in recent days. Britain's resolution appeared to have been proposed with little expectation that Russia -- which has vetoed measures condemning Syria in the past and this week questioned the attack allegations -- would agree.
Mr. Cameron also appeared to be running into difficulties at home, as opposition grew to British backing or participation in a U.S.-led strike. Mr. Cameron called a special parliamentary session for today to make his case and debate the issue. Bowing to political pressure, Mr. Cameron late Wednesday also called for a second session Tuesday to provide additional time for debate and a final vote.
The government, Foreign Secretary William Hague said, recognizes "the deep concerns in this country about what happened over Iraq," when a previous British government -- over strong public and political opposition -- supported a U.S. invasion based on what turned out to be false evidence of weapons of mass destruction. "We will be clear that we are determined to take action against war crimes" and chemical weapons use "on a consensual basis," Mr. Hague said.
In what may mark the closing of the most immediate U.S. window of opportunity to launch a strike, Mr. Obama is scheduled to depart Tuesday night for Sweden, where he will spend a day before traveling to Russia for a meeting of the G-20 group of nations.
Asked what a limited military strike would accomplish, Mr. Obama said. "The Assad regime, which is involved in a civil war trying to protect itself, will have received a pretty strong signal that it better not, in fact, do it again. "That doesn't solve all the problems inside of Syria," he said.
Mr. Obama added that Mr. Assad needs to understand that by killing civilians and putting neighboring U.S. allies such as Turkey and Jordan at risk, he was "not only breaking international norms and standards of decency," but also had created "a situation where U.S. national interests are affected. And that needs to stop."
In a letter Wednesday to the U.N.'s Mr. Ban, Syria accused opposition forces of attacking its military on three occasions this month with a poison "close to what we call the nerve gas sarin," the lethal compound the United States and others have said was used in the attack on rebel-held areas east of Damascus. The Syrian letter asked that the inspectors extend their deadline to leave, initially scheduled for this weekend, to investigate the new claim.