U.S. President Barack Obama is preparing for the possibility of launching unilateral American military action against Syria within days, White House aides say.
Despite roadblocks in forming an international coalition, including the stunning decision by the British Parliament on Thursday to keep the U.K. on the sidelines in any international military action, Obama appeared undeterred and advisers said he would be willing to retaliate against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad on his own.
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Talk of international military action against Syria comes as United Nations inspectors are conducting what's expected to be their final day of investigations into the alleged use of chemicals in a Damascus-area attack last week. The team has spent the past week touring rebel-controlled areas to collect evidence of a suspected poison gas attack on opposition fighters on the outskirts of the capital.
On Friday, UN inspectors toured a government-held area, visiting troops at the Yousef al-Azma military hospital, a witness told Reuters. The Assad regime claims that patients were affected by chemical munitions released by the rebels.
Western powers such as Britain, France and the U.S. allege that only the side capable of unleashing such chemical munitions is the government — a charge that Assad denies.
The UN team is due to fly out by Saturday and then immediately present their findings to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
But the U.S. has already drawn its own conclusions, blaming Assad for last week's alleged chemical assault, and are now weighing possible military actions.
In Manila, U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday the Obama administration was consulting with allies to "further develop the facts" about the attack, and options for a response. Hagel said the administration also would continue to seek input from members of Congress on how the U.S. should respond to the deadly attack.
Hagel said Thursday's consultation by high-level Obama administration officials with congressional leaders was "not to convince anyone of anything." He said it was intended as an update and a chance to solicit lawmakers' views on possible U.S. military or other action. "As we continue to consult with our allies, we'll further develop the facts and intelligence on what happened," he said.
A number of lawmakers raised questions in the briefing about how the administration would finance a military operation as the Pentagon grapples with automatic spending cuts and reduced budgets.
Senator Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the armed services committee and a participant on the call, said in a statement the administration presented a "broad range of options" for dealing with Syria, but failed to offer a plan, timeline, strategy or explanation of how it would pay for any military operation.
It remained to be seen whether any skeptics were swayed by the call, given the expectation that officials would hold back classified information to protect intelligence sources and methods.
"The main thing was that they have no doubt that Assad's forces used chemical weapons," Representative Eliot Engel, top Democrat on the House foreign affairs committee and a supporter of Obama's course, said after the briefing.
However, he said, the officials did not provide much new evidence of that.
Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the foreign relations committee, said the briefing "reaffirmed for me that a decisive and consequential U.S. response is justified and warranted to protect Syrians, as well as to send a global message that chemical weapons attacks in violation of international law will not stand."
Howard McKeon, chairman of the House armed services committee and a call participant, told reporters administration officials are in the process of declassifying the evidence they have of the Syrian government using chemical weapons.
"When they do that, we'll understand. But it's up to the president of the United States to present his case, to sell this to the American public. They're very war weary. We've been at war now for over 10 years," McKeon told reporters at a post-call news conference.
British PM argues military strike legal
In London, Prime Minister David Cameron argued a military strike would be legal on humanitarian grounds. But he faced deep pressure from lawmakers and had already promised not to undertake military action until a UN chemical weapons team on the ground in Syria released its findings about the Aug. 21 attack.
The prime minister said in terse comments after the vote that while he believes in a "tough response" to the use of chemical weapons, he would respect the will of the House of Commons.
Caitlin Hayden, Obama's National Security Council spokeswoman, said the U.S. would continue to consult with Britain but Obama would make decisions based on "the best interests of the United States."
It was not certain the U.S. would have to act alone. France announced that its armed forces "have been put in position to respond" if President François Hollande commits forces to intervention against Syria. Hollande does not need French parliamentary approval to launch military action that lasts less than four months.
Obama discussed the situation in Syria with Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who wrote to the president earlier this week seeking a legal justification for a military strike and the objectives of any potential action.
Assad, who has denied using chemical weapons, vowed his country "will defend itself against any aggression."
Some of the UN chemical weapons experts will travel directly from Syria on Saturday to different laboratories around Europe to deliver "an extensive amount of material" gathered, UN spokesman Farhan Haq said. While the mandate of the UN team is to determine whether chemical agents were used in the attack, not who was responsible, Haq suggested the evidence — which includes biological samples and witness interviews — might give an indication of who deployed gases.
U.S. intelligence no 'slam dunk,' source says
Obama and other top officials have not revealed definitive evidence to back claims that Assad used chemical weapons on Syrians. U.S. officials say the intelligence assessments are no "slam dunk," with questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria's chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the intelligence publicly.
Despite shortcomings in the intelligence, the White House signalled urgency in acting, with Earnest, the White House spokesman saying the president believes there is a "compressed time frame" for responding.
Obama continued making his case for a robust response to world leaders, speaking Thursday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. With national elections scheduled in Germany for next month, Merkel is unlikely to pull her country into a military conflict.
Merkel also discussed Syria by phone Thursday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, insisting that the attack "requires an international reaction," Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert said.
Obama has ruled out putting American forces on the ground in Syria or setting up a no-fly zone over the country. He's also said any U.S. response to the chemical weapons attack would be limited in scope and aimed solely at punishing Assad for deploying deadly gases, not at regime change.
"We do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable," he said during a television interview.
French President François Hollande says his country can go ahead with plans to strike Syria despite the British parliament's failure to endorse military action.
"The chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished," Hollande said in an interview with the newspaper Le Monde, published on Friday.
The most likely military option would be Tomahawk cruise missile strikes from four U.S. navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
At a minimum, Western forces are expected to strike targets that symbolize Assad's military and political might: military and national police headquarters, including the Defence Ministry; the Syrian military's general staff; and the four-brigade Republican Guard that is in charge of protecting Damascus, Assad's seat of power. Assad's ruling Baath Party headquarters could be targeted, too.
U.S. officials also are considering attacking military command centres and vital forces, communications hubs and weapons caches, including ballistic missile batteries
With files from CBC News