News / Middle East

Obama: Syria's Use of Chemical Weapons Is Threat to US Interests

President Barack Obama speaks to members of the media during his meeting with Baltic leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Aug. 30, 2013.
President Barack Obama speaks to members of the media during his meeting with Baltic leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Aug. 30, 2013.
U.S. President Barack Obama said Friday he has not made a final decision on attacking Syria, but made clear he thinks doing so would be in the interest of national security.

Syria has become a threat to the United States, he said, "by violating well established international norms against the use of chemical weapons, by further threatening friends and allies of ours in the region, like Israel, and Turkey and Jordan, and it increases the risk that chemical weapons will be used in the future, and fall into the hands of terrorists who might use them against us."

Speaking briefly at the White House, Obama said he has consulted with the U.S. military, members of Congress and U.S. allies, as well as the wider international community.

He also made clear his frustration with the United Nations' inability to agree on a course of action against Damascus.

"What we have seen so far at least is an incapacity at this point for the Security Council to move forward in the face of a clear violation of international norms," Obama said.

It was a point that Secretary of State John Kerry made earlier in the afternoon, and he blamed Russia, an ally of the Syrian government.

"And because of the guaranteed Russian obstructionism of any action through the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. cannot galvanize the world to act, as it should," Kerry said.

Russia has blocked previous attempts at the U.N. to impose sanctions on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  Russia, however, warns that Western intervention could be destablizing to the Middle East.

In a possible sign Washington may be preparing to act, a State Department official said Kerry called the foreign ministers of several countries Friday, including those in Britain, Egypt, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the secretary-general of the Arab League.

Legacy of Iraq, Afghanistan

The administration spent Friday laying out its arguments for a response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, as it tries to build support at home and abroad for a strike on Syria.

International military deployments directed toward SyriaInternational military deployments directed toward Syria
International military deployments directed toward Syria
International military deployments directed toward Syria
It was clear, however, that the legacy of more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq weighs on Obama and his advisers.  The president said he is considering a "narrow, limited" strike.

He also said he is "not considering any open-ended commitment" in Syria.

And Secretary Kerry said any action "will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq or even Libya.  It will not involve any boots on the ground.  It will not be open-ended."

Kerry acknowledged there are risks to acting against the government of President Assad, but said the risks of not acting are greater.  Not acting, he said, could embolden other countries to build and use chemical and nuclear weapons, such as Iran and North Korea.

Children killed

As Kerry spoke Friday afternoon, the White House released an unclassified report, saying the U.S. intelligence community has "high confidence" that Assad's government used chemical weapons on August 21 against civilians in several Damascus suburbs.

The report says 1,429 people died in the attack, at least 426 of them children.  It based the numbers on numerous sources, including witnesses, social media reports and Syrian and international medical personnel.

The report rejects the Syrian government's allegations that the attacks were the work of rebels.  It says rockets and artillery shells fired from government-held areas carried the toxic gases to neighborhoods held by rebel forces, and says the rebels do not have those types of heavy arms.

The U.S. also says its intelligence indicates that Syrian chemical weapons forces prepared the weapons before the attack.  In the days beforehand, the U.S. "collected streams of intelligence" linked to preparations for an attack.

Seeking support

With Obama's comments and Kerry's speech, along with the release of the intelligence summary on the chemical weapons attack, the administration pushed forward its effort to build support at home and abroad for a strike on the Damascus government.

Related video report by Zlatica Hoke

US Unveils Intelligence on Syrian Chemical Attacksi
August 31, 2013 4:16 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama says the world cannot stand by in the face of Syria's use of chemical weapons. The president spoke Friday after the U.S. government released an intelligence assessment which says Syrian government forces used a nerve agent in a recent attack on a Damascus suburb. Zlatica Hoke reports.

A spokesman for U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the White House will brief Republican senators on the Syrian situation in a conference call Saturday, at the request of McConnell.

U.S. Government's Assessment

  • High confidence the Syrian government used a nerve agent in the Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21, 2013
  • 1,429 people were killed, including 426 children
  • Highly unlikely that the Syrian opposition carried out the chemical attack

U.S. Report on the Attack

  • Assad regime carried out a rocket and artillery attack on the Damascus suburbs early on Aug. 21
  • Thousands of reports on the attack appeared in social media
  • Nearby hospitals received 3,600 patients displaying symptoms consistent with nerve agent exposure
  • Hundreds of videos attributed to the attack show bodies with signs consistent with nerve agent exposure
  • Syrian opposition does not have the means to fabricate the videos and other information related to the attack
  • Intercepted communications involving senior Assad official who confirmed chemical weapons were used in the attack
Source: U.S. Government
Many U.S. voters and several members of Congress remain skeptical about the need for any U.S. involvement in Syria.  That sentiment is shared in other parts of the world.

Britain's lower house of parliament has rejected a motion for British participation in a military strike.

U.S. ally France, however, remains committed to a "firm and proportionate action" in response to that attack.  Kerry noted that others, such as members of the Arab League, Turkey and Australia, have called for a strong response.

Kerry acknowledged that after more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans are tired of conflict.

"But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility.  Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about.  And history would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency.  These things, we do know," he said.

Two former U.S. presidents have weighed in.  Former Republican president George W. Bush said Obama has a "tough choice to make".  

Former Democratic president Jimmy Carter said a punitive military response would be illegal under international law and "only harden existing positions and postpone a sorely needed political process" in Syria.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged world powers to hold off on possible military action until a U.N. chemical weapons inspection team completes its work in the country.

The inspectors left early Saturday and some are expected to meet with Ban in the next few days.  But, it could be weeks before their final report is issued.  Kerry noted that the U.N. inspectors' mission was to establish whether chemical weapons were used, but not to determine who used them.

  • In this citizen journalism image provided by Edlib News Network, ENN, Syrians search under rubble to rescue people from houses that were destroyed by a Syrian government warplane in Idlib province, August 30, 2013.
  • In this citizen journalism image provided by Edlib News Network, ENN, smoke rises after explosives were dropped by a Syrian government warplane in Idlib province, August 30, 2013.
  • In this image taken from video obtained from the Shaam News Network, U.N. investigators gather potential evidence in a Damascus suburb, August 28, 2013.
  • This citizen journalism image provided by the United media office of Arbeen shows Syrians moving a man who was allegedly exposed to chemical weapons to show him to U.N. investigators in a Damascus suburb, August 28, 2013.
  • This citizen journalism image provided by the United media office of Arbeen shows U.N. investigators in a suburb of Damascus, August 28, 2013.
  • Free Syrian Army fighters carry their weapons as they escort U.N. vehicles carrying chemical weapons experts at the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb, August 28, 2013.
  • Free Syrian Army fighters deploy in Aleppo's town of Khanasir after seizing it, August 26, 2013.
  • Free Syrian Army fighters inspect munitions and a tank that belonged to forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after they seized Khanasir, August 26, 2013.
  • A U.N. chemical weapons expert gathers evidence at site of an alleged poison gas attack in a southwestern Damascus suburb, August 26, 2013.
  • An image grab taken from a video posted by Syrian activists purportedly shows a U.N. inspector speaking to a man in a Damascus suburb, August 26, 2013.
  • U.N. chemical weapons experts visit a hospital where wounded people affected by a suspected gas attack are being treated, in a southwestern Damascus suburb, August 26, 2013.

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Comment Sorting
Comments page of 2
by: Anonymous
August 30, 2013 6:11 PM
How is it possible to believe that the Syrian Government would conduct chemical attacks with full knowledge of the consequences.

It is MORE likely that this is at best, a case of opportunistically blaming the Syrian Government for an attack by rebels with full knowledge of the consequences.

The devil is in the details, when the "west" went ahead with bellicose rhetoric before there was any proof or investigation done.
In Response

by: Anonymous
August 30, 2013 9:28 PM
Of course they would do this under assads order to make the "Opposition" (The people of Syria), look bad as if they are the terrorists. However we all know assad has murdered many many more civilians than any group in Syria combined. He has murdered close to 100,000 civilians. assad is already a criminal regardless of who used the chemicals so his days were already numbered. Dropping bombs by jets in civilian populated (non combatants) areas is a crime. There should of already been a "Red Line" Longggggg ago. asssad is clearly the terrorist terrorizing the nation of Syria, with or without the use of chemical weapons.

by: Godwin from: Nigeria
August 30, 2013 2:20 PM
Watch, all countries with history of mass killings and holocaust are always reluctant to vote against other countries that do the same. Talk about birds of like feathers. But the world must move away from that region and fashion a way forward. A law that prohibits the use of weapons of mass destruction must be enforced to be respected by the mechanism of the world body, the UN. Without a standing army, it remains to be seen how the UN will fare in this matter in the face of opposition from China, Russia and Iran who are heavy weight of regional powers in the opposition bloc.
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