WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama said the United States was weighing “limited, narrow” action against Syria as U.N. inspectors left the country Saturday and opened a window into a possible strike.
Obama emphasized he had made no “final decision” on unleashing airstrikes against the regime of President Bashar Assad, but gave his clearest indication yet that an attack was imminent.
His remarks came after the United States released an intelligence report that concluded the regime had launched a chemical onslaught in the suburbs of Damascus a week earlier, killing 1,429 people, including at least 426 children.
“This kind of attack is a challenge to the world,” Obama told reporters at the White House. “The world has an obligation to make sure we maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons.”
Pulling back the curtain on some of United States’ most sensitive collection efforts, the Obama administration on Friday released its long-awaited intelligence assessment of the Aug. 21 event, explaining in rare detail the basis for its claim that Syria was behind the release of deadly gas, the grisly effects of which have been documented in more than 100 amateur videos.
The four-page assessment and accompanying map revealed for the first time how communications intercepts and satellite imagery picked up key decisions and actions on the ground.
Three days before the rockets fell in eastern Damascus, a team of Syrian specialists gathered in the northern suburb of Adra for a task that U.S. officials say had become routine in the third year of the country’s civil conflict: filling warheads with deadly chemicals to kill Syrian rebels.The preparations, as described by U.S. intelligence analysts, continued from Aug. 18 until just after midnight on Aug. 21, when the projectiles were loaded into rocket launchers behind the government’s defensive lines. Then, at 2:30 a.m., half a dozen densely populated neighborhoods were jolted awake by a series of explosions, followed by an oozing blanket of suffocating gas.
Unknown to Syrian officials, U.S. spy agencies recorded each step in the alleged attack, from the extensive preparations to the launching of rockets to the after-action assessments by Syrian officials. Those records and intercepts would become the core of the Obama administration’s evidentiary case linking the Syrian government to what one official called an “indiscriminate, unspeakable horror.”
In choosing to release the document, White House officials anticipated the likely comparisons to the famously inaccurate intelligence reports from a decade ago that claimed that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was actively pursuing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
Secretary of State John Kerry said White House officials were “more than mindful of the Iraq experience.”
“We will not repeat that moment,” Kerry said. “Accordingly, we have taken unprecedented steps to declassify and make facts available to people who can judge for themselves.”
The document proposes a possible motive for the attack — a desperate effort to push back rebels from several areas in the capital’s densely packed eastern suburbs — and also suggests that the high civilian death toll surprised and panicked senior Syrian officials, who called off the attack and then tried to cover it up.
“We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive,” it says, “who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on Aug. 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence.”
While unusually detailed, the assessment did not include photographs, recordings or other hard evidence to support its claims.
Among the surprises in the report was the U.S. estimate for the dead and wounded. The new figure, 1,429, was nearly four times higher than a British casualty estimate released Thursday.
“This assessment will certainly evolve as we obtain more information,” the report said.
The report also suggested that a relatively controlled used of chemicals had in recent months become part of the normal military strategy whenever government forces were unable to push back rebel offensives or break through defensive fortifications.
“The Syrian regime has used chemical weapons over the last year primarily to gain the upper hand or break a stalemate in areas where it had struggled to seize and hold strategically valuable territory,” it said. “We assess that the regime’s frustration with its inability to secure large portions of Damascus may have contributed to its decision to use chemical weapons on Aug. 21.”
U.N. experts, meanwhile, left Syria and crossed by land into Lebanon in a convoy early Saturday after completing their investigation into the attacks around Damascus and said they would “expedite” a report on whether chemical weapons had been used there.
While Germany and Canada have ruled out joining any military strikes, French President Francois Hollande said he and Obama “agreed that the international community cannot tolerate the use of chemical weapons, that it should hold the Syrian regime accountable for it and send a strong message.”