WASHINGTON — Making its case for missile strikes against Syria, the White House released an intelligence report concluding that a special chemical weapons unit used nerve gas to kill more than 1,400 people, including at least 426 children, far more than most previous estimates.
President Obama acknowledged that Americans, including himself, were war weary and suspicious of engaging in a new military action, especially in the Middle East. Although he insisted he has not decided to take military action, he said Friday that he is considering a “limited, narrow” attack on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government to deter further use of chemical weapons.
“We’re not considering any open-ended commitment,” Obama said in brief remarks to reporters. “We’re not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach.”
Obama suggested the world’s superpower must act alone at times to safeguard global security.
“A lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it,” he said a day after Britain’s House of Commons refused to back an armed response, forcing America’s most stalwart ally to withdraw from any joint military action.
Obama later spoke by phone with British Prime Minister David Cameron as well as with French President Francois Hollande, who continues to publicly back targeted reprisals. The White House issued nearly identical statements after each call, saying the leaders had agreed that Syria’s use of chemical weapons was “unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.”
As a team of United Nations chemical weapons experts wrapped up their field work in Damascus, the Syrian capital, and prepared to leave, the White House sent Secretary of State John F. Kerry in front of the cameras for the second time this week to try to allay doubts about a military action that increasingly appears a foregone conclusion.
Kerry said the evidence is “compelling” that Syria’s government used poison gas against its own citizens. “This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons,” he said. “This is what Assad did to his own people.”
In response, the Syrian Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement in Damascus calling Kerry’s comments “full of fabrications and lies.”
Kerry acknowledged that the CIA and other intelligence agencies had wrongly concluded that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had chemical, biological and nuclear weapons stockpiles or programs. The Bush White House used those misjudgments to justify the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, sparking nearly a decade of conflict.
“Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack, and I will tell you it is more than mindful of the Iraq experience,” Kerry said. “We will not repeat that moment.”
But Kerry inevitably repeated some of the same arguments heard a decade ago. He warned that failing to act would send the wrong message to Assad and would embolden adversaries like Iran.
“They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say,” Kerry said. “They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it…"
Kerry cited details from the four-page unclassified intelligence report, which was drawn from a lengthier classified assessment. It said a special Syrian chemical weapons unit launched a barrage of rocket and artillery fire that dispersed toxic clouds into a dozen rebel-held neighborhoods in the eastern Ghouta district outside Damascus in the early morning of Aug. 21.
“We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time,” Kerry said. “We know where they landed and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.”
The document said the army used poison gas because it had been unable to retake the rebels’ last major strongholds around Damascus despite heavy bombardment and shelling.
Assad has strongly denied launching chemical weapons, which are banned under international law, and some analysts have questioned why he would do so on a scale sure to draw global attention.
Citing evidence gleaned from spies, informants, satellites and other systems, as well as videos and testimony from witnesses and survivors, the document said all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies assessed “with high confidence” that Syria’s military was responsible. “We further assess that the regime used a nerve agent in the attack.”
“We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on Aug. 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence,” the assessment says.
Troops from the military unit that handles chemical weapons, the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, prepared them for three days before the attack, according to the report. Another military unit was detected preparing gas masks, the report says.
“We have intelligence that leads us to assess that Syrian chemical weapons personnel … were preparing chemical munitions prior to the attack,” the paper says. Afterward, a Syrian chemical weapons team was “directed to cease operations.”
In a background briefing for reporters, administration officials appeared to concede they had found no proof that Assad personally ordered the attack. Congressional staffers briefed on the classified intelligence said it also contains no “smoking gun” evidence of Assad’s role.
But the Syrian strongman is responsible, officials said, because he commands the army and exerts final control over sizable chemical weapons stockpiles.
“We do assess that he’s the decision maker, and he’s ultimately in charge” of using the weapons, said a senior intelligence official, who briefed reporters on condition he not be identified.
There is no indication the nerve gas was more powerful, or caused more casualties, than commanders had sought in their push to clear rebel fighters from the capital’s suburbs, as some analysts have speculated, the officials said.
“The regime considers chemical weapons” part of “its portfolio of military use,” a senior official said.
Officials called it highly unlikely that rebels seeking to overthrow Assad launched the attack to draw a Western response. The opposition has not used chemical weapons in the past, and intelligence sources in the Damascus area did not detect indications beforehand that rebel militias were planning to use such weapons, the officials said.
The document says preliminary estimates put the death toll at 1,429 people, including at least 426 children. U.S. officials did not explain how their estimate was derived.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the main U.S.-backed Syrian opposition group said more than 1,300 people had been killed. Others gave much lower numbers. The aid group Doctors Without Borders said that three hospitals it supported in the Damascus area reported receiving 3,600 patients “displaying neurotoxic symptoms” in a three-hour period, of whom 355 reportedly died.
“The bottom line,” a senior Obama aide said, “is we feel like our case is strong, our case is clear.”
Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.