WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama said the United States (US) was weighing “limited, narrow” action against Syria, as United Nations (UN) inspectors left the country Saturday and opened a window into a possible strike.
Obama emphasized he had made no “final decision” on unleashing military strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but gave his clearest indication yet that an attack was imminent.
His remarks came after the US released an intelligence report that concluded the regime had launched a chemical onslaught in the suburbs of Damascus last week, 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.
“We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale,” he said, calling the attack a threat to US national security interests.
“The world has an obligation to make sure we maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons,” the president said, slamming the failure of the UN Security Council to agree on action.
Obama said he was looking at a “wide range of options” but had ruled out “boots on the ground” or a “long-term campaign.”
“We are looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act,” he added.
UN 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.
The team is due to report back immediately to UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who has appealed to the West to allow time for their findings to be assessed.
France gave its backing to the US plans, saying a “strong message” should be sent to the Assad regime, but British lawmakers have voted against any involvement in military action and other close US allies said they would not sign up.
While Germany and Canada ruled out joining any military strikes, French President Francois Hollande—whose country was a strident opponent of the US-led war on Iraq—said the British decision would not affect his government’s stance.
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.”
Turkey, Syria’s neighbor, went further still, demanding not just surgical strikes to send a message about chemical weapons but a sustained campaign to topple the regime.
Divisions over Syria have further chilled the frosty relations between Washington and Moscow ahead of the G20 summit next week in Saint Petersburg, where pointedly there will be no face-to-face talks between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Syria has denied using chemical weapons, and the foreign ministry said that the US intelligence report was “nothing but tired legends that the terrorists have been circulating for more than a week, with their share of lies and entirely fabricated stories.”
The military buildup was meanwhile continuing, with US warships armed with scores of cruise missiles converging on the eastern Mediterranean.
In Damascus, the mood was heavy with fear and security forces were making preparations for possible air strikes, pulling soldiers back from potential targets.