WASHINGTON (CNN) — With a flurry of comments and activity, U.S. officials sought Tuesday to lay the groundwork for a military strike in Syria — though some in Washington are pushing back.
The moves by top members of President Barack Obama’s administration come less than a week after rebels claim more than 1,300 people were killed in a Syrian government, most of them dying from use of chemical weapons.
The White House offered legal justification for a strike, with spokesman Jay Carney telling reporters the large-scale use of chemical weapons in Syria presented a national security threat to the United States that required a response.
Carney said Obama had yet to make a final decision on how to respond to what U.S. officials characterize as the worst chemical weapons attack since former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein launched a poison gas attack that killed thousands of Kurds in 1988.
The president continues to review options, Carney said, adding “nothing has been decided.” Carney assured reporters some sort of response will come.
“Allowing the use of chemical weapons on a significant scale to take place without a response would present a significant challenge to or threat to the United States’ national security,” he said.
Vice President Joe Biden made clear the administration’s view of who was to blame, telling the American Legion that “there is no doubt who is responsible for the heinous use of chemical weapons — the Syrian regime.”
On the same day Obama talked with Stephen Harper and UK Prime MInister David Cameron, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry consulted allies and indicated potentially imminent action by a coalition likely to include key NATO partners and regional powers.
The United States has already moved warships armed with cruise missiles into the region. Hagel told the BBC on Tuesday that forces were ready to carry out a strike if ordered. A senior Defense Department official told CNN that any strike could be completed “within several days.”
“We are ready to go, like that,” Hagel told the BBC, adding that “the options are there, the United States Department of Defense is ready to carry out those options.”
Options available to Obama range from ordering limited missile strikes to continued diplomatic efforts labeled by critics as a “do-nothing” approach.
The White House has ruled out sending ground troops to Syria or implementing a no-fly zone to blunt al-Assad’s aerial superiority over rebels fighting to oust his regime.
On Monday, Carney said that the first step toward a military response in Syria would be the public release of a U.S. intelligence report on the August 21 event near Damascus that reportedly killed and wounded thousands.
A U.S. official who was not authorized to speak on the record told CNN that release of the intelligence report was planned for Tuesday, but Carney later said it would come out some time this week.
Another official told CNN the intelligence report would include forensic evidence and intercepted communications among Syrian military commanders.
Carney said Tuesday there was “no doubt” in the administration that chemical weapons were used by the al-Assad government, telling reporters that “we see no evidence of any alternative scenario.”
For almost two years, Obama has avoided direct military involvement in Syria’s civil war, only escalating aid to rebel fighters in June after suspected smaller-scale chemical weapons attacks by Syrian government forces.
However, last week’s attack obliterated the “red line” Obama set just over a year ago against the use of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks.
Yet some in Congress say that before Obama orders any strike, they should go through them first.
A group of 31 Republican and six Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday sent a letter to the president urging him “to consult and receive authorization” before authorizing any such military action.
“Any U.S. military action could bring serious consequences or further escalation,” said Rep. Ed Royce, a California Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and was not among the letter’s initial signatories. “The president should be making the case to the American public, and his administration should come to Congress to explain their plans.
“The consequences are too great for Congress to be pushed aside.”
Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican and influential member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the U.S. response to the Syria situation will influence another regional proliferation issue — Iran’s potential development of nuclear weapons.
Obama “time and again has basically said that Iran will not be allowed to have nuclear weapons, that’s the red line,” King told CNN on Monday, adding that failure to enforce a similar threat against Syria on chemical weapons would undermine the president.
“This is as much a warning to Iran as I see it, as it is action against Syria,” King said.
Even some in Obama’s own party are cautioning against action that’s not suitably inclusive. Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island told CNN on Monday the United States should only act in concert with an international coalition from at least NATO allies and Arab League members.
“Without their participation, it looks as if this is just a Western-vs.-Islamic struggle. It’s not,” said Reed, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “This is to vindicate a basic rule of international law that these weapons will not be used, not by Iran, not by any power.”
Reed said the most realistic option would be cruise missiles launched from Navy ships at sea, noting that “we can have precision weapons that could be fired and keep our aircraft out of Syrian airspace and away from their anti-aircraft systems.”