WASHINGTON, August 30 (RIA Novosti) – US President Barack Obama said Friday that a potential military strike on Syria would be a “limited” operation aimed at punishing the Syrian government for a chemical weapons attack it allegedly carried out last week, comments that came amid flagging support from American citizens and allies for such an operation.
“We’re not considering any open-ended commitment. We’re not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach,” Obama said Friday in the White House, adding that he had “not made any decisions” about what actions the United States would take.
Obama made the statements an hour after the White House released a declassified intelligence assessment of an apparent Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs, which the administration asserts “with high confidence” was carried out by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The report states that 1,429 people were killed in the alleged assault, including at least 426 children, though it said that assessment “will certainly evolve as we obtain more information.”
The report said its assessment was made based on “human, signals and geospatial intelligence,” as well as open source materials such as social media reports and videos of the alleged attack that have flooded the Internet over the past week.
“We have a body of information, including past Syrian practice, that leads us to conclude that regime officials were witting of and directed the attack on August 21,” the US government said in the report, adding that it has intelligence showing that preparations for the purported assault had been underway during the three days before it was allegedly carried out.
“It’s important for us to recognize that when over a thousand people are killed, including hundreds of innocent children, through the use of a weapon that 98 or 99 percent of humanity says should not be used even in war, and there is no action, then we’re sending a signal,” Obama said.
“That is a danger to our national security,” he added.
But with US forces on the brink of launching a strike against Syria, Obama is facing pushback from a war-wary electorate at home and a rebuke from key ally Britain concerning possible joint intervention in the civil war.
Britain backed the US incursion into Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein, but the British parliament on Thursday rejected military involvement in Syria, though French President François Hollande offered support in a Le Monde interview published Friday, saying last week’s alleged attack “must not go unpunished.”
“Otherwise, it would be taking the risk of an escalation that would normalize the use of these weapons and threaten other countries,” Hollande told the French daily.
Meanwhile, 50 percent of Americans said the United States should not take military action against the Syrian government in response to the alleged chemical weapons attack, according to an NBC News poll published Friday, with 42 percent approving a military response.
Nearly 80 percent of Americans believe the White House should obtain approval from the US Congress for taking military action in Syria, according to the poll.
US lawmakers this week have also been fiercely critical of a potential US attack against Syria. Sen. Rand Paul told Fox News on Friday that it appears Obama is “saving face” because of repeated statements he has made about chemical weapons being a “red line” that must not be crossed in the Syria conflict.
“That’s why you ought to be very careful of drawing lines in the sand or red lines because now he feels that he looks weak to both his colleagues in the United States as well as his international colleagues,” Paul said. “But I don’t think that’s enough reason to go to war.”
Addressing “a certain weariness” among the American public following decade-long US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama said Friday that he “very much appreciate[s]” a “certain suspicion of any military action.”
“I assure you nobody ends up being more war weary than me, but what I also believe is that part of our obligations as a leader in the world is making sure that when you have a regime that is willing to use weapons that are prohibited by international norms on ... people, including children, that they are held to account,” he said.
Obama added Friday that he had not made a final decision on how the United States might respond, but national security experts said it is highly unlikely that Washington would not proceed with a strike on Syria.
“A pullback under the right conditions might be possible, but it would be very, very hard,” W. Andrew Terrill, a Middle East expert at the US Army War College, told RIA Novosti on Friday.
Terrill said the alleged attack could have been a test by Assad’s government to see what the West’s response to a chemical weapons attack would be, and that a failure by the United States to send a message to Assad could encourage an expansion of similar attacks.
“And I don’t know how else to make it clear to [Assad],” Terrill said.
But retired US Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, told Bloomberg on Friday morning that a US attack in Syria could be a fatal mistake by the White House, citing parallels with the Iraq war.
Wilkerson, who reviewed intelligence on Iraq for Powell in the run-up to that war, has since called his role in justifying a US incursion to Iraq “probably the biggest mistake of my life.”
“If you think you can send cruise missiles and drop a few bombs on Syria and then wash your hands of it, or think that Assad will obey what you say after that, you are smoking something,” he told Bloomberg.