White House Tries To Rally Support Around A Syria Strike

President Obama says the world cannot accept the use of chemical weapons on a mass scale in Syria, but much of the world seems unwilling to act in response. The president says the U.S. has not made a final decision either.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This kind of attack is a challenge to the world. We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale.

SIEGEL: President Obama speaking this afternoon from the cabinet room of the White House, saying the world has an obligation to answer last week's deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria. The White House also released a declassified intelligence report today in an effort to make the case that the Syrian government and President Bashar al Assad are responsible for that attack.

NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from the White House. And, Scott, the president has said repeatedly that the U.S. and other countries can't let an attack like this go unpunished. What do we now think he's prepared to do about it?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, President Obama said again today that he has not yet made a decision about what to do but he has been getting options from the U.S. military. He says there's a range of options under consideration. The expectation is that would involve missile strikes from U.S. Navy vessels at some safe distance from Syria.

The president said today any military action the U.S. takes would not involve American boots on the ground in Syria and would not be a long-term, open-ended campaign.

OBAMA: We are looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act that would help make sure that not only Syria but others around the world understand that the international community cares about maintaining this chemical weapons ban.

HORSLEY: And the White House says the goal of any military strike would not be to tip the balance in Syria's civil war or remove Assad from power. He said that would take diplomacy, not military action alone.

SIEGEL: Scott, President Obama says the purpose of a military strike would be to hold the Syrian government accountable for the use of chemical weapons. What evidence is the White House offering that the regime is behind the apparent gas attack?

HORSLEY: Well, today we got the most detailed evidence to date tying the government of Syria to the attack. The particulars are spelled out in a classified report that's being shared with congressional leaders, as well as some U.S. allies. But the government also produced that declassified version you mentioned, which summarizes the evidence.

And that includes the location of the attack. The U.S. says it has satellite evidence that rockets were fired from territory that's controlled by the Assad regime into areas controlled by the opposition or areas that are being contested. It says there is evidence that in the three days leading up to the attack, chemical weapons teams from the Syrian government were making preparations, which included donning gas masks on the day of the attack.

The U.S. government also says it has intercepts after the attack of orders being given to stop the attack and intercepts of a Syrian official acknowledging that the attack took place and expressing concern about being caught. Now, in spelling out this evidence this afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. is more than mindful of what happened in the run-up to the Iraq war, when, of course, the U.S. made claims that there were weapons of mass destruction.

Those turned out to be unfounded. Kerry said we will not repeat that experience. But in this case, he says the U.S. intelligence community has high confidence that the Syrian regime was behind this deadly attack and he also offered some new numbers for the toll of that attack. He says more than 1,400 people were killed, including at least 426 children.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: This is evidence. These are facts. So the primary question is really no longer what do we know. The question is what are we, we collectively, what are we in the world going to do about it.

SIEGEL: And when Secretary Kerry says what are we in the world going to do about it, does he actually mean what's the U.S. going to do about it?

HORSLEY: Well, there are not a lot of other countries lining up to help. Of course, the British Parliament voted this week against taking military action. We have not seen support from the Arab League, as the U.S. did when it got involved in Libya, and it seems clear that Russia will use its veto power to block any authorization of force in the U.N. Security Council.

So this is a real challenge for President Obama because, of course, he's been very much an advocate for international coalitions in cases like that. He talked about that in his Nobel Peace Prize speech. He said today his preference would be to act in concert with other countries and he expressed some frustration that he hasn't already lined up that kind of international support.

OBAMA: But ultimately, we don't want the world to be paralyzed and, frankly, you know, part of the challenge that we end up with here is that a lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it.

HORSLEY: So the president says he'll continue to consult with international allies. He'll continue to consult with Congress, but he made it pretty clear that if he feels the U.S. has to act on its own, it will.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House.

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