By DAVID ESPO and ELAINE GANLEY, AP
WASHINGTON (AP) — Edging toward a retaliatory strike, the Obama administration bluntly accused the Syrian government of Bashar Assad on Friday of launching a chemical weapons attack that killed at least 1,429 people — far more than previous estimates — including more than 400 children.
"Some cite the risk of doing things" in response, Secretary of State John Kerry said in a speech that acknowledged that Americans at home and U.S. allies abroad are weary of war. "But we need to ask what is the risk of doing nothing." Halfway around the world, U.N. personnel carried out a fourth day of inspection as they sought to determine precisely what happened in the attack last week.
Videotapes said to be taken at the scene show victims writhing in pain, twitching and exhibiting other symptoms associated with exposure to nerve agents. The international contingent arranged to depart Syria on Saturday and head to laboratories in Europe with the samples they have collected. Residents of Damascus stocked up on food and other necessities in anticipation of strikes, although no signs of panic or shortages were evident.
"We got used to the sound of shelling" after three years of civil war, said Kheireddine Nahleh, a 53-year-old government employee. "Death is the same, be it with a mortar or with an American missile. I'm not afraid." President Barack Obama met with his national security aides at the White House as aides insisted he has not yet made a decision to attack military facilities belonging to the Syrian government. Even so, the administration did nothing to discourage the predictions that he would — and soon. "Our approach is to continue to find an international coalition that will act together," said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, on a trip to the Philippines.
U.S. warships were in place in the Mediterranean Sea armed with cruise missiles, long a first-line weapon of choice for presidents because they can find a target hundreds of miles distant without need of air cover or troops on the ground. White House officials previewed the intelligence findings Thursday night in a telephone briefing for senior members of Congress. The Assad government has accused rebels of carrying out the attacks. The looming confrontation is the latest outgrowth of a civil war in which Assad has tenaciously — and brutally — clung to power.
An estimated 100,000 civilians have been killed in more than two years, many of them as a result of attacks by the Syrian government on its own citizens. Obama has long been wary of U.S. military involvement in the struggle, as he has been with turbulent events elsewhere during the so-called Arab Spring. In this case, reluctance stems in part from a recognition that while Assad has ties to Iran and the terrorist group Hezbollah, the rebels seeking to topple him have connections with al-Qaida terrorist groups.
Still, he declared more than a year ago that the use of chemical weapons would amount to a "red line" that Assad should not cross. And Obama approved the shipment of small weapons and ammunition to the Syrian rebels after an earlier reported chemical weapons attack, although there is little sign that the equipment has arrived. With memories of the long Iraq war still fresh, the political cross-currents have been intense both domestically and overseas.
Dozens of lawmakers, most of them Republican, have signed a letter saying Obama should not take military action without congressional approval, and top leaders of both political parties are urging the president to consult more closely with Congress before giving an order to launch hostilities. Despite the urgings, there has been little or no discussion about calling Congress back into session to debate the issue. Lawmakers have been on a summer break for nearly a month, and are not due to return to the Capitol until Sept. 9.
Obama's efforts to put together an international coalition to support military action have been more down than up. French President Francois Hollande has endorsed punitive strikes, and told the newspaper Le Monde that the "chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished." But British Prime Minister David Cameron's attempt to win a vote of approval in Parliament for military action ended in ignominious defeat on Thursday.
American attempts to secure backing at the United Nations have been blocked by Russia, long an ally of Syria. United Nations Secretary General Ban ki-Moon has urged a delay in any military action until the inspectors can present their findings to U.N. member states and the Security Council.
Ganley reported from Paris. Angela Charlton in Paris, Zeina Karam in Beirut and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
Government Assessment of the Syrian Government's Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013
The United States Government assesses with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013. We further assess that the regime used a nerve agent in the attack. These all-source assessments are based on human, signals, and geospatial intelligence as well as a significant body of open source reporting.Our classified assessments have been shared with the U.S. Congress and key international partners. To protect sources and methods, we cannot publicly release all available intelligence – but what follows is an unclassified summary of the U.S. Intelligence Community's analysis of what took place.
Syrian Government Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21
A large body of independent sources indicates that a chemical weapons attack took place in the Damascus suburbs on August 21. In addition to U.S. intelligence information, there are accounts from international and Syrian medical personnel; videos; witness accounts; thousands of social media reports from at least 12 different locations in the Damascus area; journalist accounts; and reports from highly credible nongovernmental organizations.
A preliminary U.S. government assessment determined that 1,429 people were killed in the chemical weapons attack, including at least 426 children, though this assessment will certainly evolve as we obtain more information.
We assess with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack against opposition elements in the Damascus suburbs on August 21. We assess that the scenario in which the opposition executed the attack on August 21 is highly unlikely. The body of information used to make this assessment includes intelligence pertaining to the regime's preparations for this attack and its means of delivery, multiple streams of intelligence about the attack itself and its effect, our post-attack observations, and the differences between the capabilities of the regime and the opposition. Our high confidence assessment is the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation. We will continue to seek additional information to close gaps in our understanding of what took place.
The Syrian regime maintains a stockpile of numerous chemical agents, including mustard, sarin, and VX and has thousands of munitions that can be used to deliver chemical warfare agents.
Syrian President Bashar al-Asad is the ultimate decision maker for the chemical weapons program and members of the program are carefully vetted to ensure security and loyalty. The Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) – which is subordinate to the Syrian Ministry of Defense – manages Syria's chemical weapons program.
We assess with high confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year, including in the Damascus suburbs. This assessment is based on multiple streams of information including reporting of Syrian officials planning and executing chemical weapons attacks and laboratory analysis of physiological samples obtained from a number of individuals, which revealed exposure to sarin. We assess that the opposition has not used chemical weapons.
The Syrian regime has the types of munitions that we assess were used to carry out the attack on August 21, and has the ability to strike simultaneously in multiple locations. We have seen no indication that the opposition has carried out a large-scale, coordinated rocket and artillery attack like the one that occurred on August 21.
We assess that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons over the last year primarily to gain the upper hand or break a stalemate in areas where it has struggled to seize and hold strategically valuable territory. In this regard, we continue to judge that the Syrian regime views chemical weapons as one of many tools in its arsenal, including air power and ballistic missiles, which they indiscriminately use against the opposition.
The Syrian regime has initiated an effort to rid the Damascus suburbs of opposition forces using the area as a base to stage attacks against regime targets in the capital. The regime has failed to clear dozens of Damascus neighborhoods of opposition elements, including neighborhoods targeted on August 21, despite employing nearly all of its conventional weapons systems. We assess that the regime's frustration with its inability to secure large portions of Damascus may have contributed to its decision to use chemical weapons on August 21.
We have intelligence that leads us to assess that Syrian chemical weapons personnel – including personnel assessed to be associated with the SSRC – were preparing chemical munitions prior to the attack. In the three days prior to the attack, we collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack.
Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of ‘Adra from Sunday, August 18 until early in the morning on Wednesday, August 21 near an area that the regime uses to mix chemical weapons, including sarin. On August 21, a Syrian regime element prepared for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area, including through the utilization of gas masks. Our intelligence sources in the Damascus area did not detect any indications in the days prior to the attack that opposition affiliates were planning to use chemical weapons.
Multiple streams of intelligence indicate that the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21. Satellite detections corroborate that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred – including Kafr Batna, Jawbar, ‘Ayn Tarma, Darayya, and Mu'addamiyah. This includes the detection of rocket launches from regime controlled territory early in the morning, approximately 90 minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media. The lack of flight activity or missile launches also leads us to conclude that the regime used rockets in the attack.
Local social media reports of a chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs began at 2:30 a.m. local time on August 21. Within the next four hours there were thousands of social media reports on this attack from at least 12 different locations in the Damascus area. Multiple accounts described chemical-filled rockets impacting opposition-controlled areas.
Three hospitals in the Damascus area received approximately 3,600 patients displaying symptoms consistent with nerve agent exposure in less than three hours on the morning of August 21, according to a highly credible international humanitarian organization. The reported symptoms, and the epidemiological pattern of events – characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers – were consistent with mass exposure to a nerve agent. We also received reports from international and Syrian medical personnel on the ground.
We have identified one hundred videos attributed to the attack, many of which show large numbers of bodies exhibiting physical signs consistent with, but not unique to, nerve agent exposure. The reported symptoms of victims included unconsciousness, foaming from the nose and mouth, constricted pupils, rapid heartbeat, and difficulty breathing. Several of the videos show what appear to be numerous fatalities with no visible injuries, which is consistent with death from chemical weapons, and inconsistent with death from small-arms, high-explosive munitions or blister agents. At least 12 locations are portrayed in the publicly available videos, and a sampling of those videos confirmed that some were shot at the general times and locations described in the footage.
We assess the Syrian opposition does not have the capability to fabricate all of the videos, physical symptoms verified by medical personnel and NGOs, and other information associated with this chemical attack.
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. We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence. On the afternoon of August 21, we have intelligence that Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations. At the same time, the regime intensified the artillery barrage targeting many of the neighborhoods where chemical attacks occurred. In the 24 hour period after the attack, we detected indications of artillery and rocket fire at a rate approximately four times higher than the ten preceding days. We continued to see indications of sustained shelling in the neighborhoods up until the morning of August 26.
To conclude, there is a substantial body of information that implicates the Syrian government's responsibility in the chemical weapons attack that took place on August 21.As indicated, there is additional intelligence that remains classified because of sources and methods concerns that is being provided to Congress and international partners.