WASHINGTON - As the U.S. moved closer to launching missile strikes on Syria without the support of Britain, one of its staunchest allies, the Obama administration prepared to make its case Friday that the Syrian regime unleashed chemical weapons on civilians.
The administration is expected to release an unclassified intelligence report Friday on the apparent chemical weapons attack that killed several hundred civilians and injured many more on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21.
The report comes a day after a British intelligence assessment that blamed the alleged attack on the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. But it failed to quell opposition in Parliament to military intervention, which subsequently voted to not become involved.
As a result, pressure is on the Obama administration to persuade the public of the reasons for an attack on Syrian targets. President Barack Obama himself has downplayed the size and scope of any such military operation, calling it a “shot across the bow.”
A new NBC poll today showed that half of the public doesn’t believe the U.S should attack Syria, while eight out of 10 people think that the president should not proceed without Congress’ approval.
Obama and other officials briefed key lawmakers Thursday on elements of the forthcoming report, which is said to lay blame for the alleged poison gas attack on the Assad government. Secretary of State John Kerry will talk about the situation in Syria today, just hours after United Nations weapons inspectors left the country, crossing into neighboring Lebanon a day earlier than planned.
The intelligence in the administration’s report is said to include intercepted conversations between an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense and the leader of a chemical weapons unit, according to Foreign Policy Magazine.
But assuming the administration decides to declassify any such conversations, they could raise more questions than they answer, especially given British Prime Minister David Cameron’s remark to Parliament on Thursday that “There is no 100 percent certainty about who is responsible.” Cameron said Assad was “more than likely” responsible, but members of Parliament would have to make a “judgment call” before deciding whether to authorize military action against the Syrian regime.
Britain’s own declassified intelligence report did not mention any intercepted communications. It speculates that permission to authorize the use of chemical weapons probably had been delegated by Assad to senior regime commanders, and points out that “any deliberate change in the scale and nature of use would require his authorisation.”
The report added that there isn’t any credible evidence that rebels had used chemical weapons.
“A number continue to seek a (chemical weapons) capability, but none currently has the capability to conduct a (chemical weapons) attack on this scale,” the report said.
Kerry said in a speech earlier this week that the evidence is “undeniable” that a chemical attack occurred and there is little doubt that Assad was responsible.