WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama was given a detailed review of options Saturday for a potential U.S. response to last week’s reported chemical weapons attack in Syria, amid a buildup of U.S. military assets in the region.
No decisions were announced, and “the U.S. intelligence community continues to gather facts to ascertain what occurred,” according to a terse White House statement issued after a National Security Council meeting that included Vice President Joe Biden and top defense, intelligence and diplomatic officials.
But ongoing assessments, it said, were “mindful of the dozens of contemporaneous witness accounts and records of the symptoms of those killed.” The administration has made clear its certainty that the Syrian government was responsible for Wednesday’s attack, which opposition activists have said killed hundreds, if not thousands, of people in a rebel stronghold east of Damascus.
Among the options at Obama’s disposal are cruise missiles launched from U.S. warships. A defense official said that a destroyer that had been scheduled to leave the Mediterranean was retained there to keep more resources in the area, bringing the total to four.
Other options range from sending sophisticated weapons to Syrian rebels to using U.S. air power to establish a no-fly zone over rebel-held areas. Cruise missiles, if they were deployed, would most likely be fired at Syrian military installations as a warning to the Syrian government of U.S. seriousness regarding chemical weapons use, rather than an attempt to immediately alter the balance in the ongoing civil war.
In a Lebanese television interview Saturday, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi warned that any U.S. attack would result in a “ball of fire that would burn not only Syria but the whole Middle East.”
President Bashar Assad’s government has denied using chemical weapons. Zoubi echoed suggestions by Russia, Assad’s main international backer, that rebels were responsible for the attack in the contested Ghouta area. “The rockets were fired from their positions and fell on civilians,” he said.
The Syrian news agency SANA said that Syrian soldiers in eastern Damascus were being treated for symptoms of “suffocation.”
Meanwhile, Angela Kane, head of disarmament issues for the United Nations, arrived in Damascus. She was dispatched by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to press the government to allow international weapons inspectors already in the Syrian capital to investigate the attack.
Obama said last year that any use of chemical weapons by Assad, whose arsenal includes sarin nerve gas, would be a “red line” that would require a U.S. response. Some U.S. lawmakers criticized his caution in intervening to stop a two-year-old conflict which his own administration has said has cost the lives of more than 100,000 Syrians, largely at the hands of government forces.
In a CNN interview Friday, Obama cited the need to “think through strategically what’s going to be in our long-term national interests” and to consult with allies. He said that he also had to consider international law.
As the administration continues to assemble evidence about the chemical attack, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights raised its estimated death toll from 136 to 322.
The international medical aid group Doctors Without Borders said that three hospitals it supports in Damascus reported seeing about 3,600 patients displaying “neurotoxicity symptoms” in less than three hours on the morning of the attack. Of those patients, it said, “355 reportedly died.”