(CNN) — Declaring himself “war-weary” but determined to hold Syria accountable for using banned chemical weapons, President Barack Obama said Friday he was considering a limited response to what U.S. intelligence assessed with “high confidence” as a Syrian attack that killed more than 1,400 people.
Obama told reporters he had yet to make a final decision, but hinted at a military strike that sources and experts say would entail cruise missiles fired from U.S. naval ships at Syrian command targets — but not any chemical weapons stockpiles.
“It is not in the national security interests of the United States to ignore clear violations” of what he called an “international norm” banning the use of chemical weapons, Obama said at a meeting with visiting heads of Baltic nations Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
He called the Syrian attack a “challenge to the world” that threatens U.S. allies Israel, Turkey and Jordan while increasing the risk of such weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.
Earlier, Secretary of State John Kerry released details of a declassified U.S. intelligence report in an effort to muster support at home and abroad for a military response against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
However, NATO allies want the United Nations to authorize any military response, something that both Kerry and Obama said was unlikely because of opposition by permanent Security Council member Russia, a Syrian ally.
“My preference would have been that the international community already would have acted,” Obama said, citing what he called “the inability of the Security Council to move in the face of a clear violation of international norms.”
He expressed frustration with the lack of international support, saying that “a lot of people think something should be done, but nobody seems willing to do it.”
“It’s important for us to recognize that when over 1,000 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 that that international norm doesn’t mean much,” Obama said. “And that is a danger to our national security.”
The remarks by Obama and Kerry, and the release of the intelligence report, came as Obama’s administration faced rising resistance to a military strike against the Syrian government both at home and abroad.
Britain’s Parliament voted against joining a coalition sought by Obama to respond militarily, denying the president a key NATO ally that has steadfastly supported previous campaigns.
In Washington, questions about the veracity of the U.S. intelligence and whether Washington is headed for another long war based on false information — like happened in Iraq — have emerged from both parties in Congress.
“I assure you nobody ends up being more war-weary than me,” Obama said, adding that he was not considering any option that would entail “boots on the ground” or a long-term campaign.
Instead, Obama said, he and his top military and security aides were looking at a “limited, narrow act” to ensure that Syria and others know the United States and its allies won’t tolerate future similar future violations.
Kerry: “We will not repeat” Iraq
Earlier, Kerry insisted that the situation differs from Iraq, saying the intelligence community “reviewed and re-reviewed” its information “more than mindful of the Iraq experience.” And he added: “We will not repeat that moment.”
He cited particular evidence that shows al-Assad’s regime was responsible.
“We know that for three days before the attack, the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area, making preparations,” Kerry said. “And we know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons.”
In addition, “we know where the rockets were launched from, and at what time,” he said. “We know where they landed, and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.”
Quoting from the U.S. assessment, Kerry said the attack killed 1,429 people, including more than 400 children.
“We assess with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack against opposition elements in the Damascus suburbs,” he said.
Al-Assad’s government has claimed that jihadists fighting on the opposition’s side carried out the chemical weapons attacks on August 21 to turn global sentiments against it. Senior administration officials told reporters Friday there is no evidence to support that claim.
Citing support from the Arab League, Turkey and France, Kerry said, “We are not alone in our will to do something” in response to the attack. He brushed off the British Parliament vote against joining a military invention, saying that the United States “makes our own decisions on our own timelines, based on our values and our interests” in deciding the proper course of action.
Meanwhile, the U.N. mission investigating the suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria has completed its collection of samples, said Martin Nesirky, spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general.
Nesirky told reporters that inspectors visited a government military hospital in Damascus and the last of them will leave Syria on Saturday.
Even as the inspection was winding down, opposition activists said Friday there is evidence of another deadly assault in Syria involving an incendiary agent. Seven people died and dozens were injured Monday in the attack on a school in northern Syria.
As the U.N. inspectors began leaving Syria on Friday, Obama met with his national security team amid continuing U.S. signals of a possible military attack.
A U.N. Security Council meeting on Syria ended in deadlock Thursday, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met Friday with the panel’s five permanent members to try to find consensus. So far, opposition by Russia to any military response has scuttled U.N. action, and Kerry expressed little hope for a breakthrough.
“Because of the guaranteed Russian obstructionism of any action through the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. cannot galvanize the world to act as it should,” he said.
While the British vote was a blow to Obama’s hopes of getting strong support from key NATO allies and some Arab League states, regional NATO ally Turkey on Friday backed the U.S. contention that al-Assad’s regime was responsible for the chemical attack.
“The information at hand indicates that the opposition does not have these types of sophisticated weapons,” said Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. “From our perspective, there is no doubt that the regime is responsible.”