(Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama considered options on Saturday for a possible military strike on Syria in response to a nerve gas attack that killed hundreds as Syria sought to avert blame by saying its soldiers had found chemical weapons in rebel tunnels.
A senior U.N. official arrived in Damascus to seek access for inspectors to the site of last Wednesday's attack, in which opposition accounts say between 500 and well over 1,000 civilians were killed by gas fired by pro-government forces.
In the most authoritative account so far, the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said three hospitals near Damascus had reported 355 deaths in the space of three hours out of about 3,600 admissions with nerve gas-type symptoms.
The accounts and video footage of the victims - men, women and children - have heightened Western calls for a robust, U.S.-led response after 2-1/2 years of international inaction on a conflict that has killed 100,000 people.
Doctors Without Borders said there were roughly 3,600 patients with "neurotoxic symptoms" and it has tallied 355 deaths from chemical weapon attacks possibly committed by the Assad regime. There are gruesome video footages posted on YouTube, which match the aid group's description, and David Cameron and Barack Obama are moving closer to military intervention as they agreed that the alleged chemical weapon attacks by the Assad regime merited a "serious response". I expect surgical air strikes by ballistic missiles to hit selected regime targets such as suspected chemical weapons sites in coming weeks, which would send a strong message to the Assad regime.
"If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country, without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented," the president told CNN, "then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it -- 'do we have the coalition to make it work?' Those are considerations that we have to take into account."
US Secretary of State John Kerry has condemned what he termed the "moral obscenity" of the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons against its own people. He said footage of the alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus was "real and compelling" and "undeniable". He said President Barack Obama was considering a response. Four US Navy destroyers are already positioned in the eastern Mediterranean and cruise missiles would be used in the upcoming air strikes against Syrian government infrastructure to send a clear message that the use of chemical weapons against civilians is not acceptable. But the planned military intervention by the US and the UK is unlikely to charge the course of the Syrian civil war and its stated goal is to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons.
If Mr. Obama’s past approach to intervention is any guide, the action is likely to be a middle ground between doing nothing and action so forceful it would topple the Assad regime, according to some US foreign-policy experts.
“Most likely that middle-ground response will be targeted attacks against Syrian military units associated with chemical-weapons capacity and infrastructure. But those could be quite punishing and comprehensive,” writes Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who is now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Obama’s experience with inherited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has taught him that means and ends must match, Mr. Miller writes in Politico. Military action needs to be calibrated to what the US wants to accomplish.
“Given his low expectations on what the United States can do to actually end the civil war in Syria, he’ll be very sober about what can be accomplished through any discrete military action,” according to Miller.