WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama weighs options for responding to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, his national security aides are studying the NATO air war in Kosovo as a possible blueprint for acting without a mandate from the United Nations.
With Russia still likely to veto any military action in the Security Council, the president appears to be wrestling with whether to bypass the United Nations, although he warned that doing so would require a robust international coalition and legal justification.
"If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work?" Obama said Friday to CNN.
Obama described the attack as "clearly a big event of grave concern" and acknowledged that the United States had limited time to respond. But he said U.N. investigators needed to determine whether chemical weapons had been used.
Kosovo is an obvious precedent for Obama because, as in Syria, civilians were killed and Russia had longstanding ties to the government authorities accused of the abuses. In 1999, President Bill Clinton used the endorsement of NATO and the rationale of protecting a vulnerable population to justify 78 days of air strikes.
The Kosovo precedent was one of many subjects discussed in continuing White House meetings on the crisis in Syria, the New York Times reported, citing an unnamed senior administration official. Officials are also debating whether a military strike would have unintended consequences, destabilize neighbors like Lebanon, or lead to even greater flows of refugees into Jordan, Turkey and Egypt.
In the Mediterranean, the commander of a U.S. destroyer postponed a scheduled port call in Naples, Italy, so that the ship would remain with a second destroyer in striking distance of Syria. Pentagon officials said the decision did not reflect any specific orders from Washington, but both destroyers had on board Tomahawk cruise missiles, long-range weapons that probably would be among the first launched against targets in Syria should the president decide on military action.
On Friday CBS News, citing administration officials, reported that U.S. intelligence agencies detected activity at locations known to be chemical weapons sites before Wednesday's attack. The activity, these officials believe, may have been preparations for the assault.
Other Western officials have been less cautious than Obama. "I know that some people in the world would like to say that this is some kind of conspiracy brought about by the opposition in Syria," said William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, in an interview with Sky News. "I think the chances of that are vanishingly small, and so we do believe that this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime."
Hague did not speak of using force, as France has, if the government was found to have been behind the attack. But he said it was "not something that a humane or civilized world can ignore."