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U.S. to share evidence on Syria

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration believes that U.S. intelligence has established how Syrian government forces stored, assembled and launched the chemical weapons allegedly used in last week's attack outside Damascus, the Washington Post reported, citing U.S. officials.

The administration is planning to release evidence, possibly as soon as Thursday, that it will say proves that Syrian President Bashar Assad bears responsibility for what U.S. officials have called an "undeniable" chemical attack that killed hundreds on the outskirts of the Syrian capital.

The report, being compiled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is one of the final steps that the administration is taking before President Barack Obama makes a decision on a U.S. military strike against Syria, which now appears all but inevitable.

"We are prepared," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC on Tuesday. "We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take. We are ready to go."

Assets include four cruise-missile-armed destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean.

The timing of such a military response is being dictated by the need not only to assemble incontrovertible evidence against Assad — an important prerequisite for the administration, and the country, given the recent memories of a war based on false claims of weapons of mass destruction — but also to allow consultation with Congress and international partners.

Britain, France and Turkey have indicated willingness to contribute to military action. The administration is weighing the importance of direct international participation in an effort that U.S. forces are prepared to undertake themselves.

The safety of United Nations experts who are in Syria investigating the chemical weapons allegations is also an issue, the Post reported, citing a senior administration official who spoke about internal deliberations on the condition of anonymity.

The U.N. experts, who on Monday conducted the first of what was to be four days of on-site inspections, postponed their Tuesday visit because of security concerns. Reports of the Aug. 21 attack outside Damascus derailed their plans to visit three other sites in western Syria where chemical strikes allegedly occurred earlier, and the permission granted by the government for a two-week stay expires Sunday.

One question that is unlikely to be addressed in the intelligence report is why Assad would launch such a massive chemical strike in the face of a near-certain international response. It is a question that Russia, Assad's principal international backer, has raised repeatedly in suggesting that Syrian rebels arranged the attack to implicate the government.

In a telephone call Tuesday with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his government "did not have evidence of whether a chemical weapons attack had taken place, or who was responsible," a statement on Cameron's official website said.

The Obama administration has rejected the possibility of rebel culpability, asserting that only the government has possession of the weapons and the rockets to deliver them. But others have speculated that the lack of an international response to the earlier, much smaller alleged chemical attacks may have emboldened Assad; that government forces last week may have mistakenly mixed the chemicals to a higher concentration than intended; or that areas with a high density of civilians may have been mistakenly targeted.

As it continued to consult with other countries, the administration earned key support from the Arab League. In an emergency meeting in Cairo, the influential organization blamed Assad for last week's alleged attack and called for the perpetrators to be brought to international justice.

The 21 league members — Syria has been suspended — stopped well short of endorsing outside military action, but they urged the U.N. Security Council to agree on "deterrent" measures.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said Tuesday that charges of chemical weapons use by the government are "categorically baseless," according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, and that Syria was committed to facilitating the U.N. inspection.

"We all hear the drums of war around us," Moualem said. "If they want to attack Syria, I think that using the lie of chemical weapons is fake and not accurate, and I challenge them to show evidence."

He said the idea of a Western military strike to change the balance of power in Syria, which has been embroiled in a vicious conflict for more than two years, is "delusional and not at all possible."

To avenge what they called the "massacre" in the Damascus suburbs, al-Qaida-linked Islamist extremists among the rebels said Tuesday that they would strike Assad's security branches and infrastructure, according to a statement signed by several rebel factions.

The White House began contacting leading lawmakers for briefings that congressional officials said were to inform rather than seek permission. With Congress out of session, reaction to the crisis has been relatively muted, though a small group of House members planned to deliver a letter to Obama saying that Congress could reconvene to consider a strike beforehand.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., says he supports U.S. military action against Syria.

"There should be moral outrage over the use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians in Syria," Nelson said in a statement Tuesday morning. "At this point I believe it appropriate to take military action with NATO and our regional allies. Inaction would only lead to greater suffering and instability in the region and would further embolden Assad."

Times Washington bureau chief Alex Leary contributed to this report.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is considering military action against Syria that is intended to "deter and degrade" President Bashar Assad's government's ability to launch chemical weapons, but is not aimed at ousting Assad from power or forcing him to the negotiating table, administration officials said Tuesday.

A wide range of officials characterized the action under consideration as "limited," perhaps lasting no more than one or two days. The attacks, which are expected to involve Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from U.S. destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, would not be focused on chemical weapons storage sites, which would risk an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe and could open up the sites to raids by militants, officials said.

The initial target lists included fewer than 50 sites, including air bases where Syria's Russian-made attack helicopters are deployed, the New York Times reported, citing an unnamed U.S. official. The list includes command and control centers as well as a variety of conventional military targets.

Perhaps two to three missiles would be aimed at each site, a far more limited unleashing of U.S. military power than past air campaigns over Kosovo or Libya.

Some of the targets would be "dual use" systems, like artillery that is capable of firing chemical weapons as well as conventional rounds. Taking out those artillery batteries would degrade to some extent the government's conventional force — but would hardly cripple Assad's sizable military infrastructure and forces unless the air campaign went on for days or even weeks.

The goal of the operation is "not about regime change," a State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said Tuesday. Seeking to reassure the public that the United States would not be drawn into a civil war in the Middle East, and perhaps to lower expectations of what the attack might accomplish, Obama administration officials acknowledged that their action would not accomplish Obama's repeated demand that Assad step down.

Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who previously worked on Middle East issues for the State and Defense departments, has urged that the Obama administration consider a broader military mission: destroying or significantly degrading the ability of the Assad government to carry out intensive artillery, aircraft and rocket attacks with conventional as well as chemical warheads on the civilian population.

"Something that is significantly less than that, something that is seen as symbolic, I think would just enable Bashar al-Assad to say, 'I have stood up to the world's only superpower and faced it down,'" he said.

Some officials have also cautioned that Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants might step up terrorism around the region in reaction to U.S. strikes on Syria. Another risk is that Assad might respond to the attack by firing missiles at Turkey or Jordan or mounting even more intensive attacks against civilians.

U.S. to share evidence on Syria 08/28/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 28, 2013 1:27am]

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