UN team leaves Syria after Kerry sets stage for U.S. action

Palestinians hold signs and Syrian flags during a protest against a possible military attack by the United States on Syria in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Saturday. The Arabic on the banner, center, reads, "What a shame. Arab League equals dollars."

A United Nations team left Syria, removing an obstacle to a U.S. military strike to punish President Bashar al-Assad's government for using chemical weapons against civilians.

The UN weapons inspectors set off for The Hague today after probing the Aug. 21 attack outside Damascus, Martin Nesirky, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said in an e- mail. Assad denies using chemical arms.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry indicated yesterday they wouldn't wait for congressional approval, international backing or a definitive report from the UN inspectors to respond to the attack, in which Kerry said 1,429 people, including at least 426 children, were killed. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad's main ally, urged Obama to “think carefully” before ordering any strikes.

History “would judge us all extraordinarily harshly” if the U.S. doesn't respond to the use of chemical weapons, Kerry said in a televised address.

An attack could come this weekend, said administration officials who are taking part in planning and asked not to be identified discussing non-public information.

“Rushing in such cases can lead to results completely contrary to expectations,” Putin told reporters today in Vladivostok, eastern Russia. He demanded that the U.S. submit evidence the Syrian government forces carried out the attack to the UN Security Council, on which it has a veto.

French Support

With the British Parliament rejecting military action this week, Russia preventing any UN resolution supporting an attack, Congress out of session and polls showing public opinion against the use of force, Obama is poised for one of the boldest moves of his presidency. Of major U.S. allies in Europe, only France has signaled willingness to join in.

The president and the secretary of state made a moral case for a punitive strike to deter the use of what Kerry called the “world's most heinous weapons.”

Kerry cited Internet posts showing victims of a chemical attack, many struggling to breathe. “We saw rows of dead lined up in burial shrouds, the white linen unstained by a single drop of blood,” he said.

Market Impact

The threat of a military strike has weighed on markets. U.S. stocks fell yesterday, with the Standard & Poor's 500 Index capping its worst monthly drop since May 2012. Even so, West Texas Intermediate crude oil fell for a second day after the U.K. Parliament voted not to participate.

Obama and Kerry said that while the president hasn't made a final decision, the U.S. is considering only action that doesn't involve ground troops and avoids embroiling American forces in Syria's civil war, in which the UN estimates more than 100,000 people have died.

Attacking Syria, even with satellite targeting and accurate Tomahawk cruise missiles, risks harming civilians and provoking Assad to unleash more chemical arms on his people. An attack muscular enough to help unseat Assad's government might bolster rebels affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Prime Minister Wael al-Halaqi said this week Syria would be a “graveyard for invaders,” according to the state news agency, SANA, while Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said the military would “surprise” the world with its might.

Assad's arsenal includes Scud and Iranian-made Fateh missiles, according to Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Weakened Army

Even so, sapped by more than two years of civil war, battered by defections and deprived of spare parts, Assad's forces would struggle to mount a serious response.

Syria's military forces fell to about half their notional strength of 220,000 by autumn 2012 as a “result of a combination of defections, desertions and casualties,” according to a report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Russia may call for an emergency meeting of all 15 members of the Security Council over the weekend to urge delaying any decision on a strike until after the UN probe is completed, according to a western diplomat who asked not to be identified citing the sensitivity of the situation.

The inspection team is determining whether a chemical attack occurred, though not who ordered it and carried it out. Once back in The Hague, the inspectors will deliver samples to laboratories in Europe, Nesirky told reporters yesterday in New York. The report may take weeks to prepare because of the lab work required, said a UN official who wasn't authorized to comment and asked not to be identified.

Mustard Gas

A four-page intelligence assessment released by the Obama administration yesterday didn't tie the attack directly to orders from Assad, though it said he's Syria's ultimate decision maker. Administration officials have previously said the Syrian president bears responsibility for his military's actions.

The report concluded with “high confidence” that the Assad government carried out last week's attack. Syria has a stockpile of chemical agents -- including mustard, sarin and VX -- and “thousands” of munitions to deliver them, it said.

The assessment attributed its findings to communications intercepts, satellite data and accounts from medical personnel, journalists and witnesses, videos and thousands of social-media reports, as well as “highly credible non-governmental organizations.”

Warships Waiting

The U.S. has warships on standby in the region that could launch Tomahawk cruise missiles. An amphibious ship, the USS San Antonio, arrived in the eastern Mediterranean yesterday, joining five destroyers. The San Antonio, which typically carries about 300 Marines, could evacuate U.S. personnel from embassies in the Middle East.

Obama faces domestic hurdles in waging a strike on Syria. More than 100 of the 435 lawmakers in the House of Representatives, including 18 of his fellow Democrats, signed a letter this week saying Syria doesn't pose a direct threat to the U.S. and calling on him to seek congressional approval before any military action. The White House will hold a briefing later today for Republican senators.

Almost 80 percent of Americans say Obama should seek congressional approval before taking any military action, according to a poll conducted Aug. 28-29 for NBC News. Only 42 percent said they would support a U.S. military response, rising to 50 percent when the action specified is limited cruise- missile strikes targeted on Syrian infrastructure used to carry out chemical-weapons attacks. The poll of 700 adults has an error margin of 3.7 percentage points.

French Opinion

In France, a poll by BVA for Le Parisien newspaper showed 64 percent of respondents opposed to military action, with 34 percent in favor. BVA interviewed 1,010 people on the same dates for the poll, which has a margin of error of 2.5 points.

Obama is scheduled to leave the U.S. on Sept. 3 for a trip to Sweden followed by attendance at the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, hosted by Putin. Also in St. Petersburg will be French President Francois Hollande, who said in an interview with the newspaper Le Monde published yesterday that France is ready “to mete out a sanction using appropriate means” against Syria.

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