WASHINGTON — Edging toward a punitive strike against Syria, President Barack Obama said Friday he is weighing "limited and narrow" action as the administration bluntly accused Bashar Assad's government of launching a chemical weapons attack that killed at least 1,429 people — far more than previous estimates — including more than 400 children.
No "boots on the ground," Obama said, seeking to reassure Americans weary after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With France as his only major public ally, Obama told reporters he has a strong preference for multilateral action. He added, "Frankly, part of the challenge we end up with here is a lot of people think something should be done but nobody wants to do it."
Halfway around the world, U.S. warships were in place in the Mediterranean Sea. They carried cruise missiles, long a first-line weapon of choice for presidents because they can find a target hundreds of miles distant without need of air cover or troops on the ground.
In what appeared increasingly like the pre-attack endgame, U.N. personnel dispatched to Syria carried out a fourth and final day of inspection as they sought to determine precisely what happened in last week's attack. The international contingent arranged to depart on Saturday and head to laboratories in Europe with the samples they have collected.
Video said to be taken at the scene shows victims writhing in pain, twitching and exhibiting other symptoms associated with exposure to nerve agents. The videos distributed by activists to support their claims of a chemical attack were consistent with Associated Press reporting of shelling in the suburbs of Damascus at the time, though it was not known if the victims had died from a poisonous gas attack.
The Syrian government said administration claims were "flagrant lies" akin to faulty Bush administration assertions before the Iraq invasion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. A Foreign Ministry statement read on state TV said that "under the pretext of protecting the Syrian people, they are making a case for an aggression that will kill hundreds of innocent Syrian civilians."
Residents of Damascus stocked up on food and other necessities in anticipation of strikes, with no evident sign of panic. One man, 42-year-old Talal Dowayih, said: "I am not afraid from the Western threats to Syria; they created the chemical issue as a pretext for intervention, and they are trying to hit Syria for the sake of Israel."
Obama met with his national security aides at the White House and then with diplomats from Baltic countries, saying he has not yet made a final decision on a response to the attack.
But the administration did nothing to discourage the predictions that he would act — and soon. It was an impression heightened both by strongly worded remarks from Secretary of State John Kerry and the release of an unclassified intelligence assessment that cited "high confidence" that the Syrian government carried out the attack.
In addition to the dead, the assessment reported that about 3,600 patients "displaying symptoms consistent with nerve agent exposure" were seen at Damascus-area hospitals after the attack. To that, Kerry added that "a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact and actually was afraid they would be discovered." He added for emphasis: "We know this."
The assessment did not explain its unexpectedly large casualty count, far in excess of an estimate from Doctors Without Borders. Not surprisingly — given the nature of the disclosure — it also did not say expressly how the United States knew what one Syrian official had allegedly said to another.
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