U.S. Said to Weigh Legal Justification for Syria Attack

The Obama administration is constructing the legal and political justification for a limited military strike on Syria that would demonstrate international censure against chemical weapons, according to a U.S. official.

Any action taken by the U.S. would have a narrow scope and not be aimed at taking out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the official said, contrasting it to the allied offensive in Libya that targeted Muammar Qaddafi. A strike would concentrate on Syria’s weapons capabilities.

President Barack Obama and his aides are consulting with U.S. lawmakers and allies such as the U.K. and France about possible military action. French President Francois Hollande said today that Syria’s use of chemical arms must be punished. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has summoned Parliament back from its recess on Aug. 29 to discuss the country’s response.

Any action by Obama to intervene in Syria will run up against U.S. public opinion that offers little support for new military commitments in the region. It also would consume political capital as Obama also seeks to get agreement from U.S. lawmakers on fiscal policy, the nation’s debt limit and a new chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Limited Action

The introduction of troops isn’t being considered, nor is imposition of a no-fly zone over Syria, according to the official, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Another official stressed that no decisions have been made on a U.S. response.

Even a limited military operation carries the risk that it could lead to an escalation of the Syrian conflict if Assad decides he has nothing to lose and expands his use of chemical or biological weapons.

“There is no assurance that a limited strike would not lead to retaliation by the regime and escalation,” Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst and now a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an e-mail.

“Assad could strike directly at U.S. allies and interests in the region, particularly any countries he saw as involved in the attack,” White said, adding that Assad may decide against “suicide by retaliation.”

Intelligence Analysis

Obama, who has spoken by telephone over the last several days with Hollande, Cameron, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, is getting an analysis from intelligence agencies on the Aug. 21 attack outside Damascus that opposition groups say killed more than 1,300. Administration officials said a public version of the report will be released within days.

The U.S. probably will make a formal declaration that Assad used chemical weapons within a week, according to one administration official. That would follow yesterday’s statement by Secretary of State John Kerry, which was intended as a signal to the Syrians.

“The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons, is a moral obscenity,” Kerry said in Washington. “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.”

Kerry didn’t say whether the U.S. would seek a mandate from the UN for potential responses. Russia, an ally of Syria that has a veto on the UN Security Council, has blocked previous UN action against Syria.

In Place

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who is traveling in Asia, told the BBC that the U.S. has “assets in place” and forces are “ready to go.” Cameron’s spokesman, Christian Cubitt, told reporters in London that British armed forces are making contingency plans.

In Syria, Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said today the government won’t surrender.

Syria is “hearing the drums of war all around us,” Muallem said at a televised news conference in Damascus. We have the means to defend ourselves, and we will surprise people with them. We must believe in victory.’’

More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria’s 2 1/2-year civil war, and more than 2 million refugees have poured into neighboring countries, according to UN estimates.

Middle Eastern financial markets slumped on the prospect that international intervention may escalate the conflict. Dubai’s stock index plunged the most since 2009 and four Gulf stock indexes were among the world’s ten worst performers today. Israel’s shekel posted the biggest two-day loss in more than three months.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.