WASHINGTON — The evidence of a massacre is undeniable: the bodies of the dead lined up on hospital floors, the living convulsing and writhing in pain and a declaration from a respected international aid group that thousands of Syrians were gassed with chemical weapons last week.
And yet the Obama administration faces steep hurdles as it prepares to make the most important public-intelligence presentation since February 2003, when President Bush’s Secretary of State Colin Powell made a dramatic and detailed case for war to the U.N. Security Council using intelligence — later discredited — about Iraq’s weapons programs.
More than a decade later, the Obama administration says the information it will make public, likely Thursday, will show proof of a large-scale chemical attack perpetrated by Syrian forces, bolstering its case for a retaliatory military strike on Syria.
Yet with the botched intelligence about Iraq casting a long shadow over decisions about waging war in the Middle East, President Obama faces a U.S. public skeptical about being drawn into the Syrian conflict and a growing chorus of lawmakers from both parties angry about the prospect of a U.S. president going to war without congressional consultation or approval.
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U.S. officials said Wednesday there was no “smoking gun” that directly links Syrian President Bashar Assad to the attack on rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital, Damascus, and they tried to lower expectations about the public-intelligence presentation. They said it will not contain specific electronic intercepts of communications between Syrian commanders or detailed reporting from spies and sources on the ground.
In an interview Wednesday with the PBS program “NewsHour,” Obama said he still had not made a decision about military action. But he said a military strike could be a “shot across the bow, saying, ‘stop doing this,’ that can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term.’’
Any U.S. military action, officials say, would not be aimed at toppling the Assad government or vastly altering the course of Syria’s civil war, which has already claimed 100,000 dead.
The rhetoric coming from the administration is unnerving some lawmakers from Obama’s party, who are angry that Obama seems to have no inclination to seek Congress’s approval before launching a strike in Syria.
“I am still waiting to see what specifically the administration and other involved partners have to say about a potential military strike, but I am concerned about how effective such an action could be,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “I am worried that such action could drag the United States into a broader direct involvement in the conflict.”
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, pleaded for more time for diplomacy and to allow U.N. investigators to complete their work. The experts, wearing flak jackets and helmets, collected blood and urine samples from victims during a visit to at least one of the areas hit in last week’s attack.
At the United Nations, the five permanent members of the Security Council failed to reach an agreement on a British-proposed resolution that would authorize the use of military force against Syria.
The draft resolution — were it to be put to a vote — would almost certainly be vetoed by Syria’s ally Russia, as well as China, which have blocked past attempts to sanction the Assad government.
Syria’s ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Ja’afari, said he sent Ban a letter demanding that the inspectors extend their investigation to what he described as three chemical-weapons attacks against Syrian soldiers in the Damascus suburbs. He said the attacks occurred on Aug. 22, 24 and 25, and that dozens of Syrian soldiers are being treated for inhaling nerve gases.
Ja’afari also blamed the rebels for any chemical-weapons attack, saying “the Syrian government is innocent of these allegations.”
The Obama administration dismissed any extension of chemical-weapons inspections as a delaying tactic and said it saw little point in further discussion of the issue at the United Nations.
Fears of a possible U.S. strike on Syria rippled across the Middle East, as about 6,000 Syrians fled to neighboring Lebanon through the main Masnaa crossing within 24 hours. The normal daily influx is 500 to 1,000 refugees.
Effects were also evident in Israel, where large crowds lined up at gas-mask distribution centers. Maya Avishai of the Israeli postal service, which oversees gas-mask distribution, said demand has tripled in recent days. About 5 million Israelis, roughly 60 percent of the population, now have gas masks, she said.
The Israeli government also ordered a “limited” call-up of reserve units to bolster civil-defense preparations and to operate air-defense units near the border.
Despite the Obama administration’s insistence that the graphic images of the attack go far in making a case for military action in Syria, some experts said the administration had its own burden of proof.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that whatever evidence the administration put forward would be the U.S. intelligence community’s “most important single document in a decade.”
As Obama considers direct military action in Syria, something it has resisted for two years, House Speaker John Boehner wrote a letter Wednesday to Obama asking the president to provide a “clear, unambiguous explanation of how military action — which is a means, not a policy — will secure U.S. objectives and how it fits into your overall policy.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been scathing in his criticism of Obama for the opposite reason: that the president in his view has not done enough. McCain has said that doubts about military action expressed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, emboldened the Syrian government to use chemical weapons and that Obama, having allowed Assad to cross his “red line” on the use of these weapons on previous occasions, had little standing now.
“Now this is the same president that two years ago said that Bashar Assad must leave office, and so where is America’s credibility?” McCain said on Fox News. “Where is our ability to influence events in the region? And I promise you that those who say we should stay out of Syria do not understand that this is now a regional conflict.”
Americans overall have been skeptical about the U.S. getting involved in Syria’s civil war, although surveys show they are more open to a limited strike on Syrian targets using cruise missiles or drones.
There has not been a major poll released since last week’s chemical attacks, but a poll published by Quinnipiac University last month found that 61 percent of people said it was not in the national interest to intervene in Syria, while 27 percent said it was. By a similar split — 27 percent against, 59 percent in favor — they opposed providing weapons to rebel forces. But 49 percent of people said they would support missile strikes that did not put U.S. lives in danger, while 38 percent said they were opposed.
Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.