President Barack Obama spoke Saturday with top military, intelligence, diplomatic, political and legal advisers at the White House to plan the U.S. response to the Syrian government’s alleged massacre of civilians with chemical weapons, the White House said.
Obama “received a detailed review of a range of potential options he had requested be prepared for the United States and the international community to respond to the use of chemical weapons,” his press office said.
Senior aides have publicly ruled out sending American troops into Syria or establishing a “no-fly” zone over pockets of the country – but the use of force,potentially missile strikes from ships or airplanes outside Syrian territory -- were very much on the table.
“We have a range of options available, and we are going to act very deliberately so that we're making decisions consistent with our national interest as well as our assessment of what can advance our objectives in Syria,” a White House official told reporters by email before the meeting.
“In coordination with international partners and mindful of the dozens of contemporaneous witness accounts and record of the symptoms of those killed, the U.S. intelligence community continues to gather facts to ascertain what occurred,” the White House said after the meeting.
Rebels fighting to oust Bashar Assad have charged that more than 1,300 people, many of them children, were killed this week by the regime.
Assad's government has denied responsibility, and countered that the rebels themselves were behind it. On Saturday, it also warned the United States against military action, saying that would send a “ball of fire” through the Middle East.
The White House meeting participants, either in person or via secure communications, included Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey.
It also included U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken, Homeland Security and Counterterrorism advisor Lisa Monaco, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Benjamin Rhodes and Biden National Security Advisor Jacob Sullivan.
Why so many lawyers? Obama has emphasized the need to act in a way that does not violate international law.
The president also spoke to British Prime Minister David Cameron.
"The president and prime minister will continue to consult closely regarding this incident, as well as possible responses by the international community to the use of chemical weapons," the White House said. "The United States and UK stand united in our opposition to the use of chemical weapons."
Obama and Hagel have publicly said that America’s response will come soon.
“I think the international community is moving swiftly, first, in getting the facts, what did happen, and getting the intelligence right, and all the other factors that go into a decision that I believe will be made swiftly, should be made swiftly,” Hagel told reporters aboard his plane on the way to Malaysia.
“If, in fact, this was a deliberate use and attack by the Syrian government on its own people using chemical weapons, there may be another attack coming,” Hagel said.
Obama signaled an escalation of the U.S. role in Syria in a CNN interview aired Friday , noting that confirmation of a mass chemical weapons attack would threaten “core national interests” of the United States. At the same time, the president and other senior officials have repeatedly said that they are mindful of the potential downsides of any military action, including getting pulled into a deeper role and stoking anti-U.S. sentiment in the region.
Meanwhile, top military officers from the United States, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Britain and France were set to meet in Jordan in the coming days. A White House official called it a “regularly occurring, long-planned conference.”