President Barack Obama said he has hasn't yet decided to order a military strike on Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack on civilians, but that any campaign would be limited in scope.
"I have not made a final decision," he said Friday in remarks at the White House where the president outlined why the world has a responsibility to respond to the use of chemical weapons and why it is important to U.S. national security.
Any military action won't involve "boots on the ground," he said. "But we are looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow" strike to send a message to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and others that the international community will enforce chemical weapons bans, he said.
"We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on an incredible scale," Obama said.
His remarks came shortly after Secretary of State John Kerry made a similar case for an American-led military intervention in Syria, saying the White House has "high confidence" that government forces killed more than 1,400 people, including hundreds of children, in a recent chemical weapons attack.
The world is watching to see if the U.S. will let the regime "get away with it," Kerry said. Allowing dictators to use weapons of mass destruction would set a dangerous precedent and embolden other adversaries such as Iran, North Korea and the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, Kerry said.
"If we choose to live in the world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will," Kerry said in remarks Friday at the State Department's headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Obama said he's reviewing options for launching a strike against Syria. The U.S. military has positioned warships, including five guided-missile destroyers, in the Mediterranean Sea within striking distance of the country.
The British Parliament Thursday voted against a military intervention in Syria. The decision was a blow to the White House, which has been trying to build international support for the mission from key allies. While Kerry said other countries such as France and Turkey "stand ready to respond," he also made it clear that the U.S. was willing to act alone, if necessary.
"President Obama will ensure that the United States of America makes our own decisions on our own timelines, based on our values and our interests," Kerry said.
The administration released an unclassified assessment of the regime's Aug. 21 nerve agent attack that killed at least 1,429 people, including at least 426 children, in the suburbs of Damascus. It is likely the deadliest since Saddam Hussein's forces killed thousands of Kurds with Sarin gas in 1988 in Iraq.
"We assess with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack against opposition elements," the document states. The regime maintains a stockpile of numerous chemical agents, including mustard, sarin, and VX, it states.
United Nations inspectors were sent to Syria to investigate the attack, but the inspectors won't make a determination on who used the chemical weapons in Syria, Kerry said. In addition, the international body can't authorize the use of military force in the country because of Russia's obstructionism, he said.
Obama said he was concerned by the "incapacity for the [U.N.] Security Council to move forward in the face of a clear violation of international law."
More than 100,000 people have died in the two-year-old uprising against forces loyal to Assad, according to a June estimate from the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the death toll through a network of activists in the country.
Since 2001, more than 6,700 U.S. troops have died during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to iCasualties.org, a website that tracks war fatalities. Obama said he can appreciate the many Americans who have said they are tired of war.
"There is a certain weariness, given Afghanistan," he said. "There is a certain suspicion of any military action post-Iraq. And I very much appreciate that."
Kerry said that weariness is not an excuse to allow these chemical attacks to continue.
"But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility," he said. "Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about. And history would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency."
A fifth U.S. destroyer has arrived in the eastern Mediterranean to boost U.S. firepower should President Obama order strikes. The Stout is underway in the Mediterranean, where the guided-missile destroyer is joining the destroyers Ramage, Mahan, Barry and Gravely off the coast of Syria as part of the U.S. Sixth Fleet.
Details on how an air campaign would unfold aren't clear, though it would probably involve launching a series of Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles, or TLAMs, from the ships against Syria's command and control facilities, air defenses and aircraft.
The GPS-guided cruise missiles cost about $1.5 million apiece, can be launched from a safe distance — at least several hundred miles, and are ideal for hitting so-called "light" targets in fixed locations above ground, including planes, runways, fuel depots, weapon storage areas and Russian-made SA-2 and SA-5 anti-aircraft batteries.
The mission may also involve dropping GPS– and laser-guided bombs from such aircraft as F-15 and F-22 fighter jets and B-2 and B-52 bombers, though the U.S. probably won't initially target chemical weapons or stockpiles or other so-called "hard" targets because they're more difficult to track, pose a threat to civilians and may be buried deep underground.
Kerry said the campaign will "bear no resemblance" to the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or even the 2011 allied attack on Libya that toppled former strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
"It will not involve any boots on the ground," he said. "It will not be open ended."
The administration realizes that military action won't end the civil war in Syria and supports a diplomatic process to negotiate a resolution, Kerry said.
"It has to be political," he said. "It has to happen at the negotiating table. And we are deeply committed to getting there."