Obama mulls options as Kerry lays out case of Syria chemical attack

Updated at 3:50 p.m. ET

Shortly after the release of a newly-declassified U.S. intelligence report on the use of chemical weapons outside of Damascus, Syria on Aug. 21, President Obama on Friday said, "this kind of attack is a challenge to the world."

Earlier Friday afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry laid out the details of the report. The findings suggesting that Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime was responsible for the attack, Kerry said, "are as clear as they are compelling."

Mr. Obama, addressing reporters at the White House before a meeting with Baltic leaders, repeated that he has yet to make a decision as to how to respond. However, he asserted, "I meant what I said: the world has an obligation to maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons."

The president pledged that if the U.S. takes military action, it would be a "limited, narrow act" that would not involve boots on the ground or a long-term campaign.

Kerry assured the American public on Friday that the Obama administration is taking "unprecedented steps" to declassify information and let people "judge for themselves" the evidence.

"Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack," Kerry said from the State Department. "It has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment."

Mr. Obama similarly acknowledged the skepticism inspired by the misinformation that led to the Iraq war, adding, "nobody ends up being more war weary than me."

"I recognize that all of us here in the United States, in Great Britain, in many parts of the world, there's a certain weariness given Afghanistan, there's a certain suspicion of any military action post-Iraq, and I very much appreciate that," he said, adding that his preference "obviously" would have been for forceful action from the international community to have already occurred. "On the other hand, it's important for us to recognize when over 1,000 people are killed... through the use of a weapon that 98 or 99 percent of humanity says should not be used even in war, and there is no action, then we're sending a signal that that norm doesn't mean much."

Kerry said the findings suggesting that Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime was responsible for the attack "are as clear as they are compelling."

"I'm not asking you to take my word for it, read for yourself - everyone, those listening, all of you -- the evidence from thousands of sources, evidence that is already publicly available.... reached by our intelligence community about the chemical weapons attack."

The declassified report says that the Aug. 21 attack killed 1,429 people, including at least 426 children.

"Even the first responders, the doctors, nurses and medics who tried to save them, they became victims themselves," Kerry said. "This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons."

Kerry laid out the evidence, noting, "In all of these things that we know -- all of them -- the American intelligence community has high confidence, high confidence. This is common sense. This is evidence. These are facts."

"We know that the Assad regime has the largest chemical weapons program in the entire Middle East," Kerry said. "We know the regime has used those weapons multiple times this year and has used them on a smaller scale but still has used them on its own people."

He continued, "We know that the regime was specifically determined to rid the Damascus suburbs of the opposition and it was frustrated in doing so."

Three days before the attack, he said, the Assad regime's personnel were making preparations for chemical weapons use and were told to take specific precautions like putting on gas masks.

"We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time, we know where they landed and when," Kerry said. "We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition controlled or contested neighborhoods."

The U.S. has also noted what how the Assad regime responded after the attack. The report says the U.S. intercepted communications from a senior Assad regime official who confirmed chemical weapons were used by the regime on Aug. 21 and was concerned United Nations investigators would find evidence.

"We know this," Kerry said.

The secretary of state also noted that he personally called the foreign minister of Syria to urge the regime to facilitate the U.N. investigation but that instead the regime shelled the neighborhood, delaying the investigation.

"So the primary question is really no longer, what do we know," Kerry said. "The question is, what are we -- we collectively -- what are we in the world gonna do about it."

Kerry forcefully laid out the moral argument for action and foreshadowed thelegal basis the Obama administration could use for a military attack, citing international norms and arguing why responding is in the interest of the United States.

The use of chemical weapons has been a "clear red line for the international community" for nearly 100 years, since World War I, Kerry said, noting that more than 180 countries have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention. The attack he said, matters to the security of the United States' allies and to the credibility of the United States.

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