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White House Debates Best Way to Punish, Prevent Syrian Chemical Arms Use

August 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
If the U.S. doesn't wait for the U.N. to finish inspecting the alleged chemical weapons attack site in Syria before taking action, it may still rely on those findings in building an international case. Margaret Warner joins Judy Woodruff to discuss how the White House continues to consult allies and consider military action.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner has been covering today’s developments on this story and she joins me now.

And, Margaret, before we begin, we should tell our audience that the NewsHour will have an exclusive interview with President Obama on tomorrow’s program.

So, what are you hearing behind the scenes, that the president will wait to make a decision until these U.N. inspectors finish their work?

MARGARET WARNER: No, Judy, he will not. That is what I am told, that, as one U.S. official, one White House official said, they are not going to be held hostage to the timetable of the U.N. inspectors, especially if it appears the Assad regime is trying to delay them.

That said — and it’s unclear when those inspectors will be done, though I’m told by the U.N. that they’re going to — once they have concluded their report about what happened last week, they are going to issue that, before they go on to other sites they were to look at.

However, what the U.N. inspectors find is important to the administration in terms of building an international case, because they are looking not only at whether C.W. was used, but what type, how widespread and potentially the delivery vehicles. That is, they want to build a narrative.

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And so if you can determine what kind of weapons were used and say fragments of rockets, for example, that only the Assad regime has, that helps build an international case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if they’re not waiting for that, what has been going on behind the scenes?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, behind the scenes, you know, Judy, you noticed today in the public statements they didn’t advance the ball at all.

But, behind the scenes, I’m told what they are really debating is what course of action militarily needs meets the defined objectives, but limited objectives, which is not to get involved in the civil war, as we have heard everyone say, but to punish, also deter and prevent the Assad regime from being able to use C.W., chemical weapons, again.

Now, that sounds easy, but as it’s described to me, it’s not so easy, because if you are really going to prevent future use of chemical weapons, that means attacking some of the military assets involved in this. Is it command-and-control? Is it the units that delivered them? Is it the kind of delivery sites, rocket sites that were involved?

That naturally will degrade Assad’s ability on the battlefield. So it’s really trying to walk that fine line. And to that end, they are consulting with allies, military and political allies and also to some degree on the Hill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, a lot of consulting. Do they have a timetable at this point?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I think — these are straws in the wind, but Jay Carney, the spokesman, said today the timetable for the president to issue — or the White House issue the U.S. intelligence assessment is by the end of the week.

And a diplomat in one of America’s allied countries said their understanding was it would come in the next day or two, and before British Prime Minister Cameron has his special meeting of the Parliament on Thursday, where they are going to debate this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So they are paying attention to what the British Parliament does?

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, yes. But you can see this is a whole one-two step. You had William Hague, the British foreign secretary, coming on The Today Show and you had Hagel going on the BBC. They are very much working in tandem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we also know, Margaret, there is a rising crescendo of members of Congress saying it’s not enough for the president to consult with Congress. He needs congressional authorization. What are they saying about that?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, from what I hear, Judy there are not many call for authorization. Speaker Boehner didn’t say that. Senator Cornyn today talked about appropriate consultation.

There is one congressman from Virginia, a Republican, who talked about authorization. But what they have been doing is stepping up their calls. I’m told Senator Kerry has talked to, for instance, the Senate Foreign Relations chairman, Menendez, and Carl Levin, the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, though I’m told that Congressman Mike Rogers, Republican head of the House Intel Committee, has received only a kind of sketchy briefing, not really a full phone call not from a senior member of the administration like Senator Kerry and doesn’t feel he has been really consulted.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the consultations are ongoing.

MARGARET WARNER: I think they are still ongoing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret, what about — tell us a little bit more about what the allies are saying. Will there be — if there is U.S. action, which allies will be on board? Who won’t? What about the Arab nations?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, if you start with the premise — which I think the administration is — that a U.N. resolution authorizing this is unlikely, then they have to build an international coalition, which is the way they did going into Kosovo many, many years ago.

I think they are counting on the British and French. We could hear their leaders say that today. But the question is, can they get some regional actors involved? The Arab League, as you just pointed out, said this was reprehensible and that Assad did it, but didn’t endorse military action.

The Gulf states are certainly behind this. Neighbor Turkey is very much behind this, probably will be part of a coalition as a NATO member. But there are other states in the region who are nervous. For example, Egypt, no love lost with Assad there with the new Egyptian military regime, but said it is a very sensitive subject for us with our public. So the case really has to be laid out internationally, which is why the U.N. inspection report is important.

Israel, of course, is getting ready for some kind of retaliation, so they have done everything from cancel…

JUDY WOODRUFF: From the Syrians, from Hezbollah.

MARGARET WARNER: From the Syrians or from Hezbollah.

I mean, they don’t know that it will happen, but they are prepared, so they have canceled military leaves, upgraded gas masks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, just quickly, Margaret, no waiting for the U.N. to discuss this and debate?


What I do not know — and I don’t know if it’s unclear, undecided or just not known to us — is whether the administration will feel it needs to make at least the effort, go to the U.N., propose a resolution, get voted down, and then act.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner, some great reporting once again. Thank you.