New York // US Secretary of State John Kerry laid out the case for military action against Syria yesterday, saying there was "clear" evidence that more than 1,400 people were killed in a chemical weapons attack carried out by the government of Bashar Al Assad.
As a team of UN investigators finished gathering samples related to the attack in suburbs near Damascus, Mr Kerry laid out evidence he said proved that Mr Al Assad's military was responsible.
"This crime against conscience, this crime against humanity, this crime against the most fundamental principles of international community, against the norm of the international community, this matters to us," Mr Kerry said yesterday.
According to the unclassified four-page US intelligence report released yesterday, the attacks killed 1,429 civilians including 426 children, figures higher than had previously been reported.
Mr Kerry said any military response would be "limited and tailored" to ensure that "a despot is held accountable ... for flagrant use of chemical weapons".
After Mr Kerry's speech, US President Barack Obama said that he was still mulling a "narrow, limited" strike on Syria. He stressed that he was yet to make a final decision about what action to take but said that "in no event" would it involve US troops on the ground.
"Read for yourselves the evidence from thousands of sources," Mr Kerry said. "This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people."
In an attempt to tie Mr Al Assad directly to the attack, the report describes him as "the ultimate decision maker for the chemical weapons programme" and that officers in charge of chemical weapons are "carefully vetted to ensure … loyalty".
The intelligence contained in the report included intercepted communications by a senior Syrian military official with detailed knowledge of the August 21 attack as well as other intercepted government messages. It also contained human sources of intelligence on the ground, open source information from social media and local NGOs and satellite imagery.
Satellite images showed that the rocket and artillery attacks originated in a government-controlled area in Damascus and struck rebel-held neighbourhoods.
This account confirmed details reported by Turkey's state news agency Anadolu yesterday that 15 to 20 rockets with chemical warheads were fired by the Syrian military's 155 Missile Brigade in Qutayfa, about 30km outside of Damascus.
The Turkish report also said that chemical weapons were fired from positions of the 4th Armoured Division, which is commanded by Mr Al Assad's brother, Maher, from Mount Qasioun, 10km from Damascus.
Mr Kerry said the White House had "high confidence" in the veracity of the evidence collected in the report and promised that it had been carefully reviewed and that it was done so "more than mindful of the Iraq experience". In a reference to the false intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he said: "We will not repeat that moment".
Mr Kerry's statement also thanked America's "oldest friend" France, which had earlier yesterday pledged support for possible limited military strikes against Syria. The US had been left preparing to carry out the attack unilaterally in the face of a shock rejection of the action by Britain and mounting concerns in Congress.
The loss of British involvement after parliament voted against participating in the attack late on Thursday significantly increased pressure on Mr Obama, who has seen support by allies in Europe and the Middle East peel away from the strikes.
With authorisation for any attack by the United Nations Security Council guaranteed to be vetoed by Syria's main international ally Russia, Mr Obama has struggled to form an international coalition.
"The chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished," French President Francois Hollande said yesterday in an interview with Le Monde newspaper.
The Arab League, which has supported the uprising against Mr Al Assad's regime, earlier in the week also backed down from support of US action, blaming the gas attack on Syria but insisting on a UN resolution for military action.
Despite the fraying international support, US officials said Mr Obama is prepared to act unilaterally if necessary to carry out what he described as a "shot across the bow" of Syria in the specific context of upholding a red line he set a year ago against chemical weapons use in the two-year civil war.
Mr Obama has resisted being dragged in to another war in the Middle East for two years and analysts say any strike will likely be an attempt to tip the scales in favour of the rebels.
"I think honestly that Mr Obama set that red line in the first place thinking it was very remote that he wouldn't have to do anything but once that line was crossed, the White House was caught in a trap of its own making," said David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank. "The White House probably figures it would be a disaster for American credibility if they change their mind because other countries did or because they didn't get a nod from the Arab League or UN."
US defence and intelligence officials also voiced growing concern that further delays because of diplomatic or domestic deliberations were making any plan of attack against Damascus more difficult and potentially more dangerous.
The Syrian military has used the delay to spread out its forces and military assets out of known military installations and around the country, potentially making cruise-missile strikes less effective, US officials told the Wall Street Journal.
The UN inspectors were expected to leave the country on Saturday. Some will deliver to European laboratories the material they gathered from the areas where the weapons are alleged to have been used.
Syrian state television reported yesterday that Damascus will reject any partial UN conclusions on an alleged chemical attack before full laboratory analyses are completed.
Saudi Arabia, one of the main military supporters of the Syrian rebels, has raised its military threat level from "five" to "two", with "one" being the highest, in preparation of the US attacks, Saudi military sources told Reuters.
firstname.lastname@example.org with additional reporting by Thomas Seibert in Istanbul