Barack Obama

Syria Debate: Does U.S. Have the Evidence and Authority to Hit Assad for Alleged Chemical Attack?

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The Obama administration appears to be pressing ahead with military strikes on Syria despite new obstacles at home and abroad. On Wednesday, an informal meeting of the United Nations Security Council failed to reach an agreement after Russia and China opposed any authorization of force in response to last week’s alleged chemical attack by Assad forces in Ghouta. After domestic pressure, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced he will seek parliamentary authorization for using force against Syria, and only after U.N. inspectors complete their current mission. And in Washington, the White House plans to brief lawmakers today following growing calls that President Obama seek congressional backing for any use of force. The administration is expected to make public soon some of its intelligence, but skeptics say there remains no smoking gun implicating the Assad regime. We host a debate on military intervention in Syria between Tariq Ali of the New Left Review and Steven Clemons of The Atlantic.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Syria. On Wednesday, President Obama declared unequivocally that the United States has concluded that the Syrian government carried out a deadly chemical weapons attack on civilians last week. President Obama spoke on PBS NewsHour.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have looked at all the evidence, and we do not believe the opposition possessed nuclear weapons of that—or, chemical weapons of that sort. We do not believe that given the delivery systems, using rockets, that the opposition could have carried out these attacks. We have concluded that the Syrian government, in fact, carried these out. And if that’s so, then there need to be international consequences. So, we are consulting with our allies. We’re consulting with the international community. And, you know, I have no interest in any kind of open-ended conflict in Syria, but we do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: During his interview on PBS NewsHour, Obama did not present any direct evidence to back up his assertion that the Syrian government was behind the attack. Privately, U.S. intelligence officials say there are still many questions about who carried out and who ordered last week’s deadly chemical attack. In interviews with the Associated Press, multiple U.S. officials said this is, quote, “not a slam dunk” — a reference to then-CIA Director George Tenet’s insistence in 2002 that U.S. intelligence showing Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was a, quote, “slam dunk.” Unnamed U.S. officials told The New York Times there is, quote, “no smoking gun” that directly links President Bashar al-Assad to the attack

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, an informal meeting of the United Nations Security Council failed to reach an agreement after Russia and China opposed any authorization of force in response to last week’s alleged chemical attack in Ghouta. The U.S. is also facing resistance from its closest ally, Britain. After domestic pressure, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced he’ll seek parliamentary authorization for using force against Syria, and only after U.N. inspectors complete their current mission.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. In London, Tariq Ali is with us, editor of the New Left Review. He recently wrote a piece for the London Review of Books blog called “On Intervening in Syria.” He spoke yesterday in London at a rally opposing the bombing of Syria. And in Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Steve Clemons, Washington editor-at-large for The Atlantic and senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Steven Clemons, let’s begin with you. What is your assessment of the evidence that the United States has and what the U.S. should do in Syria?

STEVEN CLEMONS: My current assessment is that we have signals intelligence, and we’ve had it from the very beginning, both our own and others’ supplied by allies, that shows that there was command staff authorization and instruction to launch the attacks that were had. And we didn’t have that evidence in the earlier designation of chemical weapons usage, in which the Obama administration declared that the regime had used that. There was confusion about whether the opposition had potentially used chemical weapons or the government. But in this particular case, it’s not all public, which is, I think, quite regrettable, but there’s significant signals intelligence that tells us who was responsible within the Syrian command staff for what happened in this deadly, horrible attack.
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