White House on Syria: Chemical attack requires response (updated)

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The White House is making a legal argument for undertaking a military response in Syria following that country's alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people. But White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Tuesday that any action taken against the Syrian regime is not intended to depose Syrian President Bashar Assad. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said the military stands at the ready should any orders come down from the president.

Highlights

Updated 10:48 a.m.: White House says chemical attack requires response 

The White House is making a legal argument for undertaking a military response to the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria, but says any action taken against the Syrian regime is not intended to depose Syrian President Bashar Assad.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States and 188 other nations are signatories to a chemical weapons convention opposing the use of such weapons. He says those countries have a stake in ensuring that international norms must be respected. Carney says that there must be a response to a clear violation of those norms.

But Carney says, quote, "The options we are considering are not about regime change."

He says a change in Syria's leadership must occur through political negotiations.

— Associated Press

7:01 a.m.: The U.S. military stands ready to strike Syria at once if President Barack Obama gives the order, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday as the White House waited for intelligence agencies to confirm whether chemical weapons had been used in the Syrian civil war.

On Monday, as he sought support from allies, Secretary of State John Kerry called the evidence of a large-scale chemical weapons attack "undeniable." And he said that international standards against chemical weapons "cannot be violated without consequences." The president said last year that type of warfare would cross a "red line."

The Obama administration's tougher language marked the clearest justification yet for any U.S. military action in Syria, which most likely would involve sea-launched cruise missile attacks on Syrian military targets.

Hagel told BBC television on Tuesday that the Defense Department has "moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take."

The Navy has four destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea within range of targets inside Syria. The U.S. also has warplanes in the region.

"We are ready to go," Hagel said.

Hagel said "to me it's clearer and clearer" that the Syrian government was responsible, but that the Obama administration was waiting for intelligence agencies to make the determination.

Hagel was interviewed during a visit to the Southeast Asian nation of Brunei. While there, Hagel spoke by phone about Syria with his counterparts from Britain and France. Hagel's press secretary, George Little, said, said Hagel "conveyed that the United States is committed to working with the international community to respond to the outrageous chemical attacks that have claimed the lives of innocent civilians in Syria."

In London, Prime Minister David Cameron recalled Parliament for an urgent discussion on a possible military response. Cameron said the crisis session will be held Thursday for a clear government motion and vote on the British response to a chemical weapons attack in Syria.

The British government said its military is drawing up contingency plans for a possible attack. Italy, meanwhile, is insisting that any strike must be authorized by the U.N. Security Council.

Assad was defiant. In an interview published Tuesday on the website of the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, Assad accused the U.S. and other countries of "disdain and blatant disrespect of their own public opinion; there isn't a body in the world, let alone a superpower, that makes an accusation and then goes about collecting evidence to prove its point."

Assad warned that if the U.S. attacks Syria, it will face "what it has been confronted with in every war since Vietnam: failure."

The international community appeared to be considering action that would punish Assad for deploying deadly gases, not sweeping measures aimed at ousting the Syrian leader or strengthening rebel forces. The focus of the internal debate underscores the scant international appetite for a large-scale deployment of forces in Syria and the limited number of other options.

"We continue to believe that there's no military solution here that's good for the Syrian people, and that the best path forward is a political solution," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "This is about the violation of an international norm against the use of chemical weapons and how we should respond to that."

A United Nations team came under sniper fire Monday as it traveled to the site of the Aug. 21 attack to collect evidence. On Tuesday it delayed a second inspection. 

On Capitol Hill, bipartisan support for a military response appeared to be building, with some key lawmakers calling for targeted strikes. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said the Ohio Republican had "preliminary communication" with White House officials about the situation in Syria and a potential American response.

Speaking to reporters at the State Department on Monday, Kerry was harshly critical of chemical warfare.

"By any standard, it is inexcusable and — despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured — it is undeniable," Kerry said, confirming the attack in the Damascus suburbs that activists say killed hundreds of people.

It's unclear whether Obama would seek authority from the U.N. or Congress before using force. The president has spoken frequently about his preference for taking military action only with international backing, but it is likely Russia and China would block U.S. efforts to authorize action through the U.N. Security Council.

More than 100,000 people have died in clashes between forces loyal to Assad and rebels trying to oust him from power over the past two and a half years. While Obama has repeatedly called for Assad to leave power, he has resisted calls for a robust U.S. intervention, and has largely limited American assistance to humanitarian aid. The president said last year that chemical weapons use would cross a "red line" and would likely change his calculus in deciding on a U.S. response.

Obama took little action after Assad used chemical weapons on a small scale earlier this year and risks signaling to countries like Iran that his administration does not follow through on its warnings.

Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Matthew Lee contributed to this report, and AP National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed from Bander Seri Begawan, Brunei.

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