President Barack Obama on Thursday prepared for the possibility of launching unilateral American military action against Syria within days as Britain opted out in a stunning vote by Parliament. Facing skepticism at home, too, the administration shared intelligence with lawmakers aimed at convincing them the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its people and must be punished.
Despite roadblocks in forming an international coalition, Obama appeared undeterred and advisers said he would be willing to retaliate against Syria on his own.
“The president of the United States is elected with the duty to protect the national-security interests in the United States of America,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Even before the vote in London, the U.S. was preparing to act without formal authorization from the United Nations, where Russia has blocked efforts to seek a resolution authorizing the use of force, or from Capitol Hill. But the U.S. had expected Britain, a major ally, to join in the effort.
Top U.S. officials spoke with certain lawmakers for more than 90 minutes in a teleconference Thursday evening to explain why they believe Bashar Assad’s government was the culprit in a suspected chemical attack last week. Lawmakers from both parties have been pressing Obama to provide a legal rationale for military action and specify objectives, as well as to lay out a firm case linking Assad to the attack.
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and already a supporter of moving against Syria in a limited way, said after the briefing that “strong evidence of the Assad regime’s continued use of chemical warfare” merited a military response.
It remained to be seen whether any skeptics were swayed, given the expectation that officials would hold back classified information to protect intelligence sources and methods.
In London, Prime Minister David Cameron argued a military strike would be legal on humanitarian grounds. But he faced deep pressure from lawmakers and already had promised not to undertake military action until a U.N. chemical- weapons team on the ground in Syria released its findings about the Aug. 21 attack.
The prime minister said in terse comments after the vote that though he believes in a “tough response” to the use of chemical weapons, he would respect the will of the House of Commons.
Caitlin Hayden, Obama’s National Security Council spokeswoman, said the U.S. would continue to consult with Britain but Obama would make decisions based on “the best interests of the United States.”
It was not certain the U.S. would have to act alone. France announced that its armed forces “have been put in position to respond” if President Francois Hollande commits forces to intervention against Syria. Hollande does not need French parliamentary approval to launch military action that lasts less than four months.
Obama discussed the situation in Syria with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who wrote to the president earlier this week seeking a legal justification for a military strike and the objectives of any potential action.
Assad, who has denied using chemical weapons, vowed his country “will defend itself against any aggression.”
Some of the U.N. chemical - weapons experts will travel directly from Syria on Saturday to different laboratories around Europe to deliver “an extensive amount of material” gathered, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said.