President Barack Obama’s top national security advisers gathered at the White House on Saturday, and Syrian television broadcast scenes of fighter jets, tanks and troops in training, flip sides of a countdown to a likely U.S. military strike meant to punish Bashar Assad’s government for the alleged use of chemical weapons.
After days of deliberations, Obama arranged to speak in the White House Rose Garden in early afternoon. Aides who had said for days he had not made a decision on whether to strike Syria refused to repeat those words.
A White House official said Obama’s remarks would not be about an imminent military operation in Syria, but rather would update the public about his decisions on how to proceed.
U.N. inspectors arrived in Amsterdam after spending several days in Syria collecting soil samples and interviewing victims of an attack last week in the Damascus suburbs. Officials said it could me more than a week before their final report is complete.
It seemed unlikely Obama would wait that long to order any strike, given the flotilla of U.S. warships equipped with cruise missiles and massed in the Mediterranean; Friday’s release of a declassified U.S. intelligence assessment saying Assad’s chemical weapons killed 1,429 civilians; and an intensifying round of briefings for lawmakers clamoring for information.
The president said Friday that he was considering “limited and narrow” steps to punish Assad for the attack, adding that U.S. national security interests were at stake. He pledged no U.S. combat troops on the ground in Syria, where a civil war has claimed more than 100,000 civilian lives.
With Obama struggling to gain international backing for a strike, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged him to reconsider his plans, saying he speaking to him not as a president but as the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize.
“We have to remember what has happened in the last decades, how many times the United States has been the initiator of armed conflict in different regions of the world, said Putin, a strong ally of Assad. “Did this resolve even one problem?”