WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is prepared to move ahead with a limited military strike on Syria, administration officials said Thursday, despite a stinging rejection of such action Thursday by America’s stalwart ally Britain and mounting questions from Congress.
The negative vote in Britain’s Parliament was a heavy blow to Prime Minister David Cameron, who had pledged his support to Obama and called on lawmakers to endorse Britain’s involvement in a brief operation to punish the government of President Bashar Assad for apparently launching a deadly chemical weapons attack last week that killed hundreds.
The vote was also a setback for Obama, who, having given up hope of getting U.N. Security Council authorization for the strike, is struggling to assemble a coalition of allies against Syria.
But administration officials made clear that the eroding support would not deter Obama in deciding to go ahead with a strike. Pentagon officials said the Navy had moved a fifth destroyer into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Each ship carries dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles that would probably be the centerpiece of any attack on Syria.
Even before the parliamentary vote, White House officials said, Obama decided there was no way he could overcome objections by Russia, Syria’s longtime backer, to any resolution in the Security Council.
Although administration officials cautioned that Obama had not made a final decision, all indications suggest that a strike could occur soon after U.S. investigators charged with scrutinizing the Aug. 21 attack leave the country. They are scheduled to depart Damascus on Saturday.
The White House presented its case for military action to congressional leaders Thursday evening, trying to head off growing pressure from Democrats and Republicans to provide more information about the administration’s military planning and seek congressional approval for any action.
In a conference call with Republicans and Democrats, top officials from the State Department, the Pentagon and the nation’s intelligence agencies asserted that the evidence was clear that Assad’s forces had carried out the attack, according to officials who were briefed.
While the intelligence does not tie Assad directly to the attack, these officials said, the administration said the United States had both the evidence and legal justification to carry out a strike aimed at deterring the Syrian leader from using such weapons again.
A critical piece of the intelligence, officials said, is an intercepted telephone call between Syrian military officials, one of whom seems to suggest that the chemical weapons attack was more devastating than was intended. “It sounds like he thinks this was a small operation that got out of control,” one intelligence official said.