United Nations inspectors left Syria ahead of schedule Saturday after being dispatched to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Assad, as people in Damascus and across the embattled nation braced for looming U.S. military strikes that could come with little to no warning.
President Barack Obama will deliver a statement on the crisis in Syria at 1:15pm Saturday, according to the White House.
The possibility of U.S. strikes cast a dark shadow over Damascus early Saturday, as the army continued their shelling of rebel enclaves throughout the region and anxious citizens fretted about the skyrocketing price — or sudden absence — of food, gasoline, and medical supplies.
Activists in the Syrian capital told NBC News on Saturday that people in some Damascus neighborhoods waited seven hours on bread lines, and scooped up other essential items like rice, tea, and sugar in preparation for a strike. Some people who live in close proximity to possible targets like military installations and barracks have moved, activists said.
Although President Obama has purportedly not arrived at a final decision on U.S. military action, observers say key clues arrived in Friday’s remarks by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who made a forceful case for U.S. military action against Assad’s regime, saying America has a moral obligation to punish Syria for allegedly using chemical weapons.
“History would judge us extraordinarily if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency,” Kerry said, after referring to Assad as a “thug and a murderer.”
The White House released an intelligence report as Kerry spoke on Friday (.pdf) claiming “high confidence” that the Syrian regime had deployed chemical weapons. The report cited a “large body of independent sources” but acknowledged that not all the evidence of the alleged attack could be declassified. The information released by the government said the attack killed some 1,429 Syrians — including at least 426 children.
President Obama, who said Friday that he was weighing “limited and narrow” punitive strikes, faces fierce opposition from many members of the U.S. Senate and wide swaths of the American public reluctant to become entangled in a Middle Eastern conflict just a decade after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Nearly 80 percent of Americans think Obama should get a stamp of congressional approval before using force in Syria, according to an NBC News poll released Friday. Fifty percent of Americans believe the U.S. should not intervene altogether, according to the poll.
Diplomatic and political tensions heightened early Saturday as it became clearer that the U.S. may be prepared to bring the confrontation to a climax and strike Syria unilaterally, despite a chorus of opposition from global partners and domestic constituents.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) decried Obama’s plans for limited air strikes on Syria as “cosmetic” during an interview with Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” on Friday, saying the failure of the U.S. to intervene in the country’s bloody, brutal civil war was “shameful.”
“The president apparently wants to have a kind of cosmetic strike, launch a few missiles and then say, ‘Well, we responded.’ This is the same president that, two years ago, said Bashar Assad had to go,” McCain said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meanwhile called on Obama not to act hastily, saying that while he was convinced last Wednesday’s lethal chemical attack was “just a provocation of those who want to drag other countries into a Syrian countries,” he believes U.S. officials should present any evidence to the contrary to the U.N. inspectors and the U.N. Security Council.
“If there is evidence, it must be provided,” Putin said Saturday. “If they are not provided, that means it’s not there.”
Putin is one of Assad’s stalwart allies — a fact that may account for why Secretary Kerry did not take the U.S. case for military intervention to the U.N. Security Council, where Russia has veto power. The Russian leader’s remarks were his first public comments on the unfolding crisis since the alleged Aug. 21 attack.
Britain, the most steadfast U.S. ally, rejected military action in a stunning vote Thursday night, delivering a dramatic blow to the Obama administration, which may have hoped to build a robust coalition of Western powers.
An administration official confirmed that Obama spoke Friday with British Prime Minister David Cameron as well as French President Francois Hollande, who has come out in support of international military action against the Assad regime.
The chemical attack “must not go unpunished,” Hollande told the French newspaper Le Monde. “Otherwise, it would be taking the risk of an escalation that would normalize the use of these weapons and threaten other countries.”
Senior U.S. officials Saturday will hold unclassified conference calls with the Senate Republican Conference and the Senate Democratic Caucus to continue consultations on potential U.S. military action, according to a White House official.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey arrived at the White House on Saturday morning, a U.S. official confirmed.
All members of the House of Representatives have been invited to an in-person classified briefing regarding the Syria crisis on Sunday, according to an email sent to the House Republican Conference. The classified assessment on Syria was delivered to the Capitol on Friday night, the email to legislators said.
The U.N. weapons inspectors had spent three days this week traveling through violence-hit areas near Damascus and a fourth day meeting with patients at a government-run hospital. They concluded their investigation Friday and left Syria on Saturday through Lebanon.
The team of inspectors will begin “collating” soil samples collected during the investigation on Sunday, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said at a press briefing Saturday.
Nesirky said that the notion that the early exit of the inspectors clears the path for U.S. strikes is “grotesque.”