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Sweet: White House careful to explain Syria isn’t Iraq

President Barack Obamspeaks members mediduring his meeting with Baltic leaders Cabinet Room White House WashingtFriday Aug. 30 2013. Speaking about

President Barack Obama speaks to members of the media during his meeting with Baltic leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. Speaking about Syria, the president said he hasn't made a final decision about a military strike against Syria. But he says he's considering a limited and narrow action in response to a chemical weapons attack that he says Syria's government carried out last week. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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Updated: October 1, 2013 6:54AM



WASHINGTON — The Obama White House, in a bid to win support for a military strike against Syria from a war-weary public and Congress, has gone public in detailing the intelligence sources providing evidence of a chemical strike against civilians — including publicly available social media.

We’ve been fooled before, invading Iraq to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction that never existed.

Secretary of State John Kerry was mindful of the massive intelligence goof sending U.S. troops to Iraq as he laid out the case on Friday for the U.S. punishing Syria following an Aug. 21 chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs. At least 1,429 Syrians were killed, including about 426 children with an estimated 3,000 other people injured.

“Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack,” Kerry said, “and I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment.”

What did the U.S. intelligence community learn about the morning of Aug. 21 near Damascus and how did they learn it?

And why should the U.S. intervene in a civil war in Syria — however horrific — when we have finally gotten out of Iraq and we are in the process of pulling out of Afghanistan?

Evidence

In order to build credibility with a skeptical public and Congress, two Obama administration officials were unusually specific during a Friday briefing about how the U.S. gathered evidence of the chemical weapons attack.

The U.S., the briefers said, used human intelligence — reports and video on social media and information from doctors and non-government organization personnel on the ground. In addition, the U.S. used signals intelligence — that’s the snooping done by the National Security Agency — and geospatial intelligence: spy satellites.

Kerry said that within 90 minutes of the attacks, “all hell broke loose in the social media.”

In addition, the U.S. said in a briefing paper assessing the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21, there were physical tests on injured individuals, revealing exposure to the deadly chemical sarin.

The spy satellites showed missiles launched from neighborhoods controlled by the Assad regime on Aug. 21; they landed in suburbs held by the opposition, prompting soon after the bursts of social media and rush of people to local hospitals — all with injuries relating to a chemical attack.

Not absolute confirmation

Even with all of the above, the U.S. intelligence community is not ready to say absolutely that a chemical attack was carried out by the Syrian regime. That’s a very high threshold. The U.S. concluded, “our high confidence assessment is the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation.”

U.S. military action
that won’t happen

President Barack Obama laid out a series of pledges on Friday regarding a Syrian military strike. No troops on the ground. No open-ended commitment. No long-term campaign.

Obama is looking for options “that meet the narrow concern around chemical weapons, understanding that there is not going to be a solely military solution.”

Why Syria matters to the U.S.

This is an important argument for the Obama team to make in winning public support and money to bankroll a blitz from a Congress already struggling with automatic spending cuts under what is called the “sequestration.”

Taking the high ground — that the U.S. has a moral obligation to act against the horror — may not be the best selling point.

Kerry stressed Friday that punishing Syria for using chemicals on its citizens “matters to our security and the security of our allies,” naming Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, “all of whom live just a still breeze away from Damascus.”

Other rogue countries, Kerry noted, are watching to see what the U.S. will do in the wake of the slaughter.

Said Kerry, “They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk.”

Email: lsweet@suntimes.com

Twitter: @lynnsweet



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