Updated, 10:47 p.m.
United Nations inspectors left Damascus early Saturday morning, possibly clearing the way for a U.S. military strike.
President Barack Obama has said he’s considering a strike after recent chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime that Obama called “a challenge to the world” that jeopardizes U.S. national security. Analysts believed no American attack would start while U.N. inspectors were still on the ground in Damascus, vulnerable. At dawn Saturday, Syrian time, they left their hotel and began the drive to Lebanon, reported NBC News.
“We are looking at the possibility of a limited narrow act” against Syria, Obama told reporters Friday after a meeting with Baltic leaders, cautioning that he had ”not made a final decision about various actions that might be taken.”
“We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed,” he said.
Syria’s use of chemical weapons last week against a rebel stronghold in a Damascus suburb “threatens our national security interests, by violating well-established international norms against the use of chemical weapons,” Obama said.
He added that the use of such weapons threaten U.S. allies in the region, and increase the chances that they could fall into the hands of terrorists.
Obama stressed the limited nature of any military action. “I repeat, we’re not considering any open-ended commitment, we’re not considering any boots on the ground,” he said.
“I have had our military and our team look at a wide range of options,” Obama continued. “We have consulted with allies we have consulted with congress.”
Obama acknowledged that the public is wary of another Middle East intervention. “I recognize that all of us, the U.S., Great Britain…and many parts of the world there’s a certain weariness given Afghanistan, there’s a certain suspicion of any military action close to Iraq,” Obama said. Britain voted Thursday against participating in a military action.
But he argued that it was crucial that there be consequences for Syria’s action.
“We have currently rules in place dealing with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, we have international norms that have been violated,” Obama continued. “The U.N. has put sanctions in place, but if there’s a sense no one is willing to enforce them then people won’t take it seriously.”
In a telephone briefing with reporters Friday afternoon, an administration official said: “What we’re contemplating would be a military response that, as I said, is limited and tailored and focused on chemical weapons.”
“We are not contemplating a military effort aimed at regime change,” the official added.
Earlier Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry called the attacks “a crime against humanity,” and argued that a failure to respond would badly damage American credibility, and endanger allies in the regime.
And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence committee, said: “I agree with Secretary Kerry that the world cannot let such a heinous attack pass without a meaningful response, and I hope the international community will take appropriate action.”
An NBC News poll released Friday found that 50% of respondents support a “limited” military strike on Syria. But the poll also found that 50% of respondents opposed military action.
Additional reporting by Adam Serwer.