U.N. evidence that could show whether chemical weapons were used in Syria will head to a lab Monday, but the answer may just be a formality.
The American president has already said there’s no doubt Syria’s government killed hundreds of civilians in a chemical weapon attack. Independent tests have revealed “signatures of sarin gas” in blood and hair samples from Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry said.
President Barack Obama wants Congress to sign off on limited strikes on Syrian targets — but some lawmakers bristle at the idea of getting ensnared in another overseas conflict.
A lot is riding on what the United States decides to do. Britain has already voted against taking any military action on Syria, and France said it won’t act without the United States as a partner.
That means if the United States wants to attack Syria, it may have to do it alone.
On Monday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime asked the U.N. to step in.
“The Syrian government calls on the U.N. Secretary General to shoulder his responsibilities for preventing any aggression on Syria,” the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported.
For now, Syria seems safe from U.N.-sanctioned hits. It’s unlikely the U.N. Security Council will authorize military strikes against Syria because two of its members — Russia and China — have blocked all efforts to take action against their ally.
The waiting game
While British and U.S. intelligence reports say the August 21 attack involved chemical weapons, U.N. officials have stressed the importance of waiting for an official report from the U.N. chemical weapons inspectors.
The inspectors left Syria on Saturday, carrying evidence that will determine whether chemical weapons were used in the attack last month. But the U.N. won’t give a date for when the testing would be completed.
“It’s being done as fast as it is possible to do within the scientific constraints,” said Martin Nesirky, spokesman for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Kerry: We must act
The independent test results from Syria have firmed up suspicions that al-Assad’s regime killed civilians in opposition strongholds, the Obama administration said.
“We know that the regime ordered this attack, we know they prepared for it,” Kerry said. “We know where the rockets came from. We know where they landed. We know the damage that was done afterwards. We’ve seen the horrific scenes all over the social media, and we have evidence of it in other ways, and we know that the regime tried to cover up afterwards, so the case is really an overwhelming case.”
With “each day that goes by, this case is even stronger,” he said, arguing that the United States must act.
“If you don’t do it, you send a message of impunity,” Kerry said. He said that could have a ripple effect on Iran, North Korea and Hezbollah.
But the administration is facing resistance from lawmakers even before Congress officially comes back to Washington September 9.
About 100 members of the House and Senate came back early from recess for the briefing with top administration officials, according to members who attended the meeting. Many of those lawmakers – Republicans and Democrats alike – left the session skeptical and with major concerns about the language of the president’s proposal.
While there have been no plans to put American boots on the ground, Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen said he wants to see an amendment that would prohibit American troops from being on the ground and a separate change that would put a firm expiration date on American action in the country.
Asking for support
Obama doesn’t have to get Congress’ approval to launch military action — under the 1973 War Powers Resolution, a president can initiate an attack as long as he notifies Congress within 48 hours.
But that’s a U.S. law. Internationally, an Obama-led strike against Syria could be deemed illegal.
The United Nations’ charter generally doesn’t allow countries to attack other nations unless in self-defense or with approval from the U.N. Security Council — neither of which is the case in Syria.
To help fix the legal problem, the Obama administration asked Congress over the weekend to approve a proposed authorization for the use of military force.
Congressional approval wouldn’t solve the problem with international law, a senior administration official said, but it would enhance the legitimacy of military action.
China: Don’t act unilaterally
Chinese foreign affairs spokesman Hong Lei said China has noted the U.S. claim of chemical weapons evidence and that the United States has briefed China about the situation.
But Hong said he was worried about any possible unilateral action against Syria.
“We are gravely concerned that some country may take unilateral military actions,” Hong said Monday.
“We believe that any action taken by the international community should abide by the purposes and principles of the U.N. charter as well as basic norms governing international relations, so to as to avoid complicating the Syrian issue and bringing more disasters to the Middle East region.”
Syria denies claims
The Syrian government has denied that it used chemical weapons in the August 21 attack, saying that jihadists fighting with the rebels used them in an effort to turn global sentiments against the regime.
Maria Saadeh, a member of Syria’s parliament, told CNN on Sunday that she sees no justification for a U.S. strike on Syria.
“There is no legitimacy to make this attack,” she said, accusing rebel groups of using chemical weapons and committing other crimes against humanity.
Reports: Sarin’s been used in Syria before
World leaders have said previously that sarin has been used in the Syrian civil war.
In April, the United States said it had evidence sarin was used in Syria on a small scale.
In May, a U.N. official said there were strong suspicions that rebel forces used the deadly nerve agent.
In June, France said sarin had been used several times in the war, including at least once by the Syrian regime.
No end to the bloodshed
While world leaders grapple with what to do about Syria, the reports of carnage on the ground keep rising.
At least 118 people were killed across Syria on Sunday, including 13 children, the opposition group Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.
The United Nations said more than 100,000 people — including many civilians — have been killed since a popular uprising spiraled into a civil war two years ago.
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