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WASHINGTON — The United States has thousands of sources of intelligence that point to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad for alleged chemical weapons attacks that killed 1,429 people near Damascus on Aug. 21, Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday as he presented the Obama administration’s case for military strikes in Syria.

As Kerry took the podium at the State Department, the White House released a four-page intelligence assessment that expressed “high confidence” that the Syrian government had carried out the strikes.

“Its findings are as clear as they are compelling,” Kerry said.

Indicating the United States is willing to take action unilaterally if necessary, Kerry said there was no need to wait for the findings of a U.N. team currently in Syria to investigate chemical weapons claims because the resulting reports will not assess culpability, only whether chemical weapons were used — something Kerry said the United States already knows.

At the White House later on Friday, President Barack Obama said consultations with Congress and allies were ongoing about how to best punish Assad’s government, but said that a clear message had to be sent to reinforce an international “norm” against the use of chemical weapons.

“I have not made a final decision about various actions that might be taken to enforce that norm,” Obama said.

The president added that he was considering no actions that could entangle the United States in another Middle East war.

“In no event are we considering any type of military action that would involve boots on the ground, that would involve a long-term campaign, but we are looking at the possibility of a limited narrow act” to dissuade further chemical weapons use.

The intelligence assessment did not identify the chemical used, but said the symptoms exhibited by 3,600 patients sickened by the attack were consistent with a nerve agent. Among those killed were at least 426 children, according to the report.

While acknowledging the war-weariness brought on by 12 years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kerry said the United States is morally bound to act to prevent further chemical slaughter by the Syrian regime.

U.S. credibility is at stake as well, Kerry said, arguing that rogue regimes could be emboldened to use weapons of mass destruction if the United States fails to act.

“They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say,” he said. “It is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. They are watching to see whether Syria can get away with it.”

Officials and experts have said the most likely U.S. action would be a series of cruise missile strikes at sites or units associated with chemical weapons — but not on stockpiles themselves — designed to send a message that President Barack Obama recently liked to a “shot across the bow.”

Echoing Obama’s recent statements that strikes on Syria would not be aimed at toppling the regime, Kerry promised any forthcoming action would be “limited and tailored” and would not draw the United States into another costly Middle East war.

Obama, Kerry said, “has said very clearly that whatever decision he makes in Syria, it will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq or even Libya. It will not involve any boots on the ground, it will not be open-ended, and it will not assume responsibility for a civil war that is already well underway.”

The intelligence assessment did not clearly identify the intelligence sources, but Kerry said many were publicly available, and during his statement referenced a number of accounts of the attack posted immediately on online social media.

Among the assessment’s charges:

Syrian chemical weapons personnel with gas masks were on the ground preparing chemical munitions days prior to the attack, a contention the administration said was supported by human, signal and geospatial intelligence. Rockets were detected being launched from regime-controlled areas approximately 90 minutes before the first reports of chemical attacks in opposition-controlled or disputed areas appeared online. Intercepted communications revealed a senior Syrian official confirming the regime used chemical weapons on Aug. 21, and was concerned about U.N. inspectors gaining access to the areas. Although Obama and other officials have said no final decisions on strikes have been made, Kerry’s statement made clear that opposition in Congress and from U.S. allies such as Britain, where the Parliament on Thursday voted against military action, would not constrain the president.

“We will continue talking to the Congress, talking to our allies and most importantly, talking to the American people,” he said. “President Obama will ensure that the United States of America makes our own decisions on our own timelines, based on our values and our interests.”

carroll.chris@stripes.com Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_


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