Making a forceful case to answer a "crime against conscience," Secretary of State John Kerry declared Friday that the United States had a moral obligation to punish Syria for using chemical weapons — painting a ghastly portrait of twitching bodies, victims foaming at the mouth and row upon row of children gassed to death.
He called Syrian leader Bashar Assad "a thug and a murderer" and pledged, to a country weary after more than a decade of war in the Middle East, that the American response would not require ground troops and would not be open-ended.
President Barack Obama said he had not made a decision on military action, but echoed Kerry in saying any U.S. action would be limited. The United States has an obligation "as a leader in the world" to hold foreign nations to account when they use prohibited weapons, the president said.
"This kind of offense is a challenge to the world," said Obama after a meeting with Baltic leaders. While the U.S. would prefer to act with the broad support of the international community, which has so far not been forthcoming, Obama said, "we don't want the world to be paralyzed."
An administration official confirmed that Obama spoke with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande on Friday.
With Americans skeptical, members of Congress raising questions and other nations outright objecting to a U.S. attack, Kerry said the world had to answer what he called a crime against humanity itself, carried out last week in the suburbs of the Syrian capital. He revealed that the attack had killed 1,429 people, including 426 children.
"Instead of being tucked safely in their beds at home," he said, "we saw rows of children lying side by side, sprawled on a hospital floor, all of them dead from Assad's gas, and surrounded by parents and grandparents who had suffered the same fate."
He declared: "My friends, it matters here if nothing is done. It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens."
Referring directly to the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said: "Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about."
As he spoke, the White House released an intelligence report claiming "high confidence" that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons in the attack. The report cited a "large body of independent sources" but acknowledged that not all the evidence could be declassified.
Kerry encouraged Americans to read the report for themselves. He gave details of the American intelligence findings, including that Syrian rockets carrying chemical agents had been fired only from regime-controlled areas and had landed only in rebel-dominated areas.
Of the victims, he said: "We know what the doctors treating them didn't report. Not a scratch. Not a shrapnel wound. Not a cut. Not a gunshot wound. We saw rows of dead, lined up in burial shrouds, the white linen unstained by a single drop of blood."
Britain, the most steadfast U.S. ally, rejected military action in a stunning vote Thursday night. Acting through the United Nations is a dead-end because China and Russia, which have veto power in the Security Council, will not allow it.
And at home, members of Congress have insisted that Obama get lawmakers' approval. Americans appear to agree: In a poll released Friday by NBC News, almost eight in 10 said they wanted the president to sell Congress on military action before an attack.
Kerry acknowledged the hesitation and said it was important for the administration to talk about the evidence directly with Congress and the people. But the administration's findings, he said, were clear and compelling.
"This is common sense. This is evidence. These are facts," he said. "So the primary question is really no longer ‘What do we know?' The question is what are we – we collectively – what are we in the world going to do about it?"
Just before Kerry spoke, the United Nations said that its chemical weapons inspectors had finished collecting samples from the site of the attack. But it said a complete analysis would take time and offered no sense of when it would be complete.