WASHINGTON - The Obama administration moved closer to military action against Syria on Monday as Secretary of State John Kerry said the government of Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against its own people and cynically tried to cover it up.
The White House started reaching out to congressional leaders Monday, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Brendan Buck, a Boehner spokesman. "The speaker made clear that before any action is taken, there must be meaningful consultation with members of Congress, as well as clearly defined objectives and a broader strategy to achieve stability," Buck said.
President Obama believes there must be "accountability" for those who used the weapons, Kerry said, calling the video from the attacks "gut wrenching."
"The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders, by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity," Kerry said. He said he watched the "gut wrenching" videos showing victims of the attack Aug. 21.
"As a father, I can't get the image out of my head of a man who held up his dead child, wailing while chaos swirled around him," Kerry said.
In Syria, members of a United Nations inspection team traveled through government- and rebel-held territory Monday to look for signs of chemical weapons use. One of the team's vehicles was attacked by snipers.
The administration, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, has not decided on military action, although the Pentagon has presented a variety of military options to the president, including establishing a no-fly zone to training and advising the opposition. The most likely option, according to military experts, members of Congress and others, is using cruise missiles to strike Syrian targets.
Cruise missiles can be fired by surface ships or submarines and are the most likely response, said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Four U.S. Navy destroyers, the USS Barry, Gravely, Mahan and Ramage are positioned in the eastern Mediterranean, according to a Defense Department official who was not authorized to discuss their whereabouts publicly.
Warplanes could fire Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff missiles, weapons with warheads that could be released outside the range of Syria's air defenses. These cruise missiles can be fired from hundreds of miles away.
Firing cruise missiles would avoid exposing pilots to Syria's air-defense system, which is large though mostly outdated. Breaching the air defenses would probably involve numerous aircraft and would entail significant risks to pilots.
As a practical matter, Obama's options are more limited. The White House is wary of getting sucked into a wider war in Syria and considers most rebel groups as unreliable partners.
The attack would have to inflict damage severe enough to prevent the Syrians from using chemical weapons again, Reed said.
David Deptula, a retired Air Force three-star general who led the service's intelligence and surveillance operations, declined to speculate on what option Obama would choose, but he said any attack would be designed to respond to the chemical allegations and not to choose a side in a civil war that is more than 2 years old and has claimed more than 100,000 lives.
"The issue on the plate is not the civil war that is going on in Syria," Deptula said. "It is the illegal actions of the Assad regime in using chemical weapons."
Even a standoff strike is not without risk. Missiles can cause collateral damage and prompt retaliatory attacks, as Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a letter last month to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
U.S. allies, such as Great Britain and France, spent Monday preparing for some kind of action.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who like Kerry cut short his vacation because of the attack, spoke Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin to outline the evidence of chemical weapons use by Assad's regime.
Cameron's office said the British government would decide Tuesday whether the timetable for the international response means it will be necessary to recall lawmakers to Parliament before their scheduled return next week. That decision could offer the clearest indication of how quickly the United States and its allies plan to respond.
Great Britain and France led the way in calling for military action after the first reports of alleged chemical weapon use in Syria.