President Barack Obama declared that the Syrian government carried out a deadly chemical weapons attack on civilians last week and must pay the price, capping a day of stalled diplomacy that suggested any military strikes could be delayed.
Mr. Obama cautioned that he hasn't yet decided whether to launch an attack, saying in an interview with PBS that he wants to send a shot across Syria's bow without drawing the U.S. into a long conflict.
Syria and Iran warned Wednesday of regional chaos should the U.S. launch strikes on Syria, and threatened to retaliate against Israel.
Mr. Obama's comments capped a day in which the U.S. and British push to gain approval for military strikes appeared to meet with resistance and possible delays. They also appeared to moderate U.S. officials' earlier signals that an attack could be mounted "in coming days" in response to what they call clear-cut indications that Syria used chemical weapons in attacks around Damascus early on Aug. 21. Activists and residents say more than 1,000 people died in the attacks.
The current Syria debate recalled the positions of the U.S. and U.K. in 2003, when the countries built a case for going to war with Iraq, arguing that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and ultimately invaded without a U.N. Security Council resolution. The U.S. was heavily criticized for entering into what became a yearslong campaign based on false intelligence.
American and British officials argue that the case of Syria is different, instead drawing parallels to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization attacks on Kosovo. The U.S. has said it isn't planning a ground invasion, but officials have suggested they could mount strikes against key military bases of President Bashar al-Assad from ships in the Mediterranean Sea. The intention of any strike, they have said, isn't to topple Mr. Assad but to diminish his military capability.
Late Wednesday in the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron's government agreed to demands by politicians to hold a separate vote to approve any military action in Syria, reflecting a domestic desire to avoid a repeat of the country's swift backing for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The vote is expected early next week.
The process to be followed by British officials won't automatically affect the timing of any U.S. action.
A senior administration official said that while the U.S. and U.K. are coordinating closely, domestic British considerations won't necessarily slow the U.S. decision on military action. "We're making our own decisions in our own timeline," the official said.
In the U.S., House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) sent a letter to President Obama demanding a clear explanation of any military action against Syria before it starts, and criticizing the president's level of consultation with lawmakers. Separately, 116 House lawmakers98 Republicans and 18 Democratssigned a letter to Mr. Obama, demanding he seek congressional authorization for a military strike.
Mr. Boehner's letter called on Mr. Obama to inform Americans and members of Congress of his objectives, policy goals and overarching strategy in Syria before the first missiles are launched, according to a copy reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Obama said he has been discussing various military options with his national security advisers. He said he has "no interest in any kind of open-ended conflict in Syria, but we do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable."
Officials from Iran, Syria's chief ally, said publicly for the first time that U.S.-led strikes on Syria would provoke retaliation on Israel. "Any attack on Syria would burn down Israel," Iranian news media reported Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of Iran's armed forces, as saying.
Syria's Prime Minister Wael Al-Halqi warned Wednesday that any Western military intervention would turn Syria into "a graveyard of any invader," according Syria's official Sana news agency. Asked in New York whether Syria would strike Israel in retaliation for any attack, Syria's ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Ja'afari, said: "We have the right to self-defense under the U.N. charter."
Earlier Wednesday, the U.K. introduced a draft proposal to the core nations of the United Nations Security Council seeking authorization for military action against Syria to protect civilians. But Russia and China blocked the action, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, said in a Twitter message that was verified by her spokesman. Russia, one of the council's five permanent members, is an ally of President Assad.
The proposed resolution requested authorization for "all necessary measures" to protect civilians from chemical weapons, the U.K. government said in a statement. It said it would seek to invoke Chapter Seven of the U.N. Charter, which covers measures including action by air, sea or land forces necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security.
American and British officials vowed to seek other avenues of support.
"The Syrian regime must be held accountable, which the Security Council has refused to do for 2+ years," Ms. Power said. "The U.S. is "considering [an] appropriate response."
In Gaziantep, Turkey, senior officers in the Syrian rebel Supreme Military Council and of the Free Syrian Army said in interviews that they are hoping to coordinate attacks against Mr. Assad's forces with the Pentagon. U.S. officials have given no sign they have considered it.
An initial list sent Wednesday by the supreme council, which is the coordinating command for the rebel armies, includes the Syrian government's military airfields in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Latakia, an Assad stronghold, according to a copy of the recommended targets communicated to Washington and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Senior U.S. officials have been meeting in Turkey this week with SMC leaders and representatives from its political arm, said Obama administration officials. But they wouldn't comment on whether the White House plans to share its attack plans with Syrian opposition forces.
"No decision has been made about next steps," said State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, Wednesday.
In Syria, U.N. investigators gained access to some of the areas hardest hit with suspected chemical attacks last week. The U.N. team arrived in Zamalka around noon Wednesday and visited a field hospital, according to witnesses and activists. Investigators interviewed doctors and patients and took blood samples and soil.
The military offensive launched by Syria's army appeared halted in Zamalka because of the investigators' visit, opposition activists said.
"They are here, talking to people and visiting the hospital. The shelling has stopped," said Mohamad Abdullah, an opposition activist in Zamalka, who had gone to the hospital when the inspectors arrived.
Videos posted on YouTube also showed inspectors at the Zamalka hospital talking to a female patient and asking her about her injuries and how far a rocket had landed from her home.
Activists and residents in the Al Ghouta area, which has been under military siege for a week, said that no one was evacuating in anticipation of a U.S. attack.
However, residents of Damascus reached on phone and Skype said many families were evacuating neighborhoods populated by pro-Assad Alawites. Families were gathering their valuables and heading toward the Lebanese border. One doctor said that a Syrian official she knew was sending his wife and children to Beirut.
Those who were staying said they were stocking up on basic goods such as bread, canned food and fuel for generators. Some Syrian military installations were being evacuated in anticipation of a military strike, Mr. Ja'afari said in New York.
The Shaam News Agency, belonging to the opposition, said at least 10,000 Syrians had entered Lebanon through the Al Masna border in the past 24 hours.
The U.S. said a day earlier that new evidence and intelligence had left no doubt that Mr. Assad had deployed chemical gas against civilians in last week's deadly attack in the Al Ghouta suburbs near Damascus. Syrian opposition groups and activists have said more than 1,000 people had been killed, many of them women and children, with two groupsan activist network and a field-hospital networkplacing the estimates at 1,466 fatalities.
Syria's government continues to deny the allegations, claiming opposition rebels were behind the attack as a way to deter the Syrian army's recent tactical gains in rebel territory and to rally support for military intervention.
Mr. Ja'afari said Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were behind the what he characterized as a rebel chemical attack. He said he has sent a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requesting the inspectors investigate three new sites near Damascus where he said Syrian army personnel were affected by chemicals.Sam Dagher, Jay Solomon, Cassell Bryan-Low, Mohammed Nour Alakraa, Ellen Knickmeyer and Joe Lauria contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared August 28, 2013, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: U.S., U.K. Face Delays in Push To Strike Syria.