Archive for August, 2013

THE AMERICAN ELITE SCIENCE VISIONEERS

August 31, 2013

W. Patrick McCray in his 2012 book The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanothechnologies, and Limitless Future describes how American scientists opposed the UN view that there was a limit to development. Excerpts from the Princeton University Press presentation.

In 1969, Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill began looking outward to space colonies as the new frontier for humanity’s expansion. A decade later, Eric Drexler, an MIT-trained engineer, turned his attention to the molecular world as the place where society’s future needs could be met using self-replicating nanoscale machines.

These modern utopians predicted that their technologies could transform society as humans mastered the ability to create new worlds, undertook atomic-scale engineering, and, if truly successful, overcame their own biological limits. The Visioneers tells the story of how these scientists and the communities they fostered imagined, designed, and popularized speculative technologies such as space colonies and nanotechnologies.

Patrick McCray concludes that how these visioneers blended countercultural ideals with hard science, entrepreneurship, libertarianism, and unbridled optimism about the future. He shows how they built networks that communicated their ideas to writers, politicians, and corporate leaders. But the visioneers were not immune to failure–or to the lures of profit, celebrity, and hype. O’Neill and Drexler faced difficulty funding their work and overcoming colleagues’ skepticism, and saw their ideas co-opted and transformed by Timothy Leary, the scriptwriters of Star Trek, and many others. Ultimately, both men struggled to overcome stigma and ostracism as they tried to unshackle their visioneering…

The Visioneers provides a balanced look at the successes and pitfalls they encountered. The book exposes the dangers of promotion–oversimplification, misuse, and misunderstanding–that can plague exploratory science. But above all, it highlights the importance of radical new ideas that inspire us to support cutting-edge research into tomorrow’s technologies.

W. Patrick McCray is professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Keep Watching the Skies!: The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age (Princeton) and Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology.

ANY US STRIKE ON SYRIA LIKELY TO EXTEND BEYOND DAMASCUS, SOURCES SAY

August 30, 2013

Fox News on August 29, 2013, reported that the impending U.S. military action in Syria is likely to extend beyond the capital city of Damascus, and would be focused on the delivery systems for the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons arsenal, sources told Fox News.

These systems, and the U.S. military strikes against them, would accordingly include both command-and-control facilities located in the capital but also Syria’s short-range missile launchers and artillery positions, which are said to be located in mountainous areas outside of the city.

Senior U.S. officials would not discuss the precise scope or likely targets of the campaign, but did confirm that the targeting of command-and-control facilities and missile and artillery batteries was among the options the Pentagon presented to President Obama. “That fits in with what the president has discussed,” a well-placed source said. While officers at U.S. Central Command, which has responsibility for the Syrian theater, await a final decision from the commander-in-chief, they are said to expect the campaign to be “narrowly tailored.”

The Obama administration, however, has yet to settle on a specific course of action, and is said to be waiting for its allies to firm up support for the operation before proceeding. A British draft authorizing approval for such intervention was rejected by the Russians at the U.N. Security Council. Britain and France, which are allied with Washington, are said to be awaiting a report from U.N. weapons investigators following their expected departure from Syria on August 31.

The emerging details about the kind of operations the U.S. is planning to conduct was also hinted at in a statement issued this morning by the British government setting forth the legal justification for allied military action in Syria. The statement explicitly noted that the goals of the action include “deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons” by the Assad regime. The disruption of the regime’s ability to launch further chemical attacks would necessarily entail attacks on the delivery systems that Mideast sources cited.

Asked on August 28 if the campaign will seek not only to deter the Assad regime from further chemical attacks by the infliction of “random and wanton pain on the regime” but also by degrading the “physical ability” of the regime to launch such attacks, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf replied: “Those are two goals, I think, that we have.”

Obama administration officials have differed, however, in the degree to which they see the upcoming campaign as one that will materially benefit the military standing of the various rebel groups opposing Assad in the Syrians’ two-year civil war. Some U.S. officials told Fox News that “of course” the strikes at the regime will be aimed at producing the collateral benefit of inching Assad closer towards being toppled from power

The Israeli Defense Forces, meanwhile, are said to have concluded that the likelihood of meaningful retaliatory action against the Jewish state by either the Assad regime or Iranian “proxy” groups, like the terrorist network of Hezbollah, is low. This is because the Syrians are believed to be reluctant to draw Israel into their civil war, and because the Iranians, already mindful of longstanding Israeli threats to strike at the Islamic regime’s nuclear apparatus, are likewise believed to be wary of precipitating a confrontation with Jerusalem.

“We are preparing for [a Syrian or Iranian counter-measure],” an Israeli source told Fox News, “but we are not really expecting it. … The Iranians are not going to waste their [use of] force for an American attack on Syria.”

Sources said the Israelis are among those pressing the Obama administration to act sooner rather than later, citing fears that the “legitimacy” of the operation would be “eroded” by too much delay.

The Saudis, for their part, are said to be running interference for the allies with the Russian government, and to be rallying Arab support by speaking up about the offensiveness of the use of chemical weapons, and by arguing for the attack of Aug. 21 to be met with appropriate punishment.

EXPERTS TO OBAMA: HERE IS WHAT TO DO IN SYRIA

August 29, 2013

Weekly Standard on August 27, 2013, published advise for President Obama on Syria. Excerpts below:

A big group of foreign policy experts, from across the ideological spectrum, is calling on President Obama to impose “meaningful consequences on the Assad regime” for their use of chemical weapons.

“At a minimum, the United States, along with willing allies and partners, should use standoff weapons and airpower to target the Syrian dictatorship’s military units that were involved in the recent large-scale use of chemical weapons. It should also provide vetted moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition with the military support required to identify and strike regime units armed with chemical weapons,” the experts write.

The signatories on the letter addressed to President Obama inlcude Senator Joe Lieberman, Bernard-Henri Levy, Karl Rove, Bill Kristol, Elliott Abrams, Leon Wieseltier, and many others. Right now, 66 experts have signed the letter.

Here’s the full letter and list of signatories:

Dear Mr. President:

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has once again violated your red line, using chemical weapons to kill as many as 1,400 people in the suburbs of Damascus. You have said that large-scale use of chemical weapons in Syria would implicate “core national interests,” including “making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies [and] our bases in the region.” The world—including Iran, North Korea, and other potential aggressors who seek or possess weapons of mass of destruction—is now watching to see how you respond.

We urge you to respond decisively by imposing meaningful consequences on the Assad regime. At a minimum, the United States, along with willing allies and partners, should use standoff weapons and airpower to target the Syrian dictatorship’s military units that were involved in the recent large-scale use of chemical weapons. It should also provide vetted moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition with the military support required to identify and strike regime units armed with chemical weapons.

Moreover, the United States and other willing nations should consider direct military strikes against the pillars of the Assad regime. The objectives should be not only to ensure that Assad’s chemical weapons no longer threaten America, our allies in the region or the Syrian people, but also to deter or destroy the Assad regime’s airpower and other conventional military means of committing atrocities against civilian non-combatants. At the same time, the United States should accelerate efforts to vet, train, and arm moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition, with the goal of empowering them to prevail against both the Assad regime and the growing presence of Al Qaeda-affiliated and other extremist rebel factions in the country.

Left unanswered, the Assad regime’s mounting attacks with chemical weapons will show the world that America’s red lines are only empty threats. It is a dangerous and destabilizing message that will surely come to haunt us—one that will certainly embolden Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons capability despite your repeated warnings that doing so is unacceptable. It is therefore time for the United States to take meaningful and decisive actions to stem the Assad regime’s relentless aggression, and help shape and influence the foundations for the post-Assad Syria that you have said is inevitable.

Sincerely,

Ammar Abdulhamid
Elliott Abrams
Dr. Fouad Ajami
Dr. Michael Auslin
Gary Bauer
Paul Berman
Max Boot
Ellen Bork
Ambassador L. Paul Bremer
Matthew R. J. Brodsky
Dr. Eliot A. Cohen
Senator Norm Coleman
Ambassador William Courtney
Seth Cropsey
James S. Denton
Paula A. DeSutter
Larry Diamond
Dr. Paula J. Dobriansky
Thomas Donnelly
Dr. Michael Doran
Mark Dubowitz
Dr. Colin Dueck
Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt
Ambassador Eric S. Edelman
Reuel Marc Gerecht
Abe Greenwald
Christopher J. Griffin
John P. Hannah
Bruce Pitcairn Jackson
Ash Jain
Dr. Kenneth Jensen
Allison Johnson
Dr. Robert G. Joseph
Dr. Robert Kagan
Lawrence F. Kaplan
Jamie Kirchick
Irina Krasovskaya
Dr. William Kristol
Bernard-Henri Levy
Dr. Robert J. Lieber
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman
Tod Lindberg
Dr. Thomas G. Mahnken
Dr. Michael Makovsky
Ann Marlowe
Dr. Clifford D. May
Dr. Alan Mendoza
Dr. Joshua Muravchik
Governor Tim Pawlenty
Martin Peretz
Danielle Pletka
Dr. David Pollock
Arch Puddington
Karl Rove
Randy Scheunemann
Dan Senor
Ambassador John Shattuck
Lee Smith
Henry D. Sokolski
James Traub
Ambassador Mark D. Wallace
Michael Weiss
Leon Wieseltier
Khawla Yusuf
Robert Zarate
Dr. Radwan Ziadeh

CONGRESS PRESSES OBAMA TO AID SYRIAN REBELS

August 29, 2013

The Washington Times on August 28, 2013, reported that there’s a growing sense in Congress that the U.S. should take more steps to arm Syrian rebels in their battle against the regime of President Bashar Assad, regardless of what decision President Obama reaches on whether to conduct military strikes against Damascus. Excerpts below:

Fresh from a trip to the Syria-Jordan border, Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a combat veteran from Iraq and Afghanistan, said this week that he’s been assured by both American intelligence and by the king of Jordan that it is possible to make sure military aid doesn’t reach the hands of Islamic extremists in the anti-government forces — a key concern that has complicated efforts to arm rebels.

“If America is to have any immediate role in the removal of Assad, training and arming the opposition should be the extent of U.S. involvement, which is sufficient to show America’s solidarity with friends in the region,” Mr. Hunter said.

Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, was on the trip and he reached a similar conclusion, saying aiding some elements of the Syrian rebellion could counteract extremists in case Mr. Assad is ousted.

“We should be under no illusion that such aid will significantly influence the outcome of the struggle against Assad. But the Free Syrian Army exists and we must be better positioned to combat extremism. They can help us in the future, but only if we help them first,” Mr. Smith said.

Powerful photos and videos have boosted the pressure to act, but analysts say the options are limited. The Pentagon has argued that creating a no-fly zone to limit the government’s use of air power would not be a decisive blow, and could draw the U.S. into a deeper war, while other analysts have questioned whether the U.S. has squandered a chance for surgical strikes to take out chemical weapons facilities.

But the option of arming the rebels, which the administration has resisted, appears to be growing in popularity. It’s a solution that involves U.S. money and intelligence work, but not a deployment of American troops.

“The use of limited stand-off strikes, even those powerful enough to significantly degrade the regime’s military capacity, are no substitute for training and equipping the moderate opposition in Syria,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“The choice in Syria should not be between the Assad regime and radical Islamists,” Mr. Engel said. “Rather, we must do all we can to strengthen those who support the goal of a stable, pluralist post-Assad Syria.”

US DEFENSE SECRETARY HAGEL MEETS WITH ASIAN DEFENSE LEADERS AS TENSION BUILDS OVER SYRIA

August 28, 2013

Fox News on August 28, 2013, published an AP report on U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel opening two days of talks with Asian defense leaders in Brunei, pushing for closer military ties even as the world is focused on Syria. Excerpts below:

Hagel was consulting by phone with administration officials and with allied defense chiefs, and he raised the Syria crisis in a one-on-one meeting with his South Korean counterpart. Officials said the two agreed that the purported chemical weapons attack on civilians last week in Syria was a matter of deep concern.

Japan’s defense minister thanked Hagel for taking the time to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference amid the Syria crisis.

Meanwhile Weekly Standard on August 26 published a warning by Eliot E. Cohen that simply sending cruise missiles into Syria would not be enough. Excerpts below:

“A serious bombing campaign would have substantial targets — most plausibly the Syrian air force, the service once headed by Assad’s father, which gives the regime much of its edge over the rebels, as well as the air defense system and the country’s airports, through which aid arrives from Iran. But should the Obama administration choose any kind of bombing campaign, it needs to face some hard facts,” Cohen wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.

Cohen explained:

For one thing, and despite the hopes of some proponents of an air campaign, this would not be surgical…A serious bombing campaign means civilian casualties, at our hands. And it may mean U.S. and allied casualties too, because the idea of a serious military effort without risk is fatuous.

And it probably would not end cleanly. When the president proclaimed the impending conclusion of the war with al-Qaeda, he disregarded the cardinal fact of strategy: It is (at least) a two-sided game. The other side, not we, gets to decide when it ends. And in this case neither the Syrian government nor its Iranian patrons, nor its Hezbollah, Russian and Chinese allies, may choose to shrug off a bombing campaign.

Chess players who think one move ahead usually lose; so do presidents who think they can launch a day or two of strikes and then walk away with a win. The repercussions may be felt in neighboring countries; they may even be felt in the United States, and there is no excuse for ignoring that fact.

Nevertheless, Cohen thinks it would be “intolerable” not to act, at this point. “Despite all these facts, not to act would be, at this point and by the administration’s own standards, intolerable.”

U.S. DESTROYERS, SUBS ON STANDBY FOR STRIKE ORDER ON SYRIA

August 27, 2013

The Washington Times on August 26, 2013, reported that four U.S. Navy destroyers remain ready in the Eastern Mediterranean for President Obama’s call to strike the Syrian regime’s military assets, each equipped with up to 90 Tomahawk cruise missiles, defense officials said. Excerpts below:

The USS Mahan, USS Gravely, USS Barry and USS Ramage are “poised and positioned should any options be taken,” a defense official said.

Although a decision to order a military strike had not been made by, intervention seemed more likely after Secretary of State John F. Kerry announced that the United States determined that there was a chemical weapons attack in Syria.

He said the Syrian government’s initial refusal and then belated permission for U.N. inspectors to examine the site of the attack “is not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide.”

“[The destroyers] are in position if needed, but they, to my knowledge, have received no tasking to this point, and that would come obviously from the White House,” the defense official said.

Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the administration is likely to respond with cruise missile strikes or some variation, specifically “standoff weapons” that would be launched into Syria from the sea or air.

Defense officials say the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, which recently entered the Mediterranean, is not expected to be part of any military campaign on Syria and would focus on operations in Afghanistan.

Also in the Mediterranean are submarines armed with cruise missiles. Their positions are classified because they carry special operations troops.

If any military strike “comes to pass, it’s about the destroyers in the eastern Med right now,” the defense official said.
Likely targets would be Syria’s air force and munitions storage sites — assets that have provided the regime with an advantage over rebels in its 2-year-old civil war.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on August 25 presented the White House with military options, including strikes from the destroyers. He has publicly advised against military intervention in Syria.

In a July 19 letter to the Senate outlining military options, Gen. Dempsey said the cost of the operation would be in the billions of dollars, depending on the duration of limited strikes. He also warned of retaliatory attacks from Syria or regime-backed terrorists.

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called on Mr. Obama to “act decisively” after declaring last year that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that Syria must not cross.

US LAWMAKERS URGE ACTION ON SYRIA

August 26, 2013

VOA on August 25, 2013, reported that high-ranking U.S. lawmakers of both major parties are urging prompt action in response to evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria.

The United States cannot ignore the deaths of hundreds of Syrians believed to have been exposed to some form of nerve agent or toxin, according to Congressman Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“We have to move, and we have to move quickly,” Democrat Congressman Eliot Engel said.

Engel spoke on the U.S. television program Fox News Sunday. He was joined by Senator Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“This [likely chemical weapons use] has happened. I think we will respond in a surgical way,” said Corker.

No one in Congress is urging U.S. soldiers on the ground in Syria. Representative Engle says there is much the United States can do short of a troop deployment.

“I certainly would do cruise missile strikes,” Engel said. “You can do that without boots on the ground, without having Americans in harm’s way. You could destroy [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s runways, you could destroy his munitions, his fuel. We could even destroy the Syrian air force if we wanted to.”

“I hope it is the kind of action that does not move us away from the policy we have right now of where we want to see the Syrian opposition group taking the lead on the ground,” said Corker.

U.S. naval forces have moved closer to Syria, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says America’s military is prepared to act on any orders President Obama may give.

RE-INVENTING POLITICAL WARFARE

August 25, 2013

U.S. News and World Report on August 16, 2013, published an important article by Michael P. Noonan on political warfare. Excerpts below:

There will, Mr. Noonan mentioned in the forthcoming fall issue of the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute “Orbis” appear an article that deals with the very issue of using governmental means to competitively engage with our threats, challengers and competitors abroad.

Mr. Noonan also commented on an article by Nadia Schadlow (“Competetive Engagement: Upgrading America’s Influence, Small Wars Journal, November 5, 2012).

She argues that organizations across the U.S. government that work overseas have to think about the challenge of their operating environments in ways that deal with the competitive nature of those interactions. From her introduction:

Being successful in a competition requires knowing and understanding both one’s competitors and oneself. Yet in those areas where non-military instruments of power dominate, the culture and the organizations needed to act competitively to achieve desired outcomes is generally absent. For the most part, competitive thinking is left to the realm of hard power. Only our military and intelligence agencies are structured to think and act competitively. The imbalance between military and non-military instruments of power is likely to continue unless civilian agencies develop approaches which account for the contested landscapes in which they function.

A posture of competitive engagement would require that the civilian actors who oversee U.S. economic and humanitarian programs account for the fact that new ideas, economic strategies, civic action plans, and even public health-related initiatives are contested by vested interests or ideological or political opponents. This is true in a range of countries—from Pakistan, to Egypt, to Uzbekistan, to Somalia. It requires the recognition that even the building of a girl’s school in Afghanistan or a health clinic in the Sudan is a political act. As the head of the Australian government’s aid agency put it, “aid is 10 percent technical and 90 percent political.”

In order to make these non-military and non-intelligence agencies more capable of operating in competitive environments she argues that:

  1. There needs to be a cultural shift in U.S. civilian agencies: “A shift in the prevailing mindset would recognize that the use of civilian tools to shape, build, or influence often encounters some opposition or generates a contest between competing ideas or approaches.”
  2. Such a shift will make distinct information requirements. But while “intelligence” is seen as anathema to some civilian agencies, “information grounded in history and the political context of any engagement effort is critical. Tools that seek to influence political outcomes require a serious inventory of political actors in the formal and informal domains.”
  3. Such agencies must have the flexibility to respond and change with the unfolding contests on the ground: “This approach recognizes that the character of an engagement will unfold in different ways since U.S. actions generate responses—by allies as well as adversaries.”

She both recognizes and elaborates the barriers in the way of preparing for such competitive engagement, but she advances an important argument. This is particularly the case when one stops to consider just the scope and breadth of competition in the contemporary Middle East.

When examining events across Africa, in Egypt (on both sides of the Suez Canal), in Syria, in Yemen, in Afghanistan and Pakistan and all the way to the South China Sea, it is not hard to grasp the important contributions that preparing American international actors for competitive engagement and also, in certain cases, for the conduct of political warfare abroad. It is important for the United States to at least try to be able to shape events on the ground overseas with as little force as possible or else live with the consequences of outcomes that may call for the use of more force down the road.

 Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

US ‘POSITIONING FORCES’ FOR POSSIBLE ACTION AGAINST SYRIA

August 24, 2013

Daily Telegraph, London, on August 24, 2013, reported that the Pentagon is moving forces into place in case President Barack Obama opts for military action against Syria, as US security advisers prepare to meet to discuss how to tackle an apparent chemical attack in Damascus this week. Excerpts below:

Amid calls for military intervention after the Syrian regime carried out an alleged chemical weapons attack this week, US commanders have prepared a range of “options” for Mr Obama if he chooses to launch an attack on the Damascus regime, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters aboard his plane en route to Malaysia.

But he declined to provide any details on the positioning of US troops and assets.

US media reported warships had been sent to the region for possible cruise missile attacks or other action but Mr Hagel declined to comment on the accounts.

“The president has asked the Defense Department for options. Like always, the Defense Department is prepared and has been prepared to provide all options for all contingencies to the president of the United States,” he said.

 “And that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options – whatever options the president might choose.”

Separately, a US official said Mr Obama’s security advisers will convene at the White House this weekend to discuss US options, including possible military action, against the Syrian government over an apparent chemical weapons attack earlier this week.

If Mr Obama takes part in the high-level meeting as appears likely, it would be his first full-scale session with top foreign policy aides since the mass poisoning in a Damascus suburb.

The Pentagon chief and other defense officials made clear no decision had been taken on whether to employ military force against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Mr Hagel, who visited US Marines in Hawaii before setting off on a week-long tour of Southeast Asia, said he expected American intelligence agencies to “swiftly” assess whether the Syrian government indeed used chemical weapons.

He said the US government would work closely with its allies.

“The international community should and will act in concert on these kinds of issues,” Mr Hagel said.

 

 

SYRIA AGAIN CHALLENGES OBAMA’S ‘RED LINE’ ON CHEMICAL WEAPONS –

August 23, 2013

Washington Times on August 21, 2013, reported that President Obama’s “red line” for Syria is once again being tested after rebel forces said Wednesday that the regime of President Bashar Assad used poison gas to attack civilians near Damascus, killing potentially hundreds in what could turn out to be the deadliest deployment of chemical weapons yet. Excerpts below:

Adding to the pressure on the White House were videos supplied by rebels showing victims convulsing and choking, and powerful photos of children wrapped in clean white shrouds, lined shoulder to shoulder with their dead faces visible.

The White House said it was trying to confirm the reports independently but that the allegations pose a test for the embattled Mr. Assad, who has said he wants to disprove allegations of chemical weapons attacks.

“It’s time for them to live up to that claim,” White House spokesmanJosh Earnest told reporters. “And if they actually are interested in getting to the bottom of the use of chemical weapons and whether or not that’s occurred in Syria, then they will allow the U.N.. investigative team that’s already in Syria to access the site where chemical weapons may have been used.”

Rebels gave various estimates of the death toll from the artillery fire, ranging from the low hundreds to more than 1,300.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency session to call for a “thorough, impartial and prompt investigation” of the charges against Syria.

News organizations said it was impossible to verify either the death toll reports or the nature of the attack.

The reports emerged almost a year to the day after Mr. Obama issued his “red line” to the Syrian regime, saying he would ensure that Damascus would suffer “enormous consequences” if chemical weapons were used or even if they were being readied for deployment.

Pressed by reporters about what consequences could be in line and why the U.S. response has been limited to condemnation, Mr. Earnest demurred. Still, he acknowledged the administration has “not attained our goal here yet, which is the removal of Assad from power.”

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill said some sort of intervention is needed to stop the civil war, which has raged since 2011 and has killed more than 100,0000, according to UN estimates.

“The U.S. has two options: continue to largely stand on the sidelines as the regime slaughters its own people, or tip the balance of power against a brutal dictator by degrading its ability to attack civilians,” Mr. Engel said in a statement. “If we are to salvage what remains of our credibility in the region, we must act soon.”

The White House indicated that if chemical weapons were used, that could help solidify a coalition opposed to the Syrian regime, which still has support from longtime allies including Russia.

U.S. officials said earlier this year they had officially concluded that chemical weapons have been used in a few attacks and were reasonably sure the culprits were Syrian government forces. But given past questions about U.S. accusations of weapons of mass destruction, particularly in Iraq, the administration has been tentative in making more definitive claims.

The team negotiated with the Syrian government to gain access to the sites, but now will have to renegotiate if the investigators are to gain access to locations of this week’s attack.