From left, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, U.N. special envoy to Syria… (Philippe Desmazes / AFP/Getty…)
WASHINGTON — In a sign of its weak hand in the Syria crisis, the Obama administration has abandoned for now its hope of winning U.N. authorization for the use of force against President Bashar Assad's government if it fails to surrender its chemical weapons.
Facing steadfast Russian resistance, officials said Friday that they would accept a United Nations resolution that imposed weaker penalties such as economic sanctions and allowed for the Security Council to reconsider the use of force if Assad did not live up to his promises.
The shift, described by administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, appeared to be an acknowledgment of the likelihood that Security Council members Russia and China would veto the use of force, and of the overall lack of international support for military strikes to punish Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons.
But President Obama's effort to retain the option to launch military action in response to the Aug. 21 attack, which the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people, may have received a boost in comments from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Ban said an upcoming report by U.N. experts would show strong evidence of the use of chemical weapons. A U.N.-based diplomat said the report would build a circumstantial case that the Syrian military was responsible.
Whether the international community retains the option to use force has become the focus of diplomacy. Syria and its allies in Russia surprisingly announced this week that Assad's government would give up its chemical weapons and sign an international treaty that prohibits them.
France announced it was crafting a U.N. resolution that would authorize the use of force if Assad reneged on the pledge, which the Russians immediately rejected. On Thursday, Assad said he wouldn't hand over his chemical weapons unless the U.S. stopped arming rebels seeking to overthrow his government.
Negotiations are likely to drag on now for some time. Administration officials say they expect a conclusion in weeks, not months.
The report by the U.N. experts may be released as early as Monday.
Appearing at a U.N. meeting he thought was private, Ban said into an open microphone that he believed the inspectors would deliver "an overwhelming, overwhelming report that chemical weapons [were] used, even though I cannot publicly say [so] at this time, before I receive the report."
Because of the faulty intelligence the George W. Bush administration relied on in justifying the invasion of Iraq in 2003, U.S. officials have faced tough questions from other governments, in Congress and from the U.S. public about its accusations that Assad used chemical weapons.
But if the evidence of Syrian responsibility is strong, and if Syria fails to live up to its promises, Obama could gain more international backing for his arguments that force is needed.
The U.N. investigation, conducted by a team headed by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, was not designed to assign blame for the attack. But a diplomat based at the United Nations said the evidence the inspectors gathered would make a circumstantial case strong enough to convince many that the Syrian military was responsible.
The evidence includes ammunition and the results of tests on soil, blood and urine. The investigators conducted dozens of interviews with medical personnel, relief workers and victims.
U.S. officials have argued that the physical evidence shows for example, that the attacks were conducted with weaponry used by the Syrian military and that it was fired from areas held by Syrian troops.
The findings "make it hard to believe that others did it," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not yet been released. Even so, the diplomat acknowledged that Russia and Syria may still seize on some points to insist the case is not definitive.
Also Friday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met for a second day in Geneva to work out a process for eliminating Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. They said they also discussed how to move back into long-stalled negotiations on how to end Syria's civil war.
The two officials met with the U.N. special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi. Their comments were the first suggestions that the discussion over chemical weapons could be broadened to encompass an effort to end the war.
They said they would resume the discussions Sept. 28 in New York, after the opening of the new U.N. General Assembly session, and hoped to finally be able to set a date for negotiations.
Kerry said Obama remained "deeply committed" to a negotiated solution to the war, and wants to explore whether the Syrian government and rebels can broker formation of a new government. But Kerry added that progress depended on whether the U.S. and Russian negotiating team in Geneva, where the sides are deeply divided on many aspects of the issue, can make progress.