WASHINGTON – The White House asserted Sunday that a common-sense test dictates the Syrian government is responsible for a chemical weapons attack that President Barack Obama says demands a U.S. military response. But Obama's chief aide says the administration lacks "irrefutable, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence" that skeptical Americans, including lawmakers who will start voting on military action this week, are seeking.
"This is not a court of law. And intelligence does not work that way," White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said, part of his five-network public relations blitz to build support for limited strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"The common-sense test says he is responsible for this. He should be held to account," McDonough said of the Syrian leader who for two years has resisted calls from inside and outside his country to step down.
The U.S., citing intelligence reports, says the lethal nerve agent sarin was used in an Aug. 21 attack outside Damascus, and that 1,429 people died, including 426 children.
The number is higher than that, said Khalid Saleh, head of the press office at the anti-Assad Syrian Coalition. He was in Washington to lobby lawmakers to back Obama. But Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-government activists, says it has been able to confirm only 502 dead.
The actual tally of those killed by chemical weapons is scant compared to the sum of all killed in the upheaval: more than 100,000, according to the United Nations.
In an interview Sunday, Assad told U.S. journalist Charlie Rose there is not conclusive evidence about who is to blame for the chemical weapons attacks and again suggested the rebels were responsible. From Beirut, Rose described his interview, set to be released Monday on the CBS morning program that Rose hosts. The full interview set to air on Rose's PBS program.
At the same time, Obama has planned his own public relations effort. He has scheduled six network interviews on Monday and then a primetime speech to the nation from the White House on Tuesday, the eve of the first votes in Congress.
Obama faces a tough audience on Capitol Hill. A survey by The Associated Press shows that House members who are staking out positions are either opposed to or leaning against Obama's plan for a military strike by more than a 6-1 margin.
McDonough conceded the United States doesn't have concrete evidence Assad was behind the chemical attacks.
Recent opinion surveys show intense American skepticism about military intervention in Syria, even among those who believe Syria's government used chemical weapons on its people.
Still, Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, has predicted authorization and McDonough, too, on Sunday telegraphed optimism.
"They do not dispute the intelligence when we speak with them," McDonough said.
McDonough, an Obama foreign policy adviser dating back to his 2008 presidential campaign, said the dots connect themselves.
The material "was delivered by rockets – rockets which we know the Assad regime has and we have no indication that the opposition has."