President Obama said Friday that reports of Syria using chemical weapons "is a game changer" for dealing with the regime, but he cautioned that the U.S. won't take action quickly.
"This is not an on and off switch, it's an ongoing challenge that all of us have to work with," Mr. Obama told reporters in the Oval Office during a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II. "This is going to be a long-term proposition not something we could solve easily one night."
Mr. Obama said reports that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has used sarin gas against opponents is likely to change his approach to the civil war there.
"For the Syrian government to use chemical weapons on its people will change my calculus," he said. "To use weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations crosses another line in terms of international norms and laws. That's going to be a game changer."
The president has said previously that Syria's use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line." But Mr. Obama hasn't specified what action he would take in such a case, and the president said Friday he wants more proof that the regime did launch a chemical attack.
"Knowing that there's chemical weapons in Syria doesn't tell us when they were used or how they were used," Mr. Obama said. "We ourselves will be putting a lot of resources on this… A line has been crossed when we are seeing tens of thousands killed by the regime."
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the administration is renewing a push for an United Nations investigation into chemical weapons.
"I'm not going to speculate about what action we might take should we firmly establish that the red line has been crossed, but it is absolutely the case that all options remain on the table," Mr. Carney said.
The White House said Thursday that military forces loyal to Assad probably used chemical weapons on a "small scale," reigniting debate over how aggressively the U.S. should try to topple the regime.
In a carefully worded letter to senators, the White House said the details were sketchy. Mr. Carney said Friday there were "physiological samples" indicating the use of the nerve gas.
Mr. Obama has resisted calls by his own Cabinet members and some lawmakers to arm Syrian opposition groups, fearing that U.S. weapons might end up in the hands of Islamist elements in the Syrian opposition.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said Thursday that Mr. Obama now must take a firmer stance.
"It's past time for the president to have a robust conversation with the Congress and the American people about how best to bring Assad's tyranny to an end," Mr. Boehner said.
Mr. Carney said the administration is mindful of the example of the U.S. going to war against Iraq, where reports of weapons of mass destruction were incorrect. He called Iraq a "significant" precedent.
"The assessments that we make — that the intelligence community makes are extraordinarily valuable, and they do excellent work," Mr. Carney said. "But they are building blocks toward a broader objective here, which is the accumulation of concrete evidence, evidence that can be corroborated, evidence that can be presented and reviewed and then acted on if the conclusion is that a red line has been crossed."
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