Raising the bar for direct U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war, President Obama said Tuesday that he won’t take more forceful action until the international community is convinced that the regime of Bashar Assad used chemical weapons.
“If I can establish, in a way that not only the United States but also the international community feel confident is the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, then that is a game changer,” Mr. Obama said. “That wasn’t a position unique to the United States.”
He backed off on the same day that the commercial heart of Damascus was hit by a deadly bombing and that the Shiite leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants hinted that his Iranian-backed group would join the conflict on Mr. Assad’s side should the need arise.
The White House told lawmakers last week that U.S. intelligence agencies suspect chemical weapons, most likely sarin gas, have been used during the 2-year-old conflict.
“The credibility of the United States is on the line, not just with Syria, but with Iran, North Korea, and all of our enemies and friends who are watching closely to see whether the president backs up his words with action,” they said. “Unfortunately, the red line has been blurred with each passing day.”
Addressing a news report that the administration is preparing to send lethal weaponry to the Syrian opposition, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said Mr. Obama “has directed his national security team to identify additional measures so that we can continue to increase our assistance.”
“We continue to consider all other possible options that would accomplish our objective of hastening a political transition, but have no new announcements at this time,” she said.
Ever since the report of chemical weapons became public, the White House has been tamping down expectations of more aggressive U.S. action and reminding the public that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was based on faulty reports of weapons of mass destruction.
Administration officials now say they want more proof that chemical weapons were used in Syria, and Mr. Obama elaborated on that position Tuesday.
“We don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them,” the president said. “We don’t have a chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened. And when I am making decisions about America’s national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts.”
White House officials also have said that verification of chemical weapons could hinge on the Syrian government’s willingness to allow international inspectors on the ground. They said they have no timetable for proving or disproving the reports.