President Obama cautioned against jumping to conclusions about conflicting reports that chemical weapons are now being used in Syria’s 2-year-old civil war, although he stressed Wednesday that if the reports are true it would be “a game changer.”
While Mr. Obama stopped short of explaining what action the U.S. might take — beyond saying such circumstances would mean “the international community has to act” — his remarks came amid mounting pressure from both sides of the aisle in Washington for the U.S. to get more deeply involved in Syria’s war.
A growing number of Democrats have voiced support this week for the U.S. to begin directly arming Syrian opposition rebels in the fight against military forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. And, on Wednesday, a top House Republican suggested that the Obama administration may be justified in authorizing pre-emptive air strikes against Syria’s chemical weapons.
“If we’re ever going to have a diplomatic solution where this regime doesn’t get to the point where it uses mass quantities of chemical weapons, we’ve got to rebuild our credibility,” Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said during an appearance on “CBS This Morning.”
“One way to do that is to remove their capability to use chemical weapons on civilians,” said Mr. Rogers, who noted there are “lots of capabilities in the United States arsenal where it wouldn’t require boots on the ground.”
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina went a step further in a joint statement on Tuesday. If the reports of chemical weapon use are substantiated, the two senators said, the Obama administration should respond by authorizing “targeted strikes against Assad’s aircraft and Scud missile batteries,” as well as “the establishment of safe zones inside Syria to protect civilians and opposition groups.”
But on Wednesday, President Obama stressed that it was still not clear whether chemical weapons had actually been used.
Saying he was “deeply skeptical” of claims made by the Assad government that opposition rebels gained access to and used such weapons, Mr. Obama also stopped short of directly accusing Mr. Assad of using them.
“I’ve instructed my teams to work closely with all other countries in the region and international organizations and institutions to find out precisely whether or not this red line was crossed,” said the president, although he added that “we know that there are those in the Syrian government who have expressed a willingness to use chemical weapons.”
A member of the Syrian opposition, meanwhile, told The Washington Times on Tuesday night that opposition forces in the nation need detection equipment and people who can verify whether forces loyal to the Assad government have used such weapons on the Syrian people.
“This is the responsibility of the United States,” said Kamal al-Labwani, a medical doctor and member of the Syrian opposition coalition, who maintained that without such equipment “we can only depend on symptoms [to corroborate] our claims.”
Dr. al-Labwani, who spoke with The Times via Skype from Istanbul, Turkey, said alleged victims inside Syria have shown symptoms consistent with those caused by exposure to Sarin gas, a potent nerve agent used in chemical weapons.
In other interviews, Syrian activists claimed the Assad government has used chemical weapons in three separate areas, including Khan al-Assal, north of Aleppo; al-Otaiba, near Damascus; and in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs city.
While several lawmakers are calling for deeper U.S. engagement in the conflict, at least one prominent Republican member of the House came out firmly Wednesday against too-eagerly supporting Syria’s opposition rebels.
“I sincerely do not believe that it is time for the U.S. to arm the rebels,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida said during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing examining the Obama administration’s policy toward the conflict.
Echoing concerns raised repeatedly by the White House during the past two years — that al-Qaeda-linked militants are operating among the Syrian opposition fighters — Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen added that “too many questions remain about who the rebels are.”
The risks, she said, are simply too great that weapons channeled into the conflict by Washington later could end up being “used against our allies such as Israel or even the United States in a post-Assad era.”
Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen’s remarks appeared almost tailored as a reaction to what has been growing bipartisan support for a measure introduced recently by the Foreign Affairs Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Eliot L. Engel, of New York, who seeks to give the White House legal authority to arm the Syrian rebels.
⦁ Ashish Kumar Sen contributed to this report.