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.
Mr. Obama’s comments at a White House news conference further amended his position that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that he wouldn’t tolerate.
“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.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and other lawmakers have urged the administration to create a “no-fly” zone over Syria to protect civilians from further attacks.
Mr. McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said in a statement that Mr. Obama is undermining U.S. credibility and failing to save lives.
“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.
An anti-Assad activist said Mr. Obama’s position guarantees that Syria won’t be held accountable for the suspected use of chemical weapons.
“Obama will never get the concrete evidence he wants unless there’s a full U.N. investigation, to which Assad will not agree,” Abdulwahab Omar, who is based in London, told USA Today. “That means Obama will never be obliged to do anything. You can call it a bluff. He tried to show that the United States would be prepared to intervene when things get serious, when in reality, the U.S. is not prepared to intervene unless its own interests are directly affected.”
The Syrian regime denies using chemical weapons in the war, in which more than 70,000 people have been killed. It released photos during the weekend of people suffering from effects of chemical attacks but said it was the rebels who used the weapons.
In August, by which time there already had been months of bloodshed in Syria, Mr. Obama stated that the use of chemical weapons is a “red line for us … There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front, or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculus, or calculations, significantly.”
Mr. Obama cautioned Tuesday against “rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence” because it could create a situation in which the U.S. “can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do.”
Asked whether he defined “game changer” as military force, the president replied: “By ‘game changer,’ I mean that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us.”
Mr. Obama defended his actions thus far to protect Syrian civilians, saying he has organized the international community to pressure Mr. Assad to step down.
“We are the largest humanitarian donor,” Mr. Obama said. “We have worked to strengthen the opposition. We have provided nonlethal assistance to the opposition. We have applied sanctions on Syria. So there are a whole host of steps that we’ve been taking.”
Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham said the administration instead is encouraging Mr. Assad to launch worse attacks against his opponents.
“It will not be long before Assad takes this delay as an invitation to use chemical weapons again on an even larger scale,” they said. “Both the humanitarian and strategic consequences that will result from such an act are horrific: It will further destabilize Syria, which is at great risk of becoming a failed state and a safe haven for Al Qaeda.”
They said Mr. Obama “needs to articulate exactly what outcome in Syria would best serve America’s national security interests, what strategy is required to achieve that goal, and what means we need to employ together with our friends and allies to achieve success.”
Rachel Ehrenfeld, an authority on terrorism at the New York-based American Center for Democracy, said the U.S. should bypass the United Nations and immediately impose a “no-fly” zone in Syria, stop giving arms to rebels associated with al Qaeda and put troops on the ground to prevent chemical weapons from being produced and transported.