Obama Says Chemical Weapons Use by Syria ‘Red Line’ for U.S.

U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama at a press briefing in the White House on Monday. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama said any discovery that Syria’s chemicals or biological weapons are being moved or used may force him to reconsider U.S. military action.

“A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” the president told reporters yesterday in a news conference at the White House. “That would change my calculus.”

Obama said the U.S. has contingency plans to deal with President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime and its violence toward the Syrian people. It has made clear to the government and what he termed “other players on the ground” that there would be “enormous consequences” for any development involving Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

The U.S. president said he’s not ordered any military engagement in the 17-month conflict. Syria’s hostilities have so far claimed the lives of more than 23,000 people, including more than 16,000 civilians and 5,800 soldiers, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. United Nations military monitors are leaving the country after the two sides failed to observe an April cease-fire.

“We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” Obama said.

The U.S. president’s comments show the West is seeking a pretext for invasion, Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil told reporters in Moscow today.

Weapons ‘Monitored’

Syrian officials have given contradictory statements about a chemical and biological weapons capability. Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said last month that the munitions are secure and won’t be used against the country’s opposition.

“All the stocks of these weapons that the Syrian Arab Republic possesses are monitored and guarded by the Syrian Army,” he said at a July 23 Damascus press conference shown on state-run television. “These weapons are meant to be used only and strictly in the event of external aggression.”

The Foreign Ministry later issued a statement saying Makdissi was responding to a “false premise” and wasn’t confirming for the first time that Syria possessed chemical weapons.

While the U.S. has urged Assad to step down, Obama said that “at this point the likelihood of a soft landing seems pretty distant.” The U.S. is consulting with other nations about managing the eventual transition in Syria, he said.

UN Vetoes

International agreement on Syria is elusive. The U.S. and its European allies seek to force Assad to step down, while Russia and China have vetoed UN resolutions designed to accelerate his departure.

UN envoy Kofi Annan stepped down this month, accusing world powers of “finger-pointing and name-calling” at the UN. The organization’s cease-fire monitors will leave Syria by Aug. 24 after the UN Security Council decided not to renew the monitors’ mandate. While the UN has agreed to keep a liaison office in Syria, the move marks the end of the organization’s hopes that a cease-fire between Assad’s regime and its armed opponents might be close.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the former Algerian foreign minister appointed to replace Annan and revive the UN peace effort, told France24 television on Aug. 19 that he wanted to see whether serious dialogue was feasible.

“A lot of people say we must avoid civil war in Syria,” Brahimi said. “I think we are already there. We have been for quite some time now. What’s needed is to end the civil war, and that won’t be easy.”

Death Toll

Responding to Brahimi’s remarks, the Syrian Foreign Ministry said a civil war exists only in the minds of conspirators against the country, according to a statement cited by the state-run SANA news agency.

Talks with Syria’s rebels are possible and may include the subject of Assad’s resignation, Jamil said in Moscow today. Even so, calls for his departure before talks begin would make negotiations impossible, he said.

At least 152 Syrians died in violence today, according to Al Arabiya television citing the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group. Government forces shelled locations in the suburbs of Damascus, near the northern city of Aleppo and in the southern province of Daraa where the unrest first erupted last year, the committees said.

A total of 144 civilians were killed yesterday, including 43 in Damascus, according to an e-mailed statement from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Japanese Journalist

A Japanese journalist, Mika Yamamoto, was killed in Syria yesterday, according to a Japanese Foreign Ministry official.

Yamamoto died during a firefight between government and rebel forces in Aleppo, Toshinori Matsushiro said by phone. Yamamoto, a freelance journalist at Japan Press Inc., was born in 1967, according to the Tokyo-based news agency’s website. She had reported in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 and received several journalism awards in Japan, the website said.

Syrian refugee numbers in Turkey have reached about 70,000, Ershad Hurmuzlu, an adviser to President Abdullah Gul told Al Arabiya television yesterday. Last week, the UN estimated Turkey was housing about 60,000 Syrians.

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