President Barack Obama said the U.S. is seeking corroboration of intelligence that Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria used chemical weapons in that country’s civil war, reiterating that confirmation would be a “game-changer” for the U.S. response.
Speaking before a private White House meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Obama repeated the language the administration used yesterday that intelligence agencies have “varying degrees of confidence” in evidence that chemical munitions were used against Assad’s opponents.
“There are a range of questions around how, when, where these weapons may have been used,” Obama said today. “We have to make these assessments deliberately, but I think all of us -- not just in the United States, but around the world -- recognize how we cannot stand by and permit the systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations.”
In his first public remarks since the U.S. disclosed it has evidence that chemical weapons were used in Syria, Obama didn’t specify how the U.S. might respond.
The president is under pressure from from American lawmakers to take stronger action in Syria following U.S. intelligence assessments that sarin nerve gas may have been used in the conflict. The administration has resisted providing arms to the rebels or taking direct military action.
The White House informed lawmakers yesterday that U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded “with varying degrees of confidence” that Assad’s regime has used small amounts of sarin nerve gas. That marked a change from previous administration statements that questioned whether evidence have been found to support allegations of chemical attacks.
“The president wants the facts,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said earlier today at a White House briefing. “We have some evidence, and we need to build on that.”
While the U.S. intelligence community has differing levels of confidence that Assad’s regime has used poison gas, the new assessment draws Obama closer to his previously declared “red line” over such use and fueled calls for action by lawmakers already advocating deeper involvement.
“The Syrians crossed the line the president had said would be a game changer,” Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona told reporters yesterday.
At a classified briefing today for members of the U.S. House, Secretary of State John Kerry gave no indication about when or if the U.S. will act, said Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican.
Representative Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, said Kerry described a range of potential steps.
“It’s everything from diplomatic opposition to Assad, to supporting refugees, to cash for groups, to weapons for groups, to a no-fly zone,” Sherman said. “All of those are on the table. The secretary laid out what some of those actions would be.”
Lawmakers were told that “all of the military options are being presented to the president, along with the risks,” Illinois Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky said.
The risks include Syria’s anti-missile and anti-aircraft defenses, which are more sophisticated than those allied forces confronted in Iraq and Libya, Sherman said. “A no-fly zone is not a no-casualty option,” he said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said a response shouldn’t include intervention by U.S. ground troops in Syria.
“We have to take it to the next step -- that does not mean troops on the ground,” Pelosi said. “It should be very clear to President Assad that his behavior, killing his own people, is outside the circle of civilized human behavior -- that this has to stop.”
While he has repeatedly used the words “red line” and “game changer,” Obama hasn’t defined what would trigger more muscular U.S. action or how his administration might respond to conclusive evidence that Assad has used chemical or biological weapons.
In the Syrian government’s first response to the U.S. findings, Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said that “the fabricated and false” allegations “do not have any credibility,” according to the official Sana news agency. The regime has said that chemical weapons have been used by terrorists, its blanket description for the opposition.
Kerry announced last week that the U.S. is providing an additional $123 million to the Syrian opposition, doubling so-called nonlethal aid, while some Persian Gulf nations send arms and money. As the administration has pressed at the United Nations for diplomatic efforts to remove Assad, Obama has discouraged talk of U.S. military intervention.
In a letter to lawmakers yesterday, the Obama administration said that there’s evidence of use of sarin nerve gas that needs to be corroborated. The current intelligence shows there’s “not sufficient” evidence to take action, it said.
Speaking with reporters in Brussels today, Michael Mann, the spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said that while “any use of chemical weapons in any circumstances is completely unacceptable,” the U.S. intelligence assessment “wasn’t completely definitive.”
Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy research group, said “two small uses, if we can’t tie it to Assad and to the regime, isn’t really a red line.” Kerry told reporters yesterday there was evidence of “two instances” of chemical weapons use.
Particularly after the George W. Bush administration’s embrace of faulty intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it’s important not to overreact, Cordesman said.
“You need to wait long enough to have a clear context for action,” he said. “Then the American political debate has to suddenly realize: If you’re telling the president it’s a red line and it’s been crossed, you’d better be in the position to agree to the use of force.”
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who described the “limited but growing evidence” as “extremely serious,” said today that Britain and its allies are being careful not to repeat the mistakes over Iraq. Support for the Syrian opposition should be stepped up, Cameron said, though he said British troops are unlikely to be sent to Syria.
The Obama administration already is under pressure -- from U.S. lawmakers, Israel, France, the U.K., the Syrian opposition and Persian Gulf nations seeking Assad’s removal -- to start providing weapons to the rebels. Some, such as McCain, are urging creation of a no-fly zone or sending troops to seize Assad’s chemical and biological weapons before they fall into terrorists’ hands.
The administration remains reluctant to get involved militarily in part because it has insufficient intelligence on the Syrian regime and opposition groups, which include Islamic extremists allied with al-Qaeda, two U.S. officials said yesterday. Both spoke on the condition of not being identified because they have access to classified information on Syria.
The officials said there is no consensus in the U.S. intelligence community about whether Syria has used small amounts of nerve gas, with different agencies expressing widely varied confidence in the assessment. Some agencies had only low to moderate confidence in the intelligence.
One of the officials said there is no evidence of mass casualties, which suggests that if the Assad regime did use such weapons, it did so only in small quantities that are very difficult to trace.
It’s possible, that official said, that a local military commander may have used small amounts of the odorless nerve gas to terrorize people, rather than as a weapon of mass destruction, and it isn’t clear whether any use might have been authorized by Assad or other top regime officials.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has designated a team of specialists to look into reports of chemical-weapons use if the Syrian government grants it “full and unfettered” access, according to a statement from a spokesman.