President Barack Obama’s spokesman said “much more” work needs to be done to verify intelligence assessments that Syria’s regime used chemical weapons against the opposition in that country’s civil war.
The U.S. needs to investigate whether there is direct evidence that Bashar al-Assad’s regime used the poison sarin in its fight against rebels, White House press secretary Jay Carney said today at a White House briefing.
Carney repeated Obama’s stance that verified use of chemical munitions by Syrian government forces or the transfer of those weapons to terrorist groups would cross a “red line” triggering U.S. action.
“The president made clear this is a very serious matter,” Carney said. Because of that, “it is essential to establish, you know, a broader process of verification that will allow us then to assess whether that red line has been crossed and what the policy response will be.”
The administration disclosed on April 25 that intelligence agencies assess with “varying degrees of confidence” that Assad’s regime has used chemical munitions on a small scale in two instances.
That has escalated calls from some members of Congress for the U.S. to take further steps, such as imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, to aid rebels battling Assad’s regime.
One of those urging a bigger U.S. role in Syria is Senator John McCain, who said yesterday that the atrocities already committed by Assad are justification enough for action.
Assad’s use of chemical weapons “should not be the gauge,” the Arizona Republican, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “Unless we change the balance of power, there is a danger that this stalemate could go on for months and months.”
At the Pentagon today, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the U.S. is continuing to assess Syria’s suspected use of chemical weapons, while declining to discuss potential military options.
“We should wait and get the facts” before making any decision, Hagel said at a joint news conference with Japan’s defense minister, Itsunori Onodera.
More than 70,000 people have died during the Syrian civil war, according to United Nations estimates.
Obama hasn’t said what the U.S. would do if chemical weapons use is verified.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today renewed his plea for access to Syria to investigate suspected chemical weapons use, as he prepared to meet in New York with the head of his investigative team.
“A credible and comprehensive inquiry requires full access to the sites where chemical weapons are alleged to have been used,” Ban said in a statement. “I again urge the Syria authorities to allow the investigation to proceed without delay and without any conditions.”
The U.S. and its international partners are seeking to determine the “chain of custody” of evidence that sarin was used and gather physical evidence, Carney said, adding that he couldn’t give a timetable. The U.S. wants to know “ how the exposure occurred, under what circumstances, who specifically was responsible,” he said.
Obama discussed his concern over Syria today in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders pledged to stay “in close consultation” and instructed their deputies to continue discussions on Syria, according to a White House statement.
Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program yesterday that the Obama administration is working harder than Americans realize “trying to figure out what we can do surgically without making the problems worse.”
In the most recent violence, Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halaqi survived a bomb explosion that killed at least six people as his convoy traveled through Damascus, state television said.
At least 15 people were wounded in the blast in the capital’s Mazzeh district, the television station’s website said.