President Barack Obama said the U.S. won’t rush to intervene in Syria without solid evidence that Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons even as the administration reviews contingencies for a response.
The intelligence assessments that chemical munitions were used in Syria alone aren’t sufficient to trigger a stronger U.S. response, Obama said yesterday at a White House news conference. While saying the Defense Department has prepared a list of options, Obama declined to specify what course the U.S. may take if the reports are confirmed.
“What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them,” Obama said. “If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we can find ourselves in a position where we can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do.”
The U.S. is enlisting the United Nations and its NATO allies in investigating what the intelligence reports said was the use of small amounts of sarin nerve gas. The revelation last week of the assessment escalated calls from some members of Congress for the U.S. to take further steps, such as imposing a no-fly zone over Syria or providing arms to aid rebels battling Assad’s forces.
Obama’s remarks were made on the same day a car bomb in central Damascus killed at least 13 people, Syria’s state television reported.
Obama is reviewing the possibility of sending arms to the Syrian rebels and may make a decision within weeks, the Washington Post reported citing unnamed administration officials. The U.S. is still seeking a negotiated end to the conflict and is pressing the Russian government to cut off its support of the regime, the Post reported.
Obama said that confirmation that chemical weapons were used by the regime “means that there are some options that we might not otherwise exercise that we would strongly consider.”
The U.S. is consulting with its allies about sending rebels communication equipment, armor, night-vision goggles and vehicles to aid their fight, Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
Obama ‘has directed his national security team to identify additional measures so that we can continue to increase our assistance,’’ she said. “We continue to consider all other possible options that would accomplish our objective of hastening a political transition.”
Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have been among the most vocal critics of Obama’s approach in Syria, and yesterday they said the president was trying to “defend the indefensible.”
“The uncertainty and ambiguity of our policy toward Syria has contributed to our current crisis,” they said in a joint statement. “It will not be long before Assad takes this delay as an invitation to use chemical weapons again on an even larger scale.”
The senators said the U.S. has a wide range of military options short of sending troops into Syria and called on Obama to “articulate exactly” the nation’s strategy and goals.
Most Americans continue to reject the notion that the U.S. has a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll taken April 24-28. Sixty-two percent said the U.S. doesn’t have a responsibility to intervene, while 24 percent saw a responsibility to do something.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has 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 an April 29 statement. “I again urge the Syria authorities to allow the investigation to proceed without delay and without any conditions.”
Syria’s ambassador to the UN, Bashar Ja’afari, said western countries are trying to frame his government on charges of using chemical weapons, and insisted the UN first investigate his government’s allegation that rebels used chemical weapons.
“Capitals that are directly involved in the bloodshed of the Syrian people,” are pursuing a plan to “implicate” the Syrian government “on a false basis with regard use of chemical weapons,” Ja’afari told reporters at the UN in New York.
Obama consulted April 29 with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the situation in Syria. The U.S. has been urging Russia to bring more pressure on Assad to step down. Putin’s government has resisted supporting any intervention in Syria and has defended the regime there against UN censure.
Yesterday’s car bombing in Damascus came a day after Prime Minister Wael al-Halaqi survived a bomb attack in the capital.
More than 70 people were wounded in the explosion in the Marjeh district, according to the Syrian television report. The device detonated at the gate of the country’s old Interior Ministry building, the Coventry, England-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.
Syrian rebels have targeted high-ranking government officials in their two-year fight to topple Assad from power. The anti-Assad uprising has killed more than 70,000 people since it started in March 2011, according to UN estimates.