President Barack Obama said the U.S. has both a moral obligation and a national security interest in stopping the bloodshed in Syria, and there are no “easy answers” to resolving the civil war there.
Speaking at a White House news conference with South Korean President Park Geun Hye, Obama said the U.S. has taken the lead in organizing opposition forces and providing humanitarian and non-lethal aid while weighing stronger options to force Bashar al-Assad from power.
He cited actions to topple Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya and the mission to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
“I would think at this point the international community has a pretty good sense that we typically follow through on our commitments,” Obama said.
The U.S. president spoke as Secretary of State John Kerry is in Russia to urge Russian President Vladimir Putin to help push Assad from power. Putin has resisted putting greater pressure on the regime while urging negotiations between the government and the rebels.
At home, Obama is under pressure from some lawmakers to take stronger action after a U.S. intelligence assessment that chemical weapons may have been used in the conflict.
The United Nations yesterday failed to clear up conflicting claims about chemical weapons after a former war-crimes prosecutor said there were signs that rebels, not Assad forces, had used sarin gas. The UN Human Rights Council said a commission investigating violations in Syria “has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict,” according to an e-mailed statement.
“I think that understandably there’s a desire for easy answers,” Obama said. “We want to make sure that we are acting deliberately.”
The U.S. has dual interests in Syria: stopping the killing of civilians and seeing that Syria is stable once Assad’s regime is out of power, Obama said.
“There’d be severe costs in doing nothing, that’s why we’re not doing nothing,” Obama said. He repeated that the U.S. wants more concrete evidence about whether chemical weapons have been used in the conflict before deciding that a so-called red line for intervention has been crossed.
“We have evidence that there has been the use of chemical weapons inside Syria, but I don’t make decision on ‘perceived,’” he said. “We tried that in the past, and it didn’t work out well.”
An administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said the U.S. is proceeding on two tracks to get evidence to corroborate and build on intelligence assessments: the UN investigation which has continuously been blocked by the Assad regime and efforts working with Syrian opposition and other countries.
While the administration hasn’t made a decision to direct lethal assistance to the opposition, that option is under review, the official said.
Obama and Park also vowed to keep up pressure on North Korea and said that Kim Jong Un won’t be rewarded for trying to provoke a confrontation.
The North has warned of atomic strikes against the U.S. and South Korea, sentenced a U.S. citizen to 15 years of hard labor and shuttered a factory park run jointly with the South.
Park, through a translator, said she and Obama “reaffirmed that we will by no means tolerate North Korea’s threats and provocations” and that such actions would “only deepen” North Korea’s isolation.
The visit to Washington marks Park’s first foreign trip since taking office in February.