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Obama Pressed by Chemical-Attack Claims for U.S. Action

Aug. 24 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. President Barack Obama is under increased pressure to intervene in Syria amid allegations that President Bashar al-Assad’s government used chemical arms in an attack opposition groups say killed 1,300 people.

Obama said on CNN he would “think through strategically” on how to respond to the “very troublesome” allegations. British Foreign Secretary William Hague put his nation’s weight behind the reports, with a public accusation that Assad’s government used toxic gas in its attack this week on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.

Obama has maintained a cautious approach since saying a year ago that use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a U.S. “red line.” The latest violence may force him to make a decision on escalating U.S. involvement.

“This is a fork in the road for the U.S.,” said former undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns, now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “Our basic credibility is at stake. If we do nothing, the world will lose confidence in American leadership.”

Internet video and photos showed dead Syrians without visible wounds following the Aug. 21 attack, and reports from local doctors were consistent with nerve gas or lethal exposure to pesticides.

“We do believe that this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime on a large scale,” Hague said in televised comments yesterday in London.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Aug. 22 urged the world to respond “with force” to any use of chemical weapons.

Obama’s Caution

After the U.S. intelligence community concluded in June that the Syrian government had used chemical arms on a “small scale” last year, killing at least 100 to 150 people, Obama said he would step up U.S. assistance for opposition forces.

Obama campaigned for office as a critic of the Iraq war and as president has set a timeline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan. He has been reluctant to risk another war in the Middle East and has been wary that chaos in Syria following a collapse of Assad’s regime would provide a spawning ground for extremist groups.

In an interview broadcast yesterday on CNN’s “New Day” program, Obama said the new reports of chemical weapons use get to “core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region.”

Obama stopped short of saying what his response would be.

Strategic Thinking

“We have to think through strategically what’s going to be in our long-term national interests, even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians,” he said.

The U.S. has the ability to act “effectively in the time and place of our choosing,” Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an interview. “Instead we are sending a message of caution. It is read by our friends and enemies alike,” and sends a signal of impunity.

Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said the president “has directed the intelligence community to gather facts and evidence so that we can determine what occurred in Syria.” She added that “we have a range of options available, and we are going to act very deliberately.”

Obama’s advisers are discussing options that don’t at the moment include imposing a no-fly zone on Syria or putting U.S. troops inside the country, said an administration official who asked not to be identified discussing closed-door deliberations.

No Decisions

One option administration officials are considering is more active support for Syria’s neighbors, said another U.S. official involved in Middle East policy making.

While no decisions have been made, consideration is being given to asking Congress to approve increased military and humanitarian assistance to Jordan, Turkey and possibly Iraq, the official said. The aid could perhaps be offset by delays or reductions in assistance to the Egyptian military if the violence that country continues, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The administration is increasingly worried about the stability of pro-Western Jordan’s minority Hashemite monarchy, critical to Israel’s security and now burdened by more than 1.3 million Syrian refugees, the official said. U.S. officials also are concerned about efforts by Kurdish groups, which will meet at a rare summit next month, to exploit the chaos in Iraq to create an independent state out of territory in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

Pressure Building

“Pressure is building on Obama to militarize the U.S. role in Syria, something he has willfully and wisely avoided,” Aaron David Miller, vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and a former adviser to several U.S. administrations on Middle East policy. “He’ll look for the least encumbering action to warn Assad that there will be costs for use of chemical weapons.”

Obama has been criticized by human-rights advocates for refusing to act against the Syrian regime, while polls taken before the latest incident show the U.S. public shares the president’s reservations about military intervention. Sixty-eight percent of Americans said U.S. forces are “too overcommitted” to get involved in the conflict in Syria, according to a Pew Research Center poll taken June 12-16.

‘Political Stakes’

“The possibility of chemical weapons use raises the political stakes for Obama, but it doesn’t alter the strategic equation,” said Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “Destroying what remains of the Syrian government will create a failed state, and end up empowering groups that are deeply hostile to the United States.”

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said yesterday in Seoul that he has asked the Assad government for “full cooperation” in allowing a UN team of chemical weapons experts already in Damascus to “swiftly investigate” the reports.

Obama told CNN that “we don’t expect cooperation” from Assad’s government, “given their past history.” He suggested he would first go to the UN Security Council, where Russia and China have resisted moves against the Assad government, before taking military action.

“If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a UN mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it,” Obama said, adding that “we’ve still got a war going on in Afghanistan.”

“Every time I sign a letter for a casualty of that war,” he said, “I’m reminded that there are costs, and we have to take those into account as we try to work within an international framework to do everything we can to see Assad ousted.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Mike Dorning in Washington at mdorning@bloomberg.net; Roger Runningen in Washington at rrunningen@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net

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